For decades now, the only practical way for most people to access vast swaths of digital gaming history has been through illegal ROM downloads. Unlike music and movies—where thousands of catalog works are available through multiple different streaming and download services—the game industry restricts its commercial history to aging cartridges and arcade cabinets, extremely sporadic re-releases on modern hardware, and limited services like Nintendo Switch Online (which replaced Nintendo’s more robust Virtual Console).
A newly announced service called AntStream just reached its £50,000 Kickstarter goal to help change that state of affairs. The planned service has spent years tracking down the licenses to over 2,000 classic titles from the arcade, ZX Spectrum, Amiga, Commodore 64, and Sega Genesis. Subscribers to an all-you-can-play plan, starting at $50/year for early backers, will soon be able to play those 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’re not happy that all their games are being downloaded and shared illegally,” AntStream CEO Steve Cottam told Ars in a recent interview. “I was quite frustrated by the fact that I could go online and pretty much get any movie, and I have Spotify for all my music, but for games it was just a really, really tough experience. [AntStream] is really about trying to put games on equal footing with movies and music in terms of accessibility.”
Launching a retro game collection as a streaming service—with games running on remote servers that send video and audio to the player’s device—might seem like an odd choice. After all, games for these older platforms can be emulated quite well, even on today’s low-end smartphones.
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 begin to get “unmanageable,” he suggested.
When asked what specific emulators were powering AntStream’s backend, Cottam said strict licensing terms from a few image-conscious publishers prevented him from discussing it publicly. “From a quality perspective, they want to make sure their games are running as well as they possibly can,” he said.
That said, Cottam admitted to using a mix of open source and commercial emulators, coded by third-parties and sometimes modified by AntStream’s in-house staff. “There are some emulators that we’d like to use but we can’t because the license is prohibitive,” Cottam said. “FB Alpha is one we’d like to use, but [its price] currently doesn’t allow us to.”
More than that, though, Cottam says streaming helps future-proof a service like AntStream, which is already starting to look into adding PS1 and classic PC games that might not run 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, make it streaming, and then it will all be the same.”
Cottam also hinted that content restrictions on certain platforms might be at play in the streaming decision. Without naming names, he told Ars there was one platform holder that was reluctant to allow emulated games on its devices, but it made “an exception because we’re not running the emulators locally. So in fact, AntStream probably wouldn’t be able to exist had we gone the download route, not in the way we wanted to at least.”
Apple has a general policy against allowing emulators that play arbitrary ROMs on its iOS App Store, and the company has takenmeasures to remove such emulators when they’ve snuck onto the platform in the past. But emulators made to run a pre-set list of games seem to be perfectly acceptable on iOS.
Ease of use aside, streaming brings up the specter of Internet latency adding some delay between a player’s button push and the time they see a response on their screen. Cottam says their tests in the UK (where AntStream plans to launch first) have averaged about 45 ms of latency on a good internet connection. That isn’t exactly perfect, especially for oft-twitchy classic titles, but “what we’ve found is when you get below about 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 is much more a legal problem than a technical problem these days. Cottam says it has taken three years of flying around the world to publishers in the UK, US, Japan, and Europe to gather the streaming rights for their library. “Sometimes we’ve identified rights companies had that they didn’t even know they had,” he said.
Publicly, AntStream has so far announced only a few hundred of the more than 2,000 classic games it says it has licensed for streaming. “Some games we’ve licensed that strategically we don’t want to mention yet,” Cottam said. Some publishers that have agreed to license games aren’t even reflected on the current public list, he added.
After launching with about 500 available titles, Cottam said AntStream will add an average of about 10 per week on a staggered schedule. That will allow time for the company to “ingest” additional games into its system by adding menu art, trivia, and asynchronous online “score challenges” that can be made between players.
Picking which games to prioritize for launch and licensing is at this point mostly about “finding the titles people recognize,” Cottam says. “There’s a lot of knowledge on our end. Our licensing director has been licensing these kind 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 about the most popular ones on the list.” After launch, users will also be able to vote on which games get added to the service next.
Cottam says AntStream will transmit video data at the base resolution of the original hardware, which should be a bit easier on networks than the 1080p+ streaming promised by Google Stadia and its ilk. Those games will be upscaled for the target displays, but they won’t have any retro-friendly options like CRT filters or variable color palettes at launch.
Purists who demand perfect authenticity, Cottam suggested, are better served still sticking to original hardware. “They’re a bit like audiophiles who always want vinyl… MP3 will never be good enough if you like your vinyl records. But for 99% of people, MP3 is a godsend.”
For the most part, Cottam says the publishers he’s approached have shown a “willingness for everybody to make use of their old content,” and to get paid based on the time subscribers put into those games on the service. Only one publisher (which Cottam wouldn’t name but said “[it’s] not who you would think”) put up a brick wall of resistance, blocking access to its entire catalog. Aside from that, issues with music licensing or questions about actual rights ownership stopped AntStream from getting rights to about five percent of the games they wanted, he said.
But the biggest gap in AntStream’s catalog, as it stands, is Nintendo hardware. The company behind the NES and SNES has often put uproadblocks for companies that want to emulate that hardware on modern platforms (though their legal right to do so for games published by third-parties is thin at best). Thus, it’s not that surprising that classic Nintendo systems aren’t represented on AntStream’s initial list of titles.
Cottam wouldn’t speak directly to this massive roadblock, instead he diplomatically offered that “different companies have different requirements. We have to try to navigate around those as best we can. Some will take longer than others.” When asked if he foresaw Nintendo systems being emulated on AntStream, he said, “I would like to think we would get it, yes. Nothing is a given, so I’m not going to promise it to everybody, but we can add a lot of value to that content, and we just have to demonstrate that.”
Nintendo aside, 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 quite keen that we get 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 competing, in a sense, with decades of rampant piracy that has filled in the gaps left by sporadic legitimate re-releases of older games. But he looks to other media for evidence that convenience and selection can actually get people to pay for content that is widely available through more illicit means.
“It’s like when everybody was downloading with Napster and Kazaa, and everybody said ‘Nobody’s 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 doing it. We have to offer the content at a really great value, and give a really great experience that’s more pleasurable than doing things illegally.”