Official Facebook Version of Scrabble Spells Doubt For Scrabulous

Facebook now has vaporware. After a lot of huffing and puffing at the beginning of the year, Hasbro and Electronic Arts are finally getting ready to unveil their official version of Scrabble on Facebook. Today, they announced that the Facebook app EA has been working on for more than six months will be launched later this month, although a version on Pogo (EA’s online casual gaming site) is available today.

There is a Facebook Scrabble app in private beta (see screen shot at left), but the company is still testing it. It is not clear what is taking EA so long. After all, this is just a Facebook app, not a fully-featured video game like Spore.

It is also not clear what will happen to Scrabulous, the unofficial version of Scrabble that has become one of the most popular apps on Facebook. Scrabulous, which was developed by two brothers in India, was almost shut down earlier this year because Hasbro claims that it infringes on its trademarks. Scrabulous was in acquisition talks with many different companies, including Electronic Arts (which has the domestic license to digital versions of the game) and Real Networks (which has the international digital rights), but everyone balked on price.

Rather than force Facebook to shut down Scrabulous immediately, however, Hasbro and Electronic Arts realized that they would suffer an extreme backlash if they took away everyone’s favorite Facebook game without offering up an alternative. Now that the alternative is almost here, it remains to be seen whether they will try to eliminate the competition. In response to question about what Hasbro now plans to do about Scrabulous, spokesperson Gary Selby respondsl:

Hasbro has been consistent in stating that Scrabulous infringes upon our intellectual property, and we are keeping our legal options open. Today we are focusing on the coming launch of EA’s legitimate social networking version of SCRABBLE. We have no further comment at this time on Scrabulous and our legal strategy going forward.

scrabulous.pngWhat is clear is that if Hasbro and EA allow Scrabulous to live, the official version of Scrabble will have a hard time gaining any traction. Real Networks launched an offical version of Scrabble for Facebook members outside the U.S. and Canada a while back, and it has attracted a grand total of only 5,643 daily active users, compared to the 451,107 people who play Scrabulous every single day.

Because of the licensing issues, the EA version of Scrabulous will also be geographically hobbled. Only Facebook members in the U.S. and Canada will be able to play each other. If you live in the U.S. and want to play a friend in London, forget about it. Then there is the simple inertia of people who may see little point in installing the official version if they and all their friends already have Scrabulous installed.

What this means is that EA’s official version of Scrabulous, which it has committed resources to develop, may have little chance of success unless EA can get rid of Scrabulous first. But if EA and Hasbro try to push players to their version of the game by forcing Facebook to shut down Scrabulous, they will still have to deal with a lot of angry Scrabulous fans. Do people love Scrabble so much that they don’t care whose version they play, or will they boycott the game in solidarity with two developers in India? We may soon find out.