How Words With Friends Beat Scrabble At Its Own Game

The creators of the social Scrabble-like smartphone and tablet game offer insight into their reinvention of board game night.

In July, Megan Lawless married Jasper Jasperse, whom she met as a random opponent while playing the Scrabble-like game Words With Friends on her smartphone in 2009. At that time, Lawless, now 32, lived in Chicago while Jasperse, now 31, hailed from Amsterdam.

The couple gradually got to know each other through the game's chat feature, Lawless tells Fast Company.

Like many Words With Friends players, Lawless has never considered herself a gamer, but she said she loves the word game because "it is about interacting with people .... Like most people, I have friends and family all over the world, and this game allows me to play and chat with those I rarely get a chance to talk to, but I know they are going to play their turn. And it's fun."

Words With Friends has 14.9 million monthly active users and 6.7 million daily users, both on smartphones and on Facebook, according to AppData. The game makes money through ads, an ad-free paid version, and recently through in-game purchase options. And the mainstream popularity of the title helped build buzz for Zynga's $1 billion IPO.

Words With Friends was released in July 2009 by Newtoy, a small studio run by two brothers, Paul and David Bettner, in McKinney, Texas. Newtoy was acquired by Zynga in late 2010 and rebranded as the division Zynga With Friends. The Bettners released Chess With Friends in 2008, Hanging With Friends in 2011, and Scramble With Friends in 2012.

Paul Bettner, now vice president and general manager of Zynga With Friends, tells Fast Company he and his brother had tried to redesign the classic board game from a blank slate, by reworking the distribution of letters and point values. They introduced some randomness by configuring for bigger point combos, he says, which they thought would make the game appeal more to casual players. But they also spent a lot of time working on the feel, on making sure users felt like they were "reaching through the glass into this little world just below." (It's what makes competitors feel clunky by comparison.) "The goal was something lightweight and casual, something anyone can pick up immediately, without an instruction manual. Users have to start having fun in the first two seconds," Bettner says.

And Words With Friends' secret sauce, to which newlyweds Lawless and Jasperse might attest, is the social element that was baked into the game from early on. The Bettners were inspired by the tradition of playing chess through the mail, and they wanted to replicate the feel of sitting around the table with friends playing a board game, Bettner says.

"I think the most fundamental part of our success is the social connection, which sometimes I call obligation or guilt--the connection that forms in the game when people commit to each other to play," Bettner says.

Facebook, he adds, "helps our audience find their friends in the game." He says the best thing about the ability to play the game within Facebook itself is that Words With Friends "follows you around, whether you are on a computer, or on the go on your cell phone."

Words With Friends wasn't the first Scrabble-like game on the Internet. In 2005, two other brothers, Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla of Calcutta, India, launched Scrabulous online. In 2007, they launched a Facebook app of that game, which quickly went viral.

In 2008, the owners of Scrabble sued the Agarwallas for copyright infringement, and Scrabulous was shut down. Not long after that the Agarwallas rereleased the game under the name Lexulous. But the damage had been done, according to Scott Steinberg, a mobile games analyst and head of strategic consulting firm TechSavvy. "The lawsuits derailed them at a crucial growth phase," Steinberg says.

"Words With Friends came at the right moment for mobile games," Steinberg adds. "It spans different ages and backgrounds, and with the asynchronous play, people might spend quite a bit of time with it, spread out in chunks through the day."

The owners of Scrabble (Hasbro in the U.S. and Canada, Mattel elsewhere) have mobile games that compete with Words With Friends, but they haven't been as popular. "Some of those titles are polished efforts, but they have failed to recognize that you need to provide accessibility and convenience," Steinberg says, adding that Zynga's line has always kept the focus on "friends," with simple menus and no option to play a computer, which complicates things.

Hasbro did not return requests for comment on this story. Jayant Agarwalla of Lexulous told Fast Company via email, "When we first saw Words With Friends, we realized they had done an amazing job.

"They did three very important things (that we are trying to do now in our relaunch): They removed unnecessary and less-used features, such as picking opponents, setting up challenge mode games, selecting a dictionary, etc. Next, they had a smooth, top-notch interface that made it a breeze starting games and ensuring the learning curve was small. Finally, they had all the tools required for a viral effect, i.e., multiple sharing options, ability to start games with people on the contact list, etc. All combined, it was a winning formula."

The Agarwallas expect to release a streamlined version of Lexulous in the next few weeks. It remains to be seen if the changes will be enough to eat at Words With Friend's marketshare. For now, Zynga's title seems to have the right combination of nostalgia for the game you played with your grandma and an interface that makes it well suited to the smartphone environment.

For her part, Megan Lawless said she has so many friends playing Words With Friends these days that she doesn't have time to play random opponents, although her husband still does. "As long as he doesn't propose marriage I'm fine with it," she laughed.

