How Glendale-Based Night School Got Snapped Up As Netflix's First Gaming Studio
Netflix’s newest gaming studio started more than seven years ago when Sean Krankel got laid off from Disney.
Krankel worked in design at Disney Interactive and Vivendi Universal Games. While his cousin and friend Adam Hines wrote at the storied adventure game developer Telltale Games on projects like “The Wolf Among Us” and “Tales from the Borderlands.”
Both were looking for something new, and when Krankel lost his job, they decided to create Night School, a Glendale-based studio that would try to do things with storytelling that other studios hadn’t.
Krankel took on the role of CEO, while Hines became creative director. They brought in gaming veterans Heather Gross as the art lead and Bryant Cannon as lead developer.
The through-line for Night School is story: elevating player choice in much the same way the studios they share a lineage with did. The studio puts the focus on the messy, complicated and overlapping ways a story is communicated through dialogue, whether between unique quirky characters, or occasionally, the game and the player themselves. That also extends to how the studio’s team members work with each other to this day. The approach attracted Netflix, which acquired them for an undisclosed amount in September.
Neither Krankel nor the other staff members contacted for this piece could go into detail about Night School’s new position at Netflix either. But the move hasn’t changed their conversational dynamic. “People should constantly be talking,” Krankel said. “If you think you’re talking too much: you’re still not talking enough.”
That dialogue-first philosophy was evident in Night School’s first game, 2016’s “Oxenfree.” A supernatural thriller set on a local tourist trap island, “Oxenfree” makes good on Hines and Krankel’s early ideas by featuring a near-constant stream of conversation. You play Alex, a teenage girl trying to adapt to big changes in her life. What’s supposed to be one night of teenage mischief turns into an increasingly unsettling series of encounters with ghosts trying to communicate from beyond. The main crux of the game, aside from solving puzzles with a handheld radio, is navigating conversations from the thousands upon thousands of words Hines wrote for the game’s script. You choose one of three possible text bubbles at junctures in each conversation, slightly adjusting the story as it goes along.
The biggest challenge making that happen, according to Krankel, was “building the tools that would empower our designers to make the game while we were making the game.” Communication became key (along with proper documentation of all the design decisions that were made).
“Oxenfree,” available on Windows, MacOS, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch, was a surprise hit. Night School declined to share current sales numbers, but previously announced that the game had sold 1.5 million copies between 2016 and 2019. “Oxenfree” also cleaned up with the critics and the studio’s peers, winning “Excellence in Visual Art'' at the Independent Games Festival Awards in 2016, and scoring a nomination for “Best Debut” and “Best Narrative” at the Game Developers Choice Awards in 2017.
“Oxenfree is a smartly written coming-of-age mystery that holds promise for the future of dialogue-as-game.” Polygon wrote when they named the game one of the best of the last decade. That promise has borne out.
Night School Studio has since grown to 24 full-time employees and released four games, with a fifth on the way. And things could soon get even more busy: In September, Netflix announced it had acquired the company, marking the streaming giant’s first foray into gaming.
The studio has “a track record of successful development and in-house skills” that likely attracted Netflix, said Piers Harding-Rolls, game industry research director at Ampere Analysis.
“The deep narrative and graphical adventure nature of Oxenfree could translate well to video,” he said.
How Night School Came to Netflix
In some ways, the Netflix deal might have been born out of Night School’s relationship with another TV giant.
The immediate follow-up to “Oxenfree,” “Mr. Robot: 1.51exfiltrati0n,” also came out in 2016. A mobile game adapted from USA Network’s hit hacker drama, “Mr. Robot: 1.51exfiltrati0n” places the player into the story, rather than having them play as someone else. Using a fake phone operating system and messaging app, Night School adapted earlier ideas it had for a dating game to tell a story asynchronously across multiple days in the lead-up to the world-altering hack that happens at the end of “Mr. Robot”’s first season. The game is a departure from the studio’s style, but in a way, an even better example of its idea about conversation and dialogue — without a dynamic art style, having intriguing conversations became the whole game.
“Mr. Robot: 1.51exfiltrati0n” allowed Night School to collaborate with the show’s creator Sam Esmail, and brought the studio in contact with Hines’ former employer, Telltale Games. Night School reportedly worked on a companion “Stranger Things” mobile game to accompany Telltale’s own project in the years that followed. In the arrangement, Telltale acted as both publisher and liaison between Night School and Netflix. When Telltale Games went under in 2018, Night School’s work with Netflix’s hit show ended. Still, both the “Mr. Robot” and “Stranger Things” projects proved that the studio was able to work with existing properties.
