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A user plays supernatural game Oxenfree on a mobile phone, one of 35 available through Netflix as it invests in the gaming market. The streaming giant has been buying up games studios and looking at cloud gaming options. Photo: Shutterstock

Netflix plans to be a major mobile gaming player. Amazon and Disney have struggled, but can the streaming giant succeed?

  • Netflix is looking to diversify its business and reverse declining subscriptions, and has set its sights on the huge mobile gaming market
  • The streaming service has 35 downloadable games, with another 15 in the pipeline, and has been buying up games studios and looking at cloud gaming options

In a shadowy cave on a spooky island, a teenager hears strange sounds as she moves the dial on her radio. The frequency opens a dimensional rift – putting her friends in danger.

It’s a scene from Oxenfree, a supernatural adventure tale with themes of grief and growing up.

Oxenfree is not a TV show or movie; it’s a game that can be played on a mobile phone for hours. It’s among 35 games available for free download to subscribers through Netflix’s mobile app. The streaming giant plans to increase its games roster to roughly 50 by the end of the year.

“We want to deliver the best entertainment experiences to our (223 million) members, and that includes great games,” says Mike Verdu, a former Facebook and Electronic Arts executive who was named Netflix’s vice-president of games last year.

Mike Verdu, Netflix’s vice-president of games. Photo: Getty Images

Netflix’s big push into gaming comes at a time when the California-based company is facing mounting pressure to diversify its business and boost its customer base, to counter rivals such as Disney+ and HBO Max.

Responding to subscriber declines, Netflix earlier this year laid off hundreds of employees and ended its long-standing resistance to running ads on the platform. Its outlook improved last week with the news that it added 2.4 million subscribers in the past quarter.

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Expanding its library beyond films and TV shows and into gaming could ultimately help Netflix draw more younger consumers – and keep existing ones.

“The more entertainment services that are on a platform, I believe it will make it much more sticky and reduce churn [people leaving the platform],” says Kevin Westcott, who leads the US technology, media and telecommunications practice for Deloitte.

Since announcing its mobile gaming plans last year, Netflix has quietly scooped up several small- to-mid-level studios, including Texan mobile developers Boss Fight Entertainment, Finland-based Next Games, as well as local studio Night School, which had a slow-build, multiplatform hit with Oxenfree.

Netflix republished the game, which was released in 2016, this autumn with new content and languages, and has another major instalment of the brand planned for next year.

From left: Alex, Jonas, Clarissa, Nona and Ren from Night School Studio’s Oxenfree game. Photo: Night School Studio

Netflix already has a games studio in Finland and is starting another studio in Southern California led by Chacko Sonny, who oversaw production on God of War: Ascension and was an executive producer for the Overwatch franchise.

And this week Verdu revealed at the recent TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco that Netflix is “very seriously exploring a cloud-gaming offering so that we can reach members on TVs and on PCs”.

The gaming foray is a natural extension for Netflix, which wants to tap into a vast market – more than three billion people around the world play video games – and capitalise on shifts in the market.

Many consumers prefer not to pay for mobile games and play free ones that are supported by ads, or that charge for additional gameplay or bonus items. That can make more elaborate mobile games difficult to finance. Netflix does not put any in-app ads or purchases in its games.

Netflix’s Asphalt Xtreme is among Netflix’s most popular games. Photo: Netflix

Among the most popular titles is an off-road racing game called Asphalt Xtreme. There’s Knittens, a puzzle challenge where players collect yarn to “knit” outfits for cats. And esoteric fare, such as the critically acclaimed Before Your Eyes, about a deceased boy remembering his life. The game captures the blinking movements of a player’s eyes.

“Games like ours don’t live at the price point that the mobile user base has become accustomed to,” says Before Your Eyes game director Oliver Lewin. “We weren’t sure how to address it. Being a part of a subscription service fixes that problem.”

Eventually, Netflix hopes to create games based on its original shows, such as reality dating series Too Hot to Handle or The Queen’s Gambit. Netflix already has partnered with companies with popular brands, including Exploding Kittens, known for its physical card game.

