Video streaming moved from a weird niche into the mainstream quite slowly, and then all of a sudden over the past decade. And it’s probably right to see game streaming in a similar place to where Netflix was 10 years ago, almost.
In 2011, Netflix was just starting to expand its availability into countries outside North America, eventually arriving in Australia in 2015. It’s wild to think that it’s actually only been six years since streaming arrived, but now video streaming is so fundamental to entertainment in almost every household.
For games, the services are starting to appear in North America and Europe. And now they’re beginning to dip their toes into the Aussie market. There’s the big boys like Xbox beginning to offer xCloud gaming and there’s Nvidia GeForce now both offering the latest and greatest through a subscription. But then there’s Antstream Arcade, a clever retro focused streaming service that is available for free and has over a thousand classic titles from Space Invaders through to Mortal Kombat on its service.
No downloads needed, just stream and enjoy it right away. And it’s ad supported, so nothing dodgy about it – everything is licensed and legit. And like Netflix, it’s been doing its thing for a few years already overseas before deciding it was time to come to Australia. It launched locally with the tying alongside the fancy new Atari VCS game system, but it’s available across a range of devices and the web.
Steve Cottam is the CEO of Antstream Arcade and I got to catch up with Steve to talk about the origins of his plan to launch an independent game streaming service and all the ways that they’re actually adding features to make playing classic games through the Antstream platform feel that little bit extra. We start off the chat by asking Steve about his own origins and love for all things retro.
Steve: I’ve been gaming since about 1980. When I was about probably eight years old. Then I started playing video games and at the time they were just so magical. I was just in awe at how I was holding something, controlling something on a screen. It just blew my mind.
From that I wanted to learn how games are made. So I taught myself to code and I’ve been into tech, coding and gaming ever since. With Antstream I just felt that there wasn’t really anything for gaming like Spotify or Netflix, where you can access all the stuff like we’re talking about now, the game you grew up playing – how do you access it? How do you play it without downloading emulators? Sometimes that’s a little bit shady, so I wanted to make it easy.
So was it just a business decision to go, hey, here’s a niche that isn’t really being filled well? Or was it that personal passion that drove it?
The idea for Antstream really first came about 10 years ago. It started off as a hobby project. I was doing a cloud project at a data centre, we were moving Windows from the desktop into the cloud and I was like, well, hang on. We can do that with the Windows desktop? Surely we can do that with video games. So we started mucking around with retro games.
Then it was really when I went to a mobile conference six years ago, I think, and booth after booth, game after game, lots of people just walking by and not really showing interest to all these amazing new mobile games. Then I got to the end of the hall and there’s just this massive queue snaking round the hall. And they were queuing up to play this old Atari cabinet that was stuck in the corner! It wasn’t just old guys like me, you know, it was younger people. I thought, you know, what, if people love these games so much and they can’t easily access them, there’s something here.
It’s funny, isn’t it? It’s something that I’ve often thought about with the rise of Minecraft. In the early days it was like, oh, why are we going back to these blocky graphics? But in the end it’s driven by gameplay fundamentally. If the game play is great, the graphics don’t matter nearly as much as am I having fun or not.
Exactly. And do you know, I think arcade games, games from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, are the original casual games. Today there’s more casual gamers than hardcore gamers.
You’ve got this incredible pool of content, which is really, really fun to play. One thing that we’ve tried to do is take that further and make them more relevant. So rather than just giving you Pac-Man and giving you Space Invaders, we turn them into these multiplayer challenges and tournaments. So thousands of people can compete with their friends or on global leaderboards and just make it a bit more engaging.
Let’s take that step back then. For someone who doesn’t know yet – what is Antstream? How many games are in there right now?
The easiest way to think about Antstream is it a very, very easy way to access these amazing games from the past few decades. We deliver the service very much like Spotify. It’s a free service with adverts if you play for free, but we try and keep those to a minimum. And then you can subscribe if you want to skip ads, etcetera.
A lot of people use a Netflix analogy as well, because obviously the video side of it. But I think a little bit more like YouTube, we’ve got 3000 games licensed, we’ve got 1200 games live on the platform. We’re adding new content every week and there’s always something fresh to play, but it’s very snackable.
