Just over two years ago, Netflix announced it would enter a new business: gaming. Amid a mobile gaming market dominated by free-to-play and ad-supported business models, Netflix’s plan was to make its games free without ads or in-app purchases. The gambit may now be starting to pay off. In 2023, Netflix Games downloads increased by over 180% year-over-year, according to estimates from market intelligence firm Sensor Tower. In total, the games have been downloaded 81.2 million times worldwide across the App Store and Google Play in 2023, with the fourth quarter accounting for around 53% of those downloads.
That’s up from 36% of Netflix’s 2022 game downloads being driven by fourth-quarter installs, the data indicates. In 2022, Netflix games were downloaded 28.7 million times, and in 2021, 5.2 million times, Sensor Tower estimates.
Initially a small effort that saw Netflix building a catalog with a variety of casual games and those tied to Netflix’s hit shows, like “Stranger Things,” the company soon began acquiring game studios, including “Oxenfree” developer Night School Studio in 2021, followed the next year by cozy games developer Spry Fox, Finland’s Next Games (publisher of a “Stranger Things” title), and Texas-based Boss Fight Entertainment, founded by former Zynga Dallas and Ensemble Studios employees.
The goal was to quickly develop a portfolio of games that appealed to mobile gamers’ varying tastes and genre preferences.
With the acquisitions, Netflix also established studios around the world, in addition to its own internal studios, including a Helsinki location led by a former Zynga GM and one in Southern California led by Chacko Sonny, the former executive producer on Overwatch from Blizzard Entertainment.
As the company now looks to cloud gaming as its next frontier, it continues to gain traction on the mobile front, as well. Despite having launched mid-way through last year, Netflix’s latest addition, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, has already become the streamer’s most-downloaded game of all time. It also got the most downloads in a single month across the entire gaming portfolio, says mobile app intelligence firm Appfigures. In addition, GTA: Vice City is Netflix’s sixth-most downloaded 2023 game, and GTA III was its eleventh-most downloaded game of the year, Sensor Tower data indicates.
The GTA games were an instant success, with all three collectively racking up over 6.4 million downloads in less than a week after arriving on Netflix. Combined, the trio of GTA games made up around 17% of Netflix’s 2023 gaming downloads, proving to be a hit with mobile audiences — and potentially a reason to maintain a Netflix subscription for the free access. Month-over-month downloads tripled for Netflix’s gaming portfolio in December after doubling in November, Appfigures noted.
Thanks to GTA titles’ popularity, “Action” games is Netflix’s top gaming genre, but Netflix’s gaming audience isn’t only glued to one type of game. Its second-most popular genre is “Lifestyle” gaming, thanks to the “Too Hot to Handle” games that delivered half of the Lifestyle category downloads, Sensor Tower data shows.
“Puzzle” games were the No. 3 genre, due to Netflix’s second-most popular game, the fairy tale puzzler Storyteller, launched in September 2023, which drove 10% of Netflix’s game downloads in the past year, says Sensor Tower. The title originally launched on PC and Nintendo Switch earlier in the year at a cost of $10. As Netflix’s lowest-cost subscription is $6.99 per month, the gaming service could appeal to consumers who are often seeking a variety of titles to rotate through during the year.
Due to the timing of GTA: San Andreas’ release, Storyteller was also the most downloaded game for December 2023, beating GTA: San Andreas by around 500,000 installs, notes Appfigures.
Many of Netflix’s games are tied to its streaming titles — like “Stranger Things,” which had its own subset of games and featured in Netflix’s version of the popular party game “Heads Up!” Other titles that became games include “The Queen’s Gambit,” “Too Hot to Handle,” “Money Heist,” “Shadow & Bone,” “Love Is Blind” and “Narcos. But many more are licensed or acquired titles that aren’t tied into Netflix programming.
For example, another top-downloaded game is “SpongeBob: Get Cooking,” a casual time management game based on the popular cartoon. Based on an analysis by Appfigures, GTA, Storyteller and Football Manager titles are also adding millions of downloads, indicating that a Netflix show tie-in is not necessary for gaming success. It also saw the tower defense title Bloons TD 6 as a top download as of last fall. However, the firm cautioned that the recent jump in downloads had come after “months of stagnation,” which suggests that Netflix may need regular releases and ongoing promotion to keep its game engine pumping.
Last year, it worked toward that goal with the release of 40 games, including popular titles like “Monument Valley” and two internally developed games, “Oxenfree II: Lost Signals” and “Netflix Stories: Love Is Blind.” It also began testing game play on TVs in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, and personalized gaming suggestions within its app.
But daily game downloads following the GTA releases have been tapering off. GTA: San Andreas saw 1 million downloads on December 16, 2023, but that’s fallen to less than 100,000 this Monday, for instance (see chart).
Now the company is building an AAA (big-budget) studio from scratch to work on a multi-platform game based on “unique IP,” according to a LinkedIn posting from a Netflix recruiter late last year. Game developers would work with industry veterans including Chacko Sonny, Gavin Irby, Joseph Staten, Rafael Grassetti and Jerry Edsall who are heading the studio, the post noted. Job listings today point to open roles for gameplay designers and a senior mobile engineer, indicating the title will be a cross-platform game.
The title would join Netflix’s now 89 total games across platforms — a figure sure to grow in 2024, as well, as Netflix announced in December that it has nearly 90 more games in development.