Why Netflix wants to be a power player in video games

I told my dentist that I was interviewing someone at Netflix later, and she got really excited. “Ooo, what about? Which show?”

It wasn’t about any show, of course, because I’m a video games reporter. It was about Netflix’s still-young push into publishing, developing and distributing video games. My dentist was shocked, then remembered she saw something about it on her Netflix mobile app. She said she watches “Too Hot to Handle,” and it just so happened that I already had “Too Hot to Handle 2,” the video game, on my phone. We started a new character and played for a few minutes, delaying my procedure to get a crown.

My dentist, her love of Netflix shows and her curiosity for the games encapsulate the unique challenges and advantages facing Netflix as it marches toward becoming a major video games firm.

It has been three years since Netflix announced its intentions for gaming, and the world’s biggest streaming platform has learned a lot about an entertainment business it barely knows, said Leanne Loombe, the company’s vice president of external games.

“We didn’t really have as much understanding around which games our members want to play, and now we’ve got a lot more,” Loombe told The Washington Post.

According to Loombe, Netflix has learned three key things: Recognizable intellectual property (established brands such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SpongeBob SquarePants) remains a universal constant across entertainment; Netflix’s IP is big enough to be included among those desired franchises; and, so far, many of the 270 million subscribers love “snackable” entertainment that feels like quick-hit mobile experiences.

Netflix didn’t provide numbers on how many of its members are playing video games, but Loombe pointed to Sensor Tower statistics in January that boasted 180 percent annual growth in 2023 for Netflix Games downloads, and that its games were downloaded about 81 million times across Apple’s and Google’s app stores.

Since starting in late 2021, Netflix has amassed a respectable library of games on its service. The Grand Theft Auto series needs no introduction, but the selection also includes acclaimed, sophisticated narrative games such as “Oxenfree” and “Kentucky Route Zero.” Critical darlings from independent studios such as Supergiant Games (“Hades”) and Motion Twin (“Dead Cells”) round out the offerings from third-party companies. Games are a natural expansion of Netflix’s goal to be the internet’s one-stop entertainment shop, Loombe said.

Netflix has since become a games publisher in its own right, with two in-house studios and four acquisitions. As a new publisher, it offers production support and management, as well as resources for quality assurance such as play testers (all high-cost endeavors for game studios). Loombe said Netflix wants to be a haven for smaller developers who are experienced in mobile games but want to work beyond the demands of that market, which is dominated by free-to-play games. Instead of focusing on driving players toward in-app purchases, developers can pursue narrative-focused games that aren’t designed around nickel-and-diming the audience.

“When we talk about not having ads or in-app purchases in our games, that’s great for our members, but it’s also awesome for our developers, because the free-to-play market can be really challenging now,” Loombe said. “In that macro environment, it’s not easy to compete in that space, so working with Netflix, our developers get to focus on the creativity of the game.”

One independent studio that works with Netflix, Wonderstorm, opened in 2016 with the hope of becoming a transmedia creative outlet and creating an animated TV series “The Dragon Prince,” now entering its sixth season. After years of development, its companion video game, a top-down-perspective action role-playing game titled “The Dragon Prince: Xadia,” is releasing on app stores and Netflix on July 30.

“We’ve seen how difficult it is for most companies to extend beyond their initial core capability, so from the very outset, we designed Wonderstorm as a ‘two-headed beast,’ and we set out to build a team that could create both a series and game within the same world at the same time,” said Justin Santistevan, Wonderstorm’s president and co-founder.

“A [game] engineer influenced the rules for primal magic and dark magic while Season 1 was being written,” said Justin Richmond, a Wonderstorm co-founder and a former director of Sony PlayStation’s blockbuster Uncharted series. “Through Netflix’s initial season orders, the animated series got a head start while we built our amazing game development team and started prototyping. Work on this version of the game began in earnest about four years ago, but we have been planning it from the beginning.”

The studio’s “two-headed beast” approach included working with external animation studio Bardel Entertainment in Vancouver (which employs hundreds of artists) to produce the show. Meanwhile, Wonderstorm has handled the game’s development, hiring talent from Blizzard Entertainment (Warcraft, Diablo) Riot Games (“League of Legends”) and Naughty Dog (the Last of Us, Uncharted). The show and game share many resources, especially writers.

“One of our Emmy-winning writers on the series also serves as the game’s lead creative designer, and used to be a champion designer on ‘League of Legends,’” Santistevan said. (Wonderstorm’s co-founders formerly worked at Riot Games, as did Loombe.)

Creating a companion video game experience can do wonders for a TV show’s popularity, and vice versa. Video games are on the precipice of replacing comic books as Hollywood’s big-budget inspiration, with numerous films in the works, alongside the critical and commercial successes of HBO’s “The Last of Us” and Prime Video’s “Fallout” adaptations. In fact, Netflix started the trend with “The Witcher,” which boosted sales for “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” game by 554 percent after the show’s 2019 debut. Netflix’s animated adaptations, including “Arcane” and “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners,” also boosted the profiles of the games that inspired them.

Wonderstorm wants to actively manage that synergy with “The Dragon Prince,” which already has tabletop games and graphic novels.

“The TV series and game were built from the ground up together, and this has empowered them to be equally important pillars of the world and authentic ways to experience its characters and setting,” Santistevan said.

Loombe said Netflix is still fine-tuning its algorithm to serve up games to subscribers like my dentist, who are only barely aware of the service. This slower approach is by design, she said.

“It’s a phased approach, and mobile is definitely first,” she said, explaining why the games feed doesn’t appear on Netflix’s other platforms. Right now, clicking a game in the Netflix feed on a phone will lead to the respective app store to download games.

“For folks like your dentist that watch Netflix on TV, we’re not quite there yet, but the vision is to have games playable wherever Netflix is,” Loombe said. “When we have our cloud streaming technology fully up and running and fully in all countries, people like your dentist will be able to see games on TV, and that’s when we’ll be able to drive more awareness.”

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