Netflix Is Betting Big On The Game Industry. Will It Work?
If someone sees the term “video game publisher,” a few names likely come to mind. Nintendo, Xbox, PlayStation, Activision, and Ubisoft routinely publish some of the biggest titles in the game industry. But it might surprise you to learn Netflix is trying to add its name to that list.
Open your Netflix app right now. Scroll past the big new releases, the recommended movies and TV shows, past the trending now section, and you’ll finally see it: Netflix Games, offering “no ads, extra fees or in-app purchases” and “unlimited access to exclusive games,” all included with the standard subscription. A few of these titles don’t have mobile versions elsewhere, yet they sit on Netflix’s mobile app. How did that happen?
Leanne Loombe, Netflix’s VP of External Games, has a simple answer: creating, what she calls, the best environment possible for developers to make games.
Establishing the Relationship
Loombe is no stranger to the game industry, as her nearly two-decade-long resume includes names like Riot Games and Electronic Arts. That experience has fostered knowledge of what a team needs to thrive, and she’s employing what she’s learned at Netflix.
“I’m not sure whether it makes a difference whether they’re indie or larger, like a Ubisoft, as it’s really about what they are trying to accomplish both with their game and with their studio as a whole,” she says. “We want to make sure we have shared values and shared goals: Are both sides in this partnership for the right reasons? Do we want to accomplish the same thing? Are we moving in the same direction? How are we going to work together to make this game a success, and how are we going to partner with these studios in the best way, so we can make the best game for our members?”
So far, at least the studios we talked with are pleased with how it’s approaching each partnership. Snowman, whose game Lucky Luna hit the service in September 2022, has already signed on for another game, Laya’s Horizon. Andrew Schimmel, a senior producer at the studio, particularly appreciates the team’s hands-off approach.
“They allowed us to work with autonomy and include what we felt was most important here at our studio,” Schimmel says. “We always got really great, well-considered feedback on builds from them. I was surprised by the level of detail they included every time. I think it really proved to us how much they cared and how much effort they placed in understanding what we were making. It fostered a lot of mutual respect.”
No Money? No Problem
The focus on a lack of monetization is one key example of Netflix’s developer-friendly approach. “Not only is it great for our subscribers, it allows our developers freedom,” Loombe says. “Monetization, to some degree, can provide constraints that might be challenging to work within, so when you remove those restrictions, our developers can then make the game they want to make.”
This approach led another major publisher, Devolver Digital, to the service after the company’s vice president of mobile, Mark Hickey, was introduced to the team through a mutual connection. Hickey says Devolver has always focused on premium and interesting indies, which can get lost in a sea of free-to-play, heavily monetized games on mobile app stores. “Since Netflix games have no ads or micro-transactions,” Hickey says, “the service has emerged as an exciting new channel for indie games, including the ones we work on.”
Jake Elliott, co-founder of Kentucky Route Zero developer Cardboard Computer, echoes that sentiment. “The wider mobile games marketplace – so steeped in exotic monetization schemes and viral marketing – is pretty off-putting to us in a lot of ways,” Elliott told us. “Netflix’s approach, subscription-based access to a curated library of interesting games, seems more supportive of the kind of work we want to make.”
Rogue Games – which has two games on the service as of this writing, Highwater and Dust & Neon – also benefits from the lack of monetization. As CEO Matt Casamassina puts it, “We won’t transform our games to work with F2P monetization schemes.” But the subscription model that Netflix provides “has been fantastic for us because more players get to experience Rogue Games, and many of them wouldn’t have played titles like Dust & Neon otherwise.”
233 Million Subscribers Can’t Be Wrong
Another major advantage of Netflix over other publishers is its built-in customer base: every existing subscriber can access every game it publishes in the mobile app.
This massive audience is immediately delivered to studios big and small – even if there’s no guarantee that every single subscriber is playing. Sometimes that number is too hard to pass up, even if the number of active subscribers has fallen in recent months.
Snowman is a prime example of a smaller dev getting instant massive exposure. “Anytime we see a new space like this open up, we see another opportunity for games to grow and for more players to connect with experiences that they might otherwise miss,” Schimmel says. “We’re excited to see this gateway open up to a much richer world of gaming.”
Cyrille Imbert, CEO of TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge publisher Dotemu, thinks the move is long overdue. “I’ve always wondered why Netflix was not doing the move to video games with a huge subscriber base,” Imbert says. “They are doing it now, and I think it has lots of potential, so we are happy to support it.”
