Sunday, March 02, 2008

Online Scrabble Craze Leaves Game Sellers at Loss for Words

NEW DELHI — The latest bane of office productivity is Scrabulous, a virtual knockoff of the Scrabble board game, with over 700,000 players a day and nearly three million registered users.

Fans of the game are obsessive. They play against friends, co-workers, family members and strangers, and many have several games going at once.

Everyone seems to love the online game — everyone, that is, except the companies that own the rights to Scrabble: Hasbro, which sells it in North America, and Mattel, which markets it everywhere else.

In January, they denounced Scrabulous as piracy and threatened legal action against its creators, two brothers in Calcutta named Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla who run a software development company. Both Hasbro and Mattel said they were hoping for a solution that would not force them to shut down the game.

Jayant Agarwalla, 21, said they did not create Scrabulous to make money, even though they now collect about $25,000 a month from online advertising. They just wanted to play Scrabble on their computers, and their favorite (unauthorized) site had started charging, he said.

“Our family has been playing the game for 50 years now,” he said, and received a set when the game first came out in India. His mother encouraged him and his 26-year-old brother, Rajat, to play as a learning tool, often with a dictionary by the board.

Scrabulous, which most users play on the Facebook social-networking site, has a board that looks just like Scrabble, and the same number of letter tiles with the same point values. Players can send invitations to others on Facebook or search for strangers to play with by posting messages.

There is no time limit for moves or games. Scrabulous keeps track of player statistics, and it does not allow fake words. It cannot, however, prevent players from cheating. One method is an unaffiliated online “helper” program, which generates a list of possible words based on the letters a user has.

Two game companies, RealNetworks of Seattle and Electronic Arts of Redwood City, Calif., say they have signed deals with Hasbro to create online versions of the company’s games. Both say their versions of Scrabble will be out shortly. But Scrabulous has already brought Scrabble a newfound virtual popularity that none of the game companies could have anticipated.

The threat of legal action has not gained the companies many admirers. Many Scrabulous fans, some of whom say they bought the board game for the first time after playing the online version on Facebook, call their approach heavy-handed and out of touch.

“The big thing that Hasbro is missing is that this is targeting a young audience that in general is not into board games,” said Venkat Koduru, the 15-year-old founder of the Facebook group “Save Scrabulous.”

Mr. Koduru had three Scrabulous games going as of Wednesday. He has gathered names of more than 1,000 people who have pledged to never buy a Scrabble board if Hasbro and Mattel shut down the online game.

Other groups devoted to saving the game have recently been created on Facebook, including “Please God, I Have So Little: Don’t Take Scrabulous Too.” Tens of thousands of fans have joined in, threatening to boycott Hasbro and Mattel products.

Iain Morgan, 34, a music producer in London who goes by the name Iain Easy, is playing 25 games of Scrabulous at the same time. The funny thing is, he said, he was never a fan of the original board game.

Mr. Morgan, who is the host of a Facebook group called “Help, I’m a Scrabulous Addict,” attributes the game’s popularity to “all these people who are bored at work in their office,” and added that the game keeps him in regular contact with his mother.

The legal questions concerning Scrabulous are complicated by the interests of the companies that own the rights to Scrabble.

Harold Zeitz, senior vice president for games at RealNetworks, said Friday that he was working closely with the Agarwalla brothers to bring the official Scrabble game to Facebook users.

Hasbro, meanwhile, said in a statement that Electronic Arts was planning to release an online version of Scrabble this spring. And Mattel, which signed a deal with RealNetworks last July, says that settling with the Agarwallas would set a bad precedent.

Neither Hasbro nor Mattel would disclose the number of Scrabble board games they have sold since Scrabulous started becoming popular last year. Hasbro estimates it sells one million to two million Scrabble boards a year in North America.

To some online marketing experts, Scrabulous represents a turning point for the board game industry, which has struggled for years to recreate itself as new generations turned alternatives like the Xbox and the GameBoy.

“If you’re Hasbro or Mattel, it isn’t in your interest to shut this down,” said Matt Mason, a consultant to the entertainment industry and author of “The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism.”

The board game industry will be forced to adapt, Mr. Mason predicts, just as the music industry has adjusted to unauthorized downloads of songs. “If something’s already out there and proven, the companies should go with it,” he said.

For their part, Mattel and Hasbro are trying to protect their franchise as consumers turn increasingly to the Internet for entertainment. They say they consider Scrabble a crown jewel and are working on marketing campaigns for the game’s 60th anniversary this year. The plans include adding anniversary labels to Scrabble packaging and introducing a folding edition of the deluxe Scrabble board.

Scrabble began as Lexico in 1931, the creation of an out-of-work architect, Alfred Mosher Butts. He determined the frequency of each letter in the game and its value by reviewing the front page of The New York Times. His patent was denied, and it was 17 years before he found a manufacturer, which renamed the game Scrabble.

It took many more years before Scrabble became popular, thanks in part to a Macy’s chairman who was a fan, according to the game’s official history.

The Scrabble brand in North America was passed from manufacturer to manufacturer. It landed with Hasbro in 1989. The British game maker J. W. Spear & Sons owned the rights outside North America until the company was bought by Mattel in 1994.

The board game has had a core group of close-knit, intense fans for decades. They attend tournaments, refer to amateurs as “living room players,” and memorize lists of two-letter words.

Until Scrabulous landed on Facebook, no one could have mistaken the game, which had only a few thousand users, for a fast-growing phenomenon.

The Agarwallas introduced their first Scrabble knockoff Web site,, in August 2005, and renamed it a year later. In May 2007, one of the site’s users suggested they adapt the game as a Facebook application, and it took off.

After 25 years with the National Scrabble Association, John D. Williams Jr., the executive director, said he had seen numerous copyright infringements of Scrabble, but the Scrabulous program on Facebook was the most “widespread and intense.”

Dozens of other Web sites offer unauthorized versions of Scrabble, but most force users to play in real time or require clunky downloads to play.

“People believe it to be in the public domain, like chess,” Mr. Williams said. “The idea that Scrabble belongs to a corporation is something that people don’t or are unwilling to accept.”

The Agarwalla brothers are avid players themselves — Jayant had 14 Scrabulous games going as of Saturday, and Rajat was playing 19.

Jayant, who is responsible for the game’s player interface and customer support, said, “People rarely find time to sit down anymore with their family and friends, to invite people over, to prepare the tea and biscuits.”

Even though it is easy to cheat at Scrabulous, he says he thinks few players actually do. “You may be doing it for personal glory, but it really takes the fun out of the game,” he said.

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