Netflix has disrupted a lot since 1997: Blockbuster’s dominance with its mail order DVD rental service, cable with its pioneering online video streaming, the studio system by creating independent, award-winning content. Many of these innovations have also spawned massive problems—the 2007 WGA strike 2007 WGA strike concerned the rise and risks of “New Media,” while the current WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike, in part, contends with streaming’s systemic failures—but that hasn’t stopped the entertechment company from searching for new ways to line their executive’s pockets with money. Following in the footsteps of Google and Amazon before them, Netflix is currently attempting to chase the elusive white whale of potential wealth: the videogame industry. Their surprise purchase of Oxenfree developer Night School Studio and launch of the mobile-only catalog Netflix Games made for a splashy entrance. But two years later, the excitement has faded into utter indifference.
For those unaware, Netflix Games does not include the bizarre Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, The Boss Baby: Get that Baby, or Bear Grylls’ You vs. Wild. These “games” are glorified episodes of Dora the Explorer: click an option on the screen and it loads one of a few dozen predetermined scenes. Instead, Netflix Games is an Apple Arcade clone, which allow subscribers to download and play legitimate games from its surprisingly deep library; the bland drivel that plagued the service at launch is slowly being outnumbered by acclaimed multi-platform indies—Immortality, Before Your Eyes, Into the Breach, even Spiritfarer. Everything culminated in the recent launch of Night School’s anticipated Oxenfree II: Lost Signals. Despite the games’ generally positive reception, no one is talking about Netflix Games as the future of the industry. No one is talking about them at all, actually, which is something that no amount of easily accessible, quality content can fix.
Although Netflix reportedly has 232 million subscribers, less than 1% of them have downloaded any apps under the Netflix Games label. This hasn’t stopped the company from purchasing three more studios, nor from establishing its own internal studios in Finland and California (the latter being run by Halo and Destiny veteran Joseph Staten). Still, taking the 1% figure at face value and assuming every user downloads every available game, that’s two million people playing something they might never have touched before. This ease of availability has worked wonders for Xbox Game Pass, often referred to as the “Netflix of Games,” but Game Pass subscribers are dedicated gamers—they’ve sunk hundreds of dollars into a system dedicated to playing games. Alternatively, Netflix subscribers spend $10-20 a month on a service to watch TV and movies, which just happens to also let them play games on their phones. Catering to a casual audience isn’t just a necessity for Netflix, it’s what they’re counting on. In an interview with The Ringer, Netflix VP of External Games Leanne Loombe brainstorms ideas for games based on shows like Bridgerton and Emily in Paris—breakout hits that would go beyond the realm of traditional gamers and into the mainstream proper.
Their current efforts are woefully misguided at best and dangerously oblivious at worst. During Epic’s trial against Apple, it was revealed that Fortnite (AKA the most popular game on the planet) made over $9 billion in its first two years on the market, which is three times more than the highest grossing movie (Avatar) made despite multiple theatrical releases. In fact, casual games and mobile gaming—the main demographics Netflix Games is supposedly aiming for—dominate the US market. While not every game is wildly successful and universally beloved, believing that videogames as a whole are not “mainstream” is shockingly outdated thinking from executives who previously worked for major games companies (EA, Scopely, and Riot Games).
Trickling down from confused leadership, Netflix Games seems not to understand what it wants to be. Although offering acclaimed indie games for free is a smart ploy to garner a more hardcore audience, these are players who want high fidelity graphics, smooth frame rates, and customizable controls. No matter how powerful the new iPhone or Galaxy might be, they will never stack up to consoles or PCs. There’s not even the novelty of accessing great games on the go thanks to the overwhelming success of the Nintendo Switch and Steam Deck. The only feather in Netflix’s cap is currently the convenience of the subscription model, which relies on subscribers to be aware that the platform exists in the first place. The lack of marketing and messaging means that it’s probable that the 99% of players who haven’t downloaded a game are unaware that they can. A future remedy might be cloud gaming—although Google Stadia’s utter failure and the lack of meaningful infrastructure makes it an unappealing and messy option to solely rely on. As the pioneers of online video streaming, it is possible that Netflix might be able to confront Microsoft’s theoretical cloud monopoly, but it’s doubtful.
