By Josh Quittner
I can't tell if Hasbro (HAS), the maker of Scrabble, is the smartest company in the world or the dumbest. Over 100 million sets of the game have been sold in 121 countries, in 29 different languages, according to everyone's favorite source. What a cash cow.
So, why in the world didn't it create a free online version? Could it have something to do with the digital rights being in flux, thanks to a recent licensing deal that assigned online Scrabble rights to EA (ERTS). If so, why oh why would it let someone else do it, and reap the rewards? But that's just what happened when two guys from Calcutta, Jayant Agarwalla, 21, and his brother, Rajat, 26, created a knockoff called Scrabulous.
Their site launched in 2006 and quickly signed up 600,000 registered users. Not too shabby for a year's worth of work. So the brothers launched a Facebook application in June, 2007 and the results were stunning: 2.3 million active users as of today. For those of you keeping score, the application generated 270 70 million pageviews in the past month. Not a bad deal for a two-man operation.
But all good things must come to an end, which is bad news for Scrabulous fans, and even worse for the Agarwalla Bros.: Hasbro's trying to shut the site down. "They sent a notice to Facebook about two weeks ago," Jayant confirmed to me. "The lawyers are working on it."
As a recovering Scrabulous addict (actually, I have since moved on to Facebook's harder stuff, Texas Hold 'em), I'm devastated. But as a tech writer and life-long student of what passes for Internet economics, I'm baffled. Is Hasbro just a stupid Potato Head? Or is this a brilliant game of Stratego?
My calls to the company have so far gone unanswered. A spokesman for Facebook, who said she was unaware of what was in the works with Hasbro or Scrabulous, said, "we don't typically comment on legal matters."
If I were an evil genius running a board games company whose product line spanned everything from Monopoly to Clue, I might do this: Wait until someone comes up with an excellent implementation of my games and does the hard work of coding and debugging the thing and signing up the masses. Then, once it got to scale, I'd sweep in and take it over. Let the best pirate site win! If I were compassionate, I'd even cut in the guys who did all the work for a percentage point or two to keep the site running.
Perhaps that's what will happen since both the Scrabulous site and Facebook app are still up and running. Indeed, Jayant told me that he was hopeful they'd find an 11th Hour solution. "We're trying to work out some kind of deal," he said. I hope so, too.
Jayant said that he didn't exactly understand what all the fuss was about. Its ability to generate insane numbers of pageviews notwithstanding—he said some players play as many as 170 games at a time on Facebook—the application isn't throwing off that much money. He declined to say exactly how much, pegging revenues at "over $25,000 a month." Hmmmmm.
The brothers got the idea for Scrabulous after becoming Scrabble freaks a few years ago and playing at another free site, Quadplex. After it started charging users, however, they decided to build their own "without thinking through the legal aspect at the time."
Jayant pointed out that there are a number of other Scrabble knockoffs online. "I'm not sure why Hasbro actually picked on this," he added. Because, dude, you're the best.