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

  1. Where’s the perspective of the Scrabulous creators? The interesting thing to me is how a (very) small company should approach this sort of thing. Monetize and run? Carefully craft something defensible as non-infringing? Just don’t do it?

  2. That’s a great question, but I can only give a partial answer to it, because even if I thought that “pulling a Scrabulous” was a great small business strategy, I couldn’t recommend it in any way. I consider what they did to be theft (especially since they were profiting from their efforts.) This isn’t a passionate opinion per se, but I can’t condone what they did and don’t have any interest in advising other small companies on how to emulate them.

    My advice to someone inspired by the creators of Scrabulous would be to try something that artists of all kinds have been trying for ages — build on the shoulders of giants, but don’t blatantly rip anyone off.

  3. A few days after Scrabulous was taken down, its creators released Wordscraper, the exact same game, except the boards are randomly generated for each match, thus invalidating a large part of the infringement suite.

    So their advice to you (I infer) would be to play Wordscraper. Then, if and when it gets taken down, play the next game that gets released a week later with a different name and slightly changed features. Rinse and repeat, thus doing an end run around a dysfunctional copyright regime.

    Not that I’m condoning them. I’m just inferring their position based on their behavior.

  4. I’ve spent a bunch of time looking at this, and did a number of posts on it:

    1) Ideas on how I think Facebook themselves were in a position to broker a solution between the five parties:

    2) How the IP-rights-by-territory is a great example of how last century’s laws hinder progress in today’s world:

    3) Details on the lawsuit:

    Some additional thoughts:

    – It’s reaonable to think that Scrabulous could have held up against a lawsuit had they not been so overt about it. Different name, colors for tiles, etc, and I’m not sure they would have so easily taken down. But would they have seen the same kind of uptake? I dunno.

    – Dave, I’m SUPER surprised you missed this point: Wordscraper, as Nick notes, is from the same creators, and supports user-definable boards and tile weightings. Which means you can do, as I have done, a board and tile set that exactly match those of Scrabble, and VOILA! IP circumvention via User Generated Content!!!

    –Two issues with the point above: 1) right now anyway, you can’t then publish that rule set, which means each person wanting to host a rip off of scrabble has to spend 10 minutes or so recreating it. 2) If they were to publish something like a board-sharing service, the developer (or FB?) would be subject to DMCA takedown notices, but now Hasbro/Mattel has a harder job: Vigilantly watch the forums, send repeated DMCA takedown notices, etc. Also, I don’t know if other countries have similar laws.

  5. Hey Nick, Hey Kim – I did indeed notice Wordscraper! My belief is that, had the Scrabble Team been smarter about its PR, legal, and release strategy, it could have significantly reduced the number of users who flocked to Wordscraper. But because Team Scrabble worked up the crowd in advance, and because it released a sub-par alternative to Scrabulous, there was more reason for people to hit Wordscraper.

    Regarding IP circumvention via UGC: fascinating topic, and not a simple one! For example, didn’t NCsoft eventually choose to settle with Marvel over City of Heroes? (Refresher: CoH users were creating characters that looked like Marvel characters — an entirely understandable phenomenon and, IMO, one that was much less questionable than a developer blatantly ripping off Scrabble for profit.) If NCsoft settled under those circumstances, then it seems that a game like Wordscraper, having been developed by a previous offender, might find itself in hot water faster than anticipated. But, of course, Team Scrabble is in a funny position now. They’ve already been made into devils by Scrabulous supporters. If they go after Wordscraper, they will piss even more people off. Which, once again, brings me back to my original point — Team Scrabble should have found a way to make a deal with the developers of Scrabulous, or at least been smarter about supplanting them.

  6. Hasbro should change their name to Hasbeen, ASAP. Don’t the dolts in the boardroom of Hasbro (TM) realize that newbies to Scrabulous and the world of Scrabble actually went out and bought the board game? Five people I know did. Hasbro (TM and all that gugg) — bloody idiots.

  7. This is a really interesting issue, I didn’t even know about it. They obviously don’t want to partner with each other, because then they would have to share the profits and who wants to do that? Perhaps Facebook should have more of a role of responsibility in determining what apps should be allowed on its platform?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.