18 March 2014 | Team Tamar

Scrabble – Epically failing online since 2008. But why?

scrabble1In these days of social gaming, it’s easy to assume that every game ever invented has the opportunity to take on a new lease of life. In lots of cases, this is true – Only this morning I was sat on my train to work, listening to the unmistakable ‘jingle jingle’ soundtrack of a child playing Sonic the Hedgehog on his mother’s smartphone.

With the Facebook gaming platform in particular giving new life to old formats, lots of game makers are embracing this new change – with many finding new ways to monetise previously straight-forward games using micro-payments and social sharing.

There are plenty of examples of games who have done this well. Just take a look at the iTunes game chart or the Facebook game platform and you’ll see lots of old names, and not just ones from the digital age either. Tetris, Monopoly, Pacman, Uno, Chess, Trivial Pursuit – all have highly-popular and well made digital versions on all the major platforms.

Amongst all this success though, there’s one game that seems to have failed to capitalise on social gaming time after time: Scrabble.

Scrabble: It’s complicated

My own interest in Scrabble as a social game has been a long one – way back in 2009 I took part in an episode of BBC’s ‘Imagine’ which looked at a history of Scrabble, at a time when Scrabbulous was making it popular again. But now, 5 years later, Scrabble is still failing to get the attention it deserves – and it’s almost entirely their fault.

The reason for Scabble’s complicated history online is fairly simple: It all comes down to copyright. Unlike a lot of other popular games, the copyright for Scrabble is owned by different companies in different parts of the world. In particular, Hasbro, who own the North American rights, and Mattel, who control the rest of the world.

Back when Facebook was first gaining popularity, ‘Scrabbulous’ took the platform by storm – but Scrabble themselves completely failed to capitalise on this popularity. Whilst Scrabble eventually launched their own version, the complicated copyright situation meant players in the US and Canada weren’t allowed to play against those of us in the rest of the world – a major flaw in a global-social game.

6 Years Later…

words-with-friends-board-game-3Fast forward to 2014 and once again it’s a young pretender who is getting all the attention – Words with Friends. And this time, it isn’t just the digital landscape which is at stake – the more traditional ‘board game’ shelves are looking busier, too.

I was struck by just how well ‘Words with Friends’ have done last week, while watching an episode of the US TV show ‘Modern Family’. A Words with Friends game plays a very large part in the episode’s plot – the sort of coverage that a famous game like Scrabble will be kicking themselves over.

And, as I mentioned above, pop into your local toy shop and you’ll even find physical copies of the game on the shelves next to Scrabble – a shelf which Scrabble have held the dominion over for decades.

Sure – you’ll now find official versions of the Scrabble game on both Facebook and in the iTunes store. But you can’t argue the fact that in both cases they lost the ‘early adopter’ advantage to a rival, most likely due to their own internal complications.

So what?

So what can the rest of us learn from Scrabble’s apparent failure?

Well, the obvious ‘take home message’ is the need to be quick and responsive – if you spend too long umm’ing and ah’ing over your own internal politics, you will inevitably find a competitor will come along and do what you wanted to do before you manage it.

It also highlights the importance of knowing what platforms and systems are emerging, BEFORE they peak. Don’t get me wrong – I’m certainly not advocating trying every platform and site out there, just ‘because’ – but if you don’t know where your audience are currently hanging out (virtually), you’re falling at the first hurdle.

Keep one eye on your audience, another on your competitors and you shouldn’t go far wrong.

Team Tamar