Making an online social game a hit is about more than owning the intellectual property for the concept, as game-makers Hasbro and Mattel have found out over the last year or so. They shut down a popular Facebook application called Scrabulous last summer because it too closely resembled Scrabble, the word-forming board game they shared the worldwide rights to. But Scrabulous’ creators — two brothers in India — came back with a new version of the game late last year that dodges the former version’s legal issues by using a slightly different interface and name. Called Lexulous, the new version has been catching up with the official Scrabble apps that Hasbro and Mattel previously launched.

Hasbro owns the rights to Scrabble in the U.S. and Canada, and partnered with video game giant EA to build an app for these users called Scrabble Beta. It now has 595,934 monthly active users. Mattel pursued a similar strategy, developing a version inelegantly called SCRABBLE® Worldwide (excluding U.S. and Canada), which now has 370,203 monthly active users. We covered the relatively poor performance of these apps back in early January. And to be sure, they’ve grown some since then. But the real story is Lexulous. As of today, it has 566,815 monthly active users. And, while the Hasbro and Mattel versions have received overwhelmingly poor reviews from users, Lexulous is almost universally loved.

For those unfamiliar with the Scrabble concept, players receive a random handful of letters and compete to form dictionary-defined words. The more words a player can create, the more points they win (details here). Scrabulous was a hit on Facebook because it paired the well-known game with communication channels on the site, encouraging friends to invite more friends to play more often — it wasn’t just a game, it was a way to stay connected to people you care about.

This points to some sore spots for Hasbro and Mattel. By dividing up the license geographically, they have prohibited Scrabble fans in the U.S. and Canada from playing with the rest of the world. Lexulous, meanwhile, can be played with friends everywhere. Users of both the Hasbro/EA app and the Mattel app have complained about bugs and usability issues, as reviews on Facebook indicate. Some users have also complained to us about spammy notifications from the EA app (Facebook says EA hasn’t violated Facebook’s developer terms of service, at least that it is aware of).

Meanwhile, Lexulous has focused on building an application that people want to use — and it’s been busy taking advantage of new communication channels on Facebook. Last week, for example, it became one of the first applications to integrate Facebook’s new chat invite feature, a way for a user playing a gaming application to send invites to friends on Facebook who are logged into its chat service at the same time. Hasbro and Mattel have yet to make a move on that front.

The two game-makers reportedly looked into buying Scrabulous before they got the courts to shut it down. Given all the effort they’ve put into building their own not-so-popular versions — and the ongoing success of the Scrabulous/Lexulous team — perhaps they should have worked out a deal. Scrabulous was getting more than half a million daily active users before the schism, and was beginning to make money. A business deal between its creators and the gaming companies could have paid off for everyone.

[Image via Gear Diary]

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