Netflix has hired former Oculus content VP Mike Verdu as vice president of game development, the company has confirmed to PC Gamer. Business journal Bloomberg (opens in new tab), which also spoke to an anonymous source at Netflix, characterizes the hire as Netflix's "first big move" toward an expansion into videogames.
Back in May, Netflix said that it's "excited to do more with interactive entertainment" following a rumor that it was planning to do exactly what we're hearing today: hire game development executives and make videogames. Bloomberg's source now says that Netflix hopes to offer games within a year.
What exactly that will look like is unclear, but one thing is clear: Everyone's getting into games these days, eh? Amazon and Google have seemingly struggled with the business (Amazon hasn't released anything good yet, and Google shut down its Stadia studios before they made anything at all), but to its credit, Netflix has already released something you could call a successful videogame. It produced Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive movie that we quite liked. You vs Wild was perhaps less successful, but James did enjoy making Bear Grylls eat bear poop.
Videos with choices aren't quite comparable to New World, Amazon's repeatedly-delayed attempt at an MMO, but I wonder if Netflix will stop with a "bear poo" button: Perhaps it will follow in the footsteps of other film companies and get a major game studio going before selling it to EA or Disney, who will later shut it down. That would be the traditional approach.
In seriousness, Bloomberg does suggest that Netflix's push into gaming isn't just about interactive shows, although it may start small and ramp up. The publication also points out that Netflix is accepting applications for a director of interactive product innovation (opens in new tab). That job listing does specifically reference Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, though, and says that the department is working on "game-like experiences, and different ways of interacting with stories." It doesn't sound like a Sex/Life MOBA is what the streaming service has in mind right now; I'd expect Bandersnatch-alikes for the time being.
Even if Netflix starts slow, though, I wouldn't be surprised if it took some big swings in the coming years. There are lots of streaming services with movies and TV shows, so Netflix's value currently relies on acquiring and developing exclusive hits. Adding game streaming would differentiate it from HBO, Disney, Hulu, and the others in a more fundamental way. And if game streaming is the future, as Google and Microsoft and Nvidia and everyone else seem to think, why shouldn't Netflix be the Netflix of games? That's what I'd be thinking if I were the sort of person who investors trusted to make them as much money as possible.
It's perhaps notable that Netflix has shown a general interest in the gaming audience recently. It teamed up with CD Projekt to put on WitcherCon the other day—The Netflix Witcher series benefited heavily from the popularity of the games, and vice versa—and it's been making a lot of shows based on games. Netflix's Castlevania series is the best of them so far, and there's more of that to come. The Dota series Netflix helped produce was so-so, but another season of that coming, too, and it's also got a League of Legends series on the way and some Ubisoft shows in development, including a live-action Assassin's Creed show and a Far Cry anime.
About today's big hire: Verdu was VP of VR/AR content at Facebook at last check, but making deals for Oculus games represents just a sliver of his total career. He co-founded '90s adventure game studio Legend Entertainment, and continued to run it after it was acquired by Atari. He then went on to oversee EA Los Angeles for nearly seven years, went to Zynga for a few years, founded a mobile developer, and then ran EA's mobile games division for a year and a half. Verdu appears in the credits of Unreal 2, Command & Conquer 3 and 4, and The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth, to name a few games. (Trivial side note: EA LA was one of those shuttered former movie studios I referenced; it started as DreamWorks Interactive.)
Netflix will be releasing its financial results for the second quarter of 2021 next week, on Tuesday, July 20, and it may make some noise about its plans around then.