Netflix tests ‘game handles’ in select mobile titles amid development of social gaming features

Netflix is developing features that would allow members to play its mobile games with one another and competitively rank themselves on gaming leaderboards. The company, starting last month, quietly launched the ability for users to create unique “game handles” in a subset of its mobile games, including Into The Breach, followed by Bowling Ballers, Mahjong Solitaire and Heads Up!. In addition, references uncovered in the Netflix app point to expanded gaming ambitions, including the ability to invite other users to play games with you and a feature that would let you see where you rank on leaderboards, among other things.

The company confirmed it’s exploring various gaming features in a statement provided to TechCrunch but couldn’t speak to which features, beyond game handles, would be publicly rolled out to users or when that would occur.

“We are always looking to improve our member’s experience on the service and are exploring different features to enrich the Netflix mobile games experience,” Netflix spokesperson Kumiko Hidaka said. “We don’t have anything else to share at this time.”

The additions suggest Netflix is looking toward a future that isn’t just about making mobile games available to its subscribers, but one that encourages members to participate in gaming by playing with others. The news follows the recent reveal that Netflix has been hiring engineers and product managers with backgrounds in cloud gaming.

According to the findings, first discovered by developer Steve Moser, Netflix is allowing users to set up something called a “game handle,” which is described as “a unique public name for playing games on Netflix.”

Netflix first began its tests of game handles in the game Into The Breach starting on July 19, 2022, before expanding the option to other titles.

Additionally, Netflix explains to app users that: “Your profile icon and name will not be visible to others playing Netflix Games.” (In other words, you can be known by a nickname instead of your Netflix name and identity.)

While the game handles test has rolled out, code in the app suggests Netflix plans to later allow users to see where they are on leaderboards and represent the user across Netflix Games. And the handles will be used when “you play with other members,” the code states.

Another section makes references to the ability for users to display to others if they’re online, if they want to play and offers the ability to invite members to play with them, as well.

Adding more social components is likely one of the ways Netflix aims to better attract and retain subscribers.

But, so far, Netflix hasn’t seen outsized demand for its mobile games.

App data firm Apptopia recently found that Netflix games were only averaging 1.7 million daily users, CNBC had first reported. In total, the two dozen-plus games in Netflix’s catalog had seen just 23.3 million downloads to date. Netflix, for comparison, has 221 million subscribers.

Of course, some of Netflix’s games had built-in user bases before being acquired by Netflix. But while that could account for some uncounted downloads, the engagement levels are fairly low.

Whether Netflix has made a strategic error by moving into gaming remains to be seen, as it’s still early days.

To its credit, Netflix found a workaround to Apple’s rule that apps on its App Store platform can’t host their own app stores — Netflix lists its games as separate downloads and just points to them from its main app, which is permitted. The games then require your Netflix credentials to sign in.

However, mobile consumers may not think to look to Netflix for this sort of entertainment any more than they think to launch Netflix when they’re in the mood for TikTok-like short-form videos — the latter Netflix promotes in its main navigation as “Fast Laughs.

The streamer’s premise seems to be that it must boost its lagging subscriber numbers by offering more avenues for entertainment. But the broader feedback from critics and users alike is that what they really want from Netflix isn’t games or TikToks, just more quality shows.