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Two years later, Netflix is still experimenting with games

Oxenfree II: Lost Signals and The Queen’s Gambit Chess could not be more different, and yet both are key to understanding Netflix’s gaming philosophy.

Key art from The Queen’s Gambit Chess and Oxenfree II: Lost Signals featuring a side-by-side split of art from both games against a red and black gradient background
Image: Netflix / Ripstone Games / Night School

It wasn’t terribly shocking when Netflix announced it would be adding games to its platform. Instead, the news was treated with a mild disinterest. “Games” on the platform at that point were the “choose your own adventure” style interactive TV shows like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and Carmen Sandiego: To Steal or Not to Steal. Though Bandersnatch had a hot moment, buzz for the “game” didn’t last terribly long. Then, when actual games first started rolling out on the platform, they were little more than inconsequential time fillers with names like Shooty Hoops.

Then, Netflix acquired Night School, makers of Oxenfree and now Oxenfree II: Lost Signals. Indie hits like Into the Breach and Kentucky Route Zero started showing up alongside smaller, Netflix IP-based games like Nailed It! Baking Bash. Now, in the two years since the Great Netflix Gaming Experiment began, the platform’s gaming offerings encompass an impressive range of genres, complexity, and narrative substance, putting BAFTA winners next to games best suited for commutes and waiting rooms. And it’s long past time to consider Netflix not only a well-established streaming platform but an emerging (and serious) video game publisher.

Though Netflix won’t share how popular its games are, we can talk to the developers who make them and gain at least some insight into how gaming is going for Netflix. The Verge spoke to developers from two studios for two wildly different games to get a feel for how gaming is going for Netflix.

Screenshot from Oxenfree II: Lost Signals featuring the top of a lighthouse on a sunny day
Image: Netflix / Night School

Night School was one of the first studios Netflix acquired for its gaming platform. Because of the studio’s success with Oxenfree, the acquisition felt like the first indication that Netflix was indeed serious about its gaming venture.

Night School just released the sequel to Oxenfree, Oxenfree II: Lost Signals, to decent acclaim. Game director Bryant Cannon believes that part of the reason for that acclaim is because the game was, in part, developed under Netflix’s eaves.

“I think we were around 15 people when we got acquired,” Cannon said. “The Oxenfree II team is now about 25–30 or so. So we have the people now to put towards making the game as good as it can be.”

That increased worker power resulted in Oxenfree II being more accessible to people all over the world. “We also were able to localize the game into 30 languages, which is insane for a game of our size with about 200,000 words or something like that,” Cannon said.

But more than Oxenfree II’s technical improvements and additions, Cannon said the biggest value in having Netflix as a partner is maintaining Night School’s autonomy.

“From a creative perspective, we have been able to maintain our creative independence, which is personally what I care about the most,” he said.

In a climate of video game companies getting acquired by larger ones and then either getting absorbed, retooled, or simply shut down, that Night School was able to retain its creative independence is significant.

“We were really kind of wary and nervous before we kind of made the jump into Netflix,” said Adam Hines, lead writer on Oxenfree II and co-founder of Night School Games. According to Hines, Netflix understands that gaming is new, uncharted waters for a streaming platform and that the best way to navigate them is through collaboration.

“They’re really leaning on us and the studios that they’ve acquired to work with them to figure out how we want to forge ahead in this cool new space of streaming games,” Hines said.

Collaboration seems to be a throughline in Netflix’s gaming philosophy, and it extends beyond its subsidiaries.

Ripstone Games is a UK-based developer and maker of the recently released The Queen’s Gambit Chess, which turns the wildly popular chess show into an interactive chess-teaching experience. Netflix doesn’t own this studio, nor did it approach Ripstone — a company with a history of translating traditional games like poker and chess into video games — to make The Queen’s Gambit. Ripstone went to Netflix.

“Back in October 2020, when The Queen’s Gambit was released, the world fell in love with it,” said Jamie Brayshaw, head of marketing and business development at Ripstone. “The number of people playing chess online absolutely skyrocketed.”

In addition to The Queen’s Gambit, Brayshaw also credits the covid-19 lockdowns for igniting pop culture’s newfound love of chess. He explained that people were looking for safe ways to engage with others and turned to games to maintain connections with family and friends — a sentiment Brayshaw and his team wanted to encourage.

“Games like ours, especially chess, filled those needs perfectly, so we reached out to Netflix.”

