06 March 2011

Words with Friends vs Wordfeud for Android

I don't know how I first heard about Words with Friends. I knew it existed back in December 2010, and was looking forward to trying it out. When I discovered that my best friend of 30 years' standing played it on her iPhone, I was even more keen for it to be released on Android. It arrived in the market on 15 February 2011.

Then I found mention of Wordfeud in the comments about hemorrdroids' video review of WwF, and I've now been playing games in both for a week or so. Wordfeud has been around since before September 2010 (I haven't been able to dig back further than that).

Thank you to all of the various opponents I've been playing against - you know who you are - for providing (often terrifyingly high-scoring) opposition.

Here are my thoughts, observations, likes, dislikes, wishlist and finally a conclusion about the two games head-to-head.

NB: All graphics are taken from the Android Market and/or the developer's website.

What's in a name?

If you've played the board game Scrabble (a copyrighted name, of course), you'll know what the basic premise of these games is all about. Of course, wisely, neither of the developers mention the original by name, and searching for Scrabble in Appbrain or the Market won't find either of them. But almost everybody knows what Scrabble is, and how to play it.

As to the Android apps, "Words with Friends" conjures up pictures of nice cosy, friendly games with ... well, friends.

"Wordfeud" conjures up a much more adversarial picture.

Does it matter? Who knows? I'm just sayin'.

Maybe it's because of the more widespread use of WwF on the iPhone, but I'd heard of that well before its release for Android. In contrast, I hadn't heard of Wordfeud until I found it mentioned as an alternative to WwF. To be fair, I hadn't gone looking for alternatives, so I don't know whether I would have found it if I had. Maybe it's just marketing; maybe it's the "iPhone effect" - who knows?

A comparison

Both games have many similarities. You invite somebody to play against you, and you get a square board, consisting of mostly blank spaces, plus a starting point star in the middle (which doesn't count as a Double Word score, unlike the board game), and a selection of other squares denoting Double Letter, Double Word, Triple Letter and Triple Word scores. If you've played the original board game, you'll see differences in the layout, but the fundamental principles are much the same.

Both apps allow you to search for a user name, but if there's a match, both just send an invitation to that player. Neither return a list of matches for you to choose from.

Each player is given 7 random letters from the pool. You can rearrange the letters on the "rack" at the bottom of the screen by dragging them around, or you can get the app to randomly rearrange them for you (which can sometimes throw up some helpful combinations that give you ideas for your next go). To play, drag the letters to the board. Once you play your letters, your "rack" is topped up with letters from the pool, until there are no more letters left in it. All pretty straightforward and intuitive.

The app has a dictionary of words and will decide whether anything you play is legal or not, so there is no concept of challenging your opponent's dubious word if the app has allowed it. There is no penalty for words that are not allowed. This does, of course, mean that if you're stuck, you can just try out words that you're not sure about by playing them and seeing if they get accepted or rejected

A scoreboard shows your score, your opponent's score, and the number of unused tiles available to draw from. Once there are no more letters left, what you can't see (which you would in the original board game) is how many letters your opponent has on his/her rack.

In both apps you can have a number of games running at once, against different opponents, or multiple games against the same opponent. You can play at your own pace, over a number of days or weeks, although if you don't play within 72 hours of your opponent in Wf, you forfeit the game. I don't know whether there is any time limit in WwF. (Definitive information about Words with Friends seems difficult to find.)

Each app has a list of games, divided into sections for your go, your opponent's go, and completed games. The latter can be removed.

On the game board, your turn can be to play your word, pass, or swap 1 or more of your letters.

Both apps have in-game chat with your opponent.

I've been playing both on my Nexus One, running Android 2.2.1.

Words with Friends Wordfeud
Developer's web page Zynga
Help desk (NB: You have to go to the Facebook page to find a link; the official web page doesn't link to it)
hbwares (complete with contact / support information)
Twitter WordsWFriends, ZyngawFriends (active, including #wordoftheday) WordFeud (low volume)
Facebook Words with Friends WordFeud
Blog Haven't been able to find one wordfeud.com/blog
includes changelogs for updates
Version tested 3.17 and 3.20 1.2.1
Size 4.7MB;
No option to move to SD card
1.61MB for the free version, + 472KB for the paid unlock;
Both can be moved to SD card
Aesthetics Cartoonish gold tiles with black letters on an off white board

