NYT Crossword Decision Puzzles Many

Over at the New York Times (NYT) crossword puzzle desk, newly-appointed Games Editorial Director Everdeen Mason has caused a bit of a ruckus and hubbub (both six letter words with U as the 2nd and 5th letter) among digital puzzle solvers. In a short article published in early August, Ms. Mason announced the end of support for the crossword-solving program Across Lite, abruptly terminating a relationship between the two organizations spanning 25 years. But the ramifications extend much deeper than just one application.

The NYT first published its now-famous crossword puzzle back in 1942, appearing every Sunday, and in 1950 it became a daily feature. In 1993, Will Shortz was chosen as the fourth Crossword Puzzle Editor, a position he still holds today. The NYT online crossword puzzles first appeared in 1996 — puzzle files could be downloaded by modem and solved offline using the program Across Lite.

Modems aside, this basic method has continued until now, and a variety of programs and apps have sprung up over the years that allow not only offline play, but with tailored feature sets, such as support for the visually impaired, puzzle fanatics, puzzle creators, team playing, etc. Naturally the NYT joined the party as well, offering the crossword puzzles online and via smart phone apps.

Central to this issue are Across Lite .puz files, a format which hasn’t been upgraded in twenty years. Despite being aged and proprietary, an entire community of solvers, developers and checkers has sprung up around the availability of puz files, making them a de-facto standard. Not only are puz files used to distribute daily crosswords, the NYT maintains an archive of all its crosswords in puz format going back to 1993, even before online puzzles were introduced. There are various newer formats floating around, but with the entrenchment of the puz format none has emerged as a clear winner. The Across Lite team even developed a new format at the request of NYT in back 2015, but strangely, the NYT has never used it.

Here One Day, Gone the Next

With this announcement, Ms. Mason wasn’t simply dropping support for Across Lite, but she appears to be killing off this entire ecosystem, much to the chagrin of puzzle fans. Her tweet a few days later attempted to explain the decision, but only seemed to agitate fans even further:

Hi. I’m the one who made this call and I did it for editorial reasons. I’m trying to build something where the editors can actual edit and make games rather than adapt things for tools we can’t control. It takes a lot of time, and I’m confident this is the best move for my team

Based on the information made available so far, several things don’t make sense to many in the community. Why the sudden notice, and not a transition period to give the community time to make an orderly transition to this new “something”? Why is the archive of puz files being removed, given that the problem is with preparing puz formatted files, not maintaining them? Almost overnight, scripts have popped up to convert the NYT website crossword into puz format, and similar scripts have been around for some time. This begs the question, just how difficult is it to prepare puz files? And other than printing your puzzle on paper, this announcement ends the ability to solve puzzles offline, such as when you’re flying.

Many third-party puzzle app and program developers have reached out to Ms. Mason asking that she reconsider. One such application, Puzzazz, asked to just receive any format at all, and their app can parse it. I think the Puzzazz founder Roy Leban sums things up nicely in his open statement on the NYT Crosswords situation:

We have never received any revenue from doing this — in fact, it costs us money every year. The Times, not Puzzazz, made money from every subscriber who solved in Puzzazz. We did it because we knew years ago that solvers switching to digital was inevitable (and we were clearly right), we believe that the best crossword should be available in the best app, we felt that solvers deserved to get the puzzle as intended by the editors, and that “a rising tide floats all boats.”

Empathizing with the Times

To be fair, I am not unsympathetic to Ms. Mason’s point of view. First of all, her responsibility is to oversee a suite of digital games and puzzles, not just the crossword. Supporting a 25-year-old file format, one whose proponents even admit is long in the tooth and needs updating, is a valid concern. I agree completely with Ms. Mason when she says her team should focus on their core mission — editing puzzles.

But this makes her decision to abandon successful and well-established third-party apps and file formats in order to develop new tools in-house seem incongruent. By all accounts, the current NYT puzzle apps and website are not stellar examples of the genre. I wonder if Ms. Mason’s team, which she admits is small and resource-limited, can satisfactorily fill the resulting void. Admittedly, I don’t have full visibility into all the facts and issues which lead up to this decision. But on the surface it seems to be questionable, or at least it is being poorly communicated.

