Crosswords’ creator made a social game with just an idea and passion

Jeb Balise has found success creating an online social game version of the crossword puzzle, which up until his creation has always been basically a one person game. The initial idea was partially brought about when Balise realized that there is an inherent urge of people to look over each other’s shoulder when someone is working on a crossword puzzle in public. People want to share their knowledge and help out someone else who might be stuck. Out of that impulse, the social crossword game was born. Balise brought in technologically savvy people to help interpret his startup into the social and mobile game market and has since found success.

by Joe Osborne

Alright, maybe he had a little bit of cash, butPuzzleSocial founder and Crosswords creator Jeb Balise tells us that he has no previous experience making social games. So, how did Balise go from not knowing the first thing about social games to becoming the CEO of his own social game company with its first game out of the gate? (Hey,Mark Pincus did it.)

A deep love for crossword puzzles, and an idea–a pretty good one, at that. (A recent MBA graduate from Fordham University, Balise has a thing for business, too.) The PuzzleSocial CEO tells us that he’s a tournament-level crossword puzzle solver, having competed in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for several years. “For the record, compared to most of the people that go to that tournament, I’m average,” Balise humbly admits.

It was thanks to his time competing that Balise came up with PuzzleSocial. “[I found that] once you add the social nature of certain games such as multiplayer, they can spread so quickly and people can have a lot of fun playing together,” Balise says. “That was a remarkable sort of thing that happened that I was only able to catch on because I was playing the [crosswords].”

The Fordham graduate soon realized that the world’s crossword puzzles were made by a surprisingly small amount of people. That was about 14 months ago, and soon after Balise reached out to professional crossword puzzle constructors behind the puzzles readers of NewsweekThe Onion’s A.V. Club and over 200 other newspapers and online news outlets worldwide enjoy. “Once I put two and two together that, ‘Hey, we could all get together and put these great crosswords on the most powerful distribution platform ever to exist,’ you know, we could make some cool things happen,” Balise tell us.

Of course, not knowing much about game development, the PuzzleSocial founder had to seek out those that did. Balise calls it a lucky break that he found the game developers that he did. The first designer he hired to work on Crosswords has moved into his New York City office. Today, Balise and his team of about 10 developers are working with 50 of the most syndicated crossword puzzle creators in the world. “I haven’t taken a day off in 14 months, and I’ve enjoyed every single second of it.”

Now that Crosswords is available to the public, it’s initially drawn a crowd reminiscent of the average social gamer: middle-aged to older folks (that likely have experience with crosswords). However, we’re told that this is just the beginning. When asked about plans for future growth, Balise says he plans to make its puzzles appeal to younger crowds both through social features like real-time Doubles Play and Celebrity Crosswords chock-full of current events and topics you’d find on TMZ.

“The typical way, just as you said, is that you’re solving a crossword puzzle in the paper. How many times have we experience someone looking over someone’s shoulder and chiming in with an answer? In this case, you don’t have to do that,” Balise says. “We want to prove to the world that crosswords are for all ages.”

As for the future beyond Crosswords, the PuzzleSocial founder unsurprisingly has little he can talk about. What we do know is that PuzzleSocial has plans to launch two more social games and two mobile games in 2012. However, Balise promises that his company’s mission to promote education through social will permeate throughout. “The philosophy behind what we’re building lends itself to other games that can be built both in the puzzle world and beyond.”

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