After a long dance -- perhaps it was swatting away prospective underwriters and potential suitors -- GameFly is ready to strike out on its own.

The specialist in video game rentals by mail filed to go public yesterday. The S-1 filing provides a healthy glimpse into a company that die-hard gamers admire but knew little about.

Well, we can now begin to fill in the blanks:

  • GameFly is growing quickly, yet still had only 334,000 subscribers as of the end of September.
  • The Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) of video game rentals has been profitable for more than two years.

Meet the anti-Netflix
Perhaps the biggest surprise in combing through the filing is that GameFly and Netflix may be renters of disc-based rentals by mail through a network of regional distribution centers, but their approaches to the game are completely different.

Let's start with sales. Netflix began offering excess DVD inventory to subscribers for as little as $5.99 a disc four years ago. If Blockbuster (NYSE:BBI) and smaller real-world rivals mark down previously viewed flicks for sale, why not Netflix? Wholesalers don't pay much for tired discs anyway, and subscribers can always warm up to bargains on their favorites.

Netflix axed the program two years later, arguing that it wanted to focus exclusively on the DVD rental and streaming businesses.

GameFly isn't shy about pitching its inventory to subscribers. Every rental has a "Keep" feature, encouraging renters to purchase the title they're working on. GameFly even began selling brand new titles through its site three months ago.

Another area where Netflix and GameFly are miles apart is in website monetization. Netflix has experimented with ads on mailers and on its website, but has gone on to discontinue the practices.

GameFly is more of a sponsored exhibitionist. It has gone on to launch or acquire game-related content sites and community hubs. It has no problem slapping ads all over Shacknews.com, CheatFreak.com, and Ponged.com.

It's a strategic portfolio for GameFly, because its sites command 4.4 million unique monthly visitors. Obviously, at least 4 million of them aren't current subscribers, so the company can shrewdly and cheaply reach out to die-hard gamers.

GameFly isn't alone in reaching out to Netflix's ideal audiences. Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) runs IMDB.com. News Corp.'s (NYSE:NWS) IGN owns several gaming-related sites.

Netflix doesn't do this -- though perhaps it should.

The GameFly threat
"We're focused on being a movie and TV show company -- entertainment video," CEO Reed Hastings told me 10 months ago, after I asked him yet again why Netflix isn't offering game rentals. "That's what our brand is about. We're not focused on games either on the physical rental or on the electronic distribution."

He may be right, but why is it that more than a million Xbox owners were streaming Netflix through their consoles just a few weeks after it became available through Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT)? Clearly there is plenty of overlap here. Excitement over Netflix's recent initiatives to stream through Sony (NYSE:SNE) and Nintendo boxes underscore the common ground.

How much bigger will Netflix let GameFly get before it responds? GameFly is growing quickly. It had just 74,000 subscribers at the end of fiscal 2005. It was up to 328,000 by the end of fiscal 2009.

I have yet to come across a sound argument for Netflix not entering the video game rentals business.

  • Games are more expensive? Yes, but GameFly charges $15.95 for its unlimited plan where gamers can have just one game out at a time. Netflix charges $8.99 for its similar DVD plan.
  • Games age quickly? Yes, there isn't much of a shelf life for some titles, but more than half of GameFly rentals are for titles that have been out longer than six months. Besides, unlike Netflix, GameFly is aggressive about moving its aging inventory through its membership base.
  • Die-hard gamers hold on to rentals for a long time? Well, that's a good thing. The average GameFly subscriber goes through 22 games a year -- or less than two a month. Netflix users go through roughly a half-dozen DVDs a month. Because round-trip mailing costs are a major model expense, infrequent shipments are good.

However, the real reason why GameFly's IPO is going to jab Netflix in the gut is that investors will now be able to compare growth trajectories. Through the first six months of fiscal 2010, GameFly revenue grew 21% as operating profits more than doubled. Netflix is no slouch, naturally, but there will come a time when investors begin to question why Netflix isn't a part of this high-growth niche.

It's the day that Netflix will begin feeling mortal, and likely kicking itself for not making a move in this space while GameFly was still in the crib.

Editor's note: Contrary to reporting in a previous version of this article, RottenTomatoes.com, a former IGN subsidiary, was  purchased by Flixster in January 2010. The Fool regrets the error. 

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been a Netflix shareholder -- and subscriber -- since 2002. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.