You won’t believe this, but I assure you that everything in this post is true. You will laugh, cry and question your reality. In fact, you might even experience the five stages of grief. You have been warned. It’s no surprise to anyone that EA has screwed up a timeless classic. That’s just good ol’ EA doing EA things. BUT, with the case of the official Scrabble app for Android, I think you will discover a completely new low. How do you screw up scrabble? Let me count the ways. I have broken this down into three categories: Ads, Gameplay, and WTF?.
Ads (and possibly a conspiracy)
I started playing Scrabble on my Samsung Galaxy S4 back in January 2014. At the time, there was a cycling banner ad on the home screen.
Ok, no big deal. It’s unobtrusive and unoffensive. A few months later, there was an update that added “behind the scenes improvements”. It added full page ads BETWEEN EVERY PLAY! A few months after that, the ads turned into video ads, similar to what you would see on YouTube. Imagine trying to play scrabble and every time you made a play, a high-volume ad for Clash of Clans starts playing. If that doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth, a few months later an update added banner ad during gameplay. Not only that, but the banner was at the bottom of the screen where the player’s tiles and buttons are. One mis-tap and you have opened a browser to who-knows-where.
Shortly after, an update moved the banner position to the top of the screen. The banner resides at this much better position to this day. This update marks the only time the game improved from one version to the next.
So EA is trying to make some money from their app, who cares? It happens all the time. But this brings me to a darker, more head-scratchingly strange fact. There exists a paid, ad-free version on the Google Play Store. The catch? It’s not available in North America. I find it important to note that the iPhone version is paid and ad-free no matter where you are in the world. The fact that a premium Android version exist and EA won’t put in on the North American store is strange, almost suspicious. Somewhere, someone is stopping this from happening. It’s EA, Apple, Hasbro, or some combination of the three that has allowed the Android version to turn into an ad-riddled mess, by negligence or contractual obligation. We may never know. An interesting fact, Hasbro owns the rights to Scrabble, but only in North America. Elsewhere it’s owned be Mattel. Queue the X-Files theme song.
Gameplay and Features
Sure, it’s got tons of ads, but it’s still Scrabble, right? Well......sort of. I really don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start with the dictionary feature. At any time during a game, you can look up a word in the dictionary. This is contrary to the real Scrabble rules, but I can understand why it’s allowed. Looking words up online is so easy that adding a built-in dictionary prevents players from cheating with Google. It does change the game, but both players have the dictionary at their disposal, so it is still a fair game. The strangest part about the dictionary is that it is not a dictionary. It is a boolean operation that only tells you if something is a word or not. Their are no definitions, suffixes or pronunciations. The “dictionary” is simply a word confirmation tool. Scrabble is a word game. It’s played by people who like words. I don’t think I need to explain any further.
Next up is the ELO ratings. One major benefit of digital games is that they can record stats. Scrabble keeps track of a host of different stats including highest scoring word, highest game score, wins/loses, etc... Here is my stats page:
So that’s cool. As you can see, you should all cower in fear at my Scrabble skills. Somehow EA managed to screw this up so royally, it should never have been released. You see, the only point of all these stats is to generate an ELO rating for each player. The only reason to have ELO ratings is to perform intelligent match-making. If you match people up with other players of similar rating, matches will be more fair and enjoyable. The problem? Scrabble has no match-making at all. There are only two ways to play online: With Facebook friends or against a random opponent.
Playing with friends obviously doesn’t require match-making or ELO ratings. But bizarrely, these games DO contribute to your ELO rating. This makes it incredibly easy to fudge your rating and completely prevents the Scrabble app from being a competitive platform.
Playing against a random opponent is just that, completely random. Getting an opponent of a similar skill level is pure luck. So then, how can someone possibly have a good game of Scrabble online? The answer is manual match-making. In a stroke of desperate idiocy, the developers realized that players where constantly being poorly matched, so they added the ability to leave a match without penalty. Rather than implement a proper solution, they totally f——ed up the game. Let me explain. The actual rule is this: if you haven’t played your first move yet, you can leave the game without penalty. This seemingly innocuous rule allows people to continuously restart games until they are dealt a seven letter word (henceforth called a “bingo”). Sure, not everyone is going to do this, but when your opponent starts the game off with a bingo, you can’t help but be suspicious. Over my 115 games, I have devised a set of requirements that need to be met before I commit to a game. First of all, the stats have to somewhat match. This happens approximately 15% of the time. Then, my opponent needs to have played first AND it can’t be a bingo. It’s ridiculous that steps like this need to be taken at all. Of course, it’s extremely easy to cheat in scrabble with the Internet, but you get my point. There have been a few times that I have chosen to make the first play. Those times were a mistake. I was pitted against people much worse and much better than myself and the resulting games were predictable. Here is a bit of game design theory for you: if the outcome is known before hand, it ceases to be a game.
