Why does Netflix want to get into gaming now?
When the Netflix story of “getting into the games” dropped last Friday, I tweeted that (a) I had no idea what to think about it, and (b) I didn’t want to speculate. In the days that followed, I chatted with some high profile friends in the gaming industry. There aren’t a lot of facts out there, even among the gossip elite, but now I have a working theory that looks pretty solid.
Guest Columnist Colin Campbell
This article originally appeared in Colin Campbell’s newsletter How Games Change the World. Colin has written for game publications such as Edge Magazine, Polygon, and IGN.
Netflix understands that it has reached saturation in terms of subscriptions. And with competition from Disney and HBO Max, the proven strategy of increasing prices is pretty much implemented. Any attempt to try and sell a premium subscription for, say, initial content, is likely to spark howls of protest and / or massive churns. Premium content is needed at all times and with the best quality, just to maintain steady growth.
So the business needs a new kind of content, and it looks like gaming is the best option.
First, let’s dispense with the things Netflix is do not think about. As far as I know, no one is suggesting that Netflix is going for branded hardware or triple-A games, but it’s still interesting to note why either would be an act of extreme stupidity.
Building a gaming business is almost impossible. The list of casualties and injuries on foot is almost endless, but even the richest companies in the world – Amazon, Disney, Google – grope in the fog of war. Apple’s success is a by-product of the ubiquity of the iPhone – it’s basically a glorified retailer with tenuous monopoly advantages. Microsoft has spent two stormy and costly decades establishing a console brand that is still behind Nintendo and Sony, in terms of sales.
Netflix’s infrastructure is all about optimizing scale. It is a ubiquitous streaming application that inexpensively and efficiently delivers linear non-interactive content to over 200 million subscribers worldwide.
This might lead some to believe that a game streaming service is in the works. But streaming TV shows en masse and streaming games live to individual players, which all act on the content, are two different things and they will never converge. One is relatively simple, the other is very difficult and expensive. There is hardly any scale or transferable expertise here.
I’ve seen a few mentions of Apple Arcade as a potential model, but it just doesn’t make sense. Unlike Apple TV, Netflix doesn’t have a single platform on which to anchor interactive content. It does not have a controller or standard hardware specification.
It’s true that the app has been installed on millions of “smart” TVs in recent years, but take a look at your TV controller. It’s barely able to offer control of even the most basic arcade game. I’m sure Netflix won’t try to sell a sticky controller by expecting people to pay monthly fees for Frogger clones.
The games Netflix plans to sell to its subscribers will need to be controllable through any TV remote, which means click-per-minute, not click-per-click experiences. And, as everyone else has mentioned, it suggests storytelling adventures like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and Minecraft: Story Mode.
This is where things get interesting. Netflix has succeeded in building a micro-library of curiosities and interactive experiences. Collectively or individually, I doubt that many people pay extra to play them. But they do offer glimpses of possibilities that fall into three camps.
The first is interactive shows based on the service’s biggest hits. I can easily imagine a series of Stranger Things spin-offs that superfans (of which there are millions) will gladly pay to play. Then there’s The Queen’s Gambit, Bridgerton, The Umbrella Academy, etc.
Second, Netflix has proven to realize the value of turning gaming brands like Castlevania and Dota into decent television. Why not go one step further and buy more interactive adventure games? We saw Minecraft, which was highly rated, and a Carmen Sandiego game, but there’s also room for a number of brands, from The Witcher to… hell… you name it. Game companies would also like to open up a new revenue stream for their brands, assuming the content is up to par.
Third, Netflix has shown itself ready to experiment with form, playing with interactive nature shows and romances, for example, as well as animation and sci-fi adjacent to the game. headlines and interest, and I’d love to see new interactive game shows or reality TV formats. Couch-based multiplayer games could be fantastic fun.
The real challenge with Netflix is that the adventures to choose from are pretty basic and (dare I say it) a little boring. Many people have admired the Bandersnatch picking, but it can be a repetitive experience.
Divergent linear television is a form that requires a lot of innovation to play and pay for. That’s why, I think, Netflix talks to people about the game. The business is in dire need of new ideas.
I think Netflix understands that any interactive content business is only going to work if the service gets big, early on, and if it maintains a significant flow of new games. It may well be launched with some sort of bundle or a series of bundles, but the goal is almost certainly going to match Netflix’s subscription model, which means an increasing development schedule and a willingness to step up if the first signs are positive.
Which brings me back to the previous point about how difficult it is to be successful in gaming. Netflix certainly sees an opportunity and has shown minimal creative ability, but the effort, innovation, and investment required to be successful is daunting. Hope they know what they are doing.