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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The Indie Title That Could Make or Break Netflix Games

The entirety of Night School Studio used to fit into a single room. The biggest bragging rights for its Glendale, California, office were that it shared the building with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s media company, HitRecord.

In 2014, Night School, cofounded by cousins Sean Krankel and Adam Hines, was one of many independent studios cropping up as more game devs sought creative freedom from their pedantic overlords. Krankel—a former developer for Disney, charismatic, enthusiastic, and chatty—was a natural megaphone for the new company and its vision. His more stoic partner, Hines, was the established creative talent behind the beloved graphic novel Duncan the Wonder Dog. Hines was fresh off a stint at Telltale Games, then known as one of the best shops for narrative work. The pair rallied a handful of artists and designers, scrappy young talent who released supernatural thriller Oxenfree in 2016. Gamers loved it.

By 2021, Night School had released three more games, including a tie-in to the USA Network TV show Mr. Robot and another adventure game for consoles, Afterparty. It was working on a sequel to its debut title when it completely altered its own trajectory: In September of that year, Night School got acquired by Netflix as part of the streaming giant’s major foray into the game space.

This month, as the games industry watches Microsoft’s attempted acquisition of Activision Blizzard with held breath, Night School and Netflix will find out whether their alliance paid off with the release of Oxenfree II: Lost Signals. It will likely be a litmus test: a gauge of what the future looks like when large tech companies absorb smaller creators—and whether streaming services can provide a haven for indies.

For Krankel, it’s also a chance to see whether Night School’s games can reach mass appeal. Like the rest of Netflix, the games division is “striving to be ubiquitous,” he says, and soon the studio will know if Oxenfree II can reach that level. Netflix has hundreds of millions of subscribers, and not all of them are gamers, so it’s not about pulling in Squid Game levels of eyeballs but rather being a key part of Netflix Games, and Netflix broadly.

“It doesn’t mean every piece of entertainment works for every audience member. It means having so much choice on the service that anyone can find their next favorite movie, show, or game,” Krankel says. “So for us, we’re actually trying not to overthink it.”

Night School Studios’ games are, at heart, about growth. They tell stories about surviving different stages of life. Krankel describes the studio’s style as beyond just a bunch of branching little narratives: “It's more like, how can we make a game feel like a personality test at times?” 

Oxenfree is a teen coming-of-age story set on a spooky island. Afterparty is a razor-sharp romp about two college kids trying to outdrink the devil in hell. It was comedy at quipped-up speed, with a goal of keeping players laughing every few lines. Oxenfree II isn’t as concerned with busting your sides—not a comedy, not completely drama. Hines says it’s meant to “really mimic the cadence” of real life, albeit in supernatural situations. Shock and horror call for appropriate reactions in the moment, but characters fall back on humor as a defense mechanism.

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Where its predecessor was about the pangs of teenage life, Oxenfree II is tackling far more terrifying territory: being in your thirties. But it’s tricky to map specific life experiences to someone’s thirties the way a creator can with high school or college. “Maybe the stuff that I went through as a 35-year-old, a lot of people went through when they were 25, or 45,” says Hines. Still, being in your twenties is a time of exploration and potential. By the time you hit your mid-thirties, he says, you’ve lived long enough to have decided and lived out some of that potential. The road now is half ahead, half behind.

In other words, to Oxenfree II’s creators, “this is a great lens to tell a horror story,” Hines says, “to have a big problem really exacerbated and to put a magnifying lens on these characters’ personal issues and choices.”

Though the Netflix acquisition took place partway through Oxenfree II’s development, the team says it hasn’t changed the direction of the game or the story they wanted to tell. It’s an end of sorts, a send-off for what could be the last time they create this specific genre of game. “We kind of had the both spoken and unspoken mindset of ‘we don't want to be the studio that only makes games that look exactly like this,’” Hines says. “We've piled on every idea that we had for Oxenfree and Afterparty that we just didn't either have enough time to make or didn't exactly fit.”