It may have also put Night School on Netflix’s radar. Krankel contends that Night School was in conversation with Netflix about various projects six or seven months before the Netflix deal came about. “I don't even know if they knew that we were making a Stranger Things game," Krankel told “Game Informer” following the acquisition.
Serendipity or not, the match makes sense. Netflix and Night School have some important opinions in common. Existing interactive Netflix projects like “Bandersnatch” or even “Minecraft: Story Mode” (a Telltale game playable on Netflix) put the focus on player choice. Night School has also produced plenty of world-building right within the wheelhouse of Netflix’s most popular genre properties. An interest in the supernatural and the interior lives of young adults are just two reasons why the creators of “Oxenfree” might have felt comfortable making a “Stranger Things” game (and maybe making another one again down the road).
Night School announced its current project in April 2021. The studio plans to return to the game it made its name on with a sequel called “Oxenfree II: Lost Signals.” The follow-up focuses on an entirely new set of characters, loosely tied to the first, and carries over the distinctive walk-and-talk dialogue and radio mechanics.
Whether “Oxenfree II” eventually shows up as part of Netflix Games – free playable mobile games available with just a Netflix subscription, managed inside the Netflix app –– remains to be seen. Night School has developed for mobile before and even released console titles like “Oxenfree” on iOS. (Netflix did not respond to a request for comment on its plans for Night School, or the studio's existing titles.)
In the short term, Night School’s community director Sara Hebert says development is continuing on “Oxenfree II” uninterrupted, just as Night School promised when both companies announced they were joining forces. “Everything is indeed so new and it’s only been a few short weeks,” Hebert shared via email. “Day-to-day, our studio remains focused on creating great games and maintaining our studio culture.”
Ultimately, working with Netflix is an opportunity for a small studio to get its games in front of the streaming service’s millions of subscribers. Netflix offers “an unprecedented canvas to create and deliver excellent entertainment to millions of people,” Krankel said in his announcement of the acquisition. Now Night School just has to keep building.
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When Darien Williams and Melanie Wolff opened Brella, their Montessori-inspired childcare center, in Playa Vista in 2019, they were inspired by the likes of WeWork and SoulCycle, which had multiple locations and easy-to-use apps for scheduling meetings and workout sessions. The pair found that parents juggling hectic day jobs with their children’s preschool schedules were drawn to a tech-enabled, more flexible way to schedule childcare for their kids.
“The current system can be really punitive to [parents] because it forces them to pay for and schedule childcare that they don't always need, or to schedule childcare that doesn't actually support the workdays that they need to have," Wolff told dot.LA.
Months later, the coronavirus pandemic forced Brella to shut down. But rather than shuttering their company for good, the co-founders saw that the pandemic’s new work-from-home paradigm only exacerbated the need for flexible childcare options. Brella reopened in June 2020, and today serves roughly 400 families whose kids, aged 3 months to 6 years, attend the Playa Vista facility for an average of four-to-five hours a day and twice per week.
On Tuesday, Brella announced a $5 million seed funding round that will allow the startup to open more facilities—it plans to expand to Hollywood and Pasadena by the end of this year—and improve its technology. The funding was led by Newport Beach-based Toba Capital and Brentwood-based Halogen Ventures, and takes Brella’s total amount raised to date to $8 million.
Brella’s Playa Vista-based childcare center lobby.
“What we found is that even pre-pandemic, and now especially post-pandemic, families' work lives are really dynamic; they're not always working this 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday kind of role,” Wolff said. “Sometimes their childcare needs can vary day-to-day, week-to-week, and even month-to-month.”
Brella is part of a growing industry of childcare startups leveraging technology to help families find childcare solutions. Its ranks include San Francisco-based Wonderschool, which helps families start their own preschools or daycares, and New York-based Otter, which allows parents to crowdsource babysitting resources from other parents.
Through Brella’s app, parents can create a profile, upload necessary forms and documentation, and book times to drop their children off at the childcare center for a minimum of three hours. Brella offers different pricing packages depending on how far in advance parents want to schedule childcare and how often they need it.
As a licensed preschool, the curriculum that Brella teaches its pupils is inspired by progressive child development philosophies like Montessori, RIE and Reggio Emelia. The curriculum is adapted to how much time each child spends at the school; Brella’s educators create “projects and learning opportunities that can engage a child that might be here for the very first time, or is coming three days a week this week and five days a week next week,” Williams said.
