‘Are you still playing?’: What the future holds for Netflix’s Interactive Entertainment

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‘Are you still playing?’: What the future holds for Netflix’s Interactive Entertainment

‘Are you still playing?’: What the future holds for Netflix’s Interactive Entertainment

To start with an understatement: The streaming world has become an incredibly crowded space. Netflix’s long standing as the streaming trailblazer has begun to fade, as fast-rising competitors HBO Max and Disney Plus learn from its moves, avoiding many of the pitfalls it first experienced. This has created an uncertainty in Netflix’s future as the leading SVOD service, a title which it has held onto for nearly a decade. However, the company still holds one card that no other company has yet been able to pull: Interactive Entertainment.

With the arrival of yet another milestone in interactive experimentation with Netflix’s first foreign-language interactive special Ranveer vs. Wild, I spoke with Weil and Schlafman on what the company has learned from the last five years of interactive experimentation, where interactive entertainment sits in the company’s prospects, and the roadmap for the future of this new strand of streaming.

This led Netflix to create their own bespoke tool, known as Branch Manager, for the pair — essentially, Branch Manager operated as a more advanced flow chart that allowed the creative team to actually see the different paths users could take, charting the numerous splintering at choice points up to their conclusions.

Branch Manager has come a long way from its bespoke origins for Bandersnatch, and the program they use today is a far cry from Branch Manager 1.0. “In the early days, you would just preview the content from start to end without knowing what path you took — so to actually QA was quite laborious. Now, Branch Manager tracks the choices you’re making, which can then be exported so you can look back and understand ‘OK, I did this playthrough and these are working, but then why did this go wrong, and I got a bad ending?’”

This streamlining of Branch Manager’s quality assurance enables the Interactive Experiences team to develop their projects at a faster rate than previous years by learning from the mistakes and troubleshooting of the titles that came previously. The division has performed formal research with every Interactive Experiences creative team once development is over, understanding what that team struggled with and how they can continually improve the development process. Over the past five years, it’s become evident to Schlafman and Weil that investing in the technological and educational development of the Interactive Experiences is key to upgrading their experimental content, especially when it comes to on-boarding new creators. “We packed a lot of materials from past titles and examples of great choice points and UI aesthetics into what we call the Interactive Hub. It’s almost like a university-in-a-box class for all things Netflix Interactive.”

That learning has led to a richer, deeper form of data being extracted, which Schlafman and his team processed in the forms of “macro themes:” “We began to notice a number of themes recurring across our titles, so we do a lot of qualitative research after we launch to try and understand the themes of why people lean into certain choices versus others,” Schlafman says. “In some ways, that data is really valuable, in some cases more valuable than the more direct forms of data, because we can understand what they’re feeling when they make these choices.” These “macro themes” have gone on to influence the teams at Netflix over their decisions on what projects to greenlight, as well as developing the technical complexity of the interactive experience further.

Of course, Interactive Experiences are still a whole different beast to a typical linear feature; the consolidation of understanding in how to develop Interactive Experiences has enabled the team to get more confident in expanding their horizons and taking on bigger experiments. That comes with production challenges. Interactive content often shoots twice the content necessary for a linear feature, alongside a greater budget requirement due to the greater level of coverage required. There’s also the significant challenge in the editing process: an editor has to essentially edit multiple mini-stories within a wider, sprawling network, keeping track of multiple sequences out of order, time, and sometimes space, rather than a linear sequence of events.

Given the growing shift into playable content, Schlafman explains that the mission statement for Interactive Experiences under his and Weil’s watch has shifted since they first took over Fisher. “Over the last year, we’ve been really trying to look at the full interactivity spectrum, from the essentially linear content with some interactivity on top, all the way to full blown games, which we’re dipping our toes into — we’re really excited about that.” This has included attempting to apply interactive capabilities to sitcoms, reality television, and even collaborating with companies like Headspace.

“The choice set for interactive is never going to be the same as games, right? We’re making movies and TV, telling stories with really simple methods of interactivity compared to games.”

Given the lack of deeper investment in Netflix’s more recent game-like titles, it stands to reason that these developers may hold the key to solving this issue. If there’s any group of people who will know how to marry the two types of content, surely it’s them? When I mention the possibility of Netflix Games and Interactive Experiences crossing over, Weil doesn’t shoot down the idea — but there is a big condition: “I think that there’s potential, but it’s going to be about the story first and foremost. If there’s a great story from the Games team, we’ll go for it.”

On that same note of the company’s pivots into new avenues of content, I also ask him if there have been any discussions around interactive entertainment’s potential in Netflix’s exploration of live-streamed entertainment, but at this moment in time, there haven’t been.

Ultimately, while there has been a lot of developments on the Interactive Experiences team from an educational and technological front, the division is still committed to experimenting with the interactive formula rather than sticking to the comfort of one specific format like narrative storytelling or appointment-based gaming: “We don’t really know yet where the next best story is coming from, which is why we’re so dedicated to experimenting even five years on.” When Bandersnatch arrived onto the platform, it felt like a ground-breaking moment for the service, and some may be waiting for a specific title that signals the arrival of the next level of Interactive Entertainment.

Just out of my own curiosity, I asked the pair if they had been speaking to the Duffer Brothers about doing anything in the world of interactive entertainment: “No comment,” said Weil, with a small, hinting smile.