Because rather than a AAA game where you might invest 40 or 50 hours of your life into that one game, with Antstream you can come in and you could play five minutes of Space Invaders, five minutes on Pac-Man, 10 minutes of Mortal Kombat, challenge your friends, and it’s very kind of snackable experience.
I love hearing that word used with retro games! Because back at the time, it’s just what games were. Now so many of us are thinking: I love games, how do I fit them into my life? I’m busy. I can’t spend 40 hours on one game anymore! Oh, wait! Retro games are designed explicitly for that!
The thing is actually, truthfully, I was a big Tomb Raider fan, so I played the Tomb Raider franchise and I would always play those through to the end. But I very, very rarely have the time to commit to that type of game.
So sadly, I’ve played probably one game like that a year just because I’m so busy with everything else. But with Antstream I can dive in and spend 15, 20 minutes just mucking around or occasionally I might burn two hours in an evening on Antstream, but in that time I’ve played lots and lots of different content or I’ve gone on to Twitch and watched some of the streamers that are playing Antstream and competed with them and have a little chat.
With your background love of retro games, and with the licensing efforts at Antstream, I’d love your perspective on the importance of maintaining access to classic games? There are more and more movements out there to make sure that the history of games is preserved and it does seem like a service like this slots in nicely in trying to ensure an ongoing access.
I think there’s incredible work done by the communities in preserving games and there’s museums now and there are places online that have pretty much every game you can think of. The problem with those, I think it’s a double-edged sword, because it’s great that that preservation is happening, but also that’s also happening sometimes at the expense of people who still own those games. So it reminds me very much of, I don’t know if you remember before Spotify we had Napster.
At the time everybody thought it was totally fine to just download and rip off music and share it with your friends. What Spotify did is they came along and made that music really, really accessible, gave you great service, made it free. And you didn’t really need Napster anymore. It didn’t make sense to have Napster anymore. That’s really what we’re trying to do.
It’s about making it accessible because even though I could go and find Pac-Man on an online website, the experience is normally pretty poor. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, it won’t work on all my different devices. If I wanted to use an emulator, again, I use five different devices every day. I download the emulator on to all my different devices, try and sync it up. The experience of doing that doesn’t match up with what gamers expect today.
Let’s talk a bit more about the enhancements. Thinking back to the original days of standing around arcade cabinets in a dark dingy room, everyone was over each other’s shoulders, people wanted to top the leaderboard. It’s not quite that kind of a social format anymore, but creating that online seems like a really nice way to keep that original challenge mindset as part of this service?
Totally. I mean, that was always the thing – you go down the arcade, you wanted your name on that leaderboard, right? Normally it was only about 10 slots on some of the games. It was pretty tough.
And if someone turned the power off, that’s it!
Yeah, that was it. That’s soul destroying. With Antstream we have leaderboards on all of the games. Obviously there’s a global leaderboard. So you are competing with everybody on the platform. But you can also view anybody that you friend, you can compare your scores just against your friend group. One of the challenges we have, and there’s more things we’ll be doing around this, is if you go into leaderboards some of the players get some just phenomenal scores I’m never going to get anywhere close to! That’s a bit disheartening, actually, to think how am I ever going to get up there? But if you can just have a little party group of friends that you’re playing with and you could compete against your friends it makes it much more attainable.
I’d love to kind of talk a little bit about the tech. Is it running in the game streaming sense where the games are running on a server and we’re getting sent the video? Or is there a little payload of the game being sent locally?
It’s the former. It is streaming video. A lot of people have wondered “Why are you streaming a game that’s 64K and I can download in a nano second? It doesn’t make any sense!” But the reason is because Antstream has a bigger vision. And we’re starting off with these early games and we’re rolling forward into newer and newer content. When you get to the PlayStation era, some of those game ROMs are a Gigabyte in size.
And we wanted something that’s consistent. So it doesn’t matter if I’m playing a Commodore 64 game, an arcade game, or a game from the PlayStation era. It’s the same experience wherever you are, and you can access it on all your devices and you haven’t got to copy stuff around between them.
It’s streaming and we worked incredibly hard to make sure that that latency, the dreaded latency, is imperceivable. I’m really excited actually to find out how it does in Australia, because one of the challenges in Australia is there aren’t as many data centres as there are here in Europe, and you’ve got a much bigger land mass so you’ve got that speed the light issue. But we’re keeping an eye on it. And so far the feedback’s been phenomenal.