[Image: Flickr user mrsdkrebs]

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14 Comments

  • acalvaresi

    One thing I like of the game if how you also get to learn new words as you play. It'd be nice to have a dictionary more at hand, to see to meaning of some words. But it's not such an effort to look them online anyways.

    I often find myself just trying letters until it clicks and I form a word, even if I don't know what it means. Lately I've also started using a word search site at https://wordswithfriends.us/ and it saves me a lot of time as it gives me all the words I can play for a given turn. Might be a bit of cheating but better that just trying words at random. :)

  • David Ettridge

    I am developing my new app and I am curious to know where to get sales figures of other apps. like Words with Freinds for example. Is there a site you can direct me to please? David Australia

  • It's fun playing words with friends and chatting with others. Lately I've been challenging friends and family I don't see too often, so it's a chance to talk and play wordswithfriendswin.com

  • x1134x

    ANAGRAMMER sucks compared to the "blog my brain words with friends cheat".  It gives you the absolute best word you can use on the actual board you're playing.  Although sometimes you shouldn't take its advice if it gives you a big-point word that enables your opponent access to a triple letter or triple word square.  Cuz if THEY use words with friends cheat, you'll be bumming.  You have to play defensively to win at WWF.

  • Cheat Scrabble

    Alec Baldwin is also addicted with the game just like me i love playing the game its pretty cool and fun..i used to play it on my Android phone..i'm glad that its already available..just like them i also use the ANAGRAMMER  for the best results..

  • word queen


    In every article that I have read its always about Alec's issue or WWF Romance..I have a lot of time of this game..I spend most of the time playing with words with friends..I am glad that I did download it on my IPHONE 4..I also use the ANAGRAMMER to give me more hints..

  • Word Gamer

    I have a lot of time of this game..I spend most of the time playing with words with friends..I am glad that I did download it on my IPHONE 4..I also use the ANAGRAMMER to give me more hints..

  • Words Cheat


    I have tried playing with this game and its really cool and interesting..Me and my co workers love to play this game when our boss is not around..We use ANAGRAMMER to give us a clue in times we are having a hard time..

  • Word Friends

    I just got the words with friends on my iphone..I really downloaded it because I love this game..I get glued on it,I spent many hours on my phone because of this game..I use the ANAGRAMMER too just to give me some hints..

  • Anagrammer

    Excellent article Brian.

    One thing that your research didn't address was the fact that there is still a void in the Words With Friends / Scrabble mobile games market; this void is not fully filled by neither Zynga nor Jayant Agarwalla. I'm talking about the live games.  In real world, the game is played back to back, in a timed environment (like chess).  Currently, it can take days for your opponents on WWF to play their turn. (which of course gives them enough time go lookup the dictionary, or better yet, use a powerful cheat engine such as the one made by Anagrammer.com (google it).  If Jayant, adds this feature into the next version of Lexulous for iphone, I can see how they can bite into a larger slice of the market currently dominated by Zynga.

  • Hiram

    None of the reasons you give are accurate.  Let me tell you what really happened.  We don't care about chat, or easier interface, or ability to share.  That is not why we all use words with friends over scrabble.

    The real reason is because Scrabble missed the boat.

    In the beginning (so to speak) If we wanted to play with people we knew, we had no choice but to use words with friends.  Why?  

    Because Scrabble took ages and ages to release an Android version of their games.  If I am not mistaken, the social version has only been out less than a year.  Prior to that, you had to go to Handango (outside of the marketplace) and download a cheesy / expensive version of the game, that had no social elements.

    With Android being by far the most popular mobile platform, those with iPhones or iPads could either choose to only play other iOS owners, force their opponents to use the facebook app (which you can't do on the bus, etc), or give in to their Android buddy's requests and download words with friends.

    "Dude, I want to play you, but I can't.  I am on Android.  Why don't you download words with friends, and we will play there."

    Then, when Scrabble finally did come out on Android, it was horrible.  Not because of interface, but because of the invasive adds that kept getting in your way.  Zynga's ads don't ruin your game experience like the Scrabble ads do.

    Add to all of this the fact that Scrabble was a $4.99 app, while words with friends was free.  Meaning that I can play against my kids (who do not have $4.99 to spend on an app) and you finally get to the real meat of the matter.

    Had Hasbro released their scrabble app on both platforms.  Or for heavens sake, if you are going to restrict yourself to just one platform, don't exclude the most popular.  Secondly, had they given it away for free.  Words With Friends would have never taken off.

    It was Hasbro's fight to lose, and the lost it.

    At this point, we are all so entrenched, that we have no reason to switch.  I have too many current games, and when I finish one, it is too easy to start the next.  Scrabble missed the boat.