A new interactive video app repackages the best features of Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and Watch Party

parqor whatifi logo

New interactive video storytelling app Whatifi popped up on my radar in an enthusiastic episode of the Streamiverse podcast (which, for those of you who are not familiar, is the podcast which gained traction after Quibi sent a cease and desist for using its original title, “Quibiverse”, and the show is now “rooted in spite “for Quibi).

It arrives about two years after Black Mirror: Bandersnatch debuted on Netflix and after Walmart invested in interactive video platform Eko, and three months after possible infringer-of-Eko’s-patent Quibi’s launch.

According to the press release for Whatifi‘s debut:

Whatifi unlocks the ability to discuss, debate and decide what happens next in the movies you watch with friends and family, offering dozens of plotlines, character arcs, and endings. Each Whatifi film is broken down into short segments. At key turning points, the watch party is presented with a dilemma and has to make a decision. If the group doesn’t vote unanimously, they can jump into the built-in chat feature to discuss. Choice matters, as every decision completely changes the outcome of the story — nothing is inconsequential.

The Backstory

The app is an iteration for founder Jaanuss Juss, who has been staging interactive plays in Tallin, Estonia, for the last decade, using technology to give audience members control over how the plot unfolds. As he told The Hollywood Reporter, he has learned:

When you move the weight of the storytelling from the stage to the audience, it’s much more impactful and meaningful for them and they experience it in completely different ways than the writer originally ever envisioned.

Both Juss and his co-founder witnessed the success of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch as reflecting a new audience appetite for a new form of interactive storytelling, and raised $10MM with the help of Andreessen Horowitz and of individual backers including Netflix CFO David Wells, Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen, Paypal co-founder Max Levchin and Zynga founder Marc Pincus.

How Netflix Built the Market for Interactive Video

Readers of my newsletter pre-dating this blog and this subscription model will be well familiar with my interest in interactive video. I predicted “broader market adoption of data-driven, interactive video-storytelling” for the marketplace:

Looking ahead to 2018, interactive will be the name of the game: I believe quickly we will see more imitators of the HQ Trivia App, alongside more user experiences merging the decision trees of video games with video storytelling (like Soderbergh’s separate HBO initiative, Mosaic).

They will also be familiar with how wrong that prediction was: neither 2018 nor 2019 played out that way, other than with the emergence of Eko as a partner for Walmart.

Netflix has rolled out interactive video slowly, as I wrote back in February about Chooseco, which owns the Choose Your Own Adventure trademark, suing Netflix with the claim that Black Mirror: Bandersnatch violated its trademark:

Legal questions aside about whether Carmen Sandiego: will be more similar to Choose Your Adventure than Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the real question is for a market advantage like interactive video which no other streaming competitor has or will have anytime soon, why is Netflix moving so slowly with it? Interactive video is an unusually powerful tool for audience engagement and retention (though, it never revealed its metrics for Bandersnatch, a good story as Netflix has to counter bearish takes on its stock, and it has an Emmy for good optics, to boot).

The challenge, as Black Mirror: Bandersnatch showrunner Charlie Booker has admitted, is that interactive storytelling is “complicated”. That is likely why we have not heard anything yet about the release date for Kimmy Schmidt.

But also, from the lawsuit above, Netflix seems to need to tread carefully around the Choose Your Own Adventure trademark. My guess is, once the lawsuit above is settled (most likely with a business deal), we will see a more aggressive rollout of this interactive functionality.

The lawsuit has yet to be settled, and since Netflix has only announced and rolled out its Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Interactive Special. 

But Netflix has a longer, five year history with interactive children’s titles, as I wrote in February:

Netflix [has been] playing at the Venn diagram fringe edges of the overlap between Choose Your Own Adventure and gaming to drive higher engagement on the platform. They have been doing so in the children’s genre for awhile with titles from Minecraft, Stretch Armstrong, Buddy Thunderstruck, and Dreamworks’ Puss in Boots.

This means, it has a five year track record of having educated kids and family audiences on interactive storytelling, and roughly 60 percent of Netflix’s entire subscriber base watches family- and children-specific content.

Even though we do not know how many consume interactive video content, what Whatifi will be surfing is an audience at scale that has already been educated on how to navigate interactive storytelling.

parqor netflix statista

Going off of the chart above (ugh, Statista, but it’s a good chart), if Whatifi is betting on the 60%, of Netflix users having been exposed to some form of interactive video storytelling over the past five years, then back-of-the-napkin Total Aggregate Market ranges look like:

  • U.S.: 26MM-37MM
  • International: 16MM to 64MM (a wide range reflecting exponential international growth over past five years)
  • Overall TAM: 42MM to 100MM

The Road Ahead with Whatifi

You can see why they have attracted the superior quality of investors they have on board given the TAM and given their track record. It is particularly notable that Netflix CFO David Wells is an investor, as he has been directly involved with new ground Netflix has been breaking for interactive video. [NOTE: Eko has been groundbreaking, too, but had been under-the-radar until its lawsuit against Quibi surfaced in March].

What makes Whatifi particularly compelling is the watch party functionality, and how social decision-making and agreement is to completing the story. That is, at its core, the polar opposite of the lonely, walled-off interactive user experience Quibi has built, and to a similar extent, Eko has built. It also seems to have mirrored the Quibi UX, but in introducing decision-making, has made a more compelling interactive experience.

It is also worth noting that during the COVID pandemic, we are seeing more watch party technology offerings emerge from Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and Amazon Prime.

If all evidence suggested we have been entering a new phase of co-viewing and social watch parties, the debut of Whatifi opens the interactive chapter of that phase.

***Update***

Reader Maxime Eyraud pointed out some other new apps emerging in the interactive video space:

  • unrd – an app offering “immersive mobile fiction”, which  real-time storytelling for immersive crime, romance and horror stories through the mobile phone.
  • Moonshot –  interactive videoconferencing game integrating a virtual assistant, remote controllable props, live host over video conference, and puzzles in the real world & the digital world.
  • Hellosaurus – a mobile, interactive video platform for kids’ entertainment-based learning.

Maxime made a good point:

I feel like Netflix is opting for “mainstream interactivity” – not uninteresting but not super exciting either. Interactivity on a computer or TV feels too mediated to me (clicks, tapping on a remote…). Mobile-first from the ground up is exciting since tapping, swiping etc. is already a habit. Hard to tell if conversion will be driven by mainstream interactivity (Netflix using its reach to take it mainstream) or fringe usage from smaller user groups (like AR filters became a thing because teens on Snapchat used it)

What this point says to me is, Netflix is in the driver’s seat for interactive video. Why? For interactive mobile apps, the question is the lifetime value of an app customer. Netflix has more to offer users to keep them engaged and not churned out. I think the challenges involved in owning, operating, and updating a purely interactive video library, versus a streaming video library that offers some interactive content, is why we have not heard more about Eko, and why Netflix is the market leader with fewer interactive shows.

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