The future of Netflix games could look like reality TV

Netflix is continuously adding to its diverse portfolio of games, announcing a new slate of titles set to launch on the platform this summer and beyond. And while the “serious gamer” might be enticed by the pending arrival of The Case of the Golden Idol or Don’t Starve Together — games that have enjoyed success on other platforms — it’s interactive fiction games that are the most exciting both for Netflix and its gaming community.

“Expanding the worlds of beloved Netflix series and films is our greatest opportunity in games,” wrote Leanne Loombe, head of external games at Netflix, in a recent blog post.

Everybody’s getting into gaming right now. The New York Times, LinkedIn, YouTube, and now possibly even Uber are offering games as a part of their services in order to drive subscriptions and user engagement. For some, it’s working. For others, not so much. A lot of these gaming initiatives feel like they’re just being tacked on to whatever service, like how your favorite Chinese takeout restaurant also has fries and chicken wings. Even though LinkedIn’s new games are entertaining, it’s hard to imagine folks spending more time on the site where CEOs announce layoffs like YouTube apology videos just to play them.

But Netflix is unique in that, even though it’s not a gaming company, its products do lend themselves to a specific kind of highly popular but underserved gaming experience. “We’ve seen a lot of success with interactive fiction games like Selling Sunset, Perfect Match, and The Ultimatum,” Loombe said in an interview with The Verge

Reality television shows are still one of the most popular kinds of entertainment. They’re relatively cheap to produce and are uniquely positioned to create the kinds of high-drama moments that go viral on social media. And with popular shows, its audience is naturally incentivized to seek out related content. After the wild success of Amazon’s Fallout TV show, the games exploded in popularity, appearing on bestseller lists and at the top of Steam player charts. 

Netflix’s gaming offerings are poised to take advantage of that same phenomenon. Because where a Fallout fan has to go outside Amazon to play the games (or, as Amazon vainly hopes, use its cloud gaming service Luna) Netflix’s games channel the enthusiasm of a show’s community right back into the app, creating what Loombe calls a seamless “connective tissue between the TV show and the game.” In this new economy of attention, where companies are competing to have as many eyeballs on their apps or services as possible, that Netflix fans don’t have to leave the app to continue their fandom experiences is potentially a huge advantage. 

MCU, meet the NRU — the Netflix Reality Universe.
Image: Netflix

Another advantage is the games themselves. Adapting games can be tough, with the results often failing to engage an audience with the same level of success as its original. Uncharted was a critically acclaimed adventure game series; the movie — less so. That quality gap is closing with shows like The Last of Us and The Super Mario Bros. Movie. And Netflix is strategic in how it picks which of its shows to adapt into a game to ensure an experience that faithfully recreates the essence of the show.

“Unscripted reality shows are really great because it has that fantasy element,” Loombe said. “Players are able to pretend to be one of those characters and play that fantasy out like a choose your own adventure and a romance novel combined.”

It’s a fantasy players take with them and share elsewhere. Too Hot to Handle, for instance, has a dedicated community on Reddit with traditions like “Main Character Monday” in which players post pictures of their in-game avatars. “We have a really deep customization system in Too Hot To Handle,” Loombe explained. “So you can choose, from a variety of different items, to prosthetics, to different hairstyles, different hair colors, and body types. It really is quite deep.”

Netflix’s gaming library started with titles like Shooting Hoops, Teeter (Up), and Card Blast. Three years later, it’s grown into one that includes big-name commercial powerhouses and indie-developed critical darlings. We only know what Netflix shares about exactly how popular its games are, and as a proportion of its overall user base, Netflix’s gaming audience is quite small. And while Netflix’s interactive fiction games don’t generate the same kind of attention the Grand Theft Auto trilogy or Hades might, they are quietly one of the platform’s biggest success stories.

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