Building a viral scrabble game on top of twitter
The year was 2010. Words With Friends was huge on iOS and Facebook. We set out to try and build a version that was built on top of Twitter. It didn't work but here's what happened.
The first version of this wasn't a Scrabble clone at all. It started out as a super simple version of tic-tac-toe.
We tried to make this as simple as possible. No registration was required. When a user went to the website
xoxo.co they were automatically forwarded to a unique URL
xoxo.co/3jklj that they could share to start a game.
A game was automatically started if someone clicked on the
xoxo.co/3jklj link and a very short game of tic-tac-toe ensued.
Once the game was finished the new player would be prompted to start their own game, generate their own custom URL, and share that to start a new game with a new opponent.
It kind of worked but it was a pretty jarring experience for the players. Often multiple people would click on the shared link. That wasn't handled in a very elegant way. Also, because there were no accounts, no usernames, no chat, it didn't feel like you were playing a real person.
Tic-tac-toe is also a very boring game!
Trying again with Scrabble
Scrabble seemed like it had a much better chance of working. Games lasted much longer than a few seconds and because of how long it sometimes takes to play a move you could have multiple games going on at once.
The sharing flow was similar, only this time we required people to sign in with their Twitter profile. A big point of friction for some, but we decided it was worth it. We got access to a user's name, avatar, and social graph that we could use to prompt people to start new games with people they were following.
After signing in, a unique URL was generated again. After clicking on that URL, challengers would be dropped in a game with the user who shared the original link. They would also be given their own unique URL to share with their own friends to start more games.
This was "viral" because in theory it would spread like a virus. One user signs up, shares a URL on Twitter to start some games with their followers, then all of those followers who sign up and are prompted to do the same, and so on and so forth.
Why this didn't work
It ALMOST worked. I don't have any hard numbers, although I remember that at least a handful of users were excited to get to play Scrabble against their Twitter followers.
The biggest issue is that users needed to keep coming back to the website to take their turns and more often than not players would abandon games halfway through, leaving their opponent sitting around waiting forever. People were already in the habit of visiting Facebook or looking at push notifications on their phones, so it was much easier to create a "sticky" game that people would play for long periods of time on those platforms.
I still think this project was pretty cool and had some potential. In hindsight I think the most interesting part of this project was the sharing mechanism of the tic-tac-toe game that didn't require registration. That worked really well even though the game wasn't interesting.
If something like that was used for something a bit more interesting I think it could work really well!