But the strategy also comes with risk. Many have tried but failed to establish a foothold in interactive entertainment, most recently tech giant Google, which closed its cloud-focused gaming service Stadia because it hadn’t gained enough traction with users.

Some tech giants have succeeded in the games market, but most of them, like Sony with the PlayStation 5 (above), have invested in hardware. Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment/TNS

Walt Disney, home to well-known intellectual property and a catalogue of well-received games such as Epic Mickey and Disney Infinity, couldn’t crack the game sector on its own and switched to a licensing-focused model for interactive media.

Amazon has long struggled to get its games division off the ground before finally gaining a bit of traction with last year’s release of The New World.

There are success stories – Sony, of course, which is home to the blockbuster PlayStation brand, and Warner Bros Games – but those firms have invested heavily in either hardware, buying established game studios or both.

Netflix has been relatively low-key about its game offerings and some customers aren’t even aware they exist.

Netflix’s 35 games have been downloaded around 32 million times as of October 12. Photo: Night School Studio

Mobile app data provider Apptopia estimates that Netflix’s 35 games have been downloaded around 32 million times as of October 12. The failure rate of apps is high – most mobile games never make it to a million downloads, according to Apptopia.

It’s uncertain whether the game offerings will bolster subscribers – or keep Netflix’s existing user base from unsubscribing.

Netflix executives acknowledge the challenges, but stress they are committed to the business for the long haul.

“The game business is not an easy one, but if you put players first and make wonderful experiences for them, you’ll be rewarded,” Verdu says.

A screen grab from Night School Studio’s Oxenfree. Photo: Night School Studio

Night School, the studio founded by cousins Sean Krankel and Adam Hines in Glendale, California, has experienced the struggles of the game industry first-hand.

“Being in the indie space can very much be feast or famine,” says Krankel, a veteran of the now defunct Disney Interactive. “You can launch a game and it can go pretty flat, and then you have to figure out if you move rapidly into the next game or revise and fix the game that you did.”

But Netflix, Krankel says, has supported the expansion of the studio – which has doubled the number of employees to nearly 40 – and its Oxenfree franchise that is now available in more than 30 languages and 100 territories. A sequel is planned for next year.

“Even though it is a science-fiction, mind-bending, supernatural adventure, the core of it is a coming-of-age story that ideally anybody can relate to,” Krankel says. “And that’s why I think being able to have it in all these other languages will let us know if it is a story that resonates around the world.”

A screen grab from Before Your Eyes. Photo: Skybound Games

“Being a part of Netflix, it has been [a relief] because we don’t have specific dates that we necessarily have to hit,” Krankel says.

While roughly a year old, Netflix’s game content is winning critical acclaim, especially from those who pay attention to adventurous, indie-oriented games such as Before Your Eyes or Poinpy, a cartoonish game that ricochets from riotous bouncing to demanding puzzles.

Coming soon to the platform is Immortality, a game that argues we’re just at the beginning of exploring the possibilities of interactive cinema.

“It’s cool that Netflix is making some tasteful choices with the games they’re bringing to mobile,” says Graham Parkes, writer/creative director of Before Your Eyes, developed by Los Angeles-based studio GoodbyeWorld Games.

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Netflix is also willing to bet on more risky, niche-focused titles such as This is a True Story, an Africa-themed, richly drawn, easy-to-play game in which players are tasked with managing a character’s energy resources.

Frosty Pop founder Faisal Sethi says the game, which aims to raise awareness of the global water crisis, was a passion project fully supported by Netflix.

London-based Ustwo Games brought its Desta title to Netflix. It’s a strategy game about conquering past trauma and struggles through strategic bouts of a dodgeball-like challenge.

“Netflix aren’t shouting everything from the rooftops, as they’re trying to steadily build a platform,” says Daniel Gray, Ustwo’s chief creative officer.

“But when there are 200 million-plus Netflix subscribers, we only have to convert a small percentage of those players into playing Desta and we’ve reached a lot of people.”