‘Netflix of Gaming’ Battle Sees New Entrant With Cloud Firm Antstream

James Brightman, Wednesday, January 16th, 2019 10:26 pm

Cloud gaming is heating up. We wrote about the “Cloud Wars” shortly after last year’s E3, when companies like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Microsoft all made it abundantly clear that cloud gaming is a future they believe in and are actively working towards. Microsoft’s Project xCloud, when combined with a subscription model like Xbox Game Pass, paints a rather obvious picture of where the business is headed. But it’s a nascent field that’s quickly seeing other entrants, like Blade’s service Shadow, all while behemoths like Verizon and Amazon prepare their armaments.

Consolidation will be inevitable as the cloud market takes hold and sorts itself out in the years ahead, and one new company that’s aiming to plant its flag in the cloud landscape is UK-based Antstream. The service, founded by technology veteran Steve Cottam (CEO) and backed by Eidos Life President Ian Livingstone (Chairman), will launch this quarter in the UK, and unlike the EAs and Microsofts of the world, Antstream will focus exclusively on the retro gaming world (for now). The service aims to offer several thousand retro titles and has already started by securing five big brands: SNK (Ikari Warriors), Data East (Joe & Mac), Epyx (California Games), Gremlin Interactive (Zool), and Technōs (Double Dragon).

“I really thought retro games would be a great place to start with streaming. Because they’re smaller streams and they’re going to work in lower bandwidth environments,” Cottam explained to GameDaily. 

Antstream CEO Steve Cottam
Antstream CEO Steve Cottam

“We played around and built some prototypes to prove the concept. And then that idea got cemented when I was at a mobile gaming conference about four and a half years ago. People were showing off all the latest and greatest games coming out on iOS and Android at the time [but folks] were just walking past the booths, not really showing much interest. But you get to the end of the hall and there’s this just massive queue of people, gamers of all ages just playing this game. You get to the front of the queue and they’re just stood in front of an arcade cabinet playing an old arcade game. And I thought, here we are. We’ve got all these brand new games coming out and all anyone really wants to play is these old retros. So I thought there’s something in this.”

Securing the right to so many different retro titles from various companies is a challenging task, but Cottam sees it as “just the tip of the iceberg” of what Antstream has planned.

“The end goal for this is to actually get to the point where you can play the first game ever created to the game that came out yesterday,” Cottam explained. “But that’s a much, much bigger vision obviously.

“We’re starting with retro and then we’ll roll forward from retro. But in terms of the scale, we are ambitious about this. We fully intend this to be a global service. We expect it to work on all your devices. We expect it to become as ubiquitous as Netflix and Spotify have. We very much see ourselves ultimately sitting alongside those kinds of brands as a kind of globally recognized gaming service.”

That’s a tall order, especially when the tech giants of the world have been investing in the cloud and have billions of dollars on hand. For now, with its unique selling proposition (retro), Cottam isn’t overly concerned. And more to the point, since the interest level in the cloud has risen significantly over the last year, he feels it’s a case of the rising tide lifting all boats.

“I think it’s actually really great that [there was so much emphasis on it at E3] last year. That was the year where everyone’s perception about whether cloud gaming had a future changed,” he stated. “I think people were quite skeptical before that with things like OnLive failing and some of the quality of some of the earlier services. But when Google and Microsoft in particular are now saying we’re going into this in a big way, everyone’s really taken notice, and as you say, Ubisoft and EA [are doing it]. Those guys are all very focused on AAA. They want to get the latest and greatest titles out there and stream them. And I’m sure they’ll all do an amazing job at that.

“Right now, because our focus is on retro, we are building the platform in a way that we’re giving attention to those games that I don’t really think would make sense for those bigger players to do it. I think we’re a bit more specialist because we’re retro but we layer on a lot of features and things that make it much more unique. Particularly around challenges and competition on retro games, that kind of stuff, which doesn’t really fit the mold for modern games. Because you can’t build those challenges around those games in quite the same way.”

A small sampling of the library being planned
A small sampling of the library being planned

Antstream intends to have a full social component around the service, similar to Xbox Live with chat, challenges, leaderboards and so on. Cottam wants to connect people with a shared passion for retro gaming.

“Multiplayer and challenges is right at the core of what we’re doing,” he emphasized. “That’s where our focus is on this. And it’s really about getting these retro games that until now, if you wanted to play them, you could download a few collections on Steam or on Xbox or you can go out and you can get the microconsoles. But nobody’s really done a big platform where you can get access to everything. And that’s what we want to do.”

Cottam has another important motivation to ensure Antstream is a success: game preservation. The sad fact is that video game history, unlike film, TV or music, is notoriously difficult to preserve. Cartridges eventually die, and CD-ROM or DVDs can see the data erode over time. Digital can be enormously helpful is to save the classics of interactive entertainment.

“A lot of those games are being lost. Some people get them through emulators, but that’s a horrible experience,” Cottam noted. “I’m pretty tech savvy myself but downloading and configuring and emulating, getting that all set up, it’s a painful experience. It’s illegal. We wanted to provide a legitimate service where people can get to these games, they can play them instantly. If you’re a parent you can introduce your kids to these games that you used to play when you were a kid.

“The key thing here is that the problem with games disappearing is something that hasn’t happened with books, music or movies. And gaming is the other pillar of media. To me, actually that was another big motivation behind creating Antstream. It just seemed wrong to me that I can go and find any piece of music, any movie really easily online or digitally, but gaming I can’t. If I want to do the equivalent in gaming I have to do it illegally. And that’s not right.