When Will Shortz was hired in 1993, part of his mandate was to lead the NYT crossword puzzle into the digital era, a mandate at which he overwhelmingly succeeded. With the recent addition of logic games beyond just crosswords, we hope Everdeen Mason’s team will ultimately decide to build upon the past 25 years of success and community relationships instead of tossing them aside, and will keep in mind the adage “a rising tide floats all boats” while developing this new “something”. Will we see a new whiz-bang NYT puzzle format released to developers in the near future that heals these recent community rifts and improves the puzzle ecosystem for everyone? What is your opinion?

48 thoughts on “NYT Crossword Decision Puzzles Many

      1. Since English dictionaries are descriptive not prescriptive, I wager it has been redefined by now. Similar to “irregardless”. The low IQ mob controls the language, and widespread misuse eventually becomes “correct”. Its all so tiresome.

      1. It actually *does* – it really always meant “ask.” Hence the Latin translation of “petitio principii,” or “ask for the start.” Which you can see from the cognate: “petition [the] principle.” As in, you have a debate where one person states something – the start – (say “David H is funny.”) and instead of trying to disprove it, the other person in the debate just responds “Are David H’s writings humorous?” They’re just asking the original point again, with different wording. Hence ask (or beg) the principle (or question to be answered).

        The problem isn’t actually with the old wording: it’s that it’s *too close* to a perfectly reasonable phrase: “beg *for* the question.” Think about it. You don’t say “subject beg object.” Dogs don’t beg bones.

        So literally the worst thing about this is that yes, you’re right: the “beg” in that statement is an anachronism, and poorly translated, but turning it into “raise the question” *still butchers the word beg*.

  1. This also begs the question, “where’s the hack”. While educating me on this previously unknown puzzle ecosystem, it’s a story about something changing. There’s lots of that going on, but I don’t expect to see it on Hackaday.

      1. Have you heard of signal to noise ratio? I found the story very interesting, but I also wonder why I’m reading it on hackaday. I come here to find and get inspired by interesting hardware hacks and DIY projects. This is neither.

        1. I found it inspiring. I guess we all have different states in our memories. But guess what? We are all readers of this same site! Delegates, if you like. If your delegate implementation already has all the information it is interested in, when it’s called, and there is nothing in the information that interests it, it can simply return early.

          Raising an event is only necessary when the information conflicts with what’s in your local storage, if some expected information is missing, or if some information fails to meet your expected preconditions.

          As Hackaday is smart, it has a catch-all event handler, and your event is discarded as not relevant.

          Sadly I forgot to do such a thing, and this is the reply from my general exception handler.

    1. I didn’t expect to see it here either. I can only offer my script (the “scripts have popped up” link here) as a hack. Extracting the data from the NYT website wasn’t a super tough hack or anything, but it did require a dealing with NYT’s lz-string implementation, and then stuffing that result into the ancient across-lite format.

      It’s one of those things I fully expected to see solved to some degree, but when it wasn’t, I decided to take a stab at it.

      Not hard by any means, but a fun diversion.

    2. *there is no hack* … as whatever format they wind up dreaming up will have to contain whatever it is a .puz now contains, i’m staring, metaphorically with gaping mouth, at technological incompetence and illiteracy that’s hard to fathom. this headline should have been “times pioneers new puzzle format, provides ‘translating exporter’ and simultaneous publishing of .puz files, now considered legacy to the cheers of its puzzle fans.” … but what a disaster this “best for the morons on my team” business is!

  2. Well, if they cannot get anybody with enough knowledge to extend the format, and need to chage, it is ok to drop it. Just start supporting other formats.

    But that doesn´t explain why to remove the archive of old puzzles in the older format. The work in creating them is already done.

    A good explanation of their reasoning, with technical points, would help a lot in convincing people .

  3. I think the key is in the first quotation. They can not control it. I’m all for Free and Open standards (even if they are de facto standards with proprietary origins), but once an ecosystem of applications and extended usage emerges it’s no longer under any kind of control. I think this is a good thing, but obviously not everyone agrees.

