After months of rumors and speculation that made no sense initially, Netflix finally confirmed that it’s officially entering the gaming market: the announcement was made by Mike Verdu, vice president of game development at Netflix — yes, apparently there is such a role already — and while several key details were clarified, there’s a number of questions still unanswered. The most important of those: why?
First things first: yes, the games Netflix is offering are free for consumers to keep (as long as their subscription is active). Yes, there are no ads, no in-app purchases, no other associated fees in those games. Yes, they are available from inside the Netflix app and downloaded through the Google Play store for Android smartphones or tablets. But also: no, they are not available for iOS yet (it’s not clear yet whether it’s Apple’s fault or not). No, the games are not many, only five (5) in fact. No, there’s not a single one among them that’s genuinely exciting. Stranger Things: 1984, Stranger Things 3: The Game, Shooting Hoops, Card Blast and Teeter Up will not set the world on fire, let alone be considered a strong start in a new market for Netflix.
So… why? Furthermore, why now?
The timing seems to be of no importance, more or less: ever since Netflix confirmed the acquisition of Oxenfree developer Night School Studio in September, all that was needed as proof for the company’s intentions was a formal announcement, which we just got. The poor, almost pathetic selection of games offered, to start, seems to imply that even Netflix itself wanted this launch to be low-key anyway. So it’s the why rather than the why now that matters and, well, there are several possible reasons one can think of beyond Verdu’s “we all love games”. We do, of course, but it’s not that simple.
One possible reason has been mentioned by both Reed Hastings and Ted Sarantos in the past: Netflix understands that, in the greater scheme of things, what all forms of entertainment compete for nowadays is not just subscription dollars, but also the time and attention of consumers. “Fortnite is a bigger rival than HBO” the company specifically noted to shareholders in 2019. So why not attempt to offer subscribers that form of entertainment too, hoping to keep them in the Netflix world of content, right?
Well… the way these mobile games are offered right now does not help much in that regard: consumers will install and launch those games from within the Netflix app, yes, but that does not mean that they’ll come back to it when they are finished playing. Now if those games were streamed that would be a different conversation, but this is not something that Netflix can simply code into its app: it requires the kind of technical know-how it took Microsoft or nVidia years to develop. The good news is: Netflix at least has the necessary network infrastructure already in place, even on a basic level, so when/if it decides to make that investment in the future, that’s a start.
Another possible reason has to do with added value. Netflix is still comfortably ahead of the competition when it comes to its installed user base — more than 205 million subscribers worldwide compared to that of Disney Plus or HBO Max, which currently sits at around 130 million and 75 million respectively — but the company knows that it can’t easily raise its prices again without some serious backlash. Offering these mobile games as a bonus — at present that’s what they are — is one way of adding value to its subscription tiers. It would have to include a lot more than five such games, of course, in order for them to even count as a factor in the overall Netflix entertainment offering, but still. It’s also a start.
One final reason, though, why Netflix decided to get into the gaming market may have to do with the sheer possibilities this expansion to a new entertainment form opens. Netflix owns a number of successful, well-known intellectual properties and franchises — coming mainly from its own TV shows at the time of writing, but from a few films as well — that could very well serve as creative material for all sorts of new mobile or video games. The two Stranger Things titles are simplistic but clear examples of that. With some careful planning who knows what marketing synergies between original Netflix shows, films and games its executives might come up with in the future. A Squid Game puzzler? An Extraction FPS? An Umbrella Academy action-adventure? I’d play those for $9.99 a month!