Amazon and Netflix venture further into games
Battle Royale for the streaming giants
The newborn and I just finished watching Squid Game.
It’s the perfect show at 3 am between night feedings. Billed as a South Korean survival drama, the series offers a riff on the battle royale genre (which, BTW, is starting to show its age). In a sinister spectacle for a group of ultra-rich but bored men, 456 desperately poor contestants compete to the death in the hopes of winning a $40 million cash price. The brightly-colored cinematography is set in an infantile universe of ridiculously large playground equipment and belies its grown-up narrative.
Squid Game is also on track to become Netflix’ most popular non-English show ever. According to its co-CEO Sarandos, the South Korean tale is bigger even than Money Heist and Lupin. Speaking at Code Conference this week, Sarandos shared the top ranking series which explains why Netflix has been pushing into games.
I’ve highlighted the relevant titles. Three of the most popular series on Netflix plug into a broader gamer universe. The Witcher, of course, is one of the top-selling role-playing fantasy games of recent years, selling over 50 million copies worldwide. Next, Stranger Things’ entire premise is straight from a Dungeons & Dragons manual. In fact, it has its own. And perhaps you’ll find it somewhat of a stretch to add The Queen’s Gambit, which is a book adaptation, as a meaningful participant in the video game/Hollywood matrix. That doesn’t change the fact that the series triggered a run on chess boards and rejuvenated the game’s popularity. The same can be said for The Witcher which was also a book first.
What matters is the effective cross-play between gaming properties and adjacent entertainment categories. It is not about mutual exclusivity. Instead, game-based adaptations offer a rich tapestry of complementary experiences that are greater than the sum of its parts.
The biggest challenge for Netflix is going to be the jump from discrete assets which can be acquired outright (e.g., a movie) to facilitating rich online game worlds that have to be carefully grown over time. With the acquisition of Night School Studio, Netflix is formulating a strong strategy to differentiate itself around player-driven narratives without exposing itself financially.
Meanwhile, competitor Amazon seems to have accomplished something new. After a string of abject disasters, including putting Crucible back into closed beta because there wasn’t a “healthy, sustainable future,” the release of New World, an open world MMO PC game, managed to get over 700,000 concurrent players. That’s a big deal and, at least for now, a strong start. By comparison, Crucible only managed a peak of 25,000 concurrents on its first day.
Somewhat surprisingly, Amazon’s very own AWS servers gave out due to the demand. That’s both good and bad news. It’s good because such popularity is encouraging and a clear proof point. It is bad because, well, it raises questions on Amazon’s ability to facilitate a successful day 1 launch. If they can’t even keep it together for their own title, what will that look like for anyone else’s?
What follows for Amazon are two hard questions. First, can this sustain? Ideally, New World will bring Amazon the critical acclaim that can serve as an anchor for its broader ambitions in gaming. Nintendo has the Mario and Zelda franchises; Microsoft has Halo, etc. Hopefully Amazon has a fleshed out strategy here to disprove its critics and attract an audience to call its own.
Second, what comes next? Even a wildly successful game isn’t a full deck. To be a credible platform and competitive game service provider, Amazon is going to need to build out a broader, more diverse offering, or it will prove another blind squirrel that happened upon a nut.
Big tech firms are increasingly competing over audience and attention span. Streaming, both video-on-demand and gaming, presents a frantically competitive category because audiences can still only watch one show or play one game at a time.
At some point during last night’s feeding it dawned on me that Squid Game offers an inverted metaphor from the Hunger Games that sit at the center of its narrative universe. After witnessing the gaudy, ultra-rich exhibitionism that we saw on display at the Met Gala, it is perhaps those same enormous and seemingly omnipotent media firms at the intersection of tech and entertainment that are in a desperate struggle to fight, kill, and die for our attention.
I’m stoked for the next season.
HEY! I write a weekly newsletter on gaming, tech, and entertainment. If you haven’t already bought my book, One Up, you should subscribe to the SuperJoost Playlist.