Choose What Interactive Video Will Be: Boom or Bust?

Choose What Interactive Video Will Be: Boom or Bust?
Variety Intelligence Platform; You vs. Wild: Courtesy of Netflix

After Netflix debuted its latest interactive video offering today, “You vs. Wild: Out Cold,” it’s worth wondering just how many subscribers are wild about this innovative format after a lot of effort on this front from the streaming service.  

Various experiments have gone on for decades that let viewers choose what path they want to take in a story via technology that allows for branching narratives. Interactive video startups like Rapt, HapYak, Eko (formerly Interlude), Wirewax, TouchCast, Adways Studios and Zentrick preached the message of ubiquitously interactive video in the early and mid-2010s. 

But what was once a fringe curiosity got sexy when Netflix in late 2019 debuted its interactive “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” film. Since then, a wave of notable media and tech players (such as YouTube, BuzzFeed, Tinder, iQiYi and Food Network) have made their interest in interactive content known. 

Now that Netflix is giving TV adventurer Bear Grylls the latest interactive treatment, it seems as good a time as any to ask whether this format is a disposable gimmick unworthy of future investment or the birth of a new kind of media that requires still more patience.  

Netflix has very quietly continued its interactive content push since the “Bandersnatch” days, releasing 15 interactive titles to date. But since 2019, when Netflix started regularly disclosing viewership figures (selectively), the streamer has not disclosed a viewership metric for any of its interactive titles, suggesting they haven’t blown up on the service as much as marquee Netflix titles. 

This could be due to the majority of Netflix’s interactive titles being shorts with a total listed runtime of 40 minutes or less. Some Netflix viewers might only be interested in viewing series they can binge watch or movies that can distract them for longer than an hour, for example. 

“You vs. Wild: Out Cold” is another short, with a listed runtime of 25 minutes, though viewers may end up sitting through the title for as much as 45 minutes based on their choices.  

This begs the question of why Netflix is even still interested in interactive content. There’s likely more than one answer to that (as Netflix sees it). Netflix could even use the information gathered from interactive title choices to inform its content strategy. If Netflix offered an interactive title based on “Stranger Things,” where viewers could choose between going through the story as any of the franchise’s main characters and the majority of viewers chose Eleven, that would help Netflix justify creating a spinoff "Stranger Things” focused on Eleven. 

But probably more important to Netflix now is how interactive content could inform its entrance into video games. Netflix confirmed its games expansion in its Q2 earnings report and started testing games in its Android app in Poland in late August.  

If Netflix is on the fence about creating a video game from one of its original franchises, it could first choose to create an interactive short based on the franchise. And that interactive short receiving high viewership and competition rates could help Netflix justify moving forward with a video game push. 

Nailing video games is becoming more important for Netflix as it aims to compete for eyeballs against large gaming platforms that are increasingly offering non-gaming entertainment elements (including concerts or movie events).  

Roblox, which partnered with Warner Bros. to stage a launch party for “In the Heights” on the platform on June 11, in Q2 reported its daily users were up 29% year-over-year. Fortnite, which has been a leader among gaming platforms in putting on large-scale virtual events (concerts from Marshmello, Travis Scott and Ariana Grande), in May 2020 reported 350 million registered players, up from 250 million in March 2019. 

“You vs. Wild: Out Cold” won’t be the last interactive content coming on Netflix.; an interactive horror movie (developed with WWE) debuts on Oct. 5.