If you haven’t heard of Sudoku, then you must have been living under a rock the past couple of years. Sudoku is the numbers puzzle wherein you fill in the blanks on a 9×9 grid such that each column, each row, and each of the nine 3×3 boxes contains the digits 1 to 9. While the actual concept of the game was invented by an American, it is in Japan where the game first gained popular acclaim, after puzzle publisher Nikoli featured it in their monthly magazine in 1984. But the secret behind Sudoku’s popularity, according to Maki Kaji, co-founder of Nikoli, is a sort of open source collaboration.
Nikoli’s secret, Kaji said, lay in a kind of democratization of puzzle invention. The company itself does not actually create many new puzzles — an American invented an earlier version of Sudoku, for example. Instead, Nikoli provides a forum for testing and perfecting them. About 50,000 readers of its main magazine submit ideas; the most promising are then printed by Nikoli to seek approval and feedback from other readers.
The fascination for number puzzles has deep cultural roots in Japan, because schools have traditionally stressed math skills. Add to that the fact that word-based puzzles like crosswords aren’t much popular because of the complexity of the language. Nikoli therefore banks on the Japanese love for numbers games, and the contributions of Nikoli’s readers, for the refinement of puzzles.
That process allows Nikoli to tap into the insatiable urge of Japanese puzzle solvers to tinker and improve … Most of Nikoli’s games are original, Kaji said, but a few, like Sudoku and Kakuro, are improved versions of older games invented elsewhere.
Surprised at the sudden rise in popularity of Sudoku outside of Japan, Nikoli also failed to trademark Sudoku outside of the country, which means it doesn’t earn any royalties from the publication and sales of Sudoku puzzles and other related materials overseas. But this oversight has been considered a brilliant mistake, for the game might not have gained popularity outside of Japan if publishing rights were restricted.
For now, Nikoli has several new puzzle ideas it wants to introduce to international publishers. Even publishers themselves are courting Nikoli, in the hopes of gaining a head start in the next possible worldwide puzzle rage. While none of these have grown to be as popular as Sudoku yet, most of Nikoli’s puzzles have been created and refined with the help of its readers.
Open source collaboration has never been this puzzling!