RealNetworks Inc. is quietly introducing a version of Scrabble on Facebook, despite pledging to save Scrabulous, the wildly popular, unauthorized online version of the board game.
In recent weeks, Gamehouse, a division of RealNetworks, introduced “Scrabble by Mattel” on the social networking site Facebook. The game is technically available only to players outside the US and Canada, though it relies on users to be honest about their location to make that distinction.
The rights to Scrabble are owned by competing companies, a situation that seems to be hobbling the game’s introduction to Facebook and other social networking sites, and complicating negotiations with the creators of Scrabulous.
A screenshot of Scrabulous on Facebook
Hasbro Inc. owns the rights to Scrabble in North America, and Mattel Inc. in the rest of the world. RealNetworks of Seattle has signed deals with both companies for electronic rights, but Electronic Arts of Redwood City, California, also has a deal with Hasbro.
As of Sunday, the official Scrabble game had attracted fewer than 2,000 daily Facebook users, in contrast to more than 600,000 on Scrabulous.
Scrabulous’ popularity attracted the attention of Hasbro and Mattel earlier this year, and they threatened legal action to shut it down. The game companies’ actions spurred tens of thousands of Scrabulous players to sign petitions and join online clubs supporting the unauthorized game, and many have pledged to stop buying Mattel and Hasbro products if the companies shut Scrabulous down.
RealNetworks had said in early March that it was working with the creators of Scrabulous to save the game. The introduction of a competing game on Facebook seems to indicate an about-face in strategy. RealNetworks would not make an executive available for an interview for this article, but the public relations manager, Ryan Luckin, said in an email message that the company had been “working with Mattel for a few months now on a version of Scrabble for Facebook.” Scrabble by Mattel is “in beta,” the message said, meaning it is still being tested.
RealNetworks said: “It is important to remember that even if we reach an arrangement with the Scrabulous owners, both Hasbro and Mattel must approve” any Scrabble-related game.
Rajat Agarwalla, one of the brothers in Kolkata, who developed Scrabulous, said that he could not comment on the status of discussions with Mattel, RealNetworks or Hasbro. Rajat and his brother Jayant have recently introduced a version of chess for Facebook, and Wordscraper, a Scrabble-like game in which players make up their own board configuration.
Facebook Scrabble takes a long time to load, does not always quickly update to show recent moves, and the words the game will accept do not reflect standard Scrabble dictionaries, or even the English language. In a recent game, for example, Scrabble by Mattel accepted “feen” and “ami” but not “zen.” There is no way to challenge opponents’ moves at this time.
So far, Facebook users’ response to Scrabble by Mattel has been split. One user wrote that it had “a few bugs, but overall it’s excellent,” while another said, “Beta Testers: View the Scrabulous site; see how well it works; and build your beta off of that.”
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES