For decades, the only practical way for most people to access huge chunks of digital gaming history has been illegal ROM downloads. Unlike music and movies – where thousands of catalog works are available through multiple different streaming and download services – the gaming industry limits its commercial history to obsolete cartridges and arcade cabinets, extremely sporadic reissues on modern hardware, and limited services such as Nintendo Switch Online (which more robust Virtual Console from Nintendo).
A newly announced service called AntStream has just reached its Kickstarter goal of £50,000 to help change that state of affairs. The planned service has spent years tracking down the licenses for more than 2,000 classic titles from the arcade, ZX Spectrum, Amiga, Commodore 64, and Sega Genesis. All-you-can-play subscription subscribers, starting at $50/year for early backers, will soon be able to play these emulated games via remote streaming on their PC, Mac, Xbox One, iOS or Android device (Switch and PS4 versions are reportedly “on the roadmap”)
“When you talk to the IP holders, they are not happy that all their games are being illegally downloaded and shared,” AntStream chief executive Steve Cottam told Ars in a recent interview. “I was quite frustrated with the fact that I could go online and get pretty much any movie, and I have Spotify for all my music, but for games, it was just a really, really hard experience. [AntStream] is really about trying to put games on par with movies and music in terms of accessibility.”
Launching a retro game collection as a streaming service — with games running on remote servers sending video and audio to the player’s device — may seem like an odd choice. After all, games for these older platforms can be mimicked quite well, even on today’s low-end smartphones.
However, Cottam says he personally shares the view of Microsoft, Google and other companies that have made announcements suggesting “the industry is moving toward streaming”.
Part of the reasoning, Cottam says, is about accessibility and simplicity. Downloading a 64KB Commodore 64 game to your smartphone might not be very cumbersome, but downloading the same game and hundreds of others to five different devices could become “unmanageable,” he suggested.
More than that, though, Cottam says streaming is future-proofing a service like AntStream, which is already starting to look at adding PS1 and classic PC games that may not work as well via emulation on low-end hardware. “We didn’t want a disjointed system where you download some, stream others,” he said. “So we said, you know what, let’s make it consistent, stream it, and then it’ll all be the same.”
Cottam also hinted that content restrictions on certain platforms may play a role in the streaming decision. Without naming names, he told Ars that there was one platform holder who was reluctant to allow emulated games on his devices, but made “an exception because we don’t run the emulators locally. So in fact AntStream probably wouldn’t be able to.” if we had gone the download route, not in the way we wanted, at least.”
Apple has a general policy against allowing emulators to play arbitrary ROMs on the iOS App Store, and the company has taken steps to remove such emulators if they have sneaked onto the platform in the past. But emulators made to run a preset list of games seem perfectly acceptable on iOS.
Ease of use aside, streaming raises the specter of internet latency and adds some delay between pressing a player’s button and seeing a response on their screen. Cottam says their tests in the UK (where AntStream plans to launch first) had about 45ms latency on a good internet connection. That’s not exactly perfect, especially for often jittery classic titles, but “what we found is that when you get below 80 milliseconds, most people don’t seem to be able to perceive it,” Cottam says.
AntStream plans to keep that latency low, he says, by making the service “data center agnostic,” he added. That means running on Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Storage and other services simultaneously to ensure the game server is as close to the player as possible.
Rights and roadblocks
Building a business around a collection of thousands of classic games today is much more of a legal problem than a technical one. Cottam says it took three years to fly around the world to publishers in the UK, US, Japan and Europe to collect the streaming rights to AntStream’s library. “Sometimes we’ve found that companies had rights they didn’t even know they had,” he said.
Publicly, AntStream has so far announced only a few hundred of the 2,000-plus classic games it claims is licensed for streaming. “Some of the games we’ve licensed that we don’t want to name strategically just yet,” Cottam said. Some publishers that have agreed to license games won’t even appear on the current public listing, he added.
After launching with about 500 titles available, Cottam said AntStream will add about 10 per week on average on a staggered schedule. That gives the company time to “incorporate” additional games into its system by adding menu art, trivia, and asynchronous online “scoring challenges” that can be created between players.
Choosing which games to prioritize for launch and licensing right now is mostly about “finding the titles people recognize,” Cottam says. “There is a lot of knowledge on our side. Our license director has been licensing these kinds of games for 30 years. Everyone in the company is a retro gamer [and] when you mention certain games, there’s usually a general consensus on the most popular on the list.” After launch, users will also be able to vote on which games will be added to the service next.
For the most part, Cottam says the publishers he’s approached have “showed a willingness for anyone to tap into their legacy content” and get paid based on the time subscribers put into those games on the service. Only one publisher (who wouldn’t name Cottam, but said “[it’s] not who you’d think”) put up a brick wall of resistance and blocked access to the entire catalog. Beyond that, music licensing issues or questions about actual ownership of the rights prevented AntStream from getting rights to about five percent of the games they wanted, he said.
But the biggest hole in the AntStream catalog, as it stands now, is Nintendo hardware. The company behind the NES and SNES has often put up roadblocks for companies looking to emulate that hardware on modern platforms (although their legal right to do so for games published by third parties is meager at best). So it’s not surprising that classic Nintendo systems aren’t represented on AntStream’s first list of titles.
Cottam would not speak directly to this massive roadblock, instead offering diplomatically that “different companies have different requirements. We should try to get around those as best we can. Some will take longer than others.” When asked if he provided Nintendo systems ever echoed on AntStream, he said: “I’d like to think we’d get it, yeah. Nothing’s a given, so I’m not going to promise it to everyone, but we can add a lot of value to that content, and we just have to let that be to see.”
Aside from Nintendo, Cottam says he’s aware there’s something of a UK focus to AntStream’s currently announced offerings and that AntStream platforms like the ZX Spectrum aren’t as popular elsewhere in the world. “I’m really excited that we’re getting more of the US-based content… It would be nice to get some more US-based platforms on the system. Things like Intellivision, for example.”
Cottam says he’s aware that AntStream is in a sense competing with decades of rampant piracy that has filled in the gaps left by sporadic legitimate reissues of older games. But he looks to other media outlets for evidence that convenience and selection can get people to pay for content available in more illegal ways.
“It’s like when everyone was downloading with Napster and Kazaa, and everyone said, ‘Nobody is going to pay for music, I can get it all for free,'” he said. “Then iTunes came along, they priced it reasonably, made it a really good experience: for $1 I can get this music, it’s higher quality, no friction, works perfectly. It just makes sense. That’s how I see us do it. We need to offer the content at a very good price and provide a truly great experience that is more enjoyable than doing things illegally.”