Crisp white tiles with black letters on a charcoal board

UI Clearly ported from iPhone. Doesn't use Menu button at all Settings and other less frequently used features accessed via Menu button
Number of concurrent games 20, including multiple games against the same opponent 30, including multiple games against the same opponent
Opponents
  • Contact List*
  • User Name
  • Random Opponent
  • Pass and Play (you can play on a single device by passing it between you)
*including inviting non-registered users by every email for them in your contact entry via the Share interface - which lists every application to send your email from)
  • Invite a Friend (choose from Friends* / Contacts** / Recent opponents)
  • Invite by email or username ***
  • Play with random opponent
* Friends are opponents that you have defined as friends within the game
** including sending email to a non-registered opponent using the Share interface - only email / Bluetooth apps are offered
*** this doesn't offer the option to invite a non-registered opponent. Given the options in Invite a friend, this entire option seems unnecessary

To my mind, this could be simplified by removing the first two menu items and replacing them with the Friends / Contacts / Recent options from the invite a friend submenu.
Game list Longest wait at top
Opponent denoted by a tile showing the first letter of their user name
Longest wait at bottom
Opponent denoted by a user-configurable avatar
Game list options New game, Settings, News, Account settings - all by tapping on icons/hot spots

Long press on individual completed games:
select delete
New game (+ icon)

Via Menu button:
New game, Remove (all) finished games, Settings, Help

Long press on individual games:
Open chat, Add opponent to friend list

Additional long press options for completed games:
Rematch, Remove game
Board Normal Normal or Random.
The random board has the bonus squares placed randomly on the board, so they tend to get bunched together, and you can score Triple-Triple words if you get lucky. It tends to make games more a matter of luck than the standard board does.
UI - board Double tap to zoom in/out
Auto-zoom after first letter when playing

Buttons on game board
Before playing a letter / with a letter on the board
Pass / Play
greyed out / Recall (retrieve all your letters from the board)
Swap / greyed out
Resign

Shake to randomly rearrange letters on the rack. (IMHO, this is gimmicky, and movement sensitivity is inconsistent. Rearranging the letters by shaking the screen means that I can't continue to look at the board as I wait for inspiration from the rearranged letters.)
Double tap to zoom in/out
No auto-zoom, but it seems easier to place letters accurately on zoomed out board in Wf than it is in WwF.

Buttons on the game board
Before playing a letter / with a letter on the board
  • Pass / Play
  • Shuffle / Clear (to retrieve all your letters from the board)
  • Swap / greyed out
From the Menu button
  • Resign
  • Chat
  • Add Friend (save opponent as a "favourite")
  • Settings
  • Help
UI - returning to a game Board is always zoomed out when returning to a game from the game list. The order of the letters on your rack is lost (so if you'd rearranged them into a word ready to use on your next go, you've lost it). Personally, I consider this a bug, not a feature! Zoom level remembered. The order of the letters on your rack is remembered.

You can plan your next move by putting the letters down on the board, and when you switch back, your unplayed word flashes a few times, and then is displayed slightly greyed. If your opponent plays in that space, your letters are automatically returned to your rack. A nice idea, especially if you have many games on the go, and/or are playing against somebody who only plays a word every day or two.
Notifications Via periodic polling. I've reduced this to once per hour in an effort to get my battery to last for the day. However, I frequenly return to the game to find my opponents played hours ago and I haven't had a notification - presumably because WwF had been swapped out of memory by the time they played. Push notifications. Sound/vibrate configurable
In-game Chat Via a chat icon at the top of the screen;
long chats always displayed from the top, so you have to scroll down to see the latest message;
Notifications only via a speech bubble in the game list
Via a menu button;
long chats displayed at the most recent message, so no scrolling required unless you want to look back through older parts of the conversation;
Notifications as for "your turn"; speech bubble in the game list or a popup prompting you to press the menu button if you're looking at the board when a message arrives
Settings Account settings
  • User name
  • Mobile # (but no clue as to what this is used for or whether it's public)
  • Email
Password

Misc
  • Sounds (On/Off)
  • Background notifications (5 / 15 / 30m / 1 / 6 / 12h / Never)
Account
  • User name
  • Email address
  • Password
  • Profile picture
Notifications
  • Enable (On/Off)
  • Vibrate (On/Off)
  • Notification light (On/Off)
Miscellaneous
  • Buy to remove ads
Languages Who knows? US English, I guess Danish
Dutch
English International (SOWPODS)
English US (TWL)
Norwegian
Swedish
Stability Very poor. You pretty much have to get used to seeing frequent Force Close screens on a regular basis, letters hanging in mid-air as you try to move them, etc. Good. I've had very occasional issues with connecting to the server - presumably in busy periods - but no crashes.
Ads Standard banner ads across the bottom of the gameboard screen, plus S-L-O-W pop-up ads after every turn. These can take some time to both appear and dismiss, and sometimes you even have to hit a continue button before the ad even appears.

