It’s the first time Jayant Agarwalla has travelled to the West. You shouldn’t judge from first appearances, but behind his glasses he looks really young. Just a few months ago, he was finishing up university in Calcutta. You might not guess that he was at the centre of a flashpoint of copyright controversy that could be worth tens of millions of dollars. All over a few little letters.
Agarwalla is in Toronto to talk about Scrabulous, his tile-based word game application for Facebook, at Interactive Content Exchange 2008 (March 26-28), an Ontario government initiative promoting business in digital industries like those of the mobile, website and video games variety.
And if you’re confusing it with a certain other word game, the resemblance is strictly – oh, who am I kidding? It’s Scrabble, okay? Last July, Jayant and his older brother Rajat ported their play-by-mail version of Scrabble onto North America’s fastest growing social network. Today the game has 3.2 million registered users worldwide, with an average of 700,000 uses a day.
Trouble is, it’s their own version, an unlicensed copy of the game owned by Hasbro in North America and Mattel in the rest of the world.
And on this subject, for legal reasons, Agarwalla is keeping mum. “All I can say is that we’re working closely with Hasbro and Mattel, and hopefully there can be some kind of amicable resolution sooner or later.”
Adding to the mix, in the last few weeks Mattel launched its own official Scrabble application on Facebook, which should technically be available only to users outside North America. So far, with only 2,000 subscribers, it has yet to take off. But it definitely presents an interesting twist on any legal decisions.
Legal battles aside, Scrabulous is a success story. Jayant grew up playing board games like Pictionary, Risk and Stratego. While in university, he got hooked on free online Scrabble sites, until one fateful day.
“If Quadplex hadn’t started charging its users, Scrabulous would never have been created. We created Scrabulous to play the game online without paying for it.”
Jayant and his brother developed their first version, Bingo Binge, named for Scrabble’s full tile-rack super-plays. In July of 2006, they re-branded this site Scrabulous, which is where it stayed until one of their players recommended checking out Facebook.
“We didn’t do any marketing for Scrabulous; it has a really nice stickiness on its own. People are more attached to the application because a friend told them to check it out.”
Players know why it took off. Potential opponents are easily selected from your network, and multiple games can be played at once. Agarwalla attributes Scrabulous’s success more to this social aspect than to the game itself.
“Suppose you and I are playing a game. When I make a move, I’m thinking about you, so it’s a great way to keep in touch without sending boring e-mails or poking repeatedly.”
Of course, some take this more seriously than others. “An American fan asked if we can do something that would help him propose to his girlfriend. We set up the board for him nicely. When she started the game, the letters WILL YOU MARRY ME JANE were pasted on the board, and she had the tiles YESNO on her tile rack. That was it – it was just a few minutes of work, but it was really great.”
But there’s a dark side, too. Scrabulous is the perfect productivity killer, bringing office work to a grinding halt.
For someone who designed the application to fuel his own addiction, Agarwalla is surprisingly cool. “I just play my moves once during the day, and then I’m done.”
Humble, too. “I’m just a little above average, I guess. My rating is about 1,800 or something.” His best Bingo Binge was “messiahs,” all seven letters for 176 points across two triple word scores.
Besides staying on top of the admin work, the brothers continue to release new features. Key was the chat window, cementing the social or antisocial component, depending on your preference for smack talk. Next up are international versions, beginning with French, German, Italian and Spanish.
For the truly hardcore, they’re also developing bots that will allow you to test your skills against virtual opponents.
Whether we see all these new aspects depends on the talks with the toy giants. It’s a tricky issue. Sure, the corporations own the copyright, but it was Jayant and his brother’s hard work that established the game online.
A settlement could set a precedent encouraging further knockoffs. Despite all this, Agarwalla seems optimistic.
“The ideal thing would be that the end user is happy, regardless of what happens to us or Hasbro or Mattel or whatever. We don’t want the end user to suffer.”