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Video gaming is losing its history. "We think there are around 150,000 games that are slowly disappearing," says Brandon Keenen, the chief marketing officer of Antstream Arcade, an online games-streaming platform that's secured over 4,000 licenses for classic console, home computer and arcade games. Four thousand sounds like a lot, but as Keenen adds, few of them have come easy: "Each deal has its own complexities. We spent four or five years working on some of the Japanese deals, and the American publishers had their own challenges due to the complexity of the legal agreements and cross-licensing for some of the games."
With preservation of gaming's past a vital topic of industry conversation right now - especially with the functionality of older online PlayStation and Nintendo stores becoming increasingly limited - it's more essential than ever to have accessible means to experience and enjoy titles that laid the groundwork for what we know gaming to be today. Antstream is one service that's trying to combine a commercially successful business model with keeping gaming's past alive - but it's not fighting this battle alone.
Recently fully funded on Kickstarter, Piepacker is another games-streaming service that allows access to a selection of older titles, this time from the comfort of your browser. Where the Antstream app incorporates leaderboards and tournaments into its play patterns, Piepacker wants to use retro games as social tools, connecting friends online to play old favourites together in real time. The two platforms share similarities then - you don't need dedicated hardware, you can plug an array of controllers in and crack on immediately, and both have free-to-use options - but Piepacker is more about the shared experience than simply revisiting classics solo, or exploring them anew.
As a newly launched platform, the range of games on Piepacker right now is incredibly limited. It has a mix of original games and licensed titles like Sensible Soccer, Earthworm Jim and Worms - all three of which are also on Antstream Arcade, it's worth noting - but its total game count is still in the double digits.
"We have curated the best launch portfolio we could, and we are just getting started," says Benjamin Devienne, the CEO of Piepacker. He's hopeful what follows isn't just more games (albeit still carefully selected), but also a connection with the retro-gaming community covering dedicated enthusiasts and, perhaps more pertinently, nostalgia-loving fairweather players who want to hang out with friends.
"There are a ton of gamers around the world who would love to play their favourite childhood games, but can't find an easy way to access them," Devienne says. "There are multiple services which pioneered this, but very few have tackled the multiplayer and accessibility challenge. This is where our vision is quite unique within the industry: we are building a free, plug and play, cloud-based gaming platform, and we are hyper focused on the online hangout experience and accessibility. It will take one click to play with friends, bringing the nostalgia of the hangout experience we once had in our living rooms, but online."
Watch a video on how the PieReader works, below...
Which sounds great - and in my limited testing with Piepacker so far, yeah, it actually works, too. You join a virtual room with up to three other pals, and play a game together while chatting away using little windows at the side of the screen. It really is exceptionally simple. Piepacker is hoping to sell users on buying an array of filters and masks to wear during online play, to boost its revenue, and while that side of the proposition doesn't appeal so much to me, Devienne seems sure it'll be a success. "While using the video camera, users can wear these awesome cosmetics based on their favourite games, and make every game a party," he explains. I'm sure some users will love the masks - but what's most appealing to me, regarding Piepacker's activity, is the PieReader.
Currently exclusively available to Kickstarter backers, the PieReader is, says Devienne, "A love letter to nostalgia, a dream accessory we have built to engage communities early on." It's a device that users can plug their old Mega Drive/Genesis, Super Nintendo or Game Boy Advance cartridges into, and Piepacker will enable that game to be played online, with friends, in the same manner as their already available, fully licensed titles. "To do this sounded crazy at first," he continues, "until we made it happen." And how that happens neatly side-steps any copyright-infringing, ROM-generating naughtiness.
"It literally acts as a reading device for physical support, and is compliant with all regulations in the countries where it is available," Devienne explains. "When the user loads the game via the PieReader, it is read by a private virtual instance in the cloud that only belongs to the owner of that cartridge, making it a legal use of your game. At no time does Piepacker have access to the game content. The ROM is never sent nor shared with your friends. Piepacker is only sharing the video feed and the game input on the same screen. It's like inviting a friend over to play on the same TV, except your friend doesn't have to physically come over: the video TV signal is duplicated and sent to your friend's house."
Again, this sounds fantastic - but unlike the ready-to-go online games on Piepacker, the PieReader isn't something I've been able to personally test. It's a very exciting proposition though, speaking as someone who owns a lot of old cartridges. Devienne confirms in our conversation that anyone wanting to bring their own games to Piepacker, using the PieReader, will need to have an account covering the digital and hardware access, which comes in at a hundred dollars. Other account options are available, and again you can use the service for free.
Contrastingly, Antstream Arcade didn't offer free-to-play access when it launched, but today offers well over a thousand games - including famous franchises like Asteroids, Double Dragon, Mortal Kombat and Pac-Man - without the user necessarily spending a penny. Keenen tells me that introducing a free-to-play model for the service was always the plan - they just needed to lay some strong foundations, first.
