The Story of Amuse Labs, As Narrated by Its Founders

(This is a lightly edited interview of the Amuse Labs founders from Jan 2023 with Natan Last, a well-known crossword constructor for his book about crosswords. It captures the story of Amuse Labs well.)

1. Can you narrate the origin story of AmuseLabs in as much detail as you’re comfortable with? I’ve read the site’s lovely Our Story, and I’m curious about the power you saw in crosswords as (1) a pedagogical tool, (2) a game with an existing fanbase, and (3) a technological challenge or opportunity.

Serendipity played a big part in the creation of Amuse Labs. In 2013, Sudheendra Hangal, our CEO and one of the three co-founders of Amuse Labs, was working as the associate director of Stanford University’s MobiSocial Computing Laboratory after getting a PhD in computer science from the university. John Temple, another of the co-founders, arrived at Stanford in the fall of that year as a senior fellow in the John S Knight Journalism Fellowships program with the goal of exploring personalized mobile news. He had come there from The Washington Post, where he was the managing editor overseeing its digital operation. Meanwhile, Jaya Hangal, the third co-founder, had a few years previously left Sun Microsystems, where she had been a member of the team that developed Java, and was exploring a startup idea.

John came over to the MobiSocial Computing Lab and began working with Sudheendra on a research project. One day, Sudheendra happened to show John an iPhone app Jaya had built to teach children about Indian classical music, something he and Jaya are interested in. The app used crosswords with multimedia clues. John was immediately captivated. He recalled his days as an editor at newspapers in New Mexico, Colorado and Washington, D.C., and felt that in each of those places it would have been wonderful to have a tool to create crosswords based on the special expertise of his staff or defining aspects of the community.

“When John saw Jaya’s app, he saw the potential, especially on mobile and with multimedia, to create beautiful, original puzzle experiences that journalists and others could use for new forms of storytelling.”

John’s years of experience as an editor had taught him how valuable crosswords and games are to audiences. As a newspaper editor, he had found it humbling that it was often games and comics that generated the most reader response, even more than the journalism. In the days when many cities still had two newspapers, before the proliferation of the World Wide Web, an important decision for any editor was which new game to add or crossword to acquire. Geographic exclusivity could give one publication in a market like Albuquerque, N.M., or Denver, an edge. Newsrooms would be visited regularly by syndicate sales people offering new features. John had been taught to treat those people with respect, to value their offerings, to the point of buying new features even if he wasn’t sure he would use them, if only to keep the sales people coming back to his door before visiting his competitor. That’s how he was trained to view the value of games and comics.

The internet changed everything, wiping out the protected markets newspapers used to control, or at least control what was easily available to read or play. When John saw Jaya’s app, he saw the potential, especially on mobile and with multimedia, to create beautiful, original puzzle experiences that journalists and others could use for new forms of storytelling. Over the next few years, they worked on exploring the idea. Initially, there was no particular idea of starting a company, but over time, they realized that there was a need for better tools in the market and that crosswords and similar games had a lot of untapped potential.

Equally, I’d love to hear about your personal relationships to crosswords — how you got into them, what excites you about them, what your solving pet peeves are, that sort of thing.

John: We began exploring the potential of Jaya’s software with the goal of democratizing the creation of crosswords, so that anyone could create and share puzzles on any topic that they were passionate about. We imagined the possibility of people being able to create crosswords for wedding invitations and wedding anniversaries, for major birthdays or events. We imagined teachers and students using the software to make learning more fun. We imagined publications creating crosswords based on events in their communities and for advertisers, such as a garden centre that each month might create an educational and enjoyable puzzle about what to do in the garden that month. And of course, all this would be native to digital devices and multimedia enabled.

My wife, Judith, is the crossword solver in the family, as is her mother, Rita, who does the NYTimes crossword in print every day. I wasn’t a puzzler when I met Sudheendra and Jaya, just a believer in the value of the game and a lover of language. I never imagined that one day I would be one of those people visiting newsrooms to offer new features to editors. But my experience as an editor taught me that crosswords were something deeply valued by readers and deeply valuable for publications, and that was enough. I am still a very slow solver. Some on my staff used to joke about my lack of knowledge of pop culture. That’s a stumbling block. As is my literal-minded approach to things. I’m easily stumped.

“We began exploring the potential of Jaya’s software with the goal of democratizing the creation of crosswords, so that anyone could create and share puzzles on any topic that they were passionate about.”