    Fortunately we’ll be able to obfuscate everything with Web Assembly and DRM so that it will be virtually impossible to extract any information from the internet, including the structure and content of a crossword puzzle.

    1. You know, as long as the data is displayed on screen, you can grab it.
      It’s awfully inefficient, but it’s always a way to do it.

      I am for open format, because they both allow to preserve old files, and embrace creativity and hacks.
      And also, the development of third party programs that can add functions or allow to use the said files on an other platform.

      I will never understand companies that delete their archives. Really? It’s your history, why are you erasing it?

  4. Can you tell me how crossword puzzles have changed that would require a new format?? Array of cells, some black, some clear with numbers. Two lists of clues. Not a puzzler, are they different now than in 1993?

    1. So far, based on the weasel words given, the change is to lock their customers into some app that the NYT will somehow monetize by removing access for any 3rd party apps to read the new puzzle format. In 1993 that lock-in wasn’t possible.

      1. These third party apps require that the user be a subscriber to the NYT crossword puzzle. The NYT already been monetized the puzzle (requiring an extra subscription beyond just the digital newspaper) some years ago.

        1. Of course, it’s entirely speculation, but:

          I feel like they’ve probably got some third party app developer that’s offering them a sum of money to allow them to gain exclusive rights to the puzzle.

          Instead of getting DRM free files that can be shared, this will be cloud based / account based. Maybe there will be different levels of monthly subscription, maybe you pay per puzzle.

          I can imagine the sell being “much more accessible, new generation of players, new game styles” etc. Generate puzzles based on the celebrity clues, etc.

      2. Naw, it was possible. There was quite a lot of copy protection schemes going on in the 90s just like now. They just didn’t know how to manage it properly. Now they have management breathing down their necks to bring in more money, so they’re trying to lock it all up in some DRM scheme that’s easier to protect, legally if not technologically.

        Newspapers are in a panic trying to find revenue right now. Every piece of a newspaper has to justify its existence monetarily. This is just one more way to nickle and dime people for content in a desperate struggle to survive as a business.

    2. I think I’m only person here who actually does NYT daily.
      Puzzles have changed significantly. Thursdays in particular are fun. Examples: when you complete theme for Pride Day the app changes all the rows to rainbow flag.
      Sometimes there is a rebus where multiple letters fill one square. Sometimes it is a non-letter.
      There are many ways to make new crosswords besides black and white squares. It is fresh and fun. Most of these aren’t supported well on the app where most people solve. On a crossword blog I vaguely recall stat that crossword subscriptions outnumber print(or at least full online) newspaper subscriptions so presumably most are solved digitally.
      None of the new ground being forged in crossword puzzles is possible with the current format so they often have some lame explanation “all the black squares for 15, 22 and 35 down should be gray” or something like that.

      1. no, not the only one.

        while I would like to think it is for “extending” the user experience, I too am of the opinion it is to start the process of monetization of the archives by use of DRM.

        the former could certainly be implemented by way of an intermediary format in a markup language, which would not only “future proof” apps/ui’s, but also allow for easy format translation. (see https://communicrossings.com/constructing-crosswords-formats for a good example ).

        the latter could allow for revenue generation by the sales of the individual puzzles, as well as placing a cost on the puzzle app developer in licensing fees, enforced via “trade secrets” provisions of patent laws. we have all seen the success of enforcing copyright over the internet…

        my reasoning for my opinion is not because implementing a markup would be easier, allow for a transition, multiple puzzle types, future features, etc. it is the review of the bio of the newly appointed editor, which includes a mini mission statement of “This exciting role is designed to strengthen our growing NYT Games business”.

        (and we all know the purpose of a business is to generate a profit. period.)


  5. “Supporting a 25-year-old file format, one whose proponents even admit is long in the tooth and needs updating, is a valid concern.”

    What, exactly, is the major flaw or collection of flaws that requires an update? Textual communication is also long in the tooth but seems to soldier on just fine, as I might reasonably suggest of crossword puzzles as a subset of textual communication. Is this not true of crossword puzzles?

