Netflix's Bandersnatch UX: Cinema meets Gaming, how to make the marriage last!
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Kudos to Netflix for trying to break the mould & possibly change the future of how people might watch television!
Netflix’s Bandersnatch is an attempt at a new kind of Viewer Experience (VX) which attempts at gamifying and refreshing the decades' old cinema watching experience. The reason we want to write this article are:
- Many people in the industry (including me) were speculating this would happen. In fact, I have speculated about this in one of my articles on Neflix last year here.
- Interactive fiction in mobile has gained tremendous traction especially with teens and millennials with top grossing mobile games like “Episodes” and “Choices” ruling app stores. I had written about this genre and future applications extensively as well last year here.
While it’s a good start, Netflix's Bandersnatch has received mixed reviews from social media and games industry. Like all initial ideas, Netflix's Bandersnatch comes with it’s pros and cons and the potential for improvement.
Few thoughts on how Netflix can leverage learning from interactive fiction games.
Misses by Bandersnatch's Interactive fiction format:
1) No emotional investment from the viewer upfront:
As the show starts, there is no personal attachment established with the protagonist.
Imagine you are out shopping and a random stranger walk up to you and asks YOU to make random decisions on their behalf. How comfortable would you be to do so, especially if you know nothing about the person or the nature of decisions to be made? In games, it's a very standard typical model to establish a bond of trust between the protagonist and the player.
In games, you (the player/viewer) are either positioned as the protagonist (using an avatar created by you) or are helping the protagonist as a mentor.
An example from a typical RPG game (below). It is standard for players to pick and become familiar with their avatars by knowing their origins backstory strengths and weaknesses which help them make more informed choices for the character and then utilize the strengths to their advantage when the time comes.
Another example is from a popular top grossing interactive fiction game “Episodes” (below). You can see how, at the beginning of each episode which is like a short TV opera, the main protagonist asks the player to type in their name as well as customize the protagonist to their own liking, by customizing their appearance - hence building the bond which helps make decisions on their (characters') behalf.
Character customization helps form a closer bond between the player & the protagonist thereby easily shifting the burden of decision making onto the player or the viewer. This grants an implicit permission to make decisions on their protagonists behalf, fostering a personal bond.
While going through all this trouble of making viewers get personally invested might sound trivial, it is in fact very crucial! In social psychology, it is an accepted social norm that as human beings, we do not meddle in other people's affairs unless we are familiar with them or own them an allegiance. Or unless so required.
Question: How can Netflix get users to emotionally invest upfront?
We get it if Netflix is to go around and ask people to choose their own characters and customize their appearances it would be a technical and cinematic nightmare as then we would be creating additional friction upfront by introducing more taps and decision making for viewers.
But there is still a simple-r way to foster a soft bond. YES!
How? Netflix knows most of us! It knows who is watching what kind of shows. How? Users have to select an account when watching any show on Netflix, and this is something Netflix can leverage by personally addressing you - the viewer - and introducing you to the protagonist.
Here are some examples on how to do address the viewer by first name & user icon:
By addressing the viewer in first person intelligently, a soft bond can be created by Netflix between the viewer and the protagonist.
Does this seem far-fetched to you? Notice how Facebook, Twitter and Instagram greet you every time you visit their site or app:
Facebook post creation field:
Twitter post creation field:
2) The higher purpose: Goal setting behind user’s rationale for decision making
The show starts by abruptly telling the viewer in third person "You will be asked to make a decision at various points during the course of the show for it to continue.." and then the story begins.
NOTE: Many people I spoke to actually thought the animation above was part of the show and not asking the viewer to interact with it! It took them a while before they figured out the animation is asking them
You may ask what’s wrong with that? From an interaction design POV, did it give me the instruction on how to interact?
Yes it did! But like the instruction manual of my washing machine or a tutorial instruction for scrolling 'below-the-fold' when browsing apps/sites with off-screen content.
The point is: The way this show asks viewers to interact with the content is too mechanical & robotic, which is okay if asking the user to make a sedentary choice like pressing a certain button or clicking the 'next' arrow.
But that’s not completely the case here either.
The show asks the user to make an dynamic thoughtful choice here which will have consequences pertaining to the choice made that viewers cannot foresee or control. Even though the audience may be completely engrossed in the show, it would still be good to provide some context around the choices to be made.
Is there a higher purpose? Is there something, anything, he/she (the viewer) is helping the protagonist accomplish or avoid?
Question: How can Netflix set goals for the user decision making upfront?
Interactive fiction genre or any game that relies heavily on player choices and strong narrative creates what we call an URGENCY. A situation, a purpose, right at the start of the adventure which the player is helping the protagonist to accomplish by giving him some rationality behind the choices he should/would probably make.
Even in a simple game example (below), the user is drawn into the story to help the protagonist out in some way by reaching out directly to the player with help or plea.
Or indirectly by giving player a second person narrative as in this popular “Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery” game from Jam City (below). We can see that even though the game came after the novel and the movies are based on a very well known franchise, it accomplishes the first 2 points I mentioned:
- Get user emotionally invested in the Harry Potter universe via personal avatar creation and customization.
- Explain to the user upfront what is the higher purpose of your adventure, which is basically attending & successfully completing wizards school.
Bandersnatch could have revealed upfront to the viewer (in first or second person) what the protagonist is trying to accomplish in a bit more pressing way, with a bit more urgency.
It could be as simple as saying “He needs help finishing and publishing his game” or “Publish a game with good reviews and kick start his career”. All the twists and turns that the plot hides can still be slowly revealed as the viewer maneuvers deeper into the story.
An example screen below:
3) Differentiating rewards for Active vs Passive choices
You might wonder: What reward? Is watching the show not rewarding enough? YES & NO.