Sudheendra: I originally got into crosswords during my undergrad with the Times of India cryptics, which I used to solve with two of my friends in college (IIT Delhi). We would race down every morning to our hostel’s common room (dorms are called hostels in India), so we could tear out the crossword from the newspaper before anyone else did. When I moved to the U.S., I initially lost interest in American crosswords – I was used to crosswords based on vocabulary and wordplay, and didn’t like all the references to trivia in the New York Times crosswords. And I was put off by the frequent repetition of filler words in American crosswords which is necessary to achieve the density of American grids, compared to British grids. Over time though, I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of themed grids and the creativity of American constructors, so I am willing to put up with the crossword-ese and the forced fill.

One of my research projects at Stanford was to study innovative uses of personal data. I felt (and still do) that people don’t realize the value of their personal digital archives and what a wealth of information is embedded in them. I had already built some tools to process email archives, and one day, while procrastinating on something else, I thought it might be fun to create a personalized crossword puzzle out of the sentences in my email. So I built a little crossword playing interface and a program to automatically construct a crossword from my sent email, where the words were names of people or places I had written about in the last year, and each clue was simply a fill-in-the-blank with a sentence containing the name. It turned out to be surprisingly hard to recall those names, although they were all from sentences I had written myself. But it was a lot of fun nevertheless, and there were nice a-ha moments after solving a clue that you were stuck on. That project rekindled my interest in crosswords.

Jaya: Around 2012, I had been working for 2 years on a previous startup idea that was going nowhere. So I started building an iOS native app initially just as a way to learn iOS and get back into a job. I am interested in music, and I had seen Sudheendra’s idea of building crosswords from email, so I thought I could build something that incorporated musical clips, where the answers would be ragas, instruments, musicians, etc. Since this was a music app, I had multimedia clues embedded in the crossword puzzle right from the beginning. That app was called PuzzleMe Raga. Then we started creating apps from the same software but with different puzzles embedded in them, which led to apps like PuzzleMe Languages, PuzzleMe Countries (our older son was very into geography apps at that time), and PuzzleMe Football, which was a soccer app. All these puzzle apps would use puzzles created by non-expert crossword constructors, so the answers would not form a dense grid, but we hoped that they would still be interesting because solvers would be passionate about the topic, and the crossword was just a familiar but intriguing format to engage them with the topic.

A love of language has always been there in my family. I am from Dharwad, a town that is near the border of 2 states in India that speak two different languages, Kannada and Marathi. So I grew up imbibing four languages (English and Hindi were the other two). My father was a renowned librarian and has published books in multiple languages. My mother is the retired principal of a school. India has over 22 major languages, and crosswords appear in major newspapers in nearly all of them, I think. This is a bit surprising because Indic scripts are complex – due to their phonetic nature, multiple letters combine to form an entire syllable that is represented in one glyph, which goes into one box in the grid. So it’s harder to find intersecting words. I sometimes used to solve the crosswords in the Kannada language newspaper (Kannada is my mother tongue) because my aunt, who is over 90 now, used to solve them regularly. As we started talking to people in different parts of the world, we realized crosswords are a global phenomenon. Although there are tweaks in format here and there, there is something universal about the fun of recognizing a word given a clue and the partial spelling which the grid gives you.

2. Can you narrate the growth of AmuseLabs in as much detail as possible? It’s wonderful to see so many constructors and outlets using it — I’m interested in both how that arose (organically, through a few strategic partnerships, etc.) and what you see in the tea leaves for the platform’s future. Were there any key stumbling blocks, or was it smooth sailing?

It wasn’t smooth sailing at all! Our initial approach was to test interest in the software in different markets like education and publishing, always with the idea of making it easy for people to create their own unique puzzles using digital assets such as images, video and audio. We created many puzzles for the Teachers Pay Teachers online marketplace, where teachers could buy puzzles for language classes, to test whether puzzles would be attractive in bolstering lesson plans. And we worked with the International desk at The Washington Post, where an editor each week created a unique crossword based on the news of the week. We worked with El Pais in Spain where they wanted to create crosswords for people going on vacation in August. But people were hardly paying us anything for it. People found it a cute idea to explore, but eventually, it wasn’t enough value to them. It was slow going for several years and we were pretty discouraged. Jaya was the only full-time person keeping the venture alive – John had a busy job as President at First Look Media and then was a professor of journalism at Berkeley, and Sudheendra was consulting for Stanford, and a professor of computer science at Ashoka University in India. But at least we were learning. Then the Washington Post decided to open up its search for a crossword platform and asked us if we would be interested in building it out for them. We had terrific people working with us at the Post. They were a demanding partner and performed extensive user interface evaluations that made us refine our software. We were ecstatic when they selected Amuse Labs as their partner.

