Piepacker aims to be ‘Game Boy of the cloud gaming space’

I discovered the retro cloud game service Piepacker, as it was likely to be discovered: not through a press release in my inbox or a pitch from someone in PR, but when a friend mentioned it in a WhatsApp group and invited me to play. I had never heard of it and the name sounded silly, but my friend said it had some cool old SNK games available to play. I saw the video on the website and it looked funny.

The path is very simple: classic games that can be played instantly in your browser, with – and this is the important part – multiplayer-enabled and integrated video chat. It’s cloud games and a virtual hangout rolled into one, it’s free to play, and inviting a friend is as easy as pinging them a link.

A few things struck me as instantly appealing at this concept. Immediacy, of course, is something that all cloud gaming services share. But the social element also seemed important, and so did the way this resonated with the games on the service, which are basically local multiplayer games from arcades or from old home consoles: simple, direct games designed to be played with someone right next to you. With its prominent video chat and easy game changes, Piepacker puts the social experience before the games themselves. It creates an online space for casual, talkative, informal gaming sessions with friends – and almost as a by-product of this, it comes much closer to the original multiplayer experience of some of these old games than even online-enabled re-releases can. There’s a couch in the cloud.

The selection of games is not great, to be honest; you will not find anything from the heyday of Capcom, Sega, Konami or Midway here. There are a handful of genuine gemstones, e.g. Metal Slug X, Windjammersand King of Fighters ’98while a deal with the British veteran outfit Team 17 has brought a couple of vintage Britsoft classics to social gaming as Worms World Party and Sensible football. Piepacker has also experimented with developing and releasing new indie titles for the platform, including the Bomberman style Arsène Bomber.

But that’s not really the point. The fun thing about Piepacker, once you’re in the chat, is to search its archive and try some of the random esoterics you might find there, such as the extremely funny Neo Geo fighter Real Bout Fatal Furyor the modern NES game Micromakersor the entertaining stupid zombie brawler Night Slashers. Because you’re with friends, it can even be fun to play something as objectively awful as the PlayStation Map Racer YEAR for a few minutes. As a rule, on Piepacker, the more mindless the game, the easier the conversation will flow – so you do not necessarily want to be also engaged anyway.

Piepacker has yet to make a name for itself, although it has attracted support from the retro community with a successful Kickstarter campaign, as well as investments from, among others, Lego Group. It’s not necessarily the future, but whether it succeeds or not, there’s something there: a different way of perceiving cloud games, in contrast to the high-tech approach of Google Stadia and Xbox Cloud Gaming.

“When I was a kid, I used to have Game Boy, and I dreamed of another device, which was Game Gear from Sega,” says co-founder and CEO Benjamin Devienne of Zoom from Bordeaux in southwestern France. Devienne is a handsome, enthusiastic entrepreneurial type, and he is relying on the legendary Nintendo engineer Gunpei Yokoi’s “lateral thinking with certain technology” approach to explain the thinking behind Piepacker.

“The contrast between these two handheld devices was very interesting,” Devienne says. “Game Gear was without a doubt better with, you know, color screen, better sound chip, maybe better games. But the problem was that it was more expensive. You also needed a lot of batteries to go through the day. On the other hand, Game Boy much lower technologically, like black and white screen, pretty bad sound, and you could hardly see what was happening on the screen.But it was cheaper and the battery was much more robust.

“In retrospect, [Nintendo] won this battle with accessibility and low technology. And when we started looking at the cloud game space, we were like, Hi, all services are great, like Google Stadia, PlayStation Now, but they’s designed for a world where you have fiber, where 4K’s, 60 frames per second. This is a world where you have a lot of Game Gears and we’re like, Hi, can we build the first Game Boy of the cloud gaming space – something that is much lower technology, but with a much lower footprint?

The result is a cloud gaming service that uses 60 times less bandwidth than Google Stadia. This is good news for Piepacker, which significantly lowers costs and enables its free-to-play business model. This is good news for the environment – cloud gaming services that require high bandwidth and plenty of computing power at the server end can be very energy consuming over long gaming sessions, as Eurogamer has reported. And that’s good news for users who have less than great internet service at home, whether it’s in southwestern France (“We have good wine and cheese, but bad internet!” Says Devienne) or in new markets like Brazil, India, Southeast Asia, and North Africa, where infrastructure is still lagging behind.

Part of Piepacker’s slimness lies in its proprietary technology (which is also here, it gets its curious, and soon changed name: “packing” is a way of compressing processes on a server to use less bandwidth, and the processes that Devienne and his co-founder used to experiment with this technology, which happened to be called “pies”). Part of it is in its philosophy that visual fidelity can take a back seat to the social interactions that are the real attraction; competing with the home console experience is not the intention. And part of that is the choice of retro games, which are of course technologically demanding and much easier to optimize around.

It’s retro, where Piepacker has established its niche so far, but for Devienne it has been a means to reach to get the service started. He is not interested in creating a licensed retro-streaming catalog like Antstreams (which has a much deeper game selection than Piepacker, but lacks its social features). There is no intention to start charging a subscription or anything like that. Rather, Devienne hopes to host more modern indie titles and transform Piepacker into a marketplace where developers can monetize their games as they please (where Piepacker, of course, takes a cut). He suggests Team 17’s hectic co-op cooking game Overcooked as an example of a title that would work exceptionally well on Piepacker, and he’s right – but Stadia has shown that players may be reluctant to pay to only own games in the cloud.

Meanwhile, Piepacker is making decent money selling custom 3D filters for its video chat windows. (Devienne used to do analytics and research for Facebook and Twitch, and as such, he’s not surprised that players are willing to spend up to $ 1,500 on animated virtual masks.) Later in the future, there is also a scheme for Twitch- integration that will allow viewers to pay to jump into streamers’ games if hosted on Piepacker, where streamers take 70% of revenue and Piepacker the rest.

“Something that really blew me away when I was on Twitch was the Twitch Plays Pokémon,” he says. “I was thinking, why is there no one who makes games that uses this kind of mechanics where we can involve the viewers? We should make one!” It’s there Arsène Bomber started as a prototype that allowed viewers of a charity stream on Twitch to vote to control a UFO that could disrupt Bomberman-like action. He imagines viewers paying to challenge their favorite streamer on Street Fighter or to influence a single player game with items, cheat codes or extra enemies, just as they tip streamers now.

It all comes back to human connection. Before Piepacker had video chat, Devienne noted in an early test that almost all players had Zoom or Hangouts open at the same time. When the feature was integrated, the habits changed. “We realized that people started consuming games very differently than they use games on other platforms. For example, 70% of the time they touch the gamepad, but 30% of the time they do not touch anything. They just chat. For me Piepacker is very similar to the kind of experience you have when you invite friends, you are around the table and playing a board game or D&Dand the game becomes almost an excuse [for] conversation. It’s, you know, a way to connect with other people. “He wondered if players returned to the service for the games or for their friends, so in another test he isolated groups and began to remove the availability of the games they liked best to see if they would keep coming back.They did.

None of this is to say that Piepacker is bound to become a profitable, mass market platform. But what it does do is demonstrate, quite clearly, the potential of cloud gaming to differentiate itself from or expand the gaming experiences we know, rather than just providing a convenient way to access them. (Google Stadia had a more magnificent version of this idea, but with the closure of its first-party development studies, it looks like we will not see that future realized.) Devienne and his team have focused on the social potential of cloud gaming , and it’s a lesson the bigger cloud players do well to be aware of.