This summer, board game makers Hasbro and Mattel forced the popular Facebook gaming application Scrabulous to shut down, claiming that it violated the companies’ copyrights on the crossword board game Scrabble. But nearly half a year later, the official Scrabble applications that Hasbro and Mattel replaced Scrabulous with have yet to reach the user traffic numbers of their erstwhile opponent.
Was killing Scrabulous really worth it? The app was a hit because it was a game many people know how to play — and it was an easy way for friends to stay in touch via Facebook, from anywhere in the world. More than 100 million copies of the board game have been sold in more than 121 countries, in 29 languages — it’s the world’s best selling word game.
But Hasbro and Mattel’s versions of Scrabble are separate. If you’re playing Scrabble on Facebook in the U.S., you can’t play with a friend anywhere else but in Canada. In other words, if Hasbro and Mattel had struck a licensing or revenue-sharing deal with Scrabulous, everyone could have benefited from the additional traffic that a single, worldwide app would generate.
Before Scrabulous was shut down, it had more than half a million daily active users and had been installed by nearly four million people on Facebook. Hasbro owns the Scrabble copyright for the U.S. and Canada and forced Scrabulous to go offline in those countries at the end of July; Mattel owns the rights to Scrabble everywhere else and followed in Hasbro’s footsteps a month later.
As Hasbro was pursuing Scrabulous creators Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla in court last year, it also partnered with video game company EA to create a new Scrabble application, called Scrabble Beta. This app had launched months before Scrabulous was forced offline, but technical problems — and Scrabulous’ dominance — helped keep it from gaining users. With Scrabulous out of the picture, the app has since grown to 466,378 monthly active users. Meanwhile, Mattel partnered with Real Networks to build its internationally licensed version of Scrabble, called SCRABBLE® Worldwide (excluding U.S. and Canada). It has 290,836 monthly active users today.
Don’t let the numbers confuse you: Last fall, Facebook changed how it calculates app usage from per day to per month. The monthly number shows how many Facebook users accessed the app at any point during the month. We don’t have better data on how many users the new Scrabble apps are getting per day, but both amounts are certainly much less than the half a million that Scrabulous was getting. Facebook itself has been growing by tens of millions of users for years — one has to wonder how big Scrabulous might be today if it hadn’t been shut down.
What’s more, Scrabulous was making $25,000 a month in advertising revenue. Scrabulous creators, the Agarwalla brothers, were just getting started making money on that application. Certainly, a professional partnership between them and the board game companies could have resulted in more ad sales and more revenue.
Meanwhile, the Agarwallas relaunched a new version of the game, called Wordscraper, that is different enough from the Scrabble concept to avoid copyright violations; it has 194,230 monthly active users.
These various apps all have decent traffic, but none of them are growing much, according to third-party Facebook application data service AppData. This is exactly how not to build a Facebook app. Facebook is designed to help people share information with those they care about — geography-based licenses from another era have just gotten in the way of making something people want to use.