Since then, we have developed partnerships with publications around the world, from Australia to Norway, and from Spain to India. We got into native apps with the Guardian Puzzles app for iOS and Android. We built “chess view” versions of the interface for Spanish crosswords (with numbers outside the grid instead of in the boxes.) We worked with several publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vox, New York Magazine, and Vulture to develop and launch successful crossword products, which help support their journalism.

Of course, once we were doing crosswords, we kept getting requests for other kinds of games including Sudoku, quiz, jigsaw, etc (and of late, Wordle-style games). So we organically built up these other games, while keeping the overall portfolio of game formats limited, so our software could be best in class for each type of game.

Most importantly, we built a team of people really passionate about thoughtful games delivered with smooth and simple user interfaces. We believe we have one of the best teams in the world in this narrow niche of language and logic games, and that’s why we’ve been able to build a versatile platform that serves so many different types of puzzles smoothly.

“We believe we have one of the best teams in the world in this narrow niche of language and logic games, and that’s why we’ve been able to build a versatile platform that serves so many different types of puzzles smoothly.”

We also work with verticals other than newspapers and publishers. For example, we’ve worked with brands such as Netflix on puzzles to build buzz around one of their shows, a microbrewery that puts a QR code for its own crossword on its cans, a conservation district that teaches people about bugs in the neighborhood, and major companies and organizations like universities that want crosswords for special events. At the same time, we have continued to make our software available for free for noncommercial use, by teachers and professors, puzzlers and innovators. They teach us a lot and we are delighted to be able to help them bring their creativity online.

Regarding the future, we hope to see the interest in puzzles and games continue to grow. Publishers globally are looking for ways to build habit and loyalty as they develop subscription and membership strategies. We also see crosswords and other puzzles having great potential in education, in corporate training and team-building, in advertising and also as unique, custom, personalized ways to celebrate major life events.

“We also see crosswords and other puzzles having great potential in education, in corporate training and team-building, in advertising and also as unique, custom, personalized ways to celebrate major life events.”

There was a huge bump in crossword interest and activity during COVID — how did that play out for your team?

We have seen steady growth, both before Covid and during the pandemic. The thing that happened during the pandemic was that people could no longer gather for much-loved crossword tournaments that had traditionally been held in person. This led us to venture into online tournaments, which introduced us to many more people in the crossword community. We were first approached by John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley, the organizers of the annual Boswords tournament in Boston. Today they’ve built their tournament into four annual events. For the past three years, we’ve worked with Will Shortz to host the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament online, first exclusively online in 2021 and then as an online and in-person event in 2022. We also have supported the Lollapuzzoola tournament in New York and a tournament for a public radio station.

For the less computer-savvy readers, can you give an overview of the technical innovations you’re most proud of building?

First, our PuzzleMe software allows organizations and individuals to integrate games seamlessly into their websites. The software makes it possible for publishers to create games that reflect their unique brand qualities. We got so many requests for tuning the look and feel of the puzzles that we built a way for people to customize the design of the puzzles on their own.

Social Play/Partner mode: We strongly believe that crosswords (and other games like jigsaws) are a great bonding experience between friends and family. That’s why we build a social play mode in all our games that lets people solve a puzzle together. It’s not only great fun to solve a puzzle with someone else, but it also makes the game easier because others have little perspectives or bits of knowledge that help you get unstuck. Even a group of beginners can solve the Monday New Yorker puzzle or the Saturday New York Times puzzle if they put their heads together.

Sudoku tutor: We have a logic-solving tool that teaches people how to solve Sudoku. If you’re stuck at any point in a puzzle, you can ask for a hint that shows you the exact logic needed to make progress. We’ve put a lot of effort into evaluating different strategies so that the tutor can suggest the best and simplest strategy at any point.

Magic fill: This is our tool to fill a crossword grid. We’re especially proud of 2 features. With floating black squares, you specify how many black boxes you’re willing to accept in the grid, but not exactly where they could go. The software scans all possibilities for you. And you can specify must-have words, where you tell the tool that you want the word somewhere in the grid, but not the specific location. Again, the software can search for all possibilities, saving the constructor a lot of trial and error. These features make the creation of at least mini puzzles easy and quick. Our fill engine works even with complex Indic scripts, making it the first tool for this purpose.

Input methods and accessibility: As we mentioned, Indic scripts are complex and hard to type in, and users aren’t very familiar with the keyboards in these scripts. To solve this problem, we’ve provided two kinds of options: phonetic and voice input. Phonetic input allows users to type with a Latin keyboard, which is a common method of typing for these languages. You type in English consonants and vowels, and that fuses letters into syllables in the native script as you type. Voice input allows users to speak out the answer word. We also have a voice-over mode that reads out clues and the grid letters, allowing you to solve a puzzle without looking at the grid. This is useful for unsighted or partially sighted people, or if you simply want to solve a puzzle without looking at the screen.

