Streaming services like Antstream Arcade and Jam.gg might deal in retro games but their new social gaming experiences are very modern.
An interesting trend has swept the games industry in recent years: retro games have bleeped and blooped their way back into the limelight, finding a new constituency amongst young gamers, rather than merely acting as a source of nostalgia for those who remember them the first time round. But the pixellated renaissance doesn’t stop there, two modern streaming games companies are capitalising on the rekindled love for retro classics to fuel innovative new forms of social gaming.
One of those, British outfit Antstream Arcade, has been leading the charge in bringing retro games to the masses and we spoke to CEO Steve Cottam, to catch up on the streaming service’s latest new feature. We also interviewed Benjamin Devienne, CEO of French streaming service Jam.gg, which is using retro games as something of a Trojan horse to generate innovative new social gaming experiences via web browsers.
Anstream Arcade’s Steve Cottam kicked off by revealing, ‘It’s been an incredibly busy year.’ He proudly points out that the Antstream app has now been downloaded by over 3.5 million people worldwide, and that Antstream has now licensed over 3,000 retro games – over 1,300 of which are currently live on the platform. Cottam admits, ‘There are still those elusive 150,000 retro games out there that we want to bring into the platform’ but there’s no doubt that Antstream is already a paradise for aficionados of retro games.
Cottam is bullish about Antstream’s attempts to make the finest fruits of the 80s arcade scene available to its users, having landed another legendary Japanese shooter: ‘One of the games that we’ve just added, and just in time for its 35th anniversary, is R-Type; R-Type 1 and R-Type 2. And with that, we’ve brought in other Irem games.’
Japanese developer Irem was a major player from the early days of the arcades, and its 1984 title Kung-Fu Master – also now available to play on Antstream – was the first ever beat ‘em-up. Cottam adds: ‘It took five years talking to those guys to get that deal signed. It shows that these companies see the value of what we’re doing.’
Cottam highlights another sure sign that the retro scene is enjoying a golden period right now: ‘One of the biggest things we did this year is add support for indie developers. There are lots of indie developers out there building these amazing games based on the original hardware – like Flea on the NES and Tanglewood on the Mega Drive. We’re supporting the indie developers whenever we can, and they are banging on our door fairly loudly to bring the games.’
Antstream began as a subscription service but really took off when it went free, backed up with a system of microtransactions in the form of ‘gems’ that users can buy to get around restrictions and enable specific gameplay modes. But since it now has a healthy constituency of users, Cottam explains that they’re bringing subscriptions back as an option: ‘We are launching our premium version, at £39.99 for a year’s subscription. That gives you access to all of the content, unlimited challenges: everything is unlocked, as many game saves as you like.’
Act quickly, though, and you could subscribe for half that. ‘To celebrate the 35th anniversary of R-Type, we’re doing a summer promotion where between now and the middle of June, people can get Antstream for £19.99 for an entire year,’ says Cottam. ‘Compare that to how many games you would get on, say, the Nintendo Switch premium subscription, and we’ve got 10 times the amount, plus new content and extra features that Nintendo doesn’t have.’
Perhaps the greatest justification for splashing out on a subscription to Antstream, though, lies not in its sizeable catalogue of arcade classics, but in the way in which Antstream has used those games to foster very modern styles of social play. The company runs a host of competitive challenges, which bring various tangible rewards. For example, one current challenge invites the Antstream community to score as many points as possible in Asteroids with just one life.
Cottam gives a more elaborate example: ‘We did one with Pac-Man where we cleared out all the dots on the maze and only left four dots on the screen, and you had to run around and dodge the ghosts; if you hit a dot, that was it – Game Over. Or we added the power pills but when you ate a power pill, instead of giving you a boost, it reversed your controls.’
On top of that, Antstream has added a new type of play called Giant Slayer. ‘With Giant Slayer, you can keep trying to get the best score possible, and when you think you’ve got the score that no-one can beat, you submit it, at which point the whole community will see it, and can try to take you down. It then requires a certain percentage of the community to beat your score to beat you,’ says Cottam. The end result is an interesting form of mass participation, which goes way beyond what was possible in the original arcades and their very different social experience.
The way in which Antstream is working to foster the social side of retro gaming brings to mind another, much more nascent game-streaming service, based in France called Jam.gg. Until recently known as Piepacker, Jam.gg, as its co-founder and CEO Benjamin Devienne explains, initially began as something of a technological exercise.