"It's something we wanted to do from the very start, as it makes games much more accessible to people who want to play on multiple platforms whenever they want," he explains, offering me the opportunity to confirm that Antstream Arcade is currently playable on PC, Mac, Linux, Android, Amazon Fire, Nvidia Shield, and should be on consoles later in 2021. "Since launch, our subscriber numbers have increased with more people signing up every day, and now our plan is to evolve our freemium model to ultimately provide three different options: free-with-ads, micro-payments, and a subscription-based model. By doing this, we are giving gamers the choice about what works for them, as opposed to offering a one-size-fits-all approach which is not the way forward. User experience is also key - everyone has a very different way of enjoying these games."
More features offering "greater value" are promised by Keenen, who already considers Antstream's array of tournaments and other challenges as essential components of what's making the service work, right now. "The battles and tournaments are extremely important to the whole proposition," he says. "We're bringing old games back with a modern twist, designed for the hyper-casual audience. And our data shows that the challenges are discovery tools - if you play a game for a challenge, and like it, you're more likely to then play the full game. And we've seen games that weren't blockbusters originally have challenges that are incredibly popular."
Of course, you don't have to enter tournaments to enjoy what Anstream Arcade is offering - just as you don't need to meet up with friends in a virtual room to play what Piepacker already has available (I enjoyed a few matches of Sensible Soccer on my own, and had a great time). But both these online services are coming at retro games, at old-school arcade games and modern titles inspired by the classics of the past - the excellent contemporary Mega Drive game Xeno Crisis is playable on Piepacker, for example - with casual users in mind as much as committed retro fans. And that makes sense for them. But for the folks at Blaze Entertainment, makers of the Evercade, it's all about giving fans of 8- and 16-bit games what they loved before, pretty much as it was served back then. On a cart, that comes in a box, with a manual, good times.
The Evercade VS was revealed with this trailer...
In 2020, Blaze launched the Evercade handheld - and it was very good, indeed. No online play, no online store, no need for a web connection whatsoever, save for firmware updates. The Evercade is a dedicated retro console that uses proprietary cartridges, each of which features between two and 20 games on it, from several famous names including Atari, Namco, Data East, Technos and Jaleco. And in 2021, the Evercade is coming home - the four-players-supporting VS launches in November, bringing arcade titles and console releases to your TV in a very neat-looking box. Of all the retro-specialised consoles supposedly launching this year, it appears on paper at least to be the best of the bunch.
"We're purely a physical experience with an eye on those who collect and want a pain-free way to play and discover these games," says Blaze's marketing manager, Sean Cleaver. (And for the sake of transparency, Sean and I go back a few years and have worked together before, but I've no vested interest in Blaze, Evercade, or anything else to do with the devices and platforms featured in this piece.)
"Other services have focused more on streaming technology to bring that ease of play," he continues, "and others have focused on the console itself being a HDMI solution for original physical games that people already have or are collecting. But I think everything can happily co-exist as long as an audience is there for it, and we're all in a position where we've tackled the retro gaming market from different angles."
There's no obvious beef brewing between these three very different operations, then - which is great frankly, as all are offering new and intriguing ways to play your way through gaming's past, and that diversity means there should be something for everyone across the options. And Keenen echoes Cleaver's sentiments, telling me: "We always pay attention [to other retro platforms], and we are also fans of theirs. I think each company is very different." The two are also aligned on the challenges faced with bringing old games to their platforms.
"I think anyone who has worked with official licenses will tell you that there's no 100% formula to acquiring them," Cleaver says. "Every license holder has their own plans with their products, and we have to promote Evercade to those license holders. We've been incredibly lucky to have great relationships with companies like Atari and Piko, and that makes the process a lot easier. The most challenging are always the companies that have multiple variables, such as timezones, language, internal plans and understanding of the product. But we're lucky enough also to be in a position where we're an attractive proposition for licenses, and some come to us to discuss publication, like independent titles or older classic catalogues. So it's always great to see the options we have on the table."
Check out the latest trailer for Antstream Arcade...
Cleaver adds that the widespread use of illegal ROMS of retro games can give a false impression that licenses for older titles are easy to obtain. And, just because something has already been legally re-released, that doesn't guarantee it's coming to something like the Evercade. "For someone who isn't as aware of the labyrinth that is intellectual property licensing for games or systems, the misunderstanding comes from things that have already been legally released that we don't have yet," he explains. "I see social media messages asking for games that are currently out of reach [for us], but are currently available digitally elsewhere. And in this readily available digital age, many people kind of expect everything to be immediately procurable."
"I'd love to get some classic Sega games on the system, both home console and arcade," he adds, illustrating that there are wish-lists at Evercade and its peers that, for all the will in the world, might never be fulfilled. Fingers crossed though, because Keenen has his targets, too: "I don't think we have any old Intellivision games. If (Intellivision Entertainment president) Tommy Tallarico is reading this... yer out! We want Baseball." And Devienne is confident of expanding Piepacker's library before long: "We are in conversation with many other game publishers, and we have a shortlist of most-wanted titles that we will make official soon! We wish we could share more, but we promise readers that they are worth the wait!"
Individual business models to one side, it's clear all three of these platforms, these ecosystems, these communities, are working hard to keep old games available, playable, and accessible to as many people as possible. This is vital work, as the likes of Nintendo and Sony seem less willing than these smaller companies to make the effort necessary to get a game officially signed up and supported, and to keep that game alive.
Featured Image Credit: Antstream Arcade, Blaze Entertainment
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