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A View from Stephen Cass

How Zynga Re-Engineered Scrabble

The social gaming company has added “explosive moments” to make its version of the venerable board more unpredictable, and exciting.

  • January 20, 2012

Some of the best innovations occur when people take something generally considered to be creatively exhausted, and then re-invent it. 

CC License / Peter Allen.

A good example is Zynga’s casual mobile game, Words With Friends, which is similar to Scrabble. You might think that after 60 years under the focused attention of some highly competitive players, the rules and design of Scrabble were pretty much locked down, but as Mark Anderson describes in an article in IEEE Spectrum, that’s not the case.

Zynga applied some heavy duty analysis to Scrabble, then tweaked arrangement of bonus squares on the board, and adjusted the values of some of letter tiles: the result is a game where players are much more likely to be able to lay down high-scoring words, making the run of play more unpredictable. 

Beyond what Anderson describes however, Zynga has also recently managed to add in-app purchases to Words With Friends. In-app purchases have become a critical part of the business model for many games companies. Zynga’s genius here is in offering a range of purchasable services that are useful, without being so advantageous that players could be accused of buying victories. For example, players can find out if all the tiles belonging to a particular letter have been played already, something expert players already do by simply relying on their memory of the distribution of letters among the tiles, and counting what’s on the board. 

Personally, I wonder what other classic games might benefit from a judicious bit of re-imagining – Snakes and Ladders? Sorry!

If you’ve have any suggestions for how these, or other games, could be adjusted, let us know in the comments below.

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