Francis Charig, founder of UK firm Antix Labs, a specialist in video game delivery technology, discusses the future of cloud gaming, running video games natively on a set-top box, and the need to ensure everyone benefits from an operator-deployed gaming service.
Francis will be speaking at the TV Connect 2013 event taking place in London on 19-21 March 2013. For more information and to register, please visit www.tvconnectevent.com
Hi Francis! First up, can you give a brief overview of what does Antix Labs does?
Sure. Antix offers an entire game service, a publishing format, and a secure delivery architecture that was built with an absolute focus on ensuring all parties, those being consumers, publishers, operators and manufacturers, all benefit from the resultant solution.
As is usually the case with so many past attempts to tackle the digital game delivery, security and monetization monster, it is not good enough to simply provide benefit for the operator; such schemes don’t have longevity in cases where benefit for the operator comes at the expense of the publishers and consumers, so once they realise that, they don’t participate.
If consumers don’t participate, then there is no business. If publishers don’t participate, then there are no games. The rewards and benefit must be shared.
That means that any realistic solution must absolutely benefit the publishers and consumers, the long forgotten participants in the equation. Just look at streaming where any perceived benefit to the consumer or publisher is overshadowed by other severe flaws that make it untenable against other better options.
Antix has specifically built its system over six years to eliminate all the fundamental flaws while simultaneously benefitting all parties and adding valuable features.
We have the Antix Game Player software which sits on phones, tablets, TVs, PCs, anything in fact that is relevant. This client software manages game life cycle of start, stop, install, uninstall and so forth.
It also enforces DRM security and business rules, and handles conversion from our non-executable and portable delivery publishing format into native executable format. By being in native executable format, we get outstanding performance.
Publisher tools are available to create games that run on the AGP. These are familiar for developers so that there are no technical obstacles for them to overcome.
We also have a game testing, certification and signing service to ensure that games meet certain best-practice criteria. Antix must digitally sign games to be installable and executable on instances of AGP. We also have an online Warehouse and a Store so can offer a complete end-to-end game solution.
In addition to all of these major components and services, Antix has a raft of consumer-oriented features such as use of mobile as a TV and set-top box game controller, game previews in PC browser with no additional coding by the publishers, saving game sessions for use across many devices of different platforms, and much more, mostly functionality aimed at making life easy for the consumer.
Ultimately, Antix gives our clients a fully integrated game service even across highly fragmented devices and networks, irrespective of chipset, operating system, screen size, input devices, field of use and even user payment model.
The benefits to consumers are so clear that since last year Antix has been awarded mandates from broadcasters and operators, mostly in Asia but now expanding into other geographies. We also work with a number of the world’s leading device manufacturers in both mobile and home.
Are you an advocate of cloud gaming?
By cloud gaming I am assuming you mean streaming games to the consumer. This is something I could talk about for hours. It’s strange but this argument is almost taking on the fervour of a religious argument.
We think it’s too early to select whether streaming can be successful. We retain an open mind although we don’t try to discourage companies reviewing streamed games.
However, what we do feel is that there is no way in the next few years that streaming will be practical on any meaningful scale: in emerging and growth economies the infrastructure simply doesn’t exist.
In the more advanced economies, there is still an absence of infrastructure for mobile to allow pervasive streamed deployments, and we wait to see a service that truly scales.
There are fundamental problems with the business model as well. The advantages to consumers and publishers are neither clear nor unique to streaming architectures, and if advocates cannot truly explain those advantages then it will be a hard sell to deploy games, retain customers and make money.
What problems are there for running video games natively on a set-top box?
There are many problems, commercial and technical, to actually obtaining games that are written natively for set-top boxes, as described at length in our recent white paper (found on our website).
As for running the games, the biggest issues are primarily related to the responsiveness of the controllers. Antix has solved that problem by allowing the use of mobile devices instead of IR remote controls in some very advanced ways. This is also summarised in our white paper.
Modern STBs such as those designed around Broadcom SoCs are fully outfitted with CPU, GPUs, memory, and storage comparable to or more capable than modern smartphones.
In that regard, STBs are perfectly suitable for games of that quality or better. Publishers must do some planning work to ensure graphics are appropriate for the larger displays, but this is straightforward and well understood.
So, as Antix has clearly demonstrated, there are no real problems in running video games natively on the STB.
How does the Antix Labs player run on devices with lower processing power and memory?
First off, the Antix Game Player is not a virtual machine, nor an emulator, nor a scripting platform. It is small in size, around half a megabyte compared to a browser or a JVM and much smaller than a typical modern, relevant smartphone-type game which are often tens of megabytes.
It does not introduce any runtime overhead. It is true that games are delivered to device in a non-executable, non-native format, but that format is engineered such that AGP conversion into native occurs at installation time, only once, the first time, and results in native code that does not have any of the performance-robbing abstraction artefacts left behind by non-native technologies. Our team has two decades of experience and many patents filed in this area so we have unique levels of expertise.
By using C and C++ as the programming language and by decoupling the delivery format from the execution format, Antix gives the publisher a way to deliver platform independent games that are as efficient as possible.
A given Antix-formatted game will run on any device having sufficient resources. That resource threshold is much lower for Antix than for any other commercially available cross-platform delivery solution.
In a nutshell, a low-tier device is a low-tier device and no software can change that fact. The only thing software can do is use the resources as efficiently as possible – this will always be native.