Culture And the Hell of Suburbia

I live smack in the middle of what you can easily call “suburbia”. I’ve got a nice house, nice lawn, nice garage, and so do my neighbors. We are one neighborhood among many, all sprouting from central arteries like branches from the trunk of a tree. These trunks are planted haphazardly, and somewhere in the rough center of this copse is our meager garden of goods and services. We have two grocery stores, less than ten sit-down restaurants, a handful of “fast food” places, and a shit-ton of auto-care specialists.

Which makes sense, because when you live in the suburbs, you need your car. Nothing is within walking distance. To get to the nearest grocery store, I have to drive maybe ten minutes (with all of the traffic lights, or twists and turns if I opt to take the “back roads”). If I want to go to the better grocery store, I’m looking at a fifteen to twenty minute drive — one way.

The suburbs is where America went to get away from it all, and by all I mean the city. The city is where shit happens, literally and figuratively. As Rush (the band, not the asshole) put it, “the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dream of youth”, or of anyone who wants to have a life outside of mowing the lawn and relaxing in a hammock every weekend. If you want to visit museums, or dine at the trendy restaurants, or shop at the hottest stores, or go to the most popular bars, you need to be in the city. OK, so the suburbs might have the occasional privately owned restaurant, and I guess the basement of the American Legion Hall counts as a “bar”, but…

The idea behind the suburbs, though, was that affluence meant never having to rent an apartment, deal with crime, or walk anywhere. With cars, people could still travel into the city, get their fill of culture, and then high-tail it back to their safe neighborhoods before dark. Suburbs aren’t supposed to have their own cultural centers because it’s not what people wanted: nice houses, nice lawns, nice garages.

Nashua-29

Downtown Nashua, NH. Yes, that’s a tattoo place. We’re not SAVAGES, for crying out loud.

I grew up in a city called Nashua, which is not far from where I live now. Nashua is a “city” like Pluto is a “planet”. Nashua has a downtown — complete with a Main Street — which has shops and restaurants and on the south side you have a fully realized retail arcology jam-packed with chain stores and restaurants, and capped at the Massachusetts border by what used to be the largest mall in the area. Outside of those zones is pure residential, interspersed with the occasional corner store, office building, or home-based business.

This past weekend, I went down to Boston for the day. I detest cities…actually, I detest driving in cities. Once I’m there I’m more or less OK. Thankfully Boston has public transport, which means never having to drive anywhere except to the outskirts where we can pick up the subway. We spent our time along Bolyston and Newbury streets, which are two major thoroughfares through the city. Newbury street in particular was packed, since it’s a long street which is hemmed in by shops occupying multi-decker brownstones. For every narrow building, you get three shops, and there are hundreds of buildings along this road. If you want it, you can probably find it on Newbury street (and we were there because my daughter wanted to go to an anime shop that we had been to before. An anime shop, for crissakes!)

We can’t get this kind of thing at home, and that kinda sucks. I’ve been seeing people on social media posting about different locations near them that I think I would like to visit if there were similar establishments near me. One was a boutique doughnut bakery. The other was a combination bar/game store. Now, I’ve not been everywhere in New Hampshire, nor have I been everywhere here in Southern New Hampshire, but I’m pretty sure there’s no bar/game store within reasonable driving distance of where I live. We have FLGS — friendly local gaming stores — but I often find it hard to drive there when I can order something from Amazon and have it drive to me. Suburbs for the win, I guess?

Cultural-desert-...-an-oi-007

Heat-map of cultural attractions in southern NH

I started thinking why this was. What is it about this town, this area, this region, or this state that no one has either thought of, or has been denied the opportunity to, open similar establishments? One logical answer is that no one has, in fact, thought of it. But, show of hands: who among the geeks reading this (if anyone) hasn’t thought about a public place where geeks and family can hang out, maybe get something to eat, and play or buy a game? How about a themed bar? We’re drowning in sports-themed bars up here, and some (oh gawd why) nautical themed establishments, but that’s about it. Everything else is either kid oriented, or is straining the limits of credibility in trying to pass themselves off as a culturally relevant establishment for discerning adults. I can’t believe that I’m the only person in a 100 mile radius who would love to have something like this.

"Ohhh....who dines in a shithole under the sea?"

“Ohhh….who dines in a shithole under the sea?”

