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Netflix aspires to become a serious player in the gaming space

Back in 2019, when Netflix was still dominating the streaming space, the company made a statement in a shareholder letter that surprised even perceptive media commentators. After previously declaring that its goal is to be the next HBO, Netflix now said: “We compete with (and lose against) Fourteen days more than HBO.” It positioned itself in a competitive landscape alongside not just television companies, but all media vying for audiences’ screen time. Back then, gaming was the biggest threat. Today it could be his savior.

Netflix has continued to take video games seriously ever since, with many of its biggest shows such as The Witcher, arcane, Castlevania and resident Evil Tied to key gaming IPs. Then, in late 2021, it came full circle by launching Netflix Games, a modest offering of mobile games available to subscribers at no additional cost. There were few interesting titles in the first six months. Even today, hardly anyone seems to know the service exists — less than 1 percent of Netflix users engage in gaming. But since June, Netflix has rolled out a surprisingly ambitious gaming offering, with 50 plans to be available by the end of the year.

This comes at a precarious time for the company, which has suffered significant stock price declines this year, cut hundreds of jobs and lost more than a million subscribers. Are these game offerings just a desperate attempt to maintain dominance in an increasingly competitive streaming market? Or does Netflix actually have what it takes to gain territory and retain subscribers in the gaming sphere — or even attract a new gaming audience?

An image from an animated television series shows a young woman looking through darkened glasses at an object in her outstretched hand

The Netflix series Arcane is based on the world of the League of Legends games © Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix isn’t the only one trying to bring a successful tech platform to the lucrative gaming space. All of the “big four” tech companies — Apple, Amazon, Meta, Google — have made similar moves, as have platforms like TikTok and even Zoom. It’s a logical step since games attract large, engaged audiences and often last for so many hours that they can give a boost to the holy grail of technical metrics: “engagement time”.

The move also feels natural for Netflix, which pioneered the subscription streaming model that’s now been widely emulated in TV and film. This subscription model is perhaps most impactful in the world of mobile gaming, which was once a reliable source of innovation but has recently been tainted by the emergence of the “free-to-play” business model – riddled with predatory microtransactions and pursuits ethically questionable monetization strategies. Paying a monthly subscription allows developers to focus on creating quality gaming experiences instead of enticing players into parting with more and more money.

Of course, this strategy only works for Netflix if the games are good. There are currently 26 titles available for Android and iOS, most of them casual games little interesting: knitwear is Candy Crush meets cute cats, shooting hoops is an odd exercise involving a basketball inexplicably attached to a weapon Domino cafe is literally just dominoes.

An image from a video game shows pixelated characters in a mall

Netflix has two games based on Stranger Things

One of the latest Netflix exclusives, Poinpy, is a different animal. This colorful fruit-gathering game to feed a murderous monster is charming, suspenseful and surprisingly deep. Netflix has also ported acclaimed indie PC games to mobile, including Before your eyesa game about grief and memory that you control by blinking, and into the breach, a cult strategy game that’s a bit like playing chess with aliens and robots. Then there are licensed games. Netflix already has two games based on stranger things and in June upcoming titles based on were announced shadow and bone, money robbery, Too hot to touch and The Queen’s Gambit.

With the acquisition of three game studios including Night School, creators of the popular indie title Ox freeand announcements of upcoming artistic games including wrong way driver and immortality, it’s clear that Netflix takes its gaming gambit seriously. The company remains cautious about its overall strategy, but research firm Apptopia says Netflix games have been downloaded 23.3 million times. And while the 1 percent subscriber engagement figure seems low, it still amounts to about 1.7 million daily users.

The Netflix games offering isn’t enough to be worth the full subscription price alone, but it could certainly sweeten the deal for those unsure about renewing. It’s still early days, but it’s beginning to show the promise of a strong curatorial eye. In the meantime, any attempt to free mobile gaming from the shackles of microtransactions is welcome.

https://www.ft.com/content/162bb017-3989-4aec-9ffa-465bcf6774df Netflix aspires to become a serious player in the gaming space

Adam Bradshaw

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