The team working on Oxenfree II is roughly as large as the original game’s dev team, a sign of how the studio is splitting more of its work up for other long-term projects. Under the safety of Netflix’s financial umbrella, Night School has grown from a handful of full-time employees and contractors to a team of more than 40 people. According to Krankel, that growth isn’t as “explosive” as it sounds. “It really was more like the Indiana Jonessandbag into the golden idol’ thing, like we were moving folks into roles that we just couldn't afford full-time before.”

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While a head-tilter to some, the deal was a mutually beneficial agreement for both parties. Netflix picked up a beloved small studio with a knack for narrative—a soft sell for a company wanting to highlight storytelling on streaming services. Night School, which had been on the hunt for a bigger company to attach itself to, got to expand its stories beyond a gaming audience. Prior to its acquisition of Night School, Netflix had added Oxenfree to its gaming library in 31 languages. Their relationship was established, successful, and by all accounts friendly when the offer came in. “It was equal parts a long time coming and also a massive surprise,” Krankel says.

Krankel is also quick to dispel any notions that Night School, as a small studio in a crowded gaming landscape, needed the deal to stay afloat. “It wasn’t necessarily survival, but it was bumping us up to the next level,” he says. “There's feast or famine as an independent studio, and there are times where it gets really tight. But it never got so tight that we were about to shut the doors.”

Today, top-shelf gaming companies are gobbling up small—and not-so-small—studios with alarming speed. Netflix has acquired half a dozen game devs and award-winning titles like Monument Valley as it plods along its carefully iterated path. The streaming giant’s play for a handful of indie studios is a sneeze in the wind against Microsoft’s $69 billion bid for Call of Duty maker Activision Blizzard. It’s a less forgiving environment than it was when Night School hung its shingle in 2014, and a far deeper pool for any small developers looking to make their mark. If Night School tried to launch in 2023, on its own—well, it might not make it.

“We have talked about this a lot internally, about how hard it would have been to come out the way we did with the game that we did, if we tried to do that today,” Krankel says. “There's so many stellar independent developers out there, but many have backing from more than just themselves. That makes it way more competitive.”

Over the years, many successful indie developers have all but disappeared post-acquisition: Firewatch creator Campo Santo when it got purchased by Valve, Rocket League maker Psyonix under Epic, Returnal’s Housemarque at Sony, OlliOlli maker Roll7 into Take-Two. Netflix’s specific purchases don’t necessarily point to further consolidation in the space, says Parrot Analytics director of strategy (and a former colleague of this writer) Julia Alexander. What it does suggest is a need for indie studios to find strong distributors. 

“Microsoft is heavily consolidating AAA studios, Sony is working with more in-house companies, and Nintendo operates on its own,” Alexander says. “For indie game studios that are trying to find strong distribution partners and reach sizable audiences, companies like Netflix or Amazon suddenly offer more stability in a heavily transient industry.”

So the search for a bigger company to join has to be a careful one, which led Night School to turn away from potential partners over the years. “None of them ended up sitting correctly for a variety of reasons. We thought that we might get chopped up and turned into some part of a bigger Borg,” he says. “Is Netflix much safer than other companies that are out there? I don't necessarily know.” But the acquisition relieved specific pain points, allowing Night School to hire the people it needed, and didn’t force the company to hit difficult release dates with a diminishing pile of time and money.

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And, of course, Netflix is big. Like dedicated-button-on-a-TV-remote big.

“Being able to be more on the world's stage has given us a little bit more pressure behind us in a good way,” says Krankel. “We feel like we have as much to live up to as the first time we came out with our first game.”

As Hollywood increasingly sets its sights on games as a treasure trove for untapped stories, it doesn’t hurt to be cozy with a streaming service either. Oxenfree II’s developers have a history of working on licensed properties that extends beyond their Night School days. Krankel describes past experiences as “super siloed, where decisions get made on a mountaintop” that developers had to live with.

But as shows like HBO’s The Last of Us break records, it signals a change in the way games are mixing into the larger Hollywood scene. “It's because those walls have dropped between” game devs and film and TV makers, Krankel says. “But I'd be curious to see how that's going to unfold truly over the next few years—or if some of these things are just lightning in a bottle.” Night School is uniquely positioned to test that theory.

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