No paid version available, but this is coming soon, according to Zynga
Pop-up ads after your turn in the free version. Can be quickly dismissed.

Paid version costs $2.91 (approx £1.85 at current exchange rate)
Help None that I can find, either in the game or on the developer's website On-board help - a web page giving the basics of game play, rules, scoring, and letter distribution and scores
Platforms iPhone
Android
Can play against users on either platform
Android
iPhone version coming very "soon"
Will be able to play against users on either platform

Unfortunately, WwF is as buggy as ****. I've genuinely lost count of the number of crash reports I've diligently sent off. Of course, for all I know, I'm sending them into a black hole. It's variable - I had a couple of days recently when I got very few crashes, and then suddenly it got worse than ever. (I don't know why, as the timing is not related to updates.) It's not unusual for every 3rd or 4th action (open the app, place a tile, etc.) to bring up the dreaded Force Close box.

And don't get me started about the ads. I'm no gamer, so maybe this is normal for ad-supported games (as opposed to ad-supported apps, which generally have a banner ad at the bottom of the screen and leave it at that), but WwF has the most annoying, intrusive ads I've ever seen on any app on any platform.

Word with Friends is a real battery killer, even when you're not actively playing. I assume that this is as a result of Zynga's decision not to use push notifications so that the game can be installed on Android 1.6. Devices running anything less than Android 2.0 make up an increasingly small percentage of the total Android installed base, so this decision seems an odd one to make. If the app had been release a year or even 6 months ago, it would have made more sense. Not any more. And btw, WordFeud (which uses push notifications) is available for Android 1.5 onwards.

Updates and Transparency

Word With Friends - What's New (from the Android Market)
Here is the What's New section in the Android Market for the WwF update from 3.17 to 3.2 (the third version of WwF to be released within three weeks)
  1. This update adds a lot of good stuff under the hood for a smoother game experience. As always, we appreciate your feedback and are working continually to improve and enhance Words With Friends Android.
  2. PLEASE NOTE: it highly recommended to uninstall before upgrading to get the most out of this update.
  3. Coming soon: Ad free version and a special Honeycomb build for all you tablet lovers!
My notes and observations on the above:
  1. a. The official website for Words With Friends is a single page and offers no support link, no "official" way to contact the developer to report bugs or suggest improvements, so how are users supposed to give you feedback? (I found the Helpdesk via the Facebook page only.) I know all apps in the Market have an option to email the developer, but why no contact us / support page link from the game's official web page?
    b. There is no acknowledgement of bugs, nor any suggestion that any have been fixed. Apps have bugs. It's a fact of life. I don't have a problem with that (within reason). I DO have an issue with developers who don't feel they can admit that bugs exist, or who don't make it easy for people to contact support. Transparency is important guys.
  2. Why should you uninstall "to get the most out of this update"? There is no information about the consequences (e.g. what happens to existing games when you do?) It may not be appropriate to expand on this in the brief information in the market place, but a link to a changelog page on the website with more detail about why it's important would be helpful. As it happens, there don't appear to be any consequences, but some reassurance would have been nice.
    Unfortunately, since the update I'm seeing new bugs I never saw before (more hangs, failure to refresh the screen until I've left and re-selected the game board). I continue to report most of my crashes and hangs through the standard Force Close screen, but it's getting tedious.
  3. A tablet version. Perhaps it might be wise to work on eradicating bugs in the phone version first?
Frequent updates are not an issue. In fact, if bugs are found and fixed promptly, it's a positively good thing. It's the lack of admission to the high number of serious bugs, and the relative difficulty in contacting support to report them that I object to.

WordFeud - What's New (from the Android Market)
In contrast, here is the What's New section in the Android Market for the most recent update to Wordfeud:
- Fixed a few minor graphical glitches.
- Fixed a bug where old profile pictures were being cached for too long.
- If a game you've chosen to hide receives a chat message, it will now reappear so that you can read and respond to the message.
- Fixed several "force close" issues.
Clear, honest admission of bugs and the fixes.
Changelogs for all recent versions are available on the Developer's blog.

In Summary

To my mind, WwF for Android was released before it was ready. It's way too buggy and unstable, and doesn't conform to Android user interface conventions. Of course, this lack of conformity is partly down to lack of any enforcement in the market for an open platform.

