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How Netflix has changed Oxenfree developer Night School

"We are in a position where we can make the types of games that we want"

One of the least surprising moves Netflix has made during its on-going experiment in video games, was the acquisition of Night School.

The studio is known for its atmospheric, story-driven games, the most famous one being 2016's award-winning graphic adventure game Oxenfree. It made a mobile spin-off game based on Amazon's Mr Robot TV series, and was briefly tasked with making a Stranger Things game with Telltale (before the latter company closed). In other words, Night School sounds like the perfect fit for a TV streaming platform.

The acquisition was announced in September 2021 and now, almost two years later, the Night School team is about to release Oxenfree 2: Lost Signals. We played the game at Summer Games Fest, and it reassuringly played just like Oxenfree – there are certainly no signs of any meddling from Night School's new parent company.

"We work with branding people who work on TV shows and movies, we have a great recording facility that we'd never have had before"

"[The Netflix acquisition has] changed lots of little things but hasn't changed either the mission of the studio or how our culture feels or what our guiding sentiments are when we greenlight a game," explains Night School founder and studio director Sean Krankel.

"We just care about whether we can we let people inhabit a story and push and pull at it in new ways. We want to always try to add new ways that you can have agency inside of a story. That has not changed at all."

But Netflix has resulted in some changes, most notably the developer now has new offices.

"We've moved into a Netflix office, and that's pretty cool," Krankel says. "During the pandemic we had outgrown our other office, so we were offsite the entire time. Early last year, we moved into a Netflix space. There's great stuff there with regards to facilities and resources we wouldn't have had before. We work with branding people who work on TV shows and movies, we have a great recording facility that we'd never have had before… We've already brought Oxenfree into 30 other languages, and we're doing that with Oxenfree 2."

The language element is one of the big things for Netflix. The firm operates in over 190 countries and spans 60 languages.

"It's totally a Netflix thing. We couldn't have done that but we wanted to do that," Krankel says. "We had people reaching out to us all the time on socials asking why this wasn't in their language or territory. Now we can do that."

Oxenfree 2 tells new heartfelt stories featuring new characters

The studio has also been able to staff up considerably. The internal Oxenfree 2 team is double the size of the first game. But Krankel stresses that, in real terms, the number of people working on its projects hasn't grown as much as it might appear.

"It sounds like it's explosive growth and it's really not," he tells us. "We've been working with vendors previously that were like basically doubling our size already. That was one of the interesting things… Joining Netflix became this moment where we can hire the roles we have previously contracted on. A lot of these speciality roles: graphics engineers, UI specialists, things like that. We'd always yearned for those roles but couldn't necessarily afford to keep them on. We would regularly outsource for that stuff, but now we have built the team."

He continues: "We want to be very careful and hire for roles that we, as an indie, have frankly felt the pain of not having before. It's not just 'let's throw stuff at it', it's more 'God we've always needed this role' and now we can finally get it."

One of the things that Night School is hopeful about now it's part of Netflix, is the prospect of turning Oxenfree into something that goes beyond games.

"The people at Netflix Games have been forged in the fires of other studios. They're not execs sitting on an ivory tower"

The original Oxenfree featured companions talking to each other as the player walked around, which is how the story was told and the various characters developed. That returns for Oxenfree 2, but there's also an ability to call people on walkie-talkies who aren't on screen with you, and you will discover separate storylines and situations going on elsewhere. It's designed to add depth to the world and narrative, which is something that would suit, say, a TV show.

"Fingers crossed," Krankel tells us. "That's my plan. Unlike a lot of other big Hollywood companies where things are very siloed, at Netflix… if we're not reaching across to all these other disciplines and collaborating, we're kind of failing. People at Netflix all look at things very entrepreneurially, they self-organise and try new things out. That felt really cool because within the first month I'm knocking on all the doors trying to figure out how to get a TV show or movie out of this.

"There's real interest in all the IPs that we are building but there's nothing to announce. There's not enough momentum yet that it's become tangible, but it's far better than when we were independent and you'd go: 'Maybe we'll option this thing' and it sits in limbo forever. It's not like that."

Players will speak to their companions, but can also call up other characters

Oxenfree 2 started before the Netflix acquisition, and so the game was built to be a multi-platform adventure, rather than something specifically designed for mobile or the subscription business model. Krankel says that because of the sort of games that Night School makes, there's no need to do any drastic re-thinking on how it approaches future projects. But the team will be mindful of what Netflix is trying to achieve.

Two years in and Night School sounds satisfied with its new owners then. Oxenfree 2 is out tomorrow, and it's ultimately the game the team wanted to make from the very start.

"These last couple of years have been... if there are any pain points to be had, it's things that I have brought upon us, not Netflix," Krankel concludes. "We are in a position where we can make the types of games that we want. We don't have a lot of outside influence pushing on it.

"But wherever and whenever we can tap into either these other resources or the central Netflix Games leadership, it's awesome that they're real game makers. Everybody comes from real game development and we got a lot of great insights there as well. These are the types of people I want to reach out to and have help guide us because they have done it before. They've been forged in the fires of other studios. It feels like they're not just execs sitting on an ivory tower. They're great collaborators."

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Christopher Dring avatar
Christopher Dring: Chris is a 17-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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