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Netflix’s gaming push could be its secret sauce for continued domination

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‘If you can’t beat them, join them’

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Netflix is finally mixing games into its gargantuan library of content. It’s a huge power play and a markedly different approach from rival services that are primarily focused on snapping up IP. It’s a new way for Netflix to keep subscribers hooked on its service — and gaming could just be its winning play for continued streaming dominance.

Netflix has been experimenting with gaming for a hot minute, but the global rollout of games within the Netflix app itself, announced last week, marks a significant shift in the streamer’s strategy for getting those games to its users. (Games began rolling out to Android devices last week, and became available on iOS and iPad this week.) Netflix’s games will now be accessible to users much like movies, TV shows, and originals are, and they’ll be able to launch right from within the app once downloaded through the App or Play stores.

Netflix executives have said repeatedly that they think of their product as competing with everything from sleep to social media apps to games themselves — essentially anything you could be doing besides watching Netflix. Netflix is competing now with more streaming and content-serving services than at any other time in its history — not only the HBO Maxes and YouTubes and Hulus of the streaming space but other apps like Instagram and TikTok. By introducing more points of entry to its content — in this case, games that build upon and expand the worlds of its existing titles — it could be safeguarding against decreased use among users who might otherwise turn to these other services or apps for entertainment.

Richard Broughton, a research director with Ampere Analysis, says that the firm’s recent analysis on Netflix usage underscores this goal. Every six months, Ampere polls roughly 50,000 consumers in various markets worldwide to understand how they’re using various apps and services. In its last couple of waves of research, Ampere has noticed not only stagnation but a slight erosion of subscribers in the 18- to 24-year-old bracket, Broughton tells The Verge.

“In other words, people who might’ve previously picked up Netflix among that age bracket are leaving and getting interested in other services that are coming on board, whether that’s the new studio-backed services in the US or perhaps social video services — TikTok, for instance,” Broughton says.

What Netflix is essentially doing with games, then, is creating additional value and entertainment that could help it compete with rival services that might otherwise eat into a subscriber’s media consumption time, particularly where it concerns younger consumers.

“Netflix has long stated that gaming is one of the big competitors of the time, so I guess it’s part of the adage that ‘if you can’t beat them, join them,’” Broughton says.

Netflix has said that it wants to develop games “for any level of play and every kind of player, whether you’re a beginner or a lifelong gamer.” Because the company has also said its games will be offered through the service as exclusives with “no ads, no additional fees and no in-app purchases,” as a result of the sheer size of its subscriber base, Netflix is positioned to become a formidable presence in the subscription gaming space, Broughton says.

“From one perspective, you could argue that Netflix is attempting to steal a bit of the market with some of the new, emerging subscription gaming platforms,” Broughton says. “Its offering still looks very different because it’s so mobile-centric as opposed to a lot of these platforms, which are focusing on Triple-A games. Nonetheless, it’s a foothold in the market and helps the company to experiment. And I suspect we’ll begin to see bigger and better games as time goes by.”

However, with a modest offering at launch, Netflix’s global launch on Android had just five games available — we’re quite a ways out from Netflix being a gaming competitor in earnest, says Argus Research analyst Joseph Bonner. Bonner tells The Verge that while games certainly make Netflix more “sticky,” it’ll likely be some time before we understand how games are actually impacting the service in any meaningful way. While Bonner thinks it’s a smart business strategy, in the grand scheme of Netflix’s business at present, he says, “this is a very small part of the pie.”

Netflix may be starting small on games, but the company has said it wants “to begin to build a library of games that offers something for everyone.” And Netflix has made it clear that it values games above merely swiping up whatever IP scraps are being picked over by other services. As Broughton notes, Netflix may even experiment with more advanced gaming down the line.

Still, Broughton believes Netflix’s launch of games within the app itself is “absolutely essential” to ensuring widespread adoption. It lowers the barrier to entry and makes it easier for Netflix to woo potential gamers who might have otherwise missed its games entirely. And if Netflix is hoping to make itself even more addictive than it already is, games might just be the way to do it.

Update November 9th, 3:20PM ET: This article has been updated to reflect that Netflix games are now available on iOS and iPad.