“And I think because gaming is a younger industry it’s a lot harder because one, actually trying to track down a lot of the rights for some of those games is a really hard thing to do. Sometimes the people who own those games don’t even realize they own them. And the other thing, of course, is you’ve got all these different hardware platforms that existed that you’ve got to make available through modern systems. You don’t have that same problem with music or movies. It’s easy. You can just convert it into another format and stream it as an mp3 or an mpeg. Gaming’s much more complicated than that.”

What exactly qualifies as retro, though? To some younger gamers, the original PlayStation or PS2 might fit the definition. For Antstream, the current range starts in 1972 and ends in 1994, so essentially up to 16-bit systems like Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. “We have the capability to do more than that,” Cottam added, “But that timeline’s changing all the time. We’ll start with the games up to ’94 and then we’ll start to roll in newer and newer titles after that.”

Pricing is something that Cottam is not prepared to reveal just yet, but he did note that it will very much follow the Spotify business model.

“Whatever we price it at will be effectively the same. If it’s $10 it’ll be ten pounds UK, etc. We’ll be announcing that really, really soon and I think it will be comparatively priced to Netflix and Spotify. It’s going to be in that ballpark,” he said. “I can’t disclose the specific [business arrangements], obviously. But one thing I can say is we do treat everybody the same. Everybody comes in, they get the same share as anybody else. And the revenue share is based on how popular the titles are. The more a title is played, the more revenue they’re going to make. It’s divided up by the time. We’re very much like the Spotify model, I think, in that respect.”

Considering the service is going to have thousands of games to play, it’s easy to worry about discoverability. Similar to Netflix, Antstream will be able to filter titles by games platform.

“It’s very much like Netflix,” Cottam said. “We can do special promotions of content so if you’re leading up to sports events we could do a football promoted channel, that kind of stuff. We also make sure that the popular content rises to the top. As the users themselves or the gamers themselves are playing the games, those games are most popular and the ones that they’re seeking out will rise to the top. You can search, of course, for titles as well. If you’re looking for something that’s a little bit more obscure you can go and search for it. We can also break down the titles by platform so we can have a Commodore 64 channel or we could have an Intellivision channel.”

As you might expect, Antstream will work with traditional USB gamepads and Xbox 360-style controllers, but it will also work with a PC keyboard and mouse configuration or a touchscreen when playing on mobile devices. “And we make sure as well that your experience is the same on all those [platforms],” Cottam stressed. “We do a lot of control mapping to make sure that if you’ve never played these games before, when you pick it up the controls make sense. That’s something we’ve spent a lot of time on.”

Controls are critical to an enjoyable gaming experience, but even more vital when it comes to streaming is ensuring low latency. EA talked at length at last year’s E3 about how many relationships they have with cloud providers to make it possible to have data centers as close as possible to every region across the globe. Cottam, too, recognizes how important this will be in order for Antstream to succeed.

“We’re working with a number of cloud providers,” he said. “One in particular who’s been really helpful to us is Microsoft. Very early on in the business we went through a Microsoft scale-up program. We got a lot of help and support from Microsoft Azure. They’ve got pretty good coverage. Obviously then you’ve got the other big players, you’ve got Amazon, you’ve got Google and there’s a whole bunch of others. And we specifically built the system so that we can deploy those game servers to any data center anywhere in the world.”

Skeptics of cloud gaming have pointed to a couple of key issues. Transmitting huge amounts of data without latency is difficult to do because of the speed of light and properties of physics. That said, Cottam does not believe it’ll be that noticeable for the average player.

“The speed of light thing obviously there’s no getting around that,” Cottam said. “But the point is most people are not going to perceive that…if you’ve got servers that are close to the player. If you get out some measuring device and you measure the latency between playing a game locally on your PC or playing a cloud service you’re going to pick some millisecond benefit of having it locally. But most people can’t detect that.

“It does get complicated when you want to start joining players across the world. If you’ve got a guy in Japan and he wants to play a guy in the West Coast US it’s really hard. Where do you put the server there? Because one of them is going to get more latency than the other. If you put it in the middle, they’re both going to get a bit of latency. And the thing that you can’t do with cloud streaming that you can do if you’re doing a network play game, is you can do predictive algorithms to work out where the player’s going to be next.”

The other major issue, of course, is one of cost. Moving all the data to and from servers is enormously expensive. As Unity CEO John Riccitiello pointed out to me last year, cloud gaming has to make sense financially for both the game companies and the users. If there’s no tangible benefit over downloading and paying for local storage, why do it?

“In terms of the cost you’re going to see the cloud data center costs are going to come down,” Cottam continued. “If you look at the big picture over the next decade they’re going to come down quite significantly. And really all you’re really doing is shifting the cost around. Because the cost of streaming, particularly when you get to AAA games, is still quite prohibitive, right now I think that’s going to be your early adopters that are going to go for that. But what we’re doing with Antstream we can do it at a much, much lower cost which is actually affordable to everyone. But then even the AAA stuff that is going to come down over time.

“Right now, I think most people feel that nobody would pay $50 a month for a AAA service. But maybe I would in the future if I haven’t got to shell out for the hardware and I know I’m always going to get the best experience. It actually starts to make sense at a point. Again, it depends how many hours you play as well. But on average I think the costs will balance out. It’s going to take time.”

Despite Cottam’s strong belief in the cloud and that mainstream gaming is headed there, he is not one of those people that believes dedicated gaming hardware will go extinct.

“I think you’re always going to have your hardcore audience that are going to want their own system,” he said. “It’s a little bit like audio, if you think about how vinyl has had a bit of a resurgence. Everyone thought vinyl was dead but actually there’s that kind of purity you get with vinyl that people love… There’s always going to be that core that just want the absolute best possible experience and I think if you’ve got an expensive powerhouse of a PC in your room I think that’s going to be hard to beat.”

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