Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Scrabulous Solution: An Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg

The Scrabulous Solution: An Open Letter to Mark Zuckerberg

Dear Mark,

Following last week’s announcement by Hasbro (and later Mattel, who have the Euro rights) that they were pursuing legal action against two developers in India that made Scrabulous, the Internet has been abuzz with the collective worry that 600k people may lose their beloved Facebook pastime.

It would be a shame for all those involved if Scrabulous were to go away. With over six hundred thousand people registered, Scrabulous is one of Facebook’s most popular applications. The outcome of the situation will affect the satisfaction of Facebook’s customers. It will have impact on perception of Facebook as a viable development platform, and on Facebook’s relationship with its developers (indifferent beneficiary, or protective and nurturing parent?). Facebook’s actions here will also send a message to owners of consumer brands and IP owners about Facebook’s respect for their concerns, and many of these companies could well be future advertisers or partners.

Facebook’s actions here will also be highly visible. The Hasbro threat to the makers of scrabulous was widely written about and even covered on national television.

In my eyes there seem to be three courses of action for Facebook, only two of which are viable, and only one of which is a good idea.

The possible courses of actions are as follows:

1. Step in and help the developers in their legal fight against Hasbro. I believe this to be the non-viable path, or at best sub-optimal. They are quite clearly violating Hasbro’s IP at multiple levels, from look and feel to game rule set, to even the questionable porte-manteau naming. Even if you helped Scrabulous win, this course of action would be bad publicity and costly.

2. Do Nothing. This is a perfectly viable course of action. After all, Hasbro’s not suing Facebook, but rather the devs. However, what’s at stake is bad publicity, the possible loss of one of your most popular third party applications, and with it, the loss of a significant amount of customer engagement.

3. Broker a winning solution for all parties. I believe this is feasible, and is the best course of action. Everyone wins, it’s not significantly expensive, and the possible upside is significant.

So what does this winning solution look like? I’ll first lay out the steps involved, and then the benefits for each party.

First, Facebook acquires Scrabulous. That could mean acquiring the developers in which case you get a couple smart engineers to help implement the steps below, but at minimum, you buy the Scrabulous codebase, the servers running the service today, and the player database.
Secondly, broker a deal with Hasbro (& Mattel) where:

  • Scrabulous will be updated in two phases: (1) rebranding it as “Scrabble” or “Scrabble For Facebook” immediately, and (2) at a later date a “Scrabble Pro” will be added as a premium subscription service (more on this later in this post).
  • Hasbro, with Facebook’s help, develops “Scrabble Pro” as part of the exercise of getting familiar with the Scrabulous codebase, server administration, etc.
  • Hasbro takes possession of the codebase and manages the servers, following the launch of the Pro version of the game. At this point, Facebook is hands-off.
  • The subscription business (say a 5% uptake out of what by then may be a 1M userbase, at say $25/yr, would make this a $1.25M/yr business at minimum) goes to Hasbro. Optionally, Facebook could have some recoupable amount out of this to recoup engineering costs in helping with the transfer of code and the interim running of the service, but this seems like a nit.

What is the ‘pro’ version of Scrabble and why would users choose to pay the subscription fee? Hasbro would have a better idea what would resonate with their players, but here are some ideas:

  • Richer stats tracking (how many bingos and with whom? Pie charts of wins/losses. Avg score per game, etc.
  • Scrabble variants (alternative dictionaries, Clabbers, speed-scrabble, etc)
  • Better chat functionality
  • Tournament private tables/lobbies
  • Leaderboards
  • Etc

OK, so why is this final scenario on which I’ve elaborated the “win-win-win-win” solution? Let’s recap:

  • The developers of Scrabulous get to cash out and/or get employed by Facebook, and are no longer threatened with Hasbro legal action.
  • Hasbro acquires one of Facebook’s most successful apps, has a head start on creating a successful subscription games service within Facebook, and acquires a community of 600,000 users.
  • Facebook gets Hasbro as a partner, keeps its customers happy, doesn’t lose one of its top apps, and gets a proof point for a business model that other developers and IP holders may choose to follow. The corporate image avoids egg on the face and is seen as helping out the little guy.
  • Scrabulous players don’t lose their beloved game, and have a chance to add new features and variants by upgrading.

What’s to lose?


Kim “Scrabulous Fan” Pallister

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can't figure out why Hasbro, who seems to be having troubles branding itself for the online community, hasn't offered the devs jobs at Hasbro. Clearly they get how to translate the appeal of classic board games to a digital audience.

Of course, EA's exclusive license to distribute the Scrabble brand in the US is going to come into play here as well.