The constructor community has helped us a lot by pushing us to deliver innovative formats that other tools couldn’t handle. For example, we support spirals, rows garden, mini-meta, marching bands, split decisions, and several other formats. There is a lot of consternation (and faux groaning) around our office when we receive a new idea from someone like Evan Birnholz or Crucinova or the New Yorker, who are always pushing the boundaries of the puzzle format. We welcome their challenges, especially when they give us time to solve them.

“I know without a doubt that the technical level of our team is something that would be very difficult for almost any publisher to duplicate.”

John: One of the things that sets Amuse Labs apart, I think, is the technical expertise of our team. I have worked with great technologists at different media companies, but one of the pleasures of working at Amuse Labs for me has been that I know without a doubt that the technical level of our team is something that would be very difficult for almost any publisher to duplicate. There have been times we’ve had four computer science PhDs working on the challenges we face. While what we do may seem simple from the outside, it’s humbling for me to see how complex it really is. Through their quality work, my engineering colleagues make it possible for publishers to focus on the work that they do best, content that serves their readers.

Can you talk about your relationship to Will (Shortz) and the crossword community writ large?

Will is an American treasure. It’s been our great pleasure to work with him and the team that puts on the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. We reached out to Will after we saw that he had to cancel the 2020 tournament because of COVID-19. Together, we came up with a way to bring the event back to life as an online-only tournament, with its traditional cash prizes, in 2021. It was a great experience for us, as has been working with John Lieb and Andrew Kingsley of Boswords, Brian Cimmet of Lollapuzzoola, and the KCUR public radio station in Kansas City.

We love being part of the crossword community. We learn so much working with talented constructors. Through the tournaments, we’ve met so many people and discovered that, unlike so many places on the Internet, the chat and comments in crossword events are kind, funny, and smart.

We hope we’ve contributed to the growing vitality of the crossword community by giving people a better playing experience and a way to create and distribute crosswords that make it easier for people to get involved.

Finally, to return to something I touched on in the first question — I’m currently writing a chapter on immigration and non-English words in the crossword. I wonder if you have thoughts on that intersection that skew either personal (i.e., like me, you grew up as/around immigrants and blanch a bit at misrepresentations, or delight at accurately-clued non-English words debuting) or technical (i.e., is there something particular about the English alphabet that makes building PuzzleMe easy/hard, or makes expansion to other languages likelier / unlikelier)?

It’s interesting that you’re asking about immigration. All 3 founders of Amuse Labs have been immigrants to the U.S. In John’s house, his parents often spoke Hungarian and German. Sudheendra and Jaya grew up with 4 languages around them. So we love to see cultural and linguistic references in crosswords. We believe that crosswords are a way to celebrate language. Our software now supports over 30 languages, including grids in right-to-left languages like Arabic and Urdu.

We think accurately clued non-English words should be part of the development of crosswords as the world becomes smaller. Crosswords can be a great way for us to learn about others and their language and culture. In our office in India, we enjoy it when there are Indian references in American crosswords, although sometimes the clues make you cringe. For example, we had a good laugh over “SARIS” being clued as “Goa garments”. The clue is understandable, because Goa is in India, and SARI is a traditional Indian garment, but anyone who has been to Goa knows saris are the last thing you wear there. A counter-example to this was the word MASALA VADA in one of Sid Sivakumar’s puzzles. DOSA is not uncommon in crosswords, and perhaps so are IDLI and VADA (all three are popular South Indian dishes), but MASALA VADA is a unique delicacy that perhaps only those who’ve lived in South India know about. Sid probably knew the thrill of recognition and lip-smacking that word would cause when he introduced it in the puzzle. What a wonderful and gentle way to get people to learn more about the world!

As we’ve mentioned, we’re very proud of the fact that we support over 30 languages. We’re delighted when people contact us from a remote part of the world, offering to help us incorporate another language into the product. We’re particularly thrilled when cultural and language organizations like Rekhta (for Urdu) and Sanskrit Bharati (for Sanskrit) approach us and find that our software supports their language just as well as English.

“We’re delighted when people contact us from a remote part of the world, offering to help us incorporate another language into the product.”

We hope it’s clear that we take pride in having helped the crossword community flourish, in having encouraged the love of language and brain games, and in having provided publishers with a meaningful way to grow revenue to support their journalism.

We love what we do. We also love the fact that we can be such an international company, something that would have been difficult to imagine for an organization of our size not so many years ago. That has come with its challenges, but by working with people in so many countries and languages perhaps we’ve shown how people everywhere have so much in common – no matter the language they speak.

Nishant Kauntia

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