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Tips for development streaming

Livestreaming. It’s kind of a big thing nowadays, and for many developers it’s increasingly common to stream their work or game as they develop it. At Vlambeer, we’ve been livestreaming the development of Nuclear Throne twice a week, and the results have been rather stellar for a two-person studio/six-person team. Streaming can help with building community, getting feedback and keeping you focused and motivated. But streaming might seem daunting, and since it’s public-facing you might want to start slightly prepared.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been slowly getting my new home office set up for proper streaming, and although I’m not quite done yet, this post is as much of a ‘to-do list’ for myself as a ‘best practices’ that I’ve learned over the past two years of streaming.

Get set up

Getting set up for streaming is kind of a hassle. In general, it consists out of four elements: you need to set up your physical space, you need to set up streaming software, an online channel and general assets. I’ll run through what you need as a minimum and what I use personally.

The physical space

Setting up a Twitch stream sounds simple, but it actually gets relatively involved. Making sure your camera, light and sound are properly set up takes a bit of effort and knowledge. In general, you want a high quality microphone, a mid- to high quality webcam and a well-lit room. Finally, you need either a plain background or an interesting backdrop.

Computer and internet connection

To stream a proper high quality stream, you’ll need a decent broadband internet connection. Note that most internet service providers advertise only their download speeds, and you’ll want to check whether their upload speeds hold up. With 10Mbits up you should be able to stream relatively well.

You’ll also need at least one computer equipped with a relatively capable graphic card. While you can stream from a single computer, some people use a setup where one computer is used for gaming, and a second, capture-card equipped computer handles the streaming itself. In most cases, a relatively high-end laptop or a mid-end desktop suffices. I’ve streamed from a Lenovo Y510P and currently stream from a docked MSI GS30.

If either of these conditions are not met, your output will have hiccups and stalls, creating a rather poor viewing experience.

Finally, since you’ll likely be using full-screen applications on one screen, having a separate monitor to keep track of your streaming software and chat is an extremely useful aid in livestreaming. Some people use an iPad or similar tablet device for those purposes and set hotkeys to switching scenes.

Microphones
A common streaming microphone is the Blue Snowball, which costs about $100 and stands on your desk. It’s a microphone that is relatively versatile, allowing you to set it to both omnidirectional and cardioid (unidirectional) capsules depending on your needs. The downside to the Snowball is that it sits on your desk and even in the unidirectional mode picks up a lot of background noise, including your computer hum and keyboard sounds – especially if you have a mechanical keyboard.

For a slightly pricier but more advanced solution, I recommend the Rode Podcaster with the shock mount and mounting arm. The total package costs about $300. It connects relatively easily to most desks and has superior audio quality – but more importantly, it manages to strike a perfect balance between clarity and filtering out unwanted sounds. It also allows you to hook up a headphone directly to the microphone so you can hear the raw output of what you sound like, or the full output on the computer you’re using.

In all cases, you will want to play around with the volume settings on the microphone. Open Audacity and set the program to record. Turn on every possible background noise you can find, stress your computer with a graphics benchmark, turn on your air conditioning and run the dishwasher, and then mash your keyboard while speaking at regular volume in a normal manner. Play with the volume settings on your microphone or in your operating system until the recording is just your voice.

Webcams
In terms of camera, your main consideration is the resolution and framerate. Most decent HD webcams will set you back about $50 to $129, and I personally use and recommend the Logitech C920. Very often, stores will try to upsell you on light-sensitivity, which allows you to record better in low-light environments. Since I recommend streaming from a well-lit room, I don’t think this should be a consideration in your choice. What is relevant is in what ways you can set up the webcam – some can be attached to the top of a computer screen, while others have to stand on a desk. Make sure you pick one that fits your streaming set up.

Light
Like with any visual recording of reality – whether it’s photography, drawing or video – light is what decides whether your stream will actually look good. Even the best camera cannot turn a bad lighting situation into something decent-looking, so this is something to think about properly. While you can technically stream using sunlight, the sun creates highly diverse and unpredictable light patterns, and I generally recommend eliminating it as a factor through curtains or blinds.

