How Netflix creates their interactive programming (and what comes next)

To start with an understatement: The streaming world has become an incredibly crowded space. Netflix’s long standing as the streaming trailblazer has begun to fade, as fast-rising competitors HBO Max and Disney Plus learn from its moves, avoiding many of the pitfalls it first experienced. This has created an uncertainty in Netflix’s future as the leading SVOD service, a title which it has held onto for nearly a decade. However, the company still holds one card that no other company has yet been able to pull: Interactive Entertainment.

While many likely remember Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch as the first Interactive Entertainment title, the actual answer is a show that many on the platform have likely never seen — 2017’s Puss in Boots: Trapped in an Epic Tale. This is because when the Interactive Entertainment initiative was first conceived, its original target audience was actually kids, not adults.

Netflix’s former director of product innovation Carla Fisher spoke to The Verge back in 2017, outlining her mission statement as “kids think everything is interactive.” Fisher was brought in by Netflix to develop children’s titles, including Puss in Boots. While she had previously worked for PBS Kids, what made Fisher different from most is that her background was in game design, and looked at Netflix not as a streaming service, but as an “interactive device ecosystem.”

The initiative that she began has now been carried on by fellow founder of the Interactive Entertainment team and now vice president of comedy Andy Weil, and Dave Schlafman, the current design director of content experiences. These two have sought to expand its audience from children’s entertainment into more adult-oriented stories, starting with the groundbreaking Black Mirror special.

Since Bandersnatch we’ve seen the first interactive reality television show with You vs. Wild, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the first Netflix IP to experiment with a playable narrative, and most recently more ludic-orientated titles like Cat Burglar and Trivia Quest.

With the arrival of yet another milestone in interactive experimentation with Netflix’s first foreign-language interactive special Ranveer vs. Wild, I spoke with Weil and Schlafman on what the company has learned from the last five years of interactive experimentation, where interactive entertainment sits in the company’s prospects, and the roadmap for the future of this new strand of streaming.

Branching out

The road to Bandersnatch was one that appeared naively simple to Black Mirror creators Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones. But when attempting trial runs of the different branching paths, it quickly became apparent that a simple flowchart wasn’t going to cut it, as Schlafman mentions: “When we did Bandersnatch, we realised there was nothing that exists on the market that could enable Charlie and Annabel to preview their interactive video.”

This led Netflix to create their own bespoke tool, known as Branch Manager, for the pair — essentially, Branch Manager operated as a more advanced flow chart that allowed the creative team to actually see the different paths users could take, charting the numerous splintering at choice points up to their conclusions.

This allowed the Black Mirror team to clearly integrate the 250 segments of footage that comprised the labyrinthine pathways into clear visualizations. Not only did it help the crew to understand the different strands and multiplicity of sequences, it also aided the cast in figuring out where their character is in any specific sequence at any given time. In an interview for a Bandersnatch featurette, Will Poulter outlined the difficulty as, “Sometimes I’d be delivering what I thought was version three of the dialogue and I can see the actor opposite giving me the eyes as if to say, ‘That’s version four, mate!’” At the time, editor Tony Kearns recalled the process to PostPerspective as “the biggest challenge of my editing career;” without Branch Manager, it’s possible Bandersnatch may have been too difficult a challenge. Now, it’s an essential tool in Interactive Experiences’ workshop.

Branch Manager has come a long way from its bespoke origins for Bandersnatch, and the program they use today is a far cry from Branch Manager 1.0. “In the early days, you would just preview the content from start to end without knowing what path you took — so to actually QA was quite laborious. Now, Branch Manager tracks the choices you’re making, which can then be exported so you can look back and understand ‘OK, I did this playthrough and these are working, but then why did this go wrong, and I got a bad ending?’”

This streamlining of Branch Manager’s quality assurance enables the Interactive Experiences team to develop their projects at a faster rate than previous years by learning from the mistakes and troubleshooting of the titles that came previously. The division has performed formal research with every Interactive Experiences creative team once development is over, understanding what that team struggled with and how they can continually improve the development process. Over the past five years, it’s become evident to Schlafman and Weil that investing in the technological and educational development of the Interactive Experiences is key to upgrading their experimental content, especially when it comes to on-boarding new creators. “We packed a lot of materials from past titles and examples of great choice points and UI aesthetics into what we call the Interactive Hub. It’s almost like a university-in-a-box class for all things Netflix Interactive.”

That learning has led to a richer, deeper form of data being extracted, which Schlafman and his team processed in the forms of “macro themes:” “We began to notice a number of themes recurring across our titles, so we do a lot of qualitative research after we launch to try and understand the themes of why people lean into certain choices versus others,” Schlafman says. “In some ways, that data is really valuable, in some cases more valuable than the more direct forms of data, because we can understand what they’re feeling when they make these choices.” These “macro themes” have gone on to influence the teams at Netflix over their decisions on what projects to greenlight, as well as developing the technical complexity of the interactive experience further.

Image: Netflix

A screenshot of Cat Burglar with the burglar standing in a hallway looking at a small guard dog. There are arrows pointing to them with their names along with an arrow pointing right that reads “Priceless display room”

Photo: Netflix

A screenshot of the Headspace interactive, with a shot of a house in an animated field and a moon/stars-filled sky

Image: Netflix

Of course, Interactive Experiences are still a whole different beast to a typical linear feature; the consolidation of understanding in how to develop Interactive Experiences has enabled the team to get more confident in expanding their horizons and taking on bigger experiments. That comes with production challenges. Interactive content often shoots twice the content necessary for a linear feature, alongside a greater budget requirement due to the greater level of coverage required. There’s also the significant challenge in the editing process: an editor has to essentially edit multiple mini-stories within a wider, sprawling network, keeping track of multiple sequences out of order, time, and sometimes space, rather than a linear sequence of events.

