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Netflix fails to read the room in launching its new video game platform

The dream of a “Netflix of gaming” has long been the most exciting prospect in the industry, and now Netflix itself has finally entered the gaming space with its own games service. At this point, we’ve already seen some of the biggest companies in the world try and enter the gaming space — and universally fail. Even companies that are focused on games, such as Sony, haven’t fully cracked the nut that is a successful game streaming platform.

Netflix is the gold standard for movie and TV streaming, so from the outside it makes sense that it would know how to make a great streaming service for games as well. However, streaming a game and streaming a movie are two completely different beasts. More than that, though, making an appealing game service is not at all similar to making an appealing TV and movie service. Looking at how the platform has rolled out, plus the context of Netflix’s business as a whole, it reads like a desperate move on Netflix’s part to differentiate itself from its competition — companies that have already eaten its lunch.

Read the room

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There are plenty of examples of why gaming, streaming or otherwise, is not a space companies can just slide into easilyGoogle Stadia and Amazon Luna had the might of two of the biggest companies in the world behind them and both services have struggled to take off. I’m sure Netflix isn’t short on cash, but throwing a war chest of money at a gaming service won’t magically make it work.

Even if it did, Netflix has yet to show how much it’s willing to invest into gaming. The service launched with five mobile games, and Netflix has only made one power play by acquiring Oxenfree developer Night School Studios. The streaming giant is merely dipping its toe in the waters when it comes to content.

The problem is that non-gaming companies try to fit gaming — both the consumption and creation — into their own structures. Netflix may have a great pipeline for getting series and films made, but that won’t apply to making a game. Google was so poor at managing its own game studio that it shut it down before it even produced a single title.

Half measures

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TV and film streaming used to be Netflix’s game, and no one else could even compete. Now, there’s tons of options out there, each with exclusive content that has helped them peel back Netflix’s death grip on an industry it built. We’ve seen reports that it’s quickly losing subscribers and the pivot to gaming seems like a way to address that. It seems like an easy power play on paper. Just throw some games on the service people already use, right? Who wouldn’t subscribe to Netflix if they got all the TV and movies, plus free games? Its idealistic, but doesn’t inherently work in practice.

A reactive move into gaming can be destined to fail, especially if Netflix’s gaming launch is any indication of how it plans to continue this service. The five games, which is already a slim offering, are all small mobile games that have, at best, middling reviews. A service with bad games, or even just OK ones, isn’t going to appeal to many players. Unlike TV and movies, people won’t simply binge a game that’s boring.

Games aren’t passive. They aren’t something you can just throw on in the background and half pay attention to. Netflix is the king of dumping tons of content on users. Some of it is bad, some good, and once in a while there’s a gem that really takes off. Games don’t work that way. It’ll take time and work to develop and offer a quality library of games. There won’t be those hits to find otherwise.

Netflix, at least in its initial rollout, hasn’t shown that it’s terribly serious about games. It made two games based on Stranger Things, but both are small-scale, seemingly low-budget titles. It owns one studio, which has barely had time to start working on a game for the service. Nothing about the lead-up to the rollout indicates that Netflix is really dedicated to games as a core branch of its business yet — and you can’t be successful in games with half measures.

Who cares?

Netflix's "Stranger Things" games on mobile.
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The final, and most important, aspect that Netflix seems to have failed to grasp is that simply having games won’t make people care. Again, we can return to Stadia and Luna as prime examples. Neither cloud gaming service has offered players the kind of “platform seller” that pushes players to adopt platforms. Exclusives are an obvious draw, but even just having strong games from third parties could work. Shooting Hoops and Card Blast aren’t exactly head-turning games. If a launch lineup isn’t remotely exciting, why should potential players buy in?

Having games on a service alone isn’t a selling point. Cereal boxes have games on them. You can play games on the back of an airplane seat. It’s hard to be in a situation where you can’t play a game these days, so long as you’re near anything with a screen. The difference is quality, not quantity. At the moment, Netflix provides no reason to draw people away from playing on console, PC, or even other mobile games. Until it scores some big, quality games, I’d rather do the maze and word search on the back of a Lucky Charms box.

Jesse Lennox
Jesse Lennox loves writing, games, and complaining about not having time to write and play games. He knows the names of more…
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