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Keerthi Vedantam is a bioscience reporter at dot.LA. She cut her teeth covering everything from cloud computing to 5G in San Francisco and Seattle. Before she covered tech, Keerthi reported on tribal lands and congressional policy in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter, Clubhouse (@keerthivedantam) or Signal at 408-470-0776.
Despite — or in many cases because of — the raging pandemic, 2020 was a great year for many tech startups. It turned out to be an ideal time to be in the video game business, developing a streaming ecommerce platform for Gen Z, or helping restaurants with their online ordering.
But which companies in Southern California had the best year? That is highly subjective of course. But in an attempt to highlight who's hot, we asked dozens of the region's top VCs to weigh in.
We wanted to know what companies they wish they would have invested in if they could go back and do it all over again.
Startups were ranked by how many votes each received. In the case of a tie, companies were listed in order of capital raised. The list illustrates how rapidly things move in startup land. One of the hottest startups had not even started when 2020 began. A number doubled or even 16x'd their valuation in the span of a few short months.
To divvy things up, we delineated between companies that have raised Series A funding or later and younger pre-seed or seed startups.
Not surprisingly, many of the hottest companies have been big beneficiaries of the stay-at-home economy.
PopShop Live, a red-hot QVC for Gen Z headquartered out of a WeWork on San Vicente Boulevard, got the most votes. Interestingly, the streaming ecommerce platform barely made it onto the Series A list because it raised its Series A only last month. Top Sand Hill Road firms Andreessen Horowitz and Lightspeed Venture Partners reportedly competed ferociously for who would lead the round but lost out to Benchmark, which was an early investor in eBay and Uber. The round valued PopShop Live at $100 million, way up from the $6 million valuation it raised at only five months prior.
Scopely, now one of the most valuable tech companies in Los Angeles, was also a top vote getter.
The Culver City mobile gaming unicorn raised $340 million in Series E funding in October at a $3.3 billion valuation, which nearly doubled the company's $1.7 billion post-money valuation from March. It is no coincidence that that was the same month stay-at-home orders began as Scopely has benefited from bored consumers staying on their couch and playing ScrabbleGo or Marvel Strike Force.
The company's success is especially welcome news to seed investors Greycroft, The Chernin Group and TenOneTen ventures, who got in at a $40 million post valuation in 2012. Upfront Ventures, BAM Ventures and M13 joined the 2018 Series C at a $710 post-money valuation.
Softbank-backed Ordermark, which flew more under the radar, also topped the list. The company's online ordering platform became a necessity for restaurants forced to close their dining rooms during the pandemic and raised $120 million in Series C funding in October.
On the seed side, two very different startups stood out. There was Pipe, which enables companies with recurring revenues to tap into their deferred cash flows with an instant cash advance, and Clash App, Inc., a TikTok alternative launched by a former employee of the social network in August.
We will have the list of Southern California's top seed startups out tomorrow.
The live-streaming shopping channel created by Danielle Lin reportedly found itself in the middle of a venture capital bidding war this year. Benchmark eventually won out leading a Series A round, vaulting the app at a $100 million valuation. The Los Angeles-based platform has been likened to QVC for Gen Z and it's part of a new wave of ecommerce that has found broader appeal during the pandemic. Google, Amazon and YouTube have launched live shopping features and other venture-backed startups like Los Angeles-based NTWRK have popped up.
One of the most valuable Southern California tech startups with a $3.3 billion valuation, the Culver City mobile game unicorn has benefitted from a booming gaming market that has flourished in this stay-at-home economy. Scopely offers free mobile games and its roster includes "Marvel Strike Force," "Star Trek Fleet Command" and "Yahtzee with Buddies." In October the company raised a $340 million Series E round backed by Wellington Management, NewView Capital and TSG Consumer Partners, among others fueling speculation that it was on its road to an IPO. Co-CEO Walter Driver has said that he doesn't have immediate plans to go public.
The coronavirus has forced the closure of many dining rooms, making Ordermark all the more sought after by restaurants needing a way to handle online orders. Co-founder and CEO Alex Canter started the business in 2017, which recently rang in more than $1 billion in sales. Ordermark secured $120 million in Series C funding by Softbank Vision Fund 2 in October that it will use to bring more restaurants online. The company's Nextbite, a virtual restaurant business that allows kitchens to add delivery-only brands such as HotBox from rapper Wiz Khalifa to their existing space through Ordermark, is also gaining traction.