In fairness, from what I've heard, the iPhone version doesn't suffer from these issues - probably because it would never have got AppStore approval if it did! A paid ad-free version is already available for iOS.
In favour of Words with Friends
  • I like having the games that have been waiting longest for me to go at the top of my games list, rather than at the bottom
  • It's easier to see at a glance whether any of my games are waiting for me (or whether I'm waiting for all of my opponents) because the My Turn section / header is always list shown on the game list, with a note that I'm waiting for a turn (this may be just a side-effect of the fact that the user settings are accessed from an icon at the bottom of this section, but I like it anyway). In Wf, the header is not shown for any section that contains no games.
  • Good marketing, including regular Wordoftheday in Twitter; possibly because of the iOS user base, lots of people have heard of Words With Friends
  • Pass and Play option to play a game by handing your device to your opponent
  • Inviting others to play is intuitive
In favour of Wordfeud
  • Stable
  • Follows Android UI conventions
  • Random letter shuffle on a button (not motion sensor)
  • Cleaner, better looking board and UI skin (IMHO)
  • Rematch option - replay the same opponent with the same options. A nice touch
  • Ads in the free version (even though using the same pop-up ad system as WwF) are less intrusive and faster to dismiss, and there are no additional banner ads on the main screens
  • Paid version available to get rid of the adverts altogether
  • Basic help available, including scoring and letter distribution info
I hope that the iPhone version of Wordfeud is just as good. I can't wait to introduce my iPhone WwF-playing friends to it!
Wishlist
Both apps could do with a more user-friendly way of finding and choosing opponents by user name, i.e. search for a user name and return a list of matches or near matches, with some clues to help the user choose the right one, rather than only finding and inviting an exact match with no confirmation. In my case, somebody else had already chosen user name juwlz in WwF, so everybody who knows me by my Twitter handle and expected to play against me by choosing that user name was connecting with the wrong person.

For curiosity, I'd like to see some statistics added, both for a particular game when it ends (e.g. highest scoring word for each player, average word score, average number of letters per word, total number of words played by each player, etc.), and historically (different sets for Normal / Random boards where random boards are supported), e.g. best 5 or 10 words ever played - what they scored, and who you were playing against, and the date, overall average word score, change in average word score over time, etc. It should be possible to reset the start date and/or a rolling date range for historical stats, e.g. to throw away information for all games before a certain date in the past, or to calculate all stats on the most recent games on a rolling basis (with configurable length of time or number of recent games to be included).
Wordfeud
  • The new game invitation menu is confusing, and could be made much more intuitive as suggested in the relevant section in the comparison box above.
  • An option to auto-zoom on play in Wordfeud would be nice, but I can live without it ;-).
  • I would appreciate an option to always see Your turn / Opponent's Turn headers in the game list, even if no games qualify, and also to sort the games in the reverse order, i.e. with games that have been waiting the longest at the top.
Words with Friends
  • Stability and bug fixes. IMHO, WwF for Android is barely ready for Beta testing in its current form.
  • Different skins
  • A shuffle button instead of using the gimmicky shake
  • Android-style UI using Menu button, etc.
  • Larger, non-italic font for the number of tiles remaining
  • Option to mark / delete multiple completed games at once
  • Restrict apps in the "Share" list to those that can communicate with others when inviting a contact
  • Paid version to get rid of the ads
  • More information about the app on the official website, including ways to get support
Conclusion
You've probably worked this out by now, but to my mind, Wordfeud for Android beats Words with Friends for Android hands down - and all that in an application with approximately one third of the footprint of WwF.

My only niggles with it are the confusing options in invitations to new games, which could very easily be made more intuitive by reorganising how the options are presented, and a couple of other minor UI preferences (with are a very personal opinion). Those aside, playing Wordfeud is an altogether more polished and enjoyable experience.

I'm only sticking with Words with Friends for now because I have iPhone-owning friends that I want to play against. The ads in WwF are absolutely horrible, and to my mind it's unforgivable to release an app with such intrusive ads without offering a paid version to allow users to get rid of them. Having said that, WwF is currently so buggy that I doubt I'd buy it anyway.

Update 6 April 2011
WordFeud for iOS was approved for the App Store on Monday 4th April.  
Zynga have been continually updating Words with Friends, and as of version 3.28, once I'd had some initial teething problems with lock-ups etc., it has settled down to being much more stable than the initial versions.  Their "Recently changed in this version" information has also been changed for recent updates to note that they have fixed bugs.
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