A Scrabulous Postmortem

The word “postmortem” assumes wry overtones when preceded by Scrabulous, the once-popular Scrabble clone on Facebook. The latter, as you’re all no doubt aware, is basically dead now — snuffed out by Facebook at the requests of Hasbro and Mattel. More than a few people have written about this, but I was looking for a thorough summary of the facts/issues and couldn’t find it, so I decided to write one of my own.

Shortly before Scrabulous was terminated, it had 500k active users a day according to TechCrunch. (I’ve seen other articles citing up to 700k daily actives at one point or another, but it seems that those numbers may have been temporary spikes associated with spikes in press coverage.) Interestingly, this suggests that Scrabulous’ growth was starting to fade, as the game already had 500k daily users back in December 2007. So, while it’s probably safe to assume that Scrabulous had more room to run, it’s optimistic (at best) to believe that the game was anywhere near the bottom or middle of its S curve. But this isn’t really the point I’m hoping to make; I just thought it worth noting that some of the Scrabulous hype (“they’re on the verge of 1m daily users!”) had gone a bit over-the-top.

Multi-Party Headaches

Numerous people have suggested that Facebook missed an opportunity to broker a buyout of Scrabulous, thus keeping users happy and avoiding disruption of a popular feature. Unfortunately, even if you assume that the makers of Scrabulous were reasonable negotiators, it’s unclear how easy it would have been to broker a buyout. There are no less than four parties who claim a stake in the digital rights to Scrabble — Hasbro, Mattel, RealNetworks, and EA. Getting them all to agree on terms wouldn’t be much fun (not that Facebook shouldn’t have tried… and I’m guessing they did try. How hard they tried, I don’t know.)

This multi-party rights issue has resulted in an awkward situation on Facebook. There are now two official Scrabble games — one offered by Hasbro/EA (but only to users in the USA and Canada) and one offered by RealNetworks/Mattel (to users everywhere else.) Now North American users can’t play Scrabble with their friends abroad. The two games have a combined base of 520k active users a month — approximately the same number of users who formerly played Scrabulous daily. Given the quick, asynchronous nature of the gameplay, it’s likely that many of these monthly users are also daily users, but it also seems clear that many users of Scrabulous simply quit the game. Finally, EA’s version of Scrabble has been plagued with bugs and other problems (EA claims that they’ve been hacked at least once by angry Scrabulous supporters.) As of the time of this writing, I have still been unable to launch the damn game — the load screen freezes, no matter what browser I use. So it seems they rushed out a product that wasn’t ready for primetime in their hurry to snuff out Scrabulous.

Learning from Scrabulous

This isn’t the first time (and won’t be the last) that a popular IP gets successfully cloned online. So, what can other IP holders learn from Scrabble/Scrabulous? For one thing, unless it’s legally necessary, don’t engage in public saber-rattling long before you take action! By alerting consumers to the fact that they intended to take down Scrabulous, Hasbro and Mattel created anxiety in the marketplace and gave the makers of Scrabulous months to galvanize supporters. User groups such as Save Scrabulous and the remarkably-named Please God, I Have So Little: Don’t Take Scrabulous Too have attracted tens of thousands of fans. More than 1,000 people have pledged to never buy a Scrabble board. These kinds of public commitments are incredibly powerful — you don’t want tens of thousands of consumers making them! Even if you provide a suitable alternative to the clone you’re killing, you will probably lose these customers anyway. (BTW, that last link is to an absolutely incredible book; a must-read.) Long story short, if absorbing the clone is not a viable solution, quietly prepare to replace it with a robust offering that offers greater value and stability, not merely “legitimacy.” When that offering is truly ready, then — and only then — do you take public steps, assuming that public steps are not yet legally necessary.

And what if some sort of deal with the clone maker is possible? If they’re willing to sell out for a reasonably small fee, when facing termination? (These might be big ifs, but they’re worth addressing just in case.) I think that the demise of Scrabulous speaks for itself. Some significant number of users were clearly lost. Tens of thousands are now publicly committed to a cause against the owners of the Scrabble IP. Hackers have jumped into the fray. Was it worth it? By snuffing out Scrabulous, have future clones really been deterred? Sure, perhaps a few entrepreneurs will now think twice about cloning known IP, but others will simply turn to unregulated Web environments for their cloning activities, while some fans (who don’t care about revenue) will post clones on Facebook anyway. Deterrence is a minor tool at best; how you co-opt or supplant the clones is all that matters.

Oh, and Hasbro/Mattel/Real/EA? The segregated apps thing is really lame. I want to play with my friends outside the United States. Learn to play nice with each another and fix this, already.

7 responses to “A Scrabulous Postmortem