Right Under Your Nose
While Netflix’s inclusion of its games portfolio into its normal subscription makes sense, what’s less clear is how the company plans to feature those games in its mobile app. As mentioned before, finding the Netflix Games section of the main screen requires a decent amount of scrolling, and while specific tabs exist for new programming and downloads at the bottom of the screen, games get no such feature.
This lack of top billing might seem a deterrent, but those working with Netflix claim they’re not really concerned. Matt Casamassina of Rogue Games attributes it to the service still being in its infancy compared to the rest of Netflix.
“The way I see it, though, is that while Netflix is a very mature service in the sense that it has revolutionized streaming movies and series, it’s also very early on with its games offering,” he says. “I don’t know where they will be a year from now or even three, but based on the moves they’re making, they’re not just committed but playing to win.”
Xavier Liard, co-founder of Playdigious, thinks the alternative – offering a standalone version of the game for a set price – might actually be worse for his company’s games. “By publishing a paid game, we would limit the distribution only to gamers paying for the game,” Liard says, “but by teaming up with Netflix, we can reach a larger audience since it is free to download for their millions of users.”
Even Netflix itself recognizes the dilemma but is also of the opinion that Netflix Games is simply early in its lifecycle. The Netflix Games platform has yet to reach its second anniversary, and Loombe even goes so far as to call the lack of in-your-face visibility intentional.
“Our philosophy is simple: let’s do things, learn from them, experiment, figure out what works and what doesn’t, and then adapt based on those learnings,” she says. “I personally really appreciate that approach, as it’s honestly helped us move a bit quicker to get games out and figure out our roadmap.”
Filling Out the Ranks
Loombe knows Netflix’s customer base is a boon, but the team must also consider appealing to as many people as possible. After all, 233 million is a massive figure, and Loombe and her team know it.
“One of the things we’re really passionate about is building that portfolio to reflect the variety and diversity of members that we have,” Loombe says. “We’re constantly looking for new, fresh, different games to bring to Netflix so that we can have that diverse portfolio for people to play.”
That selection includes pre-existing games, games new to mobile, and brand-new games based on Netflix’s movie and TV properties. Longtime mobile developer Super Evil Megacorp is the latest to sign on to make one of these Netflix IP games, and CEO Kristian Segerstrale considers the partnership a perfect fit.
“We pick partners for our projects that we think offer the best opportunity to bring something really special to life that plays to our strengths as game makers while simultaneously allowing us to stretch our capabilities and learn something new,” Segerstrale says via email. “We chose to work with Netflix for this project because of the opportunity to work on a really exciting transmedia IP together, the ability to learn to work within a subscription environment, their reach and their team.”
Making the Call
When it comes to initiating talks, who approaches who? Does Netflix seek out developers of games it’s interested in publishing to mobile, or do the developers visit Netflix and try to talk their way in? Loombe says it’s both, but Netflix has still devised a measured plan for choosing games to bring in.
“We have a very phased approach that we’re working toward, with an idea of the shape of the portfolio we’re trying to build,” Loombe says. “It’s really based on what we’ve learned from the games we’ve launched over the last 18 months. Every time we get information from our members about a game we’ve launched, we then adapt the shape of the portfolio to that feedback.”
One of the companies that reached out to Netflix was Exploding Kittens – the wildly popular card-based tabletop game. The team was already working with Netflix on an upcoming TV show, and when it heard about Netflix’s gaming publishing wing, it was intrigued.
“We initially opened discussions with Netflix on an informal level to learn more about their developing service,” Exploding Kittens lead game designer Evan Losi says. “Exploding Kittens is easy to pick up and play, and it appeals to a wide range of players. An approachable game like ours is perfect for this sort of service.”
Netflix (Games) and Chill
The team at Netflix Games is showing no signs of slowing down, as the company recently announced it would add 40 new games to the service in 2023, including at least one game each month. Plans are in place for another 30 games with various partners, while 16 games are in production across the company’s various internal studios.
Netflix is not the first company to try its hand at a service like this – Apple, Google, and Amazon also spring to mind, each with varying degrees of success – and according to Loombe, the team understands building this sort of service takes time.
“We are pretty proud about what we’ve accomplished so far,” Loombe says. “Based on the plans and the strategy that we have, I’m feeling confident, and I know the team is too. We’re super excited about what the future holds for Netflix Games, especially based on some of the things we’ve got in the pipeline.”
The subscribers are there. The games are there. Now all Netflix has to do is introduce them to each other.
This article originally appeared in Issue 357 of Game Informer.