Honestly, everything mentioned up to this point is fixable with time: cloud gaming could bring Netflix Games to more traditional platforms, first-party studios can create buzz with quality content, and the marketing team could actually start doing their job. What can’t be amended, however, is how Netflix views their games. In The Ringer article, the phrase “transmedia storytelling” is brought up again and again, a buzzword that makes businessmen orgasm on command. Reaching all the way back to 2003, transmedia storytelling simply means setting up a narrative across multiple platforms, ie. film, TV, books, and videogames. An early example of this would be Pokémon, the behemoth property ranging across games, manga, TV series, multiple films, and a trading card game. In a classical view, this diversification of a brand establishes multiple pillars of income; now, however, it allows for the franchises’ narrative footprint to expand. In the IP Era, stories cannot be confined to one medium, they must be able to rake in millions of dollars across multiple media, the more the better! Nothing—not board games and toys or long dormant franchises—is sacred anymore: if an IP is proven and nostalgic, it must make money in as many ways as possible.
For Netflix, and some of the studios within their charge, that terrifying reality is promising and exciting. Take the recently released The Queen’s Gambit Chess, for example; developed by Ripstone Games, the Netflix-exclusive game retools the story of the popular series The Queen’s Gambit into a “chess-teaching” experience. It’s an attempt to capitalize on the surging interest in chess, itself spurred by the Netflix series, by combining a popular property with audience desires. Netflix doesn’t force its franchises on developers—according to The Verge, Ripstone approached Netflix—but its developers certainly have the tudum on their mind anyway.
In the same Verge article, Night School co-founder Adam Hines states that the studio is very open to a possible Oxenfree adaptation. “It was definitely a goal when I first started the studio that all of our games and the experiences that we make could be translated into a movie or TV to a comic book or anything else,” Hines tells reporter Ash Parrish. Videogame adaptations are continually getting better—Netflix leads the pack with Castlevania, Arcane, and Cyberpunk: Edgerunners—but none of these franchises were created explicitly to be multi-media properties, which is a dying ethos.
It’s difficult, then, to see Netflix Games as anything other than an incubator for future properties or extensions of already popular ones. The service might add genre defying games into its library, but what they’ve funded so far is only safe bets. (In 2019, the original Oxenfree passed one million sold and over three million downloads via Xbox Game Pass, which are incredible numbers for the debut game from an indie studio). Netflix wants a safe, all-encompassing service that panders to everyone, and thus doesn’t really target anyone specifically. For each Oxenfree II, there’s a Too Hot to Handle 2; every Valiant Hearts: Coming Home, a Knittens.
At the end of the day, Netflix Games doesn’t want to break into the videogames industry to do anything new and exciting: they want to combat the biggest competitor to people using their app. Playing games means you aren’t watching the newest slop Netflix has procured specifically to entrap and entertain you. Netflix can’t beat Fortnite, Candy Crush, or Minecraft, so they joined them. The service might be underutilized now, but in a few years (and with some major course corrections) it might be a serious competitor to the stalwarts of Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, and EA, just as Netflix video became one of Paramount, Disney, and Universal. Being unable (or unwilling) to leave the Netflix ecosystem, you’ll always be giving them the invaluable resources of money, time, and attention. If it sounds evil, it’s because it is, but their own website paints it in a slightly nicer light: “We want to entertain the world.”
The scary thing is that in a few years time, they just might.
Mik Deitz is a freelance writer and former Paste intern. They inhale stories in videogames, films, TV and books, and have never finished God of War (2018). Yell at or compliment them on Twitter @dietdeitz.