Cameo, which launched three years ago, had its breakout year in 2020 as C-list celebrities like Brian Baumgartner banked over a million dollars from creating customized videos for fans. In the sincerest form of flattery, Facebook is reportedly launching a feature that sounds a lot like Cameo. Even though the company is still technically headquartered in Chicago, we included Cameo because CEO Steven Galanis and much of the senior team moved to L.A. during the pandemic and say they plan to continue running the company from here for the foreseeable future.
Co-founded by CEO Aaron Peck, Mothership provides freight forwarding services intended to streamline the shipping experience. The company's tracking technologies connect shippers with nearby truck drivers to speed up the delivery process. It raised $16 million in Series A venture funding last year, driving the platform to a $48 million pre-money valuation.
Founded in 2019, Nacelle's ecommerce platform helps retailers improve conversion rates and decrease loading speeds for their sites. The software integrates with Shopify and other services, offering payment platforms and analytics integration, among dozens of services. Nacelle raised about $4.8 million earlier this year with angel investors that included Shopify's Jamie Sutton, Klaviyo CEO Andrew Bialecki and Attentive CEO Brian Long.
Matt Danna and Sean Stavropoulos came up with Boulevard when an impatient Stavropoulos was frustrated wasting hours to book a hair appointment. Their four-year-old salon booking and payment service is now used by some of Los Angeles' best-known hairdressers. Last month, the two secured a $27 million Series B round co-led by Index Ventures and Toba Capital. Other investors include VMG Partners, Bonfire Ventures, Ludlow Ventures and BoxGroup.
Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick CloudKitchens rents out commissary space to prepare food for delivery. And as the pandemic has fueled at-home delivery, the company has been gobbling up real estate. The commissaries operate akin to WeWork for the culinary world and allow drivers to easily park and pick-up orders as the delivery market has soared during pandemic. Last year, it raised $400 million from Saudi Arabia's colossal sovereign wealth fund.
Founded by college buddies five years ago, GOAT tapped into the massive sneaker resale market with a platform that "authenticates" shoes. The Culver City-based company has since expanded into apparel and accessories and states that it has 20 million members. Last year, Foot Locker sunk a $100 million minority investment into 1661 Inc., better known as Goat. And this fall it landed another $100 million Series E round bankrolled by Dan Sundeheim's D1 Capital Partners.
The lingerie company co-founded by pop singer Rihanna in 2018 is noted for its inclusivity of body shapes and sizes. It has raised over $70 million, but The New York Times' DealBook newsletter recently reported that it's been on the hunt for $100 million in funds to expand into active wear. The company generates about $150 million in revenue, but is not yet profitable, according to the report. It became the focus of a consumer watchdog investigation after being accused of "deceptive marketing" for a monthly membership program.
The lifestyle company provides customized personal subscription box services every three months with full size products. Started in 2010 by Daniel Broukhim, Michael Broukhim, Sam Teller and Katie Rosen Kitchens, it now boasts more than one million members. Last year, the company raised $80 million in a Series A round led by Kleiner Perkins last year and appears to be preparing for an eventual IPO as it slims down costs and refocuses on its high value products.
Launched in 2016, the finance management tool helps consumers to avoid overdrafts, provides paycheck advances and assists in budgeting. Last year, it began to roll out a digital bank account that was so popular that two million users signed up for a spot on the waitlist. The company, run by co-founder Jason Wilk, has raised $186 million in venture capital and counts billionaire Mark Cuban as an early investor and board member. Other backers include Playa Vista-based Chernin Group.
SURE offers multiple technology products to major insurance brands — its platform can host everything from renter's insurance to covering baggage, so customers never have to leave an agency's website. It also offers its platform to ecommerce marketplaces, embedding third-party insurance protections for customers to purchase all on the same webpage. Founded in 2014, the Santa Monica-based startup last raised an $8 million Series A round led by IA Capital in 2017.
Founded in 2009 by former Google CIO Douglas Merrill and ex-Sears executive Shawn Budde, Zest AI provides AI-powered credit underwriting. It helps banks and other lenders identify borrowers looking beyond traditional credit scores. It claims to improve approval rates while decreasing chargeoffs. The company uses models that aim to make the lending more transparent and less biased. This fall the company raised $15 million from Insight Partners, MicroVentures and other undisclosed investors, putting its pre-money valuation at $75 million, according to PItchbook.
Santa Monica-based PlayVS provides the technological and organizational infrastructure for high school esports leagues. The pandemic has helped the company further raise its profile as traditional sports teams have been benched. Founded in early 2018, PlayVS employs 46 people and has raised over $100 million. In addition to partnering with key educational institutions, it also has partnerships with major game publishers such as Riot and Epic Games.