‘I live in the south-west of France, and we have very good wine but very poor internet. I thought there was an opportunity that was very similar to the story of Nintendo and the Game Boy, trying to fight the Sega Game Gear with accessibility. The Game Gear was arguably much the better console, but it was much more expensive and ate up a lot of batteries. The Game Boy had a very simple design – the screen was terrible, it had very bad sound, but it was cheap, and you didn’t need a lot of batteries for it. Retrospectively, accessibility won over technology.’
So with an eye on markets in less developed countries, with poor broadband infrastructure, Devienne and Jam.gg set out to, in his words, ‘Build a super-accessible cloud-gaming system that requires very basic things: a web browser, basic internet, and friends. You are going to play video games directly from a web browser, there is no barrier. Any game that we have on the platform is just a few clicks away.’
Populating Jam.gg with various retro games, Devienne and his team got a shock when they distributed screen capture software to their users, in order to see how they were playing: ‘We were very puzzled, because they did not understand how to use the product: either we had a very bad idea, or they were very dumb – both situations were bad for us.’
‘They were using Jam.gg on one side of the screen, and spending most of their attention on Google Meets or Zoom, they were basically hanging out with their friends and using the games as an excuse to socialise. We found this very fascinating, and we decided to push it further and integrate video chat and social features.’
The end result is that, in its current form, if you go to Jam.gg, you can open up a room, generate a chat avatar for yourself, pick a game – from a mainly retro roster, which is much smaller than that of Antstream – to play in that room, then invite your friends to come and play it privately with you. Or you can find people to play (and socialise) with in its public spaces, either by picking a game you fancy or by searching according to your gaming mood
‘For some games, I don’t want to talk to the other person; I just want to play competitively, to get good at the game. Or maybe I want to be social, and the game is just there as an excuse for a conversation, so I can also select by mood, and we see people using that a lot,’ explains Devienne.
Having built an ultra-flexible and low-bandwidth social gaming platform, Jam.gg and Devienne have lofty ambitions for the future. One feature already in Jam.gg, which will excite retro-heads, is the ability to import ROMs of retro games that users have legitimately purchased. For that, Jam.gg had to put in place checks to make sure that they were legally acquired. ‘A lot of legal work went into that,’ admits Devienne.
Devienne also wants to take Jam.gg beyond its current retro focus, and especially into the territory of modern couch co-op games. ‘Our first direction will be to think about content, and extend the couch co-op to more games. For us it’s a very important step in our strategy: to make sure we can have games like Overcooked, Moving Out, and Blazing Chrome. We already have deals with some of these licences and we’re pushing forwards to extend the catalogue.
‘For some of these games that are being sold on Steam or other platforms for $15, $30 bucks or even $60, it’s really hard to convince third party developers to license them to us and make them available free. So while we will keep the free tier, and have most of the premium games available for free, we’ll offer some of the games via the marketplace.’
Devienne also has a vision that will see the sort of mass participation that Antstream has been introducing come to Jam.gg, an idea that emerged when he worked at Twitch. ‘Something I found very fascinating was Twitch Plays Pokémon. They ran a game on Twitch and instead of having just one person controlling the Game Boy, it was the entire audience controlling the character – going A, B, up down, left right; every few seconds, people voted for the move.
‘They actually completed the game, and it was such a big social experience. To this day, it is the biggest stream there ever was on Twitch. I wanted to do something similar.’
So he did: creating a Bomberman-style game called Arsene Bomber, with a flying saucer-like object that could be controlled by Twitch viewers, which premiered at a Gamers Without Borders charity event, played by a number of well-known Twitch streamers against the audience, which could use the flying saucer to drop bombs or power-ups.
‘We said that we need to apply this technology to all the games we have on the catalogue, and to make it the new tool for streamers to earn money. So imagine – and this is something we’re releasing in a few weeks – a game like Street Fighter being played by a streamer, and the streamer uses Jam.gg and broadcasts it to Twitch through our system,’ says Devienne.
‘The streamer can let any of the viewers, for money, challenge him or her – live, in the show, on Twitch. So I can pay three, four, five dollars to fight a few rounds against my favourite internet celebrity.
‘Or take a game like Zelda: with the system we’ve implemented, for money, you can add items to the inventory of the person playing, add enemies on the screen, or remove one button from the control system, say, so you can pretty much affect the course of the game. And this is going to be applied – this is actually applied right now – to all the games in our catalogue, including modern games that are coming.’
Thanks to the likes of Antstream Arcade and Jam.gg, the burgeoning modern taste for retro gaming is leading to entirely new mass participation social gaming experiences. So, if you prefer gaming to be sociable, it might just be time to get retro.
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