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How Words With Friends Is Killing Scrabble… and Why It Matters to Lawyers

Everyone is playing Words With Friends on their smartphones these days.

When even my 11-year old son and my 16-year-old daughter (and my no-way-will-I-reveal-her-age wife) became addicted, I thought it time to look into the phenomenon – that, and the fact that my son whispered to his Scrabble-loving father that he needed help in a game against his mom.

Let me lay out a fact pattern:

  1. Words With Friends is similar to Scrabble – seven tiles at a time, points assigned to letters in inverse relation to their frequency in English words, a board with double- and triple-letter and double- and (rare) triple-word scores, etc.
  2. The board is laid out slightly differently and the letter point values are just different enough to make it hard for Scrabble to prove copyright violation.
  3. You can play it on your smartphone, your computer, even a wireless-connected iPod.
  4. It’s heavily connected with social networking, e.g., with strong integration with Facebook. Thus it “spreads virally,” a fancy way of saying players can easily invite others to a game. You can also “chat” with (send messages to) your opponent during a game.
  5. Four years ago, Hasbro, maker of Scrabble, sued the makers of the popular Facebook game Scrabulous because it was a direct knockoff of Scrabble – same board, same point counts, etc.
  6. Three years ago, Hasbro dropped the suit. By that time, Scrabulous was in semi-limbo yet the Facebook version of Scrabble was unloved (and by most accounts awkward and slow).
  7. Did I mention Words With Friends is similar to Scrabble?

To sum up, people love Scrabble and people love simple online games. There was a great Scrabble-like game on the web. Scrabble sued rather than find a way to coopt it (or buy it). Now there is another great Scrabble-like game on the web… but it’s not Scrabble (as in Scrabble™, the branded game), and it’s not by Hasbro.

It seems like a huge lost opportunity for Scrabble/Hasbro. And how long can it be before Words With Friends is available in a physical-world actual board game?

The Law-Practice Analogy

Here’s another fact pattern (or, to be honest, something of a conjecture pattern, since facts are hard to come by in this arena for various reasons):

  1. Clients have requested their law practices, whether firm or in-house, to become more efficient with their limited dollars.
  2. Some practices have responded well; others have made soothing noises but largely temporized. (South of the border we call it “punting the problem,” but then we think football should have one fewer player and one more down, so what do we know?)
  3. The cost pressures aren’t receiving quite as much press as they used to. (Let’s say that pressures over the market as a whole are neither increasing nor decreasing, though there’s no easy way to quantify this question.)
  4. If (when?) cost pressures increase again, the firms that have already figured out ways to be equally profitable at lower cost will have an advantage as first responders.

There are law practices today saying, “Maybe the economy is reviving, but for whatever reason we don’t think the pressure on prices (or internal costs) will continue.” They are acting as if they’ve beaten the squeeze and it’s only a matter of time before it’s back to business as usual.

Maybe they’re right. But….

Scrabble-maker Hasbro probably thought it had beaten the competition when it stopped the momentum of Scrabulous. What did they do then?

As far as I can tell, not much. They missed their user community’s real need. They focused on the competition rather than the need; with the competition in retreat, they thought life was good again.

They saw Scrabulous as identical to Scrabble. Why would people play the fake when the real game was available?

The game-play was identical, but the experience was not. Scrabulous was easy to set up. Connecting to play a friend was effortless. Scrabulous replicated the social Scrabble environment, friends talking about a variety of subjects while they played the game.

The game itself wasn’t the object of playing the game; social interaction was.

Eventually, a few smart people recognized that twist. They replicated and even enhanced the social aspect while retaining the gameplay, changing the form of the game just enough to deal with copyright issues.

So one more fact pattern, seen repeatedly in the business world:

  1. A competitor dominating a market gets stale, failing to keep up with changing times.
  2. A new product comes along. It’s not very good at first.
  3. The dominator tries to put the competitor out of business rather than change its cash cow.
  4. The new product works out some bugs and taps into user needs and desires.
  5. The new product takes off, often by a different vendor than the company that made the first stab at it.
  6. The former dominator plays catch-up, but is usually too late.

Note the parallel to the two previous lists. For lawyers, the “new product” isn’t a robo-lawyer or a pro se explosion (though online legal forms might be an example within this decade). Rather, the new product is efficiency.

Law practices that figure out how to deliver work more efficiently may well have increasing opportunities to upset the market, to take business from larger-but-slower firms, the “dominators.” For in-house work, the equation is a little different, but the idea is the same.

I’ve written previously (here, on my own site, and in my book Legal Project Management) that being efficient does not mean making less money or lower profits.

Scrabble Tournaments and Bet-the-Company Matters/Files

There are a handful of big-time Scrabble tournaments. For the time being, at least, those tournaments will be played with Scrabble boards and letter-counts. But they represent a tiny percentage of Scrabble and Scrabble-like games.

There are a handful of bet-the-company cases. For the time being, at least, those cases will continue to be served by high-end practices charging top dollar. But they represent a tiny percentage of legal work.

Most “Scrabble” games today are actually Words With Friends games. Every day that passes, true Scrabble represents an increasingly smaller segment of the games played.

Most legal work… well, we’re not quite there. Yet.

But increased efficiency will have a market breakthrough, if not this year, then soon.

Will you lead the charge? Or will you wait, hoping the world won’t actually change?

Meanwhile, anyone up for a game of Words With Friends?

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Comments

  1. Hi Steven, not everyone is playing Words With Friends. Scrabble is a classic game and one hundred million sets have been sold worldwide (see http://www.scrabble-assoc.com/info/history.html). Between one and two million Scrabble sets are sold each year in North America. School Scrabble clubs are popping up in Schools across North America. In the U.S., there are 2,782 school Scrabble clubs. My prediction is that Scrabble will be around long after Words With Friends or the next popular word game. My 10 year old taught himself Scrabble a couple of years ago on my iphone and we frequently play it on my ipad. However, once a week we take out the old Scrabble board, the Scrabble dictionary, and play the real thing. Words With Friends will pass; our grandchildren will never have heard of Words With Friends but I hope to play Scrabble with my grandchildren. That being said, there is a Scrabble app for the iphone, nook, ipad and I’m sure other devices. With that app, you can play online with strangers and friends. In fact, my son is in the middle of a game with his 91 year old grandfather in Florida. In sum, Scrabble is a classic and there’s something to be said for a classic. I will leave the law-practice analogy to you.

  2. It seems to me, though, that Words With Friends is quickly coming into the mainstream consciousness. I hear it mentioned on TV in casual conversations (Alec Baldwin maintains that airlines should figure a way for flight passengers to play against one another to keep them occupied). I have a number of games going with people in Canada, US and Australia. I was a fan of Scrabble, but can’t remember the last time I got the board out (I’m guessing 8 years ago?).

    This was the road the MLS (Multiple Listing Service for real estate) was going down when they closed down one or two online mashups using their listings data to populate Google Maps. Fortunately it does look like they did manage to create something in its place with realtor.ca.

  3. The board game has been released and it’s by Hasbro. So, pretty much, Hasbro wins.