That’s enough talk about a missing feature. Let’s talk about a feature that shouldn’t even exist. It’s called “Teacher”. With this feature enabled, after each play, you will be shown the best play you could have made. This is great for casual play and a good way to learn new scrabble words. The problem is that Teacher is available in online games as well. This can be exploited because sometimes the tiles that Teacher uses to make a 67 point play are still on your rack. Basically, Teacher says “You could have played NIQABS for 89 points”, and you say “What luck! I didn’t use those letters. I think next turn I will play NIQABS”. I think you can see where the problem lies. Also, if you pass your turn, you can always play the Teacher’s suggestion. So you could alternate passing and playing, always able to play the best move and end up with a score that doesn’t suck. It’s not a viable strategy at higher levels of play, but the fact that it is possible is really sad. It is further proof that the developers either have no clue how to design games, or someone is preventing them from making a good game. It could really be either option.
So how could all this be fixed? Simple. Add a match making system and remove Teacher from online games. Also, stop matches with friends from effecting ELO ratings. That’s just dumb.
In case you are somehow not convinced that EA has screwed up Scrabble for Android, welcome to WTF?. There are two things that I would like to cover here. Let’s start with the Store.
In an update in late 2014, a store was added to allow people to purchase aesthetic changes. Wait, this is Scrabble. WTF kind of aesthetic changes could there possibly be? Exactly two: boards and tiles. This doesn’t change the layout of the board or the distribution of the tiles, just the colors and designs. This is much akin to Valve and all those virtual hats they manage to sell. Although, in this case, the store is EMPTY! I’m not kidding. The Android Scrabble app has an online store for customizations and there is nothing to buy. Nothing! I don’t really like micro-transactions, but to forgo adding a matchmaking system only to create an empty store is like a kick in the balls. It’s been almost two years since the store opened. It’s still empty.
Well, I suppose that is misleading. Last year they added coins to the store. As I’m typing this, it occurs to me just how weird this is. I will get to the coins in a second, but I need to take a moment to pinch myself and make sure I’m not dreaming........
I’m not dreaming. You can purchase coins in the Scrabble store. They range from 50 coins for $1.39 to 3125 coins for $69.99. I know you’re dying to know what these coins do. Do you think they do something great? You’re wrong! If you play a normal game of scrabble with friends or random opponents, the coins do..........NOTHING! Literally nothing. I bought some just to make sure. By now you’re thinking, “Come on Kevin, they must to something.” Yes, that is true. They do something. Be warned, what you are about to read could cause depression and anger. When starting a new game, you are given a few options, as you can see in the previous picture. There is an option of “Speed Play”. In this mode, you can choose to play against friends or random opponents and set the length of each turn. While in speed play mode, you can choose to spend 10 coins per game to remove ads. Just take a minute to let that sink in before I explain the absurdity.
EA makes the Scrabble app. Slowly but surely they add more ads until it is barely usable. Then they add a storefront that only sells coins with which players can remove the ads, but ONLY in a game mode that nobody plays. It’s an incoherent mess of a story that perfectly reflects the state of the app.
Don’t buy the coins, people. Don’t buy the coins.
As promised, here is the second WTF? topic: Events! Every December, a banner appears on the main screen advertising a “Winter Event”. You can see this in the first screenshot, above. You have to opt-in to join the winter event. When you do, you are told that in order to gain points in this event, you have to play games of Scrabble and score more than 100 points in each game. What do the event points do? You guessed it. Nothing. I’m getting sick of that word. Ignoring that, getting 100 points in a Scrabble game is so easy almost anyone who isn’t a child can do it. Remember, these are only 1-on-1 games. My lowest score was still in the 200s. In other words, the Winter Event is a banner ad. It means nothing and has no effect on anything. Why does it exists? Who knows.
UPDATE: This year’s winter event has started and it seems like more effort has been put into it this time around. You now have to opt-out, as everyone is automatically entered. The board design has changed to a snow theme and there are multiple goals to complete. Start 10 games. Win 5 games. Score a total on 1000 points. Once you do those three things, the next tier of goals unlocks. By finishing every goal you win a prize. A new board design! Considering the low amount of effort put into this, I’m fairly sure that the prize design is just this snow themed one we’re playing on right now. I’m going to try completing these goal to see what the next ones are. I am secretly hoping that one goal will be to purchase coins. That would not surprise me.
So that’s it in full. That’s Scrabble for Android. It was at it’s best when I first downloaded it, and it got worse every few months. I should note that the latest update was yesterday, suggesting someone is still actively developing it. It’s a curious and sad case of a classic game being ruined by people in suits. The craziest part is that I will still play it. When a typical game lasts for days, spending 5 minutes to find a suitable match isn’t such a big deal. I truly love the game. With the power and connectedness of smart phones, an app version of Scrabble should have been the definitive version. As it stands, the physical version gets that trophy.