It’s launched in Australia alongside the launch of the Atari VCS, but broadly is it pretty much, if you have access to a browser, then you can play Antstream right now? Are there apps and things available on different platforms?
So there’s apps and at the moment we are doing a browser version. I would say within the next few months there’ll be a browser version. That’d be great. Then you can see a game in a Facebook link that your friends posted, click it and go in and play instantly.
For now it’s an app, so you can download it on Windows or Mac, Android, obviously the Atari VCS, and on Linux. There’s lots of set top boxes that are Android-based that will play it perfectly well as well. Then once we’ve got that browser version, you’ll be able to play it on all your iOS devices.
One of the unfortunate things for us I love Apple, great company, great products, but they do lock down their store and they don’t seem to want apps like Antstream with catalogues of games in their store. I think that will change. There’s a few legal battles going on with Apple from far bigger companies than us at the moment that might change that. But now it’ll be a browser, but you won’t know the difference. It feels exactly the same in the browser on Apple.
There a weird one with exceptions and things… like right now Roblox doesn’t count for some reason, even though it’s people making games available and loading them into a device through an app.
I think Apple’s argument is that they try and protect the quality of everything in their ecosystem, which I understand and respect. I guess with Roblox you know what it is, they can’t really gauge the quality of all the user generated content, but I guess they look at it as a whole. With us they need to trust that we check the quality and we do.
And actually one of the things we say internally as a company is we try and think of building Apple quality. We’re a much smaller team, there’s sometimes a few things frayed around the edges that we’ve still got to fix, but that’s where we’re working towards having that really high quality premium experience.
When I’ve seen people trying to build a Pi emulator, you start realising there’s so many intricacies of old ROMs and cabinets, The difference between running a Commodore or different platforms. What have you found to be the tricky parts of getting things running smoothly?
It’s just a lot of time and effort. There’s a lot of open source work that has been done, which obviously helps us considerably. But we’re very respectful of that as well. We always make sure that we only use open source software that we’re able to use.
We have a game ingestion process, which takes time, and then we have to test the games and measure them and we let get the community test them and give us feedback. But it is just time and effort.
In the classic games that have kill screens, is that a thing you can actually manage to get to through Antstream? Like, if you got to the 256 level of Pac-Man, the game would actually crash on you. And Donkey Kong had a similar kill screen moment.
Yeah, we run the games authentically. That’s a good thing. I think people see that is a bit of an achievement. If I can get to the Pac-Man kill screen, I’d be pretty happy. I’m about 255 levels away from that. But yeah, you’d get the same experience as it’s emulating the games as they originally were.
Antstream is designed to keep evolving as a service, retro keeps moving forward because we’re all getting older. So what is the theory on how it’s going to look over the coming years?
So we set out with the original vision for Antstream to play every game ever created. There’s caveats to that. But it was ultimately, you know, from Pong up until Call of Duty 2025 or wherever we are at the time when it comes up.
We see it now more as a casual platform, we’re more focused on that casual content and games that fit that mold. The pick up and play experience. Somewhere where you can go, like when you used to go to the arcade, and you could just walk around and find a game, play it, and compete with your friends. That’s really what we’re all about.
So it doesn’t matter so much when the game is from as long as it fits that mode of play. That’s what I think you’ll see in terms of the tech behind it. Obviously we’ve got these amazing original games now. You will see some more newer content coming in and some of the gamers are asking us for that. But ultimately just a fun place to go and find games to pick up and play.
So what is your favorite game of all time? Or top three if it’s too hard to pick one?
I don’t know if you had it in Australia, the game that inspired me and got me into this was a game called Manic Miner, which was a game on an old ZX Spectrum with my brother.
Yeah, it was a much more limited platform here, but there are people who did have a ZX Spectrum.
There’s so many games. I love Robotron. I like the simpler games, uh, Robotron and Smash TV, which we’ve added recently as well.
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Seamus runs Byteside. You may also have spotted his words at the Australian Financial Review, the ABC, Junkee, Gamespot, The Esports Observer, CNET, Gizmodo and a few other spots over the years. He's very happy that he gets to nerd out for a living.