The optimal light situation includes two lights on either side of your screen, and one light – a rim light – right behind you, out of frame. This set up is called a three-point light setup, but similar results can be achieved using two lights or even a single light, depending on the distance to and the color of walls and ceiling.

The effect you’re trying to create is that your face is fully lit, but that creates a really flat look. By making sure one side is slightly less bright than the other, you create a bit of depth and shade. Finally, the rim light accentuates your silhouette and creates distance between you and the background, while keeping your background well-lit.

This doesn’t need to be expensive. I’ve seen professional looking light setups created by proper positioning of the desk, two IKEA lamps with dimmers and some lampshades, while using a single ceiling light that was already in the room as a rim light. Professional light kits can get really expensive, and what you’re paying for is versatility. Since you’re dealing with static circumstances, the expense is rarely worth it.

Backdrop
You’ll either want a flat, single-color backdrop, or a background that is rich and decorated. Whichever you prefer, getting your backdrop right can make a huge difference in how professional your stream looks. If you have a flat, single-color backdrop you can consider using ‘chroma key’ to create a visually interesting backdrop – or alternatively you can actually use a green screen. In general, posters and filled book, movie or game cabinets create interesting visual backdrops without being visually overwhelming.

Channel

For your channel, you’ll have to register with one of the major streaming providers. There are many, but generally three are popular. Twitch is notable for a strong focus on games, YouTube is kind of for everything and Hitbox is an upcoming platform in the gaming market. To set up a channel, you simply create a profile. Take plenty of time to get things right – tweak your descriptions, set up panels,  find good avatars and backgrounds and images for when your stream is down.

If you have a schedule, you probably want to put that in the description, and any rules that are relevant might be best left there as well.

Finally, you want to consider a good chat bot for your channel to enforce those rules. Nothing works as well as human moderators, but chances are that those are either unavailable or not always available. The most popular options are Moobot and Nightbot – both of which use a freemium model. Basic functionality is free, and more advanced functionality and customization is paid.

In both cases, you can set the behavior of the bot through a dashboard, allowing them to welcome people to the stream, inform them to follow or subscribe, show how long the stream has been going or timeout or block people misbehaving or spamming. Take some time setting up your bot properly, as it’ll save you and potential moderators a lot of time.

Software

When it comes to livestreaming, your OS options are generally limited to Windows systems. While there are some exception to that rule, currently the most popular tools for livestreaming have their only or best offerings on the Windows platform. You can generally choose between the freeware XSplit (which also has paid premium functionality) or the open source OBS.

Whichever you choose, the tools work relatively similar. You can create ‘presentations’ which consist out of ‘scenes’, and those ‘scenes’ in turn consist out of ‘sources’. You can think of a presentation as a blueprint for a specific show. Scenes are different views that you will show your viewers. Finally, sources are inputs, like overlays, webcam feeds, a window on your screen or an entire monitor.

In general, you’re going to want to create at least 5 scenes: the pre-show, full-screen camera, picture-in-picture camera, interruption/break and post-show scenes.

The final part of setting up your software is to connect to your streaming service of choice. Most popular streaming tools have settings pre-configured for popular streaming services (Twitch, YouTube and Hitbox) when you’re setting up. Usually, this is where you configure your bitrate – some tools allow the software to handle this for you, but play around a bit with these settings.

The lower the bitrate, the more your GPU will have to handle before sending a smaller stream over your connection. The higher the bitrate, the less compression but the more capable your pipe has to be to handle the data being sent. In general, setting your bitrate to about 80% of your upload speed should be fine, but you probably want to experiment a bit with this too.

Learn proper streaming etiquette

Livestreaming is an exciting place to be right now – not that different from the indie scene back in 2008-2010. It’s transitioning rapidly from purely a hobby to something that can be a job, and it has its own heroes, publishers, drama and struggles. Being a young community, the atmosphere is generally collaborative, which means that to be a part of the community requires you to actively participate in it. Visit other livestreams and casters, try to keep up to date on events and vocabulary and see what kind of things are popular. You shouldn’t want to copy all that, but you should try and at least stay informed. If you enjoy watching livestreams, that shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re not really someone that watching streams, it might be worth forcing yourself to. Streaming, as it happens, also has its own etiquette.

