Imagine a world where you could stream thousands of retro games straight to your phone. Where you could sneak in a quick game of Pac-Man at the airport or play some Space Invaders on the sly while no one was looking at your work desktop. It turns out, we’re already living in that world, because such a service actually already exists – and it’s called Antstream. Nope, we had no idea either.
Playing host to a vast library of over 3000 retro games, Antstream allows users to (you guessed it) stream all manner of games. It plays host to everything from arcade classics, to forgotten Spectrum hits and even beloved Megadrive gems. At just £9.99 a month, thousands of games is admittedly fairly decent value for retro gaming enthusiasts. Most importantly however, is that thanks to its clever mix of cloud technology, the service has managed to emulate all manner of retro games flawlessly. Now, due to that tech, the service has attracted the attention of the world’s biggest gaming company Tencent, who invested in Antstream last year.
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After diving into Antstream, I reached out to the company’s CEO, Steve Cottam who revealed how he turned his childhood dream into an incredibly profitable reality...
"I've always been a gamer"
Cottam told us, “I’ve always been a gamer. When I got my first computer, I was ten years old. And I had that moment of "wow, I'm controlling a character on screen!" and my brain was just going, how's this even possible? Now I get to go out and meet the companies that created the games that got me to build this project in the first place. I've met a few of my idols. It sounds cliche, but it is actually a bit of a dream come true.”
Having coded a game called Nitro Racers in his twenties, video games have always been Cottam’s passion. Yet after failing to set the charts on fire, he quickly put his gaming dreams on hold, going to work for a corporate company in the city. But one day, he began to have an idea that would change his life forever.
"It all started ten years ago"
“It all started ten years ago. when I realised that all my content was moving online. I was listening to music through Spotify, I was starting to use Netflix to watch my movies and Amazon Prime... but with games, it wasn't so easy,” Cottam reveals. “With movies and music, you can just kind of transcode the content into whatever format you want. But obviously, with consoles and computers, you've got different chipsets and all kinds of stuff, and I saw an opportunity to use Cloud tech to come and do the same thing.”
For Cottam, the vision for what would go on to become Antstream was simple: “I just wanted to take the huge history of gaming and just make that available to everybody on every device.”
After crudely hacking together a working concept, he quickly realised that he had a hit on his hands. A decade later, his platform boasts thousands of games, including some of the biggest names in gaming - icons like Pac-Man and Space Invaders are available on Antstream.
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"The largest retro catalogue that's ever been assembled"
“It’s absolutely incredible, really - and we’ve got a lot more to go. There are about 150,000 games that we've identified as retro and we've got about 3000 of those to date - by far the largest retro catalogue that's ever been assembled.”
Still, Antstream isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia. For Steve, it was important that Antstream brought something new to the table too - that it slightly modernised the retro gaming experience. Rather than just simply uploading the games and that being that, Antstream has instead added a competitive element to its titles – including regular special custom challenges for it's most popular titles.
“I think this is really what makes Antstream unique,” grins Cottam, proudly, “We're not just about the games, we build all these custom challenges and tournaments, too. It's almost like an Esports platform but Retro..”
So, how exactly do these tournaments work then? “So it might be in Pac Man, setting players the task of how quickly they can clear maze one. Then this information is put on a live leaderboard. Recently, we did an Asteroids challenge where it was, how long could you survive without firing any bullets. As soon as you press the fire button, game over! When that tournament finished, the guy that got number one, he played that challenge over 1000 times in a single weekend! and there were two of them competing! We could see them doing this, constantly overtaking each other. It was amazing”
Interestingly, much like it did back in arcades in the ‘80s, it’s this high score, arcade style competition that seems to really strike a chord with Antstream’s customers.
“The tournaments and the challenges currently represent about 80% of gameplay on the platform. So that's really great for us because it validates what we're doing”
"Everybody is trying to build subscription services"
Still, with Antsream competing with services like Spotify, Disney+, Netflix, Gamepass and Amazon Prime, the question is, can people really afford to drop a tenner a month on yet another subscription service?
“I think it's a valid concern,” agrees Cottam. “Everybody is trying to build subscription services at the moment and you're absolutely right, consumers can only have so many subscriptions. It’s why I think it's really important that companies like Antstream exist to aggregate content into one place, because you can imagine if Taito and Namco, and SNK - I think we've got 50, partnerships in total - if every one of them were doing their own subscription platform, it would drive consumers insane. We've also got some amazing classics on Antstream that if you were to go and buy those games on eBay now will cost you $300 -$400. So there's a huge amount of value there For the subscription price.”
For Cottam, Xbox Game Pass isn’t a true competitor for Antstream. Thanks to Microsoft’s infinitely more modern catalogue, he believes that the two gaming services are different enough to coexist:
“I think we complement what Microsoft is doing quite well,” reaffirms Cottam. “I mean, Game Pass is phenomenal. But I see ourselves a little bit like… you know, a lot of gamers have Xbox, all they have PlayStation, or they have PC, but they've probably all got a switch as well. But again, nobody has solved the retro piece. And that's where I think we again, slot in alongside. we're also looking at a free tier where people will be able to come in and get a taste of what we do.”
While he’s managed to court everyone from SNK to Namco, there’s still one glaring publisher omission from its lineup – the house of Mario. With Nintendo offering its own retro service via its Nintendo Switch online service, it looks unlikely that the big N will partner with Antstream anytime soon.
“I would love to think we can do something with them in the future,” Cottam says on Nintendo, “But I've got no nothing to report on that at the moment. But never say never.”
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So, what is next for Antstream then?
“Lots more of the tournaments and challenges, and lots more exclusive content,” says Cottam, before pausing. “Otherwise… retro is constantly shifting. As we all get older, what is retro shifts, so we're really looking to add newer and newer content. For every year, we try and move forward five years in terms of the content that we offer. I think we're up to about the year 2000, now.”
For Cottam, however, the pie in the sky dream is for Antstream to be a one stop shop for video games – with the service eventually offering subscribers access to almost every game ever made.
“The ultimate vision - this is a kind of a five to 10 year vision, but you know – is that we want to offer every game!,” he reveals with a smile,“So, whether it's the first game ever created to the game that came out yesterday, we'd like Antstream to be a home for that. But for the foreseeable future, what we want to do is service the retro space well and do the best job we can.”
It’s a pretty lofty dream, and one that you’d expect many to scoff at. Yet given how far Antstream has come in its 10 year history, it almost doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Before we end our chat, we ask Cottam what his elevator pitch would be to the skeptics out there. Why should gamers care about a costly subscription service that only offers old titles?
“if you are the type of person who hasn’t got 40 or 50 hours to invest into the latest Tomb Raider, but what you do love to do is to play Pac Man or Space Invaders for five minutes at a time,almost more like a YouTube experience – then Anstream is perfect. We have over 3000 games, There's fresh content every single day, new tournaments, new challenges every single week. There's just so much fun to discover.”
LEARN MORE:You can visit the Antstream website here