Tag Archives: scrabble

Scrabulous and IP Wars

When I twittered Rory Cellan-Jones to ask why he didn’t mention Wordscraper in his blog post about Scrabulous, he replied “cos i couldn’t be bothered!” Years from now, when British journalism has finally breathed its last, this phrase will be engraved on its tombstone.

The thing is, the Wordscraper thing is about the most interesting thing about this whole sorry saga. Cellan-Jones misses the point. Badly. While Scrabulous did indeed cross the line by using the same look as Scrabble and using a name that was far too close to a trademarked property, the fact is you can’t copyright an idea and they have been free to set up an almost identical game.

Intellectual property law is at its murkiest when it comes to games. History is littered with people who sold their ideas to companies before their games made it big, least of all Scrabble-inventor Alfred Butts. How do you make money out of a boardgame when people can replay it countless times? Ironically, the answer that Mattell and Hasbro have come up with is to produce a whole range of merchandise. You can buy the official Scrabble dictionary of course, and a special turntable for your board. You can get the deluxe edition and if you want a really big game why not try Super Scrabble (unbalanced in my view)? In a hurry? Try Scramble. On the move? Try Travel Scrabble. They’ve even produced a pink edition to raise money for breast cancer research. Scrabulous hardly dented that market – if anything it helped it.

The point is, they’ve already realised that the real money to be made is not in the game itself but in creating a range of branded tat for the fans to buy. With that in mind, getting Scrabulous banned looks like a pretty bad business move. It probably won’t cost them much, but it has created a lot of ill will and has been built around getting people to sign up to their own, flash heavy and vastly inferior Facebook app. Meanwhile, the Agarwalla brothers appear to have got away with it. The big guys may have won, but it is a pretty empty victory.

Ultimately, this isn’t how big businesses are going to survive in the global internet marketplace. The Agarwalla’s may have overstepped the mark, but it isn’t hard to stay on the right side of the law. Frankly, if Mattel and Hasbro had any sense, they’d encourage developers to compete to produce the best internet version of the game, offering a license that would allow people to publish the game with their blessing, so long as it included a prominent link back to the official website (admittedly, contractually they may be prevented from doing this even if they wanted do but given how long it took their developers to produce a Facebook app and the poor job they made of it, it looks like we can safely add this to their list of cock ups). Think of the free advertising! Ironically, at a different end of the empire, Hasbro has been experimenting with something very similar. Their Wizards of the Coast publishing arm, which produces Dungeons and Dragons, positively encourages other publishers to use their system (albeit with restrictions, something which has admittedly caused some bad feeling). The result was to take a failing brand and catapult it right back to the top of the industry.

Not only are intellectual property laws becoming increasingly hard to enforce, in many ways they are becoming a serious hindrance to making money, which is what they exist to do in the first place. Properties such as boardgames that were devised in the middle of the 20th century (and superheroes for that matter) are a particularly interesting cultural battleground because to those of us who have grown up with them, they feel like public property. Ultimately, this becomes a question about who owns popular culture. The corporates won’t be allowed to win that battle, whether they want to or not.

The dark side of Scrabulous

I’ve been alerted to the fact that if you go over to the “join table” section of Scrabulous, you find an … interesting choice of gamers.

Just looking now for example, I notice that “Andrew” is requesting a game with females only during which he is after “s e x y chat, prefer who have messenger and cam”. “Jamie” meanwhile is wanting a game with “any ladies wanting to play strip scrabble over 30..women only..please” while an anonymous person wants “G-A-Y GUYS (!!!!) in London (or at least UK) who want to chat too. I WILL DELETE THE GAME IF YOU ARE NOT!” You get the picture.

I have to admit that until this weekend I was entirely unaware of the links between Scrabble and “sexy chat”. It does bring a new angle to the whole ongoing Tommy Sheridan debacle however.

The Guardian has validated my lifestyle choice!

An interesting article in the Guardian today about the revival of boardgames. There is however something a little amiss in this story, in that it seems to assume that the health of a hobby is based on how well Britain is doing at an international level, rather than how many people are simply playing.

It also has a preoccupation with ‘traditional’ boardgames. Although it recognises the Euro-game movement in general, and Settlers of Catan specifically, it seems to measure ‘success’ by the popularity of games that granny would have known.

Let’s be clear: a lot of ‘traditional’ games such as Monopoly or Cluedo are, compared to some of the new games that have been emerging, crap. They are largely luck-based and a few good throws of the dice at the start of the game can set you up for the remainder. In the case of Monopoly – at least in its original form the Landlord’s Game – that was the whole point. Diplomacy, very popular a generation ago, takes forever to play and has the added problem of working by excluding players, thereby limiting its appeal to people who are prepared to spend a weekend twiddling their thumbs. Classic games such as Chess and Go don’t have these flaws, but they are predominantly two-player games. By contrast, most Euro-games combine the skill element and ‘fairness’ of Chess with the accessibility of Monopoly. It’s no wonder that they are slowly increasing in popularity.

You also have to question if this indicates anything particularly new. Hobby games such as Warhammer or Bloodbowl had a big following in my youth and continued in popularity throughout the 90s, leading to stories in the financial pages about Games Workshop being a British success story (at least until a miscalculation about the continued success of Lords of the Rings brand caused them to take a tumble). They may not have had the respectability of Monopoly, and some of us might rather resent the business model works by effectively forcing you to buy expensive miniatures, but they encouraged awkward kids to socialise and combined it with the very British schoolboy pursuit of modeling (albeit painting orcs instead of spitfires). The collectable card game phenomenon continued throughout the 90s with Magic: The Gathering and later Pokemon being tremendous successes worldwide. These two combined traditional gameplay with mass-consumerism (there are 458 results when you Google ‘“kiddie crack” pokemon‘).

So it’s too simplistic to say that tabletop gameplay is making a comeback at the expense of computer games. What seems to be happening, rather, is that the nature of the boardgames industry itself is changing. Games Workshop, for example, have just announced the return of an old favourite Talisman and have already returned to roleplaying. The Euro-gaming boom has lead to a renewal in boardgaming across the Atlantic. Much of this success seems to be fueled by the internet, which is proving effective at both spreading the word about games themselves globally (BoardGameGeek being the exemplar of this) and putting players in touch with fellow gamers. Far from people eschewing technology in favour of ‘tradition’, technology itself appears to be fueling this revival. Indeed, technology was at least partly responsible for keeping Chess in the headlines 20-30 years ago as programmers worked to develop a computer that could beat the best Grand Masters.

Thus far, it has been a very behind the scenes revival in the UK (Germany, by all accounts, is a very different story), but I suspect that things like Catan are about to go very mainstream indeed. One of the biggest factors slowing down this trend is the failure of anyone to produce a Euro-game in the same price bracket as a standard set of Scrabble. Basic Catan is £10 more expensive in this country compared to Scrabble (£25 compared to £15), and you get a lot less in the box (this is particularly piss-taking when you consider the English language version is imported from the US which has a low exchange rate at the moment). There’s a killing to be made by a company willing to take a punt.