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The Kolkata coders

The Kolkata coders
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First Published: Fri, Jun 05 2009. 10 55 PM IST

Above board: Jayant (left) and Rajat Agarwalla insist they had no ulterior motive in adapting Scrabble to Scrabulous. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Above board: Jayant (left) and Rajat Agarwalla insist they had no ulterior motive in adapting Scrabble to Scrabulous. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
Updated: Fri, Jun 05 2009. 10 55 PM IST
The air conditioner struggles to keep out the sweltering Kolkata heat. In an office not far from the airport and behind a huge Haldiram’s outlet off VIP Road on the northern fringes of the city, Jayant Agarwalla, 23, sits barefoot, contentedly watching over his posse of software programmers hunched over computers. Their code will go into a clutch of online games, one of which—Scrabulous—has made Jayant, his brother Rajat, 28, and their company, RJ Softwares, Internet celebrities with hundreds of thousands of fans.
Jayant Agarwalla talks about online game development and what next:
The brothers launched Scrabulous, an online take-off on the popular word game Scrabble, in July 2006. It was an instant hit. Then, a year later, the brothers launched a Facebook application that let users of the social network play the game without leaving their Facebook pages. It was just the boost the game needed. Scrabulous became a Facebook staple. Thousands of players ran Scrabulous games all day long on their computers while studying or working. At its peak, around January 2008, Scrabulous had at least 500,000 players online and its ardent fans included Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Above board: Jayant (left) and Rajat Agarwalla insist they had no ulterior motive in adapting Scrabble to Scrabulous. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
And then the brothers ran into trouble. Hasbro and Mattel, the original owners of the Scrabble copyright, took legal action against the Agarwallas. Both toy makers wanted them to take the game down. Thousands of fans rose up in online revolt to defend Scrabulous.
It’s hard to believe that the global Scrabulous whirlwind was let loose from these two cavernous halls down a dark passage past a dhobi’s (washerman’s) shop. Even more remarkable is the fact that the Agarwalla brothers are both first-generation software entrepreneurs from Kolkata’s Marwari community—one known more for its talent for buying and selling than for developing user-friendly Internet applications. “The community is changing, with most of us having studied at missionary schools and exposed to the wider world,” says Jayant.
Rajat set up the company in 2000, while still a student of commerce at St Xavier’s College, Kolkata. “I started out with 8-10 programmers in a room on the top floor of our house,” says Rajat, who would attend his commerce classes in the morning and then go for his BBA classes, which would end in the afternoon. This is standard practice for most students of St Xavier’s commerce department. Classes run from 6am for around three-and-a-half hours. Students then troop off to the offices of family businesses, chartered accountancy classes, or MBA entrance coaching.
Rajat, who doesn’t have any formal training in software programming other than the computer classes run by St Xavier’s Collegiate School, would rush home to spend the rest of the day with his coders. Jayant, also a BCom graduate from St Xavier’s, joined his brother’s company after graduation.
The nerdy atmosphere of the RJ Softwares office is a far cry from the blade and window grill businesses run by their father. “His company is called Rajat Industries (after the elder sibling) and manufactures Prabhat brand blades,” says Jayant, adding, “largely for the export market, you see”.
Rajat and Jayant say they aren’t too interested in their father’s businesses. “We don’t understand blades and window grills and he doesn’t understand software or coding,” chuckles Rajat, who handles the technical side of the business. “I’m more into the design and development of new games,” explains Jayant.
Father and sons may run businesses as different as chalk and cheese, but there was no opposition from Agarwalla senior when the younger Agarwallas decided to chart their own course. “It wasn’t as if I suddenly turned up one day and asked for this huge bag of money to start a business,” says Rajat, who did a lot of the initial programming with a small team on his personal computer (PC) and a few assembled ones. “Moreover, our family has always encouraged us to strike out on our own,” says Jayant. To emphasize his point, he traces the roots of the Agarwalla clan to Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan and Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh and adds that the earlier generations had substantial interests in iron and steel.
The brothers, Jayant in particular, have been fans of Scrabble from childhood and picked it up from uncles and cousins adept at the game. The idea of making their own version of online Scrabble—there have been other versions before and there still are a few unlicensed ones online —came when Jayant’s favourite Scrabble site, www.quadplex. com, decided to charge players for the service. On a whim, the brothers decided to set up their own online gaming site in August 2005.
Till then, RJ Softwares (named after both brothers) had focused purely on mundane things such as developing websites and customized software solutions. “We had no idea we were doing anything illegal when we launched our first Scrabble site Bingobinge.com,” insists Jayant. “In hindsight, if we had known that it would cause so many problems, we’d probably have done things differently,” he adds.
According to Rajat, Bingobinge became so popular that the servers could not take the load and the site crashed frequently. Efforts were made to increase stability but “by then the damage had been done to the Bingobinge brand and we decided to go in for a complete overhaul. We also realized that there was tremendous user interest,” says Rajat. So, they went back to the drawing board and came up with Scrabulous.
Scrabulous was a variant of Scrabble, which we think is a fabulous game,” explains Jayant, an avid player of the game and a voracious, eclectic reader.
Scrabble is a word game played by two-four players on a 15x15 grid of squares. The idea is to form a word with up to seven tiles in such a way as to maximize scores using the network of scoring squares on the board. It is believed that Scrabble—meaning “to search frantically”—as we know it was the brainchild of James Brunot of Newtown, Connecticut, US. Today, Hasbro Inc. has the rights to it in North America and Mattel in the rest of the world.
