Fabulous Scrabulous

I think I might be addicted to the facebook application Scrabulous. I’ve only been playing since February this year, but have become completely hooked. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the one thing that makes facebook worth bothering with.

Like many others, my first thought on seeing Scrabulous was “how are they getting away with it?” It’s so obviously based on the SCRABBLE board game, but with no apparent connection to Spears / Mattel / Hasbro (the owners of SCRABBLE in various markets), that I was surprised they hadn’t put a stop to it. Then I found out that they had already tried to.

Recently, Mattel has launched an official SCRABBLE facebook application. Feeling that I ought to respect the IPR of the game’s owners I installed the app and challenged one of my regular Scrabulous opponents to a game. I am singularly unimpressed.

It starts by asking you if you live in north America or the rest of the world. Fair enough, as different companies own the rights in the two areas. But it doesn’t remember this info – it asks every time. The game board is really slow to load, and is an ugly shade of turquoise. They’ve gone to some trouble to make it look like a travel scrabble board, with a 3D-look grid to stop the letters sliding off. I’ve got news for Mattel – electronic letters stay put. They’ve even gone to the trouble of replicating the little triangles around the double / triple letter / word squares that allow you to calculate your score without lifting the tiles. Hardly necessary when there’s a computer to score for you.

Then I played my first word. Aaaaargh! It’s got bloody annoying sound effects. Click, click, click as each letter goes down, whoosh as you take them back, sneeze as you sort or shuffle your letters and a ghastly muzac style chord as you play your word. How do I turn that off? A frantic search for user preferences, settings or whatever found nothing.

A bit later into the game I noticed that after playing a word it puts a sparkly star effect on the new letters. That must have taken ages to get right, and is completely and utterly pointless.

Last but not least it’s a bloated memory and CPU hog. It’s continually transferring data, even when neither player in the game is doing anything. It boosts Firefox’s memory usage by about 65MByte, compared to Scrabulous’s 5MByte. It consumes all available CPU time on my aging office PC, compared to Scrabulous’s 44% or so.

To be fair, the SCRABBLE application is still a beta release, and some of these points may yet be sorted out. Other people say they like the appearance of the board, and I’m more than happy to concede that my ideas of aesthetic design are not representative of popular taste. But for plain simple playability, which is what matters, Scrabulous is way ahead at the moment. I can’t help wondering why Mattel didn’t just get on a flight to India and make Scrabulous’s developers an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Of course, Scrabulous is not without its own problems. For example, the stats calculator thinks I’m playing one more game than I actually am. Their online support is as useless as support lines often are: I asked if, when looking at an archived game, there was any way to print it, and got a reply telling me how to look at an archive game, which my question made clear I already knew how to do. It’s also a victim of its own success, with games slow to load at peak times.

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