Tencent is betting there's a future for retro games in the cloud

Key Points
  • U.K. start-up Antstream is jumping into the cloud gaming battle with a streaming platform for retro titles.
  • The firm says it's raised funding in an investment round led by Tencent and backed by Hambro Perks.
  • It will use the fresh cash to market its product and expand to the U.S. later this year.
U.K. start-up Antstream wants to bring a streaming experience to retro gaming enthusiasts.

While tech giants like Microsoft and Google are building cloud gaming platforms for the latest blockbuster titles, one start-up is taking a different approach.

London-based firm Antstream says it wants to bring a streaming experience to retro gaming enthusiasts. The company has developed a cloud gaming service that gives players access to a library of over 2,000 classic video games.

It's a model that CEO Steve Cottam sees going global. And to bolster that ambition, the company has raised its first significant round of funding, led by the Chinese tech giant Tencent and backed by British venture firm Hambro Perks.

For Antstream, the project is about resurrecting an experience long buried in old devices like the Commodore 64 and the Amiga. Cottam told CNBC in an interview that the idea for the company stemmed from what he's been seeing elsewhere in the entertainment industry.

"You've got Spotify and Apple for your music, while in movies you've got Netflix and Amazon," he said. "It's so easy to find that content, but games just got lost because of all these different formats, and they didn't work on modern devices."

Usually people have to invest in decades-old cartridges and dated machines or find a decent console emulator to be able to play classic games. But with Antstream's streaming service, users are instead able to play games that are run from remote servers.

"Having Tencent coming on board was a massive validation of what we've done," Cottam said. "It gives us the opportunity to grow and to take this business onto the global stage."

Antstream didn't disclose how much cash it's received in this round, but said it represents a "significant stake" in the company. With its app now live in Europe, the start-up will use the fresh money to market the product and expand to the U.S. later this year.

Asia expansion ahead

While it's less well known in the West, Tencent is arguably the world's largest gaming company. It's the parent company of "League of Legends" developer Riot Games and mobile gaming firm Supercell, and holds a minority stake in "Fortnite" maker Epic Games. The firm has even been testing its own game streaming service, called Start.

With Tencent's help, Cottam sees Antstream eventually launching in Asia, a massive market for gaming. But there's no set date on when that will happen just yet. "When we want to roll this out in Asia, there is no better partner to work with," he said. "They have such a strong foothold in that market."

While the firm's boss didn't pinpoint any particular countries, he mentioned visiting Japan, where "you still have these massive arcades which are full of people going in and playing these classic games." The country is also home to some of the most well-known gaming brands, including Nintendo and Sega.

A subscription to Antstream costs £9.99 per month — or £7.99 if customers opt for an annual membership — and that price will be the same in dollars, Cottam said.

By contrast, Google's Stadia cloud gaming platform costs $9.99 a month, but gamers have to fork out another $69 for a controller and extra costs for additional games.

Antstream's platform lets players access a library of over 2,000 retro games.

Antstream says its games can be played on computers, tablets and smartphones, as well as Microsoft's Xbox One console and Amazon's Fire TV. Players can also hook their device up to an Xbox controller to play the games.

Nostalgia trip

While the firm isn't targeting the latest "triple-A" titles like Google and Microsoft are, its CEO explains that's because it wants to start from the "beginning."

"Seeing how the retro games were under-served, or just really didn't exist anymore, that was one of the problems we wanted to solve," Cottam said. "Our vision is to get the first game ever made to the game that came out yesterday."

Antstream's platform also comes with a "challenges" feature that lets users compete to beat each other's high scores, like they would in an arcade, adding a social component to the experience.

Another big part of the project is about tapping into the nostalgia people feel when interacting with the games they played in their childhood, said George Davies, partner at Antstream investor Hambro Perks.

"People have a connection to these retro games and nostalgic feelings that are hugely addictive and fulfilling," Davies told CNBC. He added that there's a "huge global opportunity" for the technology Antstream is building.

And the sheer size of the gaming market can't be overstated. Industry research group Newzoo estimates consumers will spend $152.1 billion on games this year, an almost 10% increase from last year, and forecasts that figure will grow to $196 billion by 2022.

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