The entire Night School studio used to fit in a single room. The greatest fame of his Glendale, California office was that it shared the building with HitRecord, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s media company.
In 2014, Night School, co-founded by cousins Sean Krankel and Adam Hines, was one of many independent studios to emerge as more and more game developers sought creative freedom from their fussy overlords. A former Disney developer, charismatic, enthusiastic and talkative, Krankel was a natural voice for the new company and its vision. His stoic partner Hines was the established creative talent behind the popular graphic novel Duncan the wonder dog. Hines had just started a job at Telltale Games, known at the time as one of the top storytelling shops. The pair assembled a handful of artists and designers, fierce young talents, to release a supernatural thriller Ox free in 2016. The players loved it.
By 2021, Night School had released three more games, including a connection to the USA Network TV show Mister Robot and another adventure game for consoles, After the party. It was working on a sequel to its debut title when it completely changed its own path: in September of that year, Night School was acquired by Netflix as part of the streaming giant’s big foray into gaming.
As the gaming industry watches Microsoft’s attempted takeover of Activision Blizzard with bated breath this month, Night School and Netflix will find out if their alliance has paid off with the release of Oxenfree II: Lost Signals. It will likely be a litmus test: a gauge of what the future holds as big tech companies absorb smaller YouTubers — and whether streaming services can provide a haven for indies.
It’s also a chance for Krankel to see if Night School’s games can achieve mass appeal. Like the rest of Netflix, the games division strives to “be ubiquitous,” he says, and the studio will soon know if Ox free II can reach this level. Netflix has hundreds of millions of subscribers, and not all of them are gamers, so it’s not a question of participating Squid Game draw attention, but are an important part of Netflix games and Netflix in general.
“It doesn’t mean that every entertainment works for every audience. That means there’s so much choice on the service that everyone can find their next favorite movie, series, or game,” says Krankel. “So we try not to think about it too much.”
At its core, Night School Studios games are about growth. They tell stories about surviving different periods of life. Krankel describes the studio’s style as more than just a bunch of branching little narratives: “It’s more about how we can make a game feel like a personality test at times?”
Ox free is a coming-of-age story for teenagers set on a spooky island. After the party is a knife-edge argument about two college students trying to dupe the devil in hell. It was fast-paced comedy, aiming to make players laugh every few lines. Ox free II it’s not so much about defending one’s own interests – no comedy, no pure drama. Hines says it’s meant to “really mimic the rhythm” of real life, albeit in supernatural situations. Shock and terror require appropriate responses in the moment, but the characters resort to humor as a defense mechanism.
While the predecessor was about the agony of teenage life, Ox free II deals with a far scarier area: being in your thirties. But it’s difficult to map certain life experiences to a person’s 30s in the way a creative can with high school or college. “Maybe a lot of people went through what I went through when I was 35 when I was 25 or 45,” says Hines. Still, the twenties are a time of discovery and potential. By the time you’re in your mid-thirties, he says, you’ve lived long enough to have made up your mind and realized some of that potential. The road is now half in front, half behind.
In other words: to Ox free II“This is a great lens for telling a horror story,” says Hines, “to really exacerbate a big issue and take a close look at these characters’ personal issues and choices.”
However, the Netflix takeover only happened in the middle Ox free IIThe team says that as the game was being developed, neither the direction of the game nor the story they wanted to tell changed. It’s sort of an end, a farewell to what may be the final evolution of this particular game genre. “We kind of had a mindset that was both spoken and unspoken, ‘We don’t want to be the studio that just makes games that look exactly like this,'” says Hines. “We put together every idea we had Ox free And After the party that we either just didn’t have enough time or didn’t exactly fit in.”
The team is working on it Ox free II is about the same size as the original game’s development team, a sign that the studio is dividing up more of its work for other long-term projects. Safe and secure under Netflix’s financial umbrella, Night School has grown from a handful of full-time employees and contractors to a team of more than 40 people. According to Krankel, that growth isn’t as “explosive” as it sounds. “It was more like we were punching the golden idol with Indiana Jones, like we were putting people in roles that we just couldn’t afford full-time before.”
While the deal was a cause for concern for some, it was a mutually beneficial arrangement for both sides. Netflix has acquired a popular small studio with a knack for storytelling — a soft sale for a company looking to emphasize storytelling on streaming services. Night School, looking for a bigger company to join, was able to expand their stories beyond a gaming audience. Prior to Night School’s acquisition, Netflix had added Ox free to its games library in 31 languages. Their relationship was established, successful, and by all accounts amicable when the offer came down. “It was equal parts a long time coming and a big surprise,” says Krankel.
Krankel is also quick to disprove any notions that, as a small studio in a crowded gaming landscape, Night School needed the deal to stay afloat. “It wasn’t necessarily about survival, but it took us to the next level,” he says. “As an independent studio, there’s a feast or a famine, and there are times when things get really tight. But it never got so crowded that we were about to close the doors.”
These days, top-tier gaming companies are gobbling up small — and not-so-small — studios at an alarming rate. Netflix has acquired half a dozen game developers and award-winning titles Monument Valley as it trudges along its carefully repeated path. The streaming giant’s commitment to a handful of indie studios is a hoax compared to Microsoft’s $69 billion offering call of Duty Manufacturer Activision Blizzard. It’s a less forgiving environment than it was when Night School first started in 2014, and a far larger pool for any small developer looking to make a name for himself. If Night School wanted to launch on its own in 2023 – well, it might not succeed.
“We’ve talked a lot internally about how difficult it would have been to come out with the game that we made if we tried that today,” says Krankel. “There are so many outstanding independent developers out there, but many aren’t backed solely by themselves. That makes it a lot more competitive.”
Over the years, many successful indie developers have all but disappeared after acquisition: fire clock Creator Campo Santo when it was bought by Valve, rocket league Manufacturer Psyonix under Epic, return‘s house brand at Sony, OlliOlli Maker Roll7 in Take Two. Netflix’s specific purchases don’t necessarily point to further consolidation in this space, says Julia Alexander, strategy director of Parrot Analytics (and former colleague of this author). It suggests that indie studios need to find strong distribution partners.
“Microsoft is heavily consolidating AAA studios, Sony is collaborating with more internal companies, and Nintendo is acting independently,” says Alexander. “For indie game studios looking to find strong distribution partners and reach large audiences, companies like Netflix or Amazon suddenly offer more stability in a rapidly changing industry.”
As such, finding a larger company to join has to be done with caution, which has led to Night School turning away from potential partners over the years. “None of them were right for various reasons. We thought we could be dismembered and turned into part of a larger Borg,” he says. “Is Netflix much safer than other companies? I don’t necessarily know.” But the acquisition alleviated specific pain points, allowed Night School to hire the people it needed, and didn’t force the company to meet difficult release dates while reducing the investment of time and money.
And of course Netflix large. Like a big, dedicated button on a TV remote.
“Having the opportunity to be more on the world stage gave us a little more pressure in a positive sense,” says Krankel. “We feel like we have to achieve as much as we did when we released our first game.”
With Hollywood increasingly targeting games as a treasure trove of untapped stories, there’s no harm in getting cozy with a streaming service, either. Ox free II‘s developers have a history of working on licensed properties that extends beyond their days as a night school. Krankel describes previous experiences as “super isolated where decisions are made on a mountaintop” that developers had to live with.
But as shows like HBO’s The last of us Breaking records, it signals a shift in the way games integrate into the larger Hollywood scene. “It’s because the walls between game developers and film and TV makers have come down,” says Krankel. “But I’d be curious to see how that actually plays out over the next few years — or if some of these things are just lightning in a bottle.” Night School is in a unique position to test that theory.