Being a Netflix subscriber is almost like being cursed -- sure, you have access to untold troves of streaming TV shows and films, but how do you choose what to watch? The burden of choice weighs heavily on the indecisive Netflix user, trapping them in a labyrinth of enticing categories, familiar recommendations and episode backlogs. Admit it, you don't know jack about picking out a good flick, which is exactly why Netflix created Max, a comedic recommendation engine that gamifies movie night with quick choices, mini games and quirky humor.
Netflix Vice President of Product Innovation Todd Yellin caught up with us at E3 earlier this month to give us a brief demo of the upcoming feature. Yellin parked us in front of a PS3 to demonstrate, pointing out that our screen's topmost category had been replaced by a larger banner. "My mother wanted me to be a lawyer," the Play Max prompt reads. "But my dream is to help you find great stuff to watch." Quirky. Yellin tells us that this is one of several boiler plates the streaming menu provides to lure users into trying Max. A cheeky button beneath the dialogue encourage us to "live our dreams" and give the content recommendation game a spin. Sure, why not?
Words and colors dance across the screen to the beat of a peppy jingle, inviting us to "get the max with Netflix," as a game called One Simple Question loads. The game's personification, naturally called Max, pipes up cheerfully. "Answer this as quickly as you can," it orders, almost yelling. "Do not overthink this!" Without warning, we're presented with two hilariously perplexing options: dysfunctional families or space travel. Yellin notes our surprised chuckle, and explains further: Max intentionally sifts through thousands of tags and uses a distance algorithm to pick out unlikely pairings. Yellin calls this "algorithmic comedy," a gag that uses non sequitur to grab the player's attention. We give dysfunctional families a spin, and after mulling it over for a second, Max gives us The Hatfields & McCoys. Just like that, we had our movie.
It seems simple on the surface, but these recommendations are highly personalized -- the demo account we were using happened to have a history of rating western films high, so Max picked an appropriate film out of a category it knew the user responded well to in the past. Yellin explained that these recommendations are deeply tied to a user's viewing history, including how long a user watched a film, how they rated other films and what they have been searching for. Because it's using your own data to pick out movies, Netflix is confident that the algorithm will be able to pick movies you actually want to see. Sometimes, the system is so sure it knows your tastes, it skips the game altogether -- pleading with the user to simply take a chance and blindly play a mystery film of Max's choice. Other games include "celebrity mood ring," which picks a film based by forcing you to pick two of your favorite actors and a mode that makes a suggestion based on how you rate a series of random films over a restricted (and short) period of time.
This alone would be pretty impressive, but the real kicker is how fun it is to play these little games. Max has a vibrant, playful personality, and when you find out where that attitude comes from, it's no surprise why. The "game" portion of Netflix's new feature comes from JellyVision, the minds behind the You Don't Know Jack game series, and it really shows -- the gameshow host-like character bleeds personality, and interacting with him his genuinely enjoyable. Max is a little less cheeky than YDKJ's Cookie Masterson, but the character is still very charming, and his antics make it an appealing experience.
Max is only launching with four modes, but Yellin says that Netflix plans to add more mini-games as they're ready, quietly slotting them into the service much in the same way new films just seem to "show up." It may not be for everyone, but Max is definitely a novel and entertaining way to pick a film. After all, it's better than getting lost in Netflix's endless streaming library, right?
Update: In Netflix's PR going along with the announcement, it indicates that this feature will "likely" hit the iPad next. When will it arrive and whither from there? Stay tuned.
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