    1. There are a few issues, every last one of them solvable:

      The puz format is encoded with ISO-8859-1, which means some of the characters in clues weren’t encodable.

      Every now and then a puzzle involves rebus or other oddball “not a single letter in a cell” answers. A few puzzles even involve answers outside of the grid itself. The puz format supports rebus clues, but some of the weird “use two cells for one letter” or “there are three possible answers for this cell” or whatever can cause issues.

      Whatever process NYT used was clearly a manual one. There were typos surprisingly often in the puz format they provided. No, I have no idea how this wasn’t automated by now.

      As I said, everyone of these solvable, but clearly someone at NYT looked at the backlog of these (and no doubt, other) issues, and said “screw it, just drop the feature”.

      1. Two letters in one cell? FFS, why not a full word, a paragraph, or an entire novel in a single square.

        I’d think that a puzzle format that has existed for multiple decades seems to be working quite well. I will admit the at ability of the NYT to suck money out of it may not occur to keep the Old Gray Lady afloat. I admire Will and the other editors that create the puzzle, but I’m puzzled by all the hoopla.

  6. This all seem like such a non-issue all around. Making an auto-generator for the puzzles, and a solver should be a non-brainer for any decent programmer, with dictionaries, skill, and what the heck, throw in some new-fangled AI into the encoders/decoders.

    1. The problem here seems to be they both pulled the existing archive, and is neglecting impaired people who relied on existing tools that parsed those files.
      Now those people are given additional hassles, and they’re often burdened by technology already.
      Most modern websites with overreliance on external javascripts and fancy design are also getting increasingly hostile to those, which weren’t really a issue 10 years ago.

  7. Just another example of some person coming into a position and putting plans in action without first understanding all aspects of the “job”. There by offending and in general pissing off the customer base they have, or rather soon to be had.
    Instead of making something better my bet is this will be one more nail in the coffin of newspapers both in print and digital form. The idea of a newspaper is becoming a thing of the past and no one will be able to save them from the doom that awaits!!

    1. They are probably looking at it from a cost benefit point of view. And asking question like “What do our customers love ?”, followed by “Why are we giving it away for free ?”, and “What can we do to monetise this better ?” and “How do we restrict it to active subscriptions only ?” or “What value added metadata can we, harvest if we allow free access in exchange for profiling our existing customer base and the freeloaders ?” followed by many similar questions ……..

    2. Yes, this is called marking your territory. People come into a new job and things are humming along smoothly, about as best as one could hope and they have to piss on thigs to make it theirs and about 80% of the time they fail and what was once was not a problem area suddenly becomes one. Only management does not make mistakes, they may make strategic miscalculations but never ever mistakes so the poor workers and even worse, customers have to suffer the new fool for long enough that they can get rid of them and make it look like they are not and no mistake was made. One of those he is leaving his position to spend more time with his family kind of deals. Right…

    3. Microsoft “Bob” effect. Plus an approach that is not customer oriented. If someone in my organization wrote publicly “and I’m confident this is the best move for my team” we would have a long talk about the purpose of business.

  8. I sub to the NYT puzzles every few years, They are not inexpensive, but we enjoy them, we use acrosslite and remote assistance so we can both see the screen. If they in fact go through with this change I will never sub again. I don’t think I am alone. Everdeen Mason will be king of a much smaller kingdom.

    As a side note acrosslite is why I am not running linux on all of my pcs.

  9. No one here, article included, seems to note that NYT has a proprietary (free) app that works pretty well. You don’t need to download a .puz at all nor run another app. I tried PuzzLite or whatever and it wasn’t to my taste.
    For indie puzzles I use “crosswords” which supports basically every crossword format. For those you do often have to download or otherwise import and it’s kinda a pain. The NYT app is very streamlined. I do t know how it functions on the backend or if it uses proprietary format but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t use .puz so that they release their puzzles in that format at all seems generous.
    Basically they could well say “use our official NYT app or GTFO.”

  10. So the bottom line is there are no apps which currently have the ability to run .puz files on an Android Notepad. Is that correct? Last summer I downloaded the NYT complete archives in .puz format.

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