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Netflix just got into video games. It’s already playing catch-up with ‘Squid Game’ fans.

(The Washington Post illustration; Photo by YOUNGKYU PARK / Netflix / AFP)
8 min

If anybody is primed to be the “Netflix of gaming” — a long-discussed aspiration of video game streaming services — you’d think it would be Netflix. This week’s long-awaited launch of games on Netflix comes at an auspicious time: “Squid Game” mania has overtaken the gaming landscape, with a wave of titles gamifying the show’s action sequences rising in popularity. But the streaming platform’s initial video game offerings do nothing to capitalize on that, despite Netflix owning the popular show. Of all the “Squid Game” copycat video games, not one is made by or belongs to Netflix.

Earlier this year, the gaming industry fervently speculated as rumors and reports suggested that Netflix — the reigning heavyweight champion of living rooms across the world — was about to enter the video game arena. Flash forward to now: On Tuesday, Netflix added several previously released games (and one newcomer) to its Android mobile app. These releases have failed to garner much excitement. On platforms like Steam, YouTube and Twitch, however, players can’t get enough of fan-made games based on Netflix’s latest TV sensation, “Squid Game.”

Case in point: The boldly named “Crab Game” has managed to pull in tens of thousands of concurrent players on PC gaming platform Steam each day since it launched on Oct. 29. Twitch viewers have turned out in similar numbers to watch their favorite streamers play it — and in some cases, play it with them. Created by Daniel Sooman, a solo developer and YouTuber who goes by the handle “Dani,” “Crab Game” hardly sports the polished sheen you’d associate with a popular Netflix property, but it doesn’t need to. The allure of “Squid Game”-esque challenges paired with online multiplayer has been enough to transform it into an overnight hit. The fact that it’s free probably hasn’t hurt either.

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Then again, any sort of price tag would have likely upped the risk of legal ramifications. “Crab Game’s” Steam page includes a disclaimer: “Definitely not based on any online streaming pop culture Korean TV shows, as that would get me in legal trouble, so we’re certainly not doing that.” Netflix did not reply to The Post’s inquiries about whether it plans to take action against any popular video games based on “Squid Game.”

“Am I concerned about a cease-and-desist letter? Nope,” Sooman said. “I am a YouTuber, after all. A cease-and-desist letter would make for an absolute banger video! I would simply remove the three game modes from ‘Squid Game,’ change the player aesthetics and relaunch the game. Can you imagine how many views that video would pull? ‘I had to fix my game because Netflix got angry.’ Boom. Ten million views just like that, all while having fun revamping the game completely.”

Dani, who has nearly 3 million subscribers on YouTube, went on to say that making these sorts of videos more than recoups the cost of game development, even when he releases games free. “If you can get millions of views on every video, you are earning more than enough money,” he said.

“Crab Game” follows an explosion of fan-made “Squid Game” clones, particularly in games that enable players to create their own content like “Minecraft” and “Roblox,” as well as on mobile devices. For the past month and change, these games have formed the backbone of countless YouTubers’ content; in fact, many younger people may have hopped aboard the “Squid Game” bandwagon not because of the TV show, but because of tense minigames they watched their favorite personalities try (and often fail) to overcome. Perhaps it’s not ideal for a show with “Squid Game’s” openly anti-capitalist message to have been reduced to a series of endlessly commodifiable games and pieces of iconography, but that has undeniably aided its viral spread.

Netflix is no stranger to hits that — at least for a few weeks or months — dominate online discourse. One such series is “Stranger Things,” which rocketed to popularity when it first premiered back in 2016. Since then, Netflix has teamed up with developer BonusXP to release two games based on the series across a variety of platforms, one in 2017 and another in 2019. As of earlier this week, both of those games are now available on the Netflix app alongside casual games like “Shooting Hoops,” “Teeter Up” and the service’s sole newly released game, “Card Blast.”

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“Stranger Things” is still a popular TV series, but its big moment of cultural relevance has passed. “Squid Game,” on the other hand, is arguably at the peak of its popularity, a seemingly inexhaustible source of Halloween costume ideas, “SNL” sketches and memes. While Netflix is, in its own words, “in the early days of creating a great gaming experience,” capitalizing on this sort of moment would be challenging for even a fully dialed-in video game publisher. “Squid Game” was an unexpected, border-transcending megahit, and making a quality video game can take years. How can an entity like Netflix capitalize on out-of-nowhere hits of this nature when fans can move so much faster and are not held to the same standard of quality? Perhaps it’s not possible.

The streaming platform is clearly interested in approaching games from other angles as well. Already, Netflix has released several TV series based on (or associated with) popular video games. “The Witcher” leads the charge in terms of sheer popularity, but there’s also “Castlevania” and “Dota: Dragon’s Blood” among others, with potential heavy hitters like “Arcane” — based on Riot’s massively popular multiplayer game “League of Legends” — set to premiere soon. In the past, Netflix has made its intentions on this front known. It views video games as one of its primary sources of competition, and if you can’t beat them, eat them.

“We earn consumer screen time, both mobile and television, away from a very broad set of competitors,” read a Q4 2018 earnings statement from the company. “We compete with (and lose to) ‘Fortnite’ more than HBO.”

To that end, Netflix has already purchased a game development studio, Night School Studio, the creator of acclaimed narrative game “Oxenfree.” In the longer term, though, it would not be shocking to see Netflix more fully leverage its subscription service — which boasts 209 million subscribers and spans countless devices — to make its library of games more broadly accessible.

On that front, Netflix faces an uphill battle. Subscription service success stories are still few and far between in video games, and Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass has come out as an early front-runner to claim the coveted throne of “Netflix for games.” Compared to Game Pass, which offers hundreds of games and already spans Xbox consoles, mobile, PC and (soon) smart TVs, Netflix — with just a handful of games that don’t even tap into its own zeitgeist — is only just getting started.

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The future, meanwhile, is full of thornier questions: As subscription-based video game services grow, will companies like Microsoft and Netflix adapt their business models to match? Will they continue to pay video game publishers lump sums for placement on their platforms, or will they adapt Spotify-style “per play” models? Developers fear the “per play” model could corral them into making specific types of games designed to keep players coming back indefinitely. Microsoft, for example, is already experimenting with models based on “usage and monetization” in addition to upfront payments.

With all the proprietary technology and subscription gating it implies, a potential subscription-based future for video games also endangers the sort of openness that allowed fans to create and proliferate their own takes on “Squid Game.” Right now, multiple game platforms and games allow users to upload their own content and, in some cases, sell their own video games. But a company like Netflix might not be so keen to let that happen if they saw those games as competition or a legal liability as opposed to free marketing.

At this point, nothing is guaranteed. The video game industry is a massive, constantly shifting landscape that has thwarted numerous big companies. Netflix is, well, Netflix, but it’s in no way immune to those trends. This slow start seems to be at least somewhat by design, but it also means that Netflix is going to have to work hard if it wants to catch up to both Microsoft and its own fans — a tall order in both directions.