If you’re visiting another stream, make sure to read the rules for that particular stream. Generally avoid self-promotion unless given permission, and don’t post links or repeat messages. If you want to be part of the conversation, go for it. If you’re just trying to drop a link and get out, that’s not going to get you any goodwill. At worst, it’ll get you a ban.

A lot of getting used to Twitch etiquette has a lot to do with understanding the rhythm, delays and cadence of the chat. Twitch chat can get really chaotic, and part of it is knowing when to speak and when to avoid speaking. While a lot of people in chat are annoying, spamming or just flat out immature, you’re going to have to be better than that.

To build meaningful connections, you probably want to visit a stream multiple times. Streaming and stream chat are extremely ephemeral, and it requires some repeat interactions to make people remember you.

Streaming is interacting and allowing interaction

One of the key things to realize about streaming is that –in almost all cases- a large part of it your success stems from interacting with your community. You can achieve that by frequently responding to the chat, by acknowledging new followers or subscribers, by having sub-only events or by playing games with your community. If you spend some time hanging out in popular livestreams, you’ll notice that while most streams adhere to those ideas, they’ve all personalized them in ways that feel genuine or fitting.

Streaming, similar to (good) public speaking or improv, is a combination of sincerity and stage presence. It’s fast-thinking, interactive and often unpredictable. You want to be able to respond to a joke in a sincere way, but not have that response feel out of place with your persona. To be able to do that, you’ll have to build your identity around yourself. If you’re not somebody that speaks a lot, don’t feel pressured into doing that. If you like jumping around and tend to shout at things, do that. Either way, figure out how you can take ‘you’ and turn ‘you’ into a show.

It’s important to realize that ‘you’ are an important part of the community you’re trying to build, you alone are not enough to build a community. In the end, a community is a group of like-minded people. The reality is that if you’re the shows’ creator (ie. a creator), and the community is viewers (ie. a consumer), chances are you’re not actually like-minded – even though it might seem like it. What you want to do is ensure the community interacts with itself.

You want to encourage that, and there are several effective ways of encouraging such interaction.

Using overlays to celebrate new followers or even having the chat overlaid on-stream can help make your interactions more interesting and more transparent. In turn, that transparency allows people to feel like they’re part of something larger.

Predictability is a huge help too. Casting at specific hours, having recognizable patterns or elements to your shows, responding to follows or subscribes in specific ways – learning how something works makes people feel comfortable. It also allows for rituals to take root in your community, like ways the community welcomes new followers.

Pre-stream and post-stream were some of the best advices I’ve had for my livestreams. You announce your stream, and then instead of immediately starting the shwo, you go live to a static image that indicates that you’ll go live soon (some streamers use count-down timers), and play some music (that you have the rights to). You leave that up for ten to fifteen minutes, allowing your followers and viewers to talk amongst themselves and get excited for the show. You can do the same thing at the end of your stream, the post-stream, allowing people to say goodbye for a bit before signing off.

You can also promote interaction between streams. Twitch allows streamers to host other channels, but a less committal and very common thing is to raid friendly channels. While the exact definition of raiding varies, the idea is that at the end of a stream, the caster picks a new channel for their viewers to go to. Sometimes, a caster will ask those raiding to post a message in the target chat, announcing their arrival.

Dare to ask

Twitch doesn’t seem particularly fit for short-form content, and it’s generally more of a slow-burn. While our Vlambeer streams frequently attract several tens of thousands of viewers, the amount of simultaneous viewer count has very rarely gone over 1,500. We tend to stream for five hours or more.

For the first few weeks, we got barely any followers, despite being on the front page of Twitch every episode. It wasn’t until my younger brother pointed out we weren’t asking people to follow us that we realized how important it is to actually ask people to do things.

No matter how corny it sounds, you need to say “If you like the stream, please hit the follow button”. Teach yourself to directly ask people for things you need. Don’t hint at it, don’t expect people to do it on their own, ask. If you need donations, ask for donations. If you need followers, ask for followers. If you need subscribers, ask people to subscribe.

You have to dare to ask. Your audience will ask things of you. Find a nice balance, and enjoy streaming!