A Kickstarter campaign for a new online gaming platform called Piepacker was just funded. The service aims to provide legal, licensed retro games, as well the the ability to load your own roms, to emulate games across the internet in a Chrome or Edge browser. Other features allow audio & video chat while the game is being played and a hardware addon for using your own cartridges. It’s an interesting concept that definitely has potential, but I had many questions about how it works! I reached out to the team and got more info – Check it out below:
Piepacker Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/piepacker/piepacker-online-multiplayer-for-retro-games
First and foremost, Piepacker is a “virtual service”. While there’s a hardware accessory available (more on that in a bit), what you’re signing up for is a service that lets you play games in your Chrome or Edge browser, with remote multiplayer and chat features. It might be easy to glace at the Kickstarter and think Piepacker is a hardware platform, but it’s all browser-based.
Next, the platform’s basic features will be free for 2021, but advanced features will require a paid membership. Kickstarter backers can choose different tier’s including a 6-month membership for $60 and lifetime memberships start at $90.
The hardware accessory is a USB cartridge adapter, with a built-in USB hub. It allows you to connect NES, SNES and Genesis modules that let you dump your ROM, but only for use with Piepacker. I think the nostalgia factor of using your own carts is awesome and it’s always good to promote using your own, legally backed up rom, but my personal opinion is this is kinda useless; If you’d like to use your own carts, get any other rom dumper and also use it to back up and restore savegame files. Maybe I’m missing something here, but a single-use ROM dumper doesn’t seem cost-effective.
According to Piepacker, the emulation itself is based based on the open source libretro API header; No commercial emulation cores are used at all. They’re then using open source cores like duckstation and blastem for each console it supports. When you’re playing a game by yourself, it’s processed locally on your PC and simply run through your browser. Performance is expected to be the same as if you loaded that emulation core manually through Ludo or RetroArch.
Where things get interesting is how multiplayer games are handled: When playing with a friend, the rom is then processed on Piepacker’s servers. This creates a much more fair and even amount of latency, as both players are technically “remote players”. The software used to make this happen is WebRTC and total added latency to the software emulation should be between 30 and 50 ms, or about 1 – 3 frames over local play.
Now, all of this can currently be accomplished for practically free, if you do it all manually; You’d have to set up Discord or Skype chat, manually configure a virtual machine on something like an AWS server (or your own server) and use technology like Cloud Parsec for each player to connect. This is actually a pretty capable way of gaming and retro fighting tournaments were even held using this method during lockdown, but there’s one huge difference: Ease of use! Piepacker seems to be a “click and play” solution, while the aforementioned setup is complicated if you’re not an IT nerd like me, or used to running (and participating in) virtual tournaments.
I’d love to test this myself with fellow RetroRGB members who are located globally. I’d also love to test latency of both the local and netplay versus direct software emulation and original consoles. As with all new solutions, I’m approaching Piepacker with skepticism…but a lot of optimism as well. It’s my opinion that there’s absolutely a market for a click-and-play platform to casually play reto games remotely. Maybe we won’t be having a Street Fighter tournament via Piepacker, but I’d love to play some Tecmo Bowl, Bases Loaded and maybe even some Contra with friends!
Early backers have access to the service next month, so stay tuned for a review! If you’d like an early look, Retro Ralph demo’d it with Justin from Console Kits. Keep in mind, this is a sponsored video…but at the very least, you can get a sense of what to expect: