To: GameHut; Re: AntStream
Note: This was written in response to this video where Jon announced a retro video game streaming service. He has already read and responded to this, so don't bug him please.
I'm a mildly big fan of your work on those games all those years ago. When I saw that you had a YouTube channel up with prototypes and behind the scenes info on Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic R, both games that I had as a kid and adored, I was all over that. I was amazed that the developer of such well-known games would come to talk about them years later. And not just talk about your games, but update 3D Blast to add bugfixes and new features, and even make a Mega Drive homebrew tutorial. It seemed like you really cared about sharing the joy of the inner workings of your own games with others.
To put it mildly, I find your choice of backing AntStream questionable, at best. At it's core, AntStream is a service that takes the ownership of games away from players, puts the games behind a paywall, and only lets people interact with them in specific pre-approved ways. I think saying that AntStream will become the best way to enjoy retro games is misguided.
First off, AntStream can't give back to it's original developers, no matter how hard it tries. The money from the licensing deals you've signed are almost certainly not going into the pockets of the hard working developers of those games. The three companies you mentioned having a deal with were Data East, SNK, and Jaleco. Data East was liquidated in 2003, with the game rights going to G-Mode, a mobile phone games company. The SNK name and catalog are currently owned by Leyou Technologies Holdings, a Hong Kong-based holding company. Jaleco is owned by a Japanese music label that mostly just licenses out their catalog. None of these companies are interested in producing games even remotely in the spirit of the retro classics we enjoy, and any money given to them is just lining the pockets of large soulless corporations who did no work to get that money.
But even if that wasn't an issue, there's still the issue of not being able to own the games. The problem is that a video game, older ones especially, are more than what you get on the screen from some button inputs. Within a game's ROM lies fascinating hints of scrapped ideas, insight into the development process, and sometimes outpourings of the developer's own feelings. If you haven't, I'd highly recommend giving The Cutting Room Floor a read. It's an entire wiki dedicated to seeing what secrets hide under the outer layer of a video game. TCRF is read by people who look up the games they love (or hate, even) and want to learn more, to enhance their fun playing with and talking about those games. Such a wiki could not exist if AntStream was the only way to access retro games.
Even worse, though, is that not having ownership of one's games means that people can't improve games and get more out of them than the developer originally put in. If a game is popular enough, people will crave more content. They will take your game, figure how how it works, and hack it to add more. As a kid I used to have a lot of fun messing around with Super Mario World and a Game Genie, just seeing what I could do to bend and break the game. However, the ultimate example of this is the Doom modding community, who started with a game they adored and grew a thriving scene that spanned decades and kicked off a significant portion of video game engines in use today. The Doom modding community spawned a glutton of homebrew levels, from simple "ketchup factories" to cereal tie-in advergames and complete 180 spins on the original formula. (If you're looking for a good starting point, this page is pretty good.)
Sometimes people need to hack the game to just be able to run it as it was originally intended. Take Sonic Adventure as an example. Fun game. Cheesy plot. Good stuff. I like to play it from time to time. However, what a lot of people don't realize is that the version of the game you can buy today is heavily degraded from what it was on the Dreamcast. This site, written by some people who have put in a lot of effort to fix these flaws, explains it better than I can. If they didn't have access to the binary for SADX, then the game could not be enjoyed as intended.
And yes Jon, this includes your games. Take, for instance, Sonic R. For a very long time it was almost impossible to get a copy of it to run. Most Saturn emulators were (and, really, still are) quite buggy, and the PC version was in abysmal shape, requiring ludicrous amounts of effort just to run it on modern hardware. Because of the work I and a few others have put in, this game is even better preserved than it would have been if had been doomed to run on an emulator on some AntStream server somewhere. We fixed that startup error, and added widescreen and HD support and a million other bells and whistles while we were at it. I restored the broken vertex lighting, making the game look better than ever. All this because we were able to hack the game.
And really, that's my biggest beef with the whole thing. Never mind the impractical costs of streaming video to thousands of subscribers for no good reason, or dealing with the latency, jitter, and bandwidth problems that will come from that. Never mind the fact that I have to pay a rather expensive monthly subscription fee when I don't play retro games that much to begin with. And never mind the fact that the subscription fee isn't going anywhere worthwhile. My biggest complaint is that I want to be able to do what I want with my games. I had infinitely more fun taking apart Sonic R and trying to figure out how the physics engine worked or how to dump the track models than merely playing the game at face value.
I'm sure you meant well in backing AntStream, but I really don't think it was a sound idea. You of all people should know how much people value owning their games and seeing the secrets that lie within, or fixing them up. Your entire channel is dedicated to both of those things! I know that you just wanted to provide a service where people could experience the joy you and many others have had in playing the old classics in a legal and easily accessible manner. I agree that such an idea would be great, but touting it as a replacement for "fiddly emulators" or blowing on cartridges is utterly silly. I do not believe that there is a lot of demand for a service like this, because the niche audience that would be interested in this has repeatedly shown a continued interest in getting the most out of their games, and not just merely playing them. I wish you the best of luck going forwards, but I would quit the AntSteram thing while you're ahead.