The purpose of choice is to steer the story as per your liking. In one aspect it’s like turning the pages of a book manually, with the speed you choose. Thereby the act of actively making a choice has a purpose - it makes the movie progress.
But if you, the viewer, do not make the choice in 30 seconds, the show automatically makes a choice for you, by selecting an answer itself! This is what I mean by passive choice.
If the show automatically makes a decision in absence of user making a choice (passive) and makes the show move on, then it seems like there is no additional reward for the viewer to make an actual Active choice. What I mean is it doesn't matter if the viewer makes a selection because the show will go on irrespectively.
In contrast, in interactive fiction games players receive different forms of virtual rewards (like currency) that can be spent on virtual goods in the game while progressing to finish the story either immediately after making a choice or at the finish line.
Example from Harry Potter game below on how making a choice results in instant gratification:
reward routine loop. For Netflix's Bandersnatch currently looks like:
- Cue: A situation with conflicting choice arises, player is asked to choose.
- Routine: Player has to make a choice in 30 seconds.
- Reward: The movie progresses down a forked path.
We need to remember that every click/tap a user undertakes demands some form of cognitive work load which should a have a satisfying counter action/reward.
- User types “Netflix” in the browser it directs him to Netflix site.
- User taps on his own profile name and he sees his personal curation of shows etc.
So every distinct action has a meaningful and satisfactory counteraction.
By not differentiating rewards between active & passive choices, it is easy for viewers to get lazy with time as there are no additional incentives to click on a choice upfront. The show goes on irrespective of user input. Like a regular show/movie.
Question: How can Netflix differentiate Active vs Passive choice rewards?
Now again, like games, there is no immediate prospect of Netflix offering a virtual currency as a reward for active user choice (maybe a future prospect). So what can it offer the user now as reward for active involvement?
Virtual currencies and rewards fall under extrinsic motivation/reward model as players get something tangible in the virtual world that can be traded, bartered etc. in exchange for their active involvement. But as Netflix has none of these, it can offer the user an intrinsic motivation/reward.
How do we feel when we get likes on Facebook, Instagram or retweets on twitter? Do we feel good? Yes. This is the simplest form of intrinsic reward.
Intrinsic rewards create a dopamine surge similar to tangible extrinsic rewards that make us feel that we are likable, respected, idolized or simply that we did something smart enough for our social peers to recognize! And this - intrinsic reward model - is what Netflix can use.
Done cleverly, Extrinsic rewards work as well as Intrinsic rewards
The example below shows one way of differentiating Active and Passive choice rewards
Revealing to the viewer the number of other viewers who chose the option he/she chose after every active choice, compared to the use case when they didn’t choose can actually make the viewers feel smart about their choice and also feel more connected with other viewers creating some sort of meta-social game play.
Of course, we don't want to show the numbers up front to avoid influencing viewers choice hence they will be revealed only after the viewer clicks an option. Of course, there could be many more rewards devised in the long run, but since Netflix already has this data on us, surely it can be implemented with minimal friction.
4) Perhaps a simpler plot, branching stories, and a Happy ending?
Last but not the least the most critiqued aspect of the show on social media, tabloids and viewers: The story failed to deliver as it was too niche, nerdy and had dark endings that did not have mass appeal. Why does that matter?
- FTUE: Or what’s simply known as First Time User Experience. When introducing a new concept to the users or viewers, as in this case, it would have been more pleasing to keep it as simple as possible, since viewers have no known mental models as a referral.
- Niche storyline: The game design and the games industry is quite immense but not necessarily something a layman would know much about, say, compared to professions like doctor, engineer, soldiers etc. Expecting people to know intricacies of struggles and decision making required to succeed at games is asking too much. People get excited - yes. But they also get overwhelmed just as easily.
- Less branched out story paths and happier endings: The flow diagram shown below from Reddit has become quite famous, but what it also depicts is the level of intricacy and rabbit holes viewer has to go down to see the whole movie, with many choices which are not really meaningful like picking a brand of cereals, which can result in repetition backtracking and an overwhelming sense of frustration. Almost all endings end (barring one where the protagonist is shown and is relatively funny) in a dark convoluted manner, either where Stefan’s (protagonist) game gets trashy reviews ending his career or he ends up killing his father.
Would you really want to give users the power to decide the fate of a character that ends between killing his own father or be left with a bitter after-taste of ending his career?
The endings sprout from viewers own decision making, so in the end, the viewer shares the responsibility for the outcome - good or bad.
This is not to say there can not be any dark plots or twisted endings. Of course, there can be, video games have it all the time! But not when a platform like Netflix is revealing the concept and experience for the first time because it leaves a bitter aftertaste and mixed feelings; precisely the reason for all the backlash. I would have just as happily settled for a prince & princess finding true love or finding an alternatively meaningful happy ending.
Sounds cliche, but overall, I, or my wife, or viewers around the globe would have felt good about their participation at least the first time around!
Despite all the critique though
Bravo Netflix & Bandersnatch team. This is the stuff disruption is made of & you had the balls to pull it off. Yes, of course, hiccups along the way are the name of the game but this is your first leap and there will always be scope to improvise. So well done!
Games with their deep legacy and prolonged history of game design, human psychology, cognitive hooks go to extremes when it comes to making interactive entertainment immersive and likable. The industry has rules that have been worked on, refined and validated over years but these rules can be surely softened and adapted for interactive cinema. I am not saying that interactive cinema necessarily needs to follow the same rules as games to be successful, maybe it's a whole new entertainment format and it can come up with its own rules over time, but we will potentially be seeing more of Viewer Experience (VX) coming up as a new field which deals with this over UX.
It cannot be denied that when cinemas gamify, they can benefit deeply from the learnings of the gaming industry. These are uncharted waters Netflix, but rest assured help & direction is out there, depends on the choices you make here on ;)