The saga of Scrabulous is nearing an end. The Facebook version of Scrabble raised the ire of Hasbro and Mattel, which jointly own the rights to the game abroad and in the U.S., respectively. They have already asked Facebook to pull Scrabulous, one of the most popular apps on the social networking site.
So why is Scrabulous still up on Facebook? A flurry of behind the scenes deal-making has been going on between Hasbro, Scrabulous, and Electronic Arts, which has the license in the U.S. to the online version of the game. Hasbro is trying to get Scrabulous to sell itself for a song to Electronic Arts, or else shut down completely by the end of the day today. Scrabulous has been trying to shop itself to other buyers as well, but its legal liability is scaring away any potential white knights. Unless it gets some sort of reprieve or agrees to sell to Electronic Arts, Scrabulous will be no more, despite the more than 46,000 Facebook members who have joined the “Save Scrabulous” group. What choice does it have, really, but to sell?
And it might not end at Scrabulous. One industry source tells me that Hasbro is going after other knock-off games as well, and sending cease-and-desist letters to Facebook along with the infringing app developers, since it is the one hosting the games. So who might be next? Zynga, for one. The Mark Pincus startup that just publicly launched earlier this month—with $10 Million from Union Square Ventures, Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, Bob Pittman, and others—has games that are based on Risk (Attack!), Boggle (Scramble), and Battleship (Battleship). Zynga claims on its Website to have 1.4 million players of Attack!, 293,000 players of Battleship, and 257,000 players of Scramble. Battleship, Boggle, and Risk are all owned by Hasbro. If Mark Pincus has not already received a cease-and-desist letter, he will soon.
Social networks have been a boon for casual online gaming, because now it is easy to find someone you actually know to play with. But a safer strategy than knocking off traditional board games without licensing them first is to actually create original games. That is the tack the Social Gaming Network (SGN) is taking. It’s popular Facebook games include WarBook and Fight Club. Collectively, its games are generating more than half-a-billion page views a month. There is a business in there somewhere. SGN, which is part of Webs.com, is in the process of spinning off as a separate company. Maybe it should try to license those board games from Hasbro. Somebody should.