What’s so interesting about Ripstone’s approach was that, at the time, Netflix’s gaming initiative hadn’t been launched or even announced yet. When Ripstone developers went to Netflix with their pitch, they were talking to a licensing team, not a gaming one.

“Before I pitched, I asked the question that kind of changed everything. I said, ‘A lot of people are throwing around the label of the Netflix of games,’” Brayshaw said. “So I asked absolutely cheekily, ‘Could Netflix be the Netflix of games?’ And I was shocked by the response.”

That cheeky but prescient question got Netflix to open up about its as yet still unannounced plans to bring games to the platform and totally changed Ripstone’s plans for a Queen’s Gambit game. “So all of those great ideas that I thought I wanted to pitch didn’t seem like they were the right approach anymore,” Brayshaw said. “So I offered for Ripstone to create a brand-new game for The Queen’s Gambit, and the rest is history.”

Screenshot from The Queen’s Gambit Chess featuring a menu from the game offering different game modes to play
The Queen’s Gambit Chess is more than just a straightforward chess game featuring puzzles and other ways to play chess.
Image: Ripstone Games / Netflix

Brayshaw said that Netflix and Ripstone had to work together to actualize The Queen’s Gambit Chess. “The unique thing about partnering with Netflix is that they’re all about learning,” Brayshaw said.

As with Night School, Netflix took a relatively hands-off approach with Ripstone even though it was developing a game based on a Netflix property.

“They showed a lot of trust and love and support for us as a partner because they know that we understand chess, and they want to empower us to achieve our creative vision,” Brayshaw said.

Though Night School and Ripstone are only a couple of pieces within Netflix’s entire gaming ecosystem, from them, we can glean that Netflix’s gaming philosophy right now resembles a kind of patronage system. Netflix supplies its studios with resources, and they’re free to pursue whatever artistic avenue they want. This approach isn’t too far off from how game subscription services work, bringing Netflix in line with products like Xbox’s Game Pass and Apple Arcade.

And with Netflix as their patron, there’s also the possibility that these developers’ next projects could be adapting one of the streamer’s many original IPs — a prospect Night School’s down for, considering it was working on an unannounced Stranger Things project with Telltale Games before its acquisition.

Screenshot from Oxenfree II: Lost Signals featuring a zoomed out shot of three characters on a bridge on a gloomy night.
Image: Night School / Netflix

“To be perfectly honest, we were always kind of in conversations about if we want to adapt some sort of IP that that’s already out there,” Adam Hines said. “But Netflix, to their credit, is always like, ‘You tell us what you want to do.’”

Ripstone has already adapted a Netflix show, but according to Jamie Brayshaw, there’s always the possibility for more. “It really matters to Ripstone to build communities around games people like to play,” he said. “The experiences that bring people together, like pool or poker and that sort of stuff, I think there’s definitely a place for that on Netflix.”

Though he stated clearly that there’s nothing to announce currently, it seems like The Queen’s Gambit Chess won’t be the last we see of Ripstone on Netflix.

“But Netflix, to their credit, is always like, ‘You tell us what you want to do.’”

The relationship between Netflix and its partners works the other way, too, creating a possible future in which Oxenfree or some other Netflix game gets its own show.

“It was definitely a goal when I first started the studio that all of our games and the experiences that we make could be translated into a movie or TV to a comic book or anything else,” Hines said. “So we’re very open [to the idea].”

Netflix’s gaming strategy seems reminiscent of the platform’s earlier days of throwing around cash for TV and movie projects in hopes of finding what audiences will show up for.

Netflix won’t share how popular its games are, but we’ve seen tiny glimpses behind the curtains. One report from 2022 stated that less than 1 percent of total subscribers play Netflix games. Though Oxenfree II and other games are also distributed on other platforms like the Switch and Xbox, that 1 percent still represents roughly 1.7 million people, which is a lot of eyeballs on games that may not have gotten those eyeballs elsewhere. Netflix is also purportedly working on a cloud gaming offering and is in the midst of hiring for an unannounced AAA PC game at its recently founded internal game studio.

From speaking with developers at Ripstone and Night School, there’s a sense that Netflix, two years into this endeavor, is still in the midst of figuring out if gaming is the value add it needs to give it an edge over the Paramount Pluses and Hulus of the world.

And for now, the streamer’s partner studios are content to help Netflix figure it out.

“They’re very honest with themselves and with us about this, not knowing what the best course of action is yet,” Hines said. “They just really want to put some stuff out there and see how fans and their audience respond and make adjustments based on that.”