A SaaS platform helps Shopify brands create mobile shopping apps. The marketing software saw shopping activity jump 50% over 90 days as the pandemic walloped traditional retailers. Founded by Eric Netsch and Sina Mobasser, the company raised a $10 million Series A round led by SignalFire, bringing the total raise to $15 million.
Papaya lets customers pay any bill from their mobile devices just by taking a picture of it. The mobile app touts the app's ease-of-use as a way to cut down on inbound bill calls and increase customer payments. Founded by Patrick Kann and Jason Metzler, the company has raised $25 million, most recently a S10 million round of convertible debt financing from Fika Ventures, Idealab and F-Prime Capital Partners.
FloQast is a management software that integrates enterprise resource planning software with checklists and Excel to manage bookkeeping. The cloud-based software company claims its system helps close the books up to three days faster. It is used by accounting departments at Lyft, Twilio, Zoom and The Golden State Warriors. In January, it raised $40 million in Series C funding led by Norwest Venture Partners to bring the total raise to $92.8 million.
The company's rights management platform expedites licensing payments and tracks partnership and sponsorship agreements. It counts BuzzFeed, the Vincent Van Gogh Museum and Sanrio (of Hello Kitty and friends fame) among its clients. In May it announced $8 million in Series A financing led by Bessemer Venture Partners and Nosara Capital, bringing the total raised to $12 million.
The Los Angeles-based company provides a touchless entry system that uses individuals cell phones to help with identification instead of a key card. The company offers a subscription for the cloud-enabled software that allows companies to help implement safety measures and it said demand has grown amid the pandemic. Founded by James Segil and Alex Kazerani the company raised $36 million led by Greycroft earlier this year, bringing its total funding to $63 million.
FightCamp is an interactive home workout system that turns your space into a boxing ring with a free standing bag, boxing gloves and punch trackers. The company is riding the wave of at-home fitness offerings including Peloton, Mirror and Zwift that have taken off during the pandemic as gyms closed. The company has raised $4.3 million to date.
The Santa Monica-based company provides video and interactive content for education in math, science, economics and standardized test prep. Founded in 2018 by Nhon Ma and Alex Lee, who previously founded Tutorcast, an online tutoring service, the company gathers post-graduate educated instructors to create video lessons for online learning.
The creator of a pan with a cult following on social media, this Los Angeles-based startup designs and retails cookware and dinnerware. Founded by Amir Tehrani, Zach Rosner and Shiza Shahid, the company completed its Series A funding earlier this year, bringing its total raised to date to $10 million.
For customers that have no formal credit or banking history, this company's application promises more financial access, choice and control. It gathers data to create a credit score that can be used to instantly underwrite and disburse loans ranging from $10 to $500. Co-founded by Shivani Siroya and Jonathan Blackwell, Tala has raised $217.2 million to date. Its investors include PayPal Ventures, Lowercase Capital and Data Collective.
Founded in 2007 by chief executive Ara Mahdessian and president Vahe Kuzoyan, ServiceTitan operates software that helps residential home contractors grow their businesses. It provides businesses tools like customer relationship management and accounting integration to streamline operations. The company closed a $73.82 million Series E funding round from undisclosed investors earlier this year.
Founded in 2017 by former professional "Call of Duty" player Matthew Haag, 100 Thieves manages esports competitions in major titles including "Counter Strike Global Offensive" and "League of Legends." The company also produces apparel and merchandise, opening a physical store and training ground called the "Cash App Compound" in collaboration with Fortnite earlier this year. The company has raised $60 million to date, from investors including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Aubrey Graham, better known as the rapper Drake.
This AI-powered customer service platform automates text conversations between customers and businesses to increase sales. Emotive uses their sales team to verify questions, distinguishing it from other bot-driven marketing services, according to the company. The company was founded in 2018 by Brian Zatulove and Zachary Wise, who serve as the chief executive and the chief operating officer, respectively. It has raised $6.65 million to date, from Floodgate Fund and TenOneTen Ventures.
Created by former hedge fund trader Sam Polk, the Los Angeles-based startup wants to be a healthy fast food chain. It prices its healthy pre-packaged meals around $5 in underserved communities while costing more in other neighborhoods with the goal of reducing so-called food deserts in low-income neighborhoods. It also offers a subscription delivery service. The company recently closed a $16 million Series B round led by Creadev along with Kaiser Permanente Ventures.
Lead art by Candice Navi.
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Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.