While Hasbro sued the Agarwalla brothers in a New York court in July 2008, Mattel later initiated proceedings in the Delhi high court. Initially, Facebook was reluctant to take down an application which got so many users addicted to the social network. Eventually, it backed down and Scrabulous was blocked on Facebook, in North America on 29 July and all over the world around a month later.
“We settled the matter with Hasbro in December but the dispute with Mattel is still sub-judice,” says Jayant.
The settlement with Hasbro necessitated a complete revamp of Scrabulous. First to change was the name—the game was rechristened Lexulous. “The Delhi high court told us not to use the names Scrabble, Scrabulous or any other ‘deceptively similar’ term to describe our word game,” explains Rajat, adding, “We were also told not to use such words even in the metadata attached to the game, as it can be read by search engines. We complied.”
The brothers highlight the court’s views on the game and the board design. “The judge said that Mattel could not claim copyright for the game as the idea behind it could not be copyright-protected because a copyright does not protect ideas,” says Jayant, adding, “It also said the board could not be protected.”
So, while Scrabulous, like Scrabble, allowed players to draw a maximum of seven tiles for each word and had similar scoring squares, after the settlement with Hasbro the game allows eight tiles for each word, the scoring squares have been rearranged and there are minor changes in the points allocated to various alphabets. “These are the obvious changes, but there are other terms to the settlement which we are unable to discuss,” says Rajat.
While all this was going on, the brothers launched another game, Wordscraper, in February 2007, after “user feedback”. This variant of Scrabble, which the brothers say has 500,000 registered users compared with Lexulous’ five million (including 3.8 million on Facebook and 1.5 million on the Lexulous site), lets the player arrange the board and the letters according to his level of proficiency.
Unfettered by the ongoing legal battle with Mattel, the brothers are forging ahead with plans to follow up the success of Lexulous and Wordscraper with new online adaptations. “After chess, we are planning to make backgammon, poker and Othello or reversi available on Facebook,” says Jayant, “and we are also readying a paid version of Lexulous for mobiles and iPhones.”
And while the business plan may seem like all fun and games, there is solid business rationale behind every move.
Though fees aren’t charged from players for Lexulous, ad revenues have been handsome. Initially, they covered the cost of development and bandwidth; now revenues have grown to the extent that RJ Softwares has stopped developing websites and customized software solutions to focus on games. “I can’t tell you how much we make, but it’s comfortable and there’s also the fun element of developing games,” says Jayant, laughing off the Rs48 crore figure bandied about by many as the sum offered by multinational companies to buy out RJ Softwares. “It was merely a rumour started on a blog and we don’t even want to comment on it,” he insists (online encyclopedia Wikipedia mentions, without attribution, that Lexulous makes upwards of a third of a million dollars annually).
According to Vishal Gondal, CEO, Indiagames, it is advisable to either license or think of something completely original. “We licensed Spiderman from Marvel and Jurassic Park from Universal,” said Gondal over the phone from New Zealand. In 2006, his company sued mobile gaming company Mauj for allegedly copying Indiagames’ cricket game, but had to settle out of court when the case dragged on. “They took our source code but the courts couldn’t even understand it,” says Gondal, insisting that the Scrabble case has got the kind of publicity it has because a foreign giant such as Mattel is involved.
However, Gondal says the brothers would have done better to get into a licensing arrangement instead of choosing to slug it out with Mattel. “You can’t get away by using ideas that are highly inspired by others,” he says, adding, “This would only reinforce the notion among Western clients that Indians are great rip-off artists and (they) would be careful in handing out projects to us.”
That is not a view shared by K. Rajesh Rao, CEO of Dhruv Infotech, which developed the first PC game in India in 1999 when it made the PC version of the movie-based game Mission: Impossible for publisher Infogrames (now Atari). “Indian gaming companies have been doing business with Western counterparts for over 10 years before this episode, and more importantly, continue to do so after. Many of us have an impeccable reputation and track record. Some of us are working on secret projects of big Western publishers for up to two years before the release of the game—so obviously they are trusting us with their IP (intellectual property),” said Rao in an email interview.
But Rao agrees with Gondal on the way forward—make great games and use popular IP to attract the mass market audience. “But make sure you have all IP aspects fully secured in the right way before you release your game, and you will be just fine,” adds Rao. He cites the 2008 National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom) report on the Indian animation and gaming industry to point out that the industry is expected to reach $1,060 million (around Rs5,300 trillion) in revenue by 2012 .
Rajat counters the “not-original” charges, saying that most IT companies operating out of Kolkata don’t do original work. “They are content with outsourcing jobs as they are risk averse and don’t want to lose a steady source of revenue,” he says.
The two Xaverians say the litigation has turned the spotlight on some larger issues, such as player rights and the future of traditional games of the kind they have been adapting for playing online. “What about the millions of players who suffered everytime Facebook had to block Scrabulous or Scrabulous had to be taken off and tweaked and brought back as Lexulous?” asks Jayant. “Moreover, I think we are giving these games a new lease of life at a time when players may be separated by geography and may not have the time to sit down to a game of Scrabble or chess or backgammon,” he adds. “The email versions allow people to play the game at their own pace and the mobile and iPhone versions enable them to play on the move, and I think this is the way ahead.”
But the brothers have a more pressing task on hand, one no less a challenge than fighting off litigation by multinational companies—finding talented, employable programmers in Kolkata. “Not only should they be on top of their language, they have to have an aptitude for gaming, and yes, we have to work harder here to find such people than we would have, had we been in, say, Bangalore,” says Rajat. “But that doesn’t mean we are looking to move out, we love this city too much.”
rajdeep.r@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jun 05 2009. 10 55 PM IST