While Black Mirror’s concept is well-suited to the tech company’s experimentation with new technology, when it comes to more traditional, grounded stories, the creative team involved have to reconfigure their how the idea of user interactivity can function authentically within their story world. In an interview with ScreenRant about Cat Burglar, Charlie Brooker mentioned that the project’s more game-like focus meant “it’s hard to get the difficulty right on something that isn’t inherently a gaming platform,” highlighting the relearning necessary when approaching new strands of Interactive Experiences.

Choose Love is Netflix’s upcoming interactive romantic comedy, yet another first for the company alongside Ranveer vs. Wild. Despite the greater challenges being taken on by the team, the focus has been on consolidating the simplicity of the technology involved rather than expanding the actual size of the division itself. “I think, because it’s harder, we’ve invested a lot in tools and processes to try and demystify a lot of the technical components that I think in the early days may have hung up our storytellers.” For Schlafman, the key to advancing the Interactive Experiences team is ensuring that when creators new and old come to experiment, everything is clearly understood and easy to pick up.

To many, it seemed that Interactive Entertainment was the company’s strongest bet for staying ahead in the increasingly overcrowded streaming space. Many have speculated that the tech company would shift a greater focus toward developing interactive and other video game focuses. Given the company’s statement of its shift away from “expensive vanity projects,” one would’ve imagined that a greater emphasis on the still-vibrant novelty of this avenue of content’s immersive nature would be the next logical step. But when I ask Weil what percentage of interactive content makes up Netflix’s full slate of content for the next year, it’s surprisingly little: I think this year, I would say less than 1% of our efforts are focused on interactive content.”

Choose your next adventure

It feels as though the company is missing a trick by not focusing on this, as of current, unique style of content and instead continuing to double down on the Hollywood-style blockbusters of The Gray Man or what The New Yorker dubbed “Ambient TV” shows like Emily in Paris. The two forms of content feel at complete opposites to one another — one encourages more active, meaningful participation, the other is intrinsically designed to play in the background, able to follow along without fully listening or even watching. Given that Emily in Paris has been renewed for both a third and fourth season, whereas interactive content remains a tiny portion of the company’s total slate, it seems clear where their priorities lie. Whereas Disney Plus and HBO Max have the competitive edges of their wealth of back catalogues, Netflix’s edge has consistently been rooted in the technological — instilling a 1940s Hanna Barbera-inspired cartoon with cutting-edge interactivity surely creates more intrigue on a creative and industrial level than a mainstream blockbuster vehicle.

Emily standing on a bridge on the phone

Photo: Stéphanie Branchu/Netflix

A mid-close-up of a character in Bandersnatch being offered a game controller

Photo: Netflix

Given the growing shift into playable content, Schlafman explains that the mission statement for Interactive Experiences under his and Weil’s watch has shifted since they first took over Fisher. “Over the last year, we’ve been really trying to look at the full interactivity spectrum, from the essentially linear content with some interactivity on top, all the way to full blown games, which we’re dipping our toes into — we’re really excited about that.” This has included attempting to apply interactive capabilities to sitcoms, reality television, and even collaborating with companies like Headspace.

As Brooker mentioned while speaking to ScreenRant, “Cat Burglar is an experiment that wouldn’t have been possible in quite the same way a few years ago,” and given the tech company’s movements into the gaming industry, with the launch of Netflix Games alongside the appointment-based mechanics of a title like Trivia Quest, is this the beginning of a greater synergy between the two initiatives?

“The choice set for interactive is never going to be the same as games, right? We’re making movies and TV, telling stories with really simple methods of interactivity compared to games.”

As they look to expand the scope of Interactive Experiences on Netflix, Weil and Schlafman say future titles may be less Bandersnatch and more Cat Burglar, mentioning that “the team is going to continue to take bets in lots of areas versus just tripling down on only interactive storytelling.” That means (and has meant) more skill-based titles like Cat Burglar and Trivia Quest, both titles whose narratives complement the gamification placed at the forefront, a substantial change from Bandersnatch and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s story-led foci. While these titles are initially amusing, they lack the emotional investment afforded by the narrative-led titles like Bandersnatch or You vs. Wild — they feel slightly too simplistic at this stage considering the level of development the Interactive Experiences have gone through.

Given the lack of deeper investment in Netflix’s more recent game-like titles, it stands to reason that these developers may hold the key to solving this issue. If there’s any group of people who will know how to marry the two types of content, surely it’s them? When I mention the possibility of Netflix Games and Interactive Experiences crossing over, Weil doesn’t shoot down the idea — but there is a big condition: “I think that there’s potential, but it’s going to be about the story first and foremost. If there’s a great story from the Games team, we’ll go for it.”

On that same note of the company’s pivots into new avenues of content, I also ask him if there have been any discussions around interactive entertainment’s potential in Netflix’s exploration of live-streamed entertainment, but at this moment in time, there haven’t been.

Ultimately, while there has been a lot of developments on the Interactive Experiences team from an educational and technological front, the division is still committed to experimenting with the interactive formula rather than sticking to the comfort of one specific format like narrative storytelling or appointment-based gaming: “We don’t really know yet where the next best story is coming from, which is why we’re so dedicated to experimenting even five years on.” When Bandersnatch arrived onto the platform, it felt like a ground-breaking moment for the service, and some may be waiting for a specific title that signals the arrival of the next level of Interactive Entertainment.

Just out of my own curiosity, I asked the pair if they had been speaking to the Duffer Brothers about doing anything in the world of interactive entertainment: “No comment,” said Weil, with a small, hinting smile.

Maria Lewis

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