A second possible answer is just apathy. Southern NH is an ultra bedroom community. We’re also in the center of New England. As much as I’d like to dispel the stereotype of NEer’s being rather…insular, I can’t. We just don’t care to talk to one another, and we’re all pretty much wrapped up in our own fiefdoms to give a shit about anyone else — unless someone else is encroaching on what we consider to be “ours”: our land, our views of the sky, our right to stuff 500 holiday-themed lawn ornaments onto our lawn from October to August. I’d be willing to bet that the few non-chain restaurants we have in our sphere were started by people not from this area. Everyone else is pretty much content with the basics, which would explain why we have chain-everything coming out our ears. We seem to be OK with “good enough”, but not culturally aware to the level where we demand better. We’ll take it if someone wants to offer it to us, but going out of our way to make something happen that exceeds that bare minimum? Nope.

"I know I should care, but I just don't care."

“I know I should care, but I just don’t care enough to care.”

A third possible answer — and one that I think kind of overshadows the others, but doesn’t preclude them — is that this is a state of cranky-ass old people. When I was growing up, I knew a lot of kids who were always itching to “get out”. Mind you, we’re not farm country; Nashua, Manchester, Concord, and Portsmouth combined can offer people a lot of things to do, if you have a car and the time to travel. But as teenagers a lot of those places are still out of reach. People always hated being in NH and thought that being elsewhere — anywhere — was a better deal. Now that I’m older I can see how the sausage is made, and the people making decisions here in NH aren’t at all interested in focusing on the needs or wants of the very people they worry about losing. NH is aging, which means that those who stay here are increasingly worried about themselves and their own amenities, even to the exclusion of consideration of amenities that could reverse the aging population trend. I used to live in a town called Hillsboro, which was at the foot of our mountain country, and their downtown was decrepit. Buildings with peeling paint, abandoned buildings, you name it. There were two restaurants, one Burger King, two pissant little grocery stores, and a gas station. But there were several buildings that…I can’t even remember if they were occupied. It had a lot of potential though. It was the perfect town to have attracted a class of people who wanted to be in between the outdoor activities of the North Country, and the “civilization” of the southern tier of the state, if only they could dress up the town to make it somewhat attractive to that young, affluent, active kind of people. But nope, the town council wanted nothing to do with those kinds of ideas. Their downtown was “historic”, and they’d rather see it rot with history than do anything that they felt might bury the past for a shot at the future.

Cad Nelson, now in his 332nd year on the Town Council

Cad Nelson, now in his 332nd year on the Town Council

So I suppose the end result is “why not do it yourself?” Thanks, peanut-gallery. I’ve thought about it. Hell, my wife has thought about it, but there’s a few things in the way. The first is that I’m not a risk taker, especially when it comes to my livelihood. If our circumstances allowed us to continue living in the manner to which we have become accustomed on only one income (although my wife does make more than I do), then OK, maybe. But we’ve got a mortgage, a car payment, and a kid going to college in — CHRIST! — four years. Second of all, I’ve got zero experience in running a business. I’d like to make this establishment a cool bar, maybe? What do I know about that? I’ve worked hard to avoid going to bars, and I’ve gotten good at it, which means I’d be horrible at running one. Maybe I could make it something lower key, like a coffee-shop-slash-game-room, but what kind of clients would I attract at that point? Third of all, I’m still stuck on the reasons why it hasn’t been done yet: apathy, and cranky-ass gatekeepers. We’d need to find a location that was accessible to the most people, and somewhere between Nashua and Manchester could work, if we were off the highway. There’s not too many places like that around here. Then we’d have to convince the Powers That Be that we’re not a bunch of hooligans who would be breaking windows and blasting loud music when they were trying to sleep at two in the afternoon (the default stance on anything they don’t understand). They might ask for “good of the community” stats, which means I’d have to put that apathy element to the test: see if I could poll the entire southern part of the state in order to see if anyone would even show up if a geek-themed establishment were to open. I mean, I think we could get enough people, but enough people to stay open for a few years? More than a few years? Not if young people are fleeing a state that’s under the tyrannical fist of the elderly*, and I don’t think I’d want to open something like this just to see if filled up with loitering teens who are…holy crap I’m turning into one of those cranky-ass gatekeepers.

Finally, I worry that it has been tried, but has failed so spectacularly that it was wiped from the memories of everyone who’s lived, past, present, and future.

In the end, I’m not sure a supporting culture does or even can exist in this area. I’ve been to some of the FLGS and I’ve seen some of the people there; I’d like to attract those kinds of people, because they are like me in so many ways. I don’t want it to be neutered by caveats applied by know-nothings who require conformation to the “spirit” of the town, nor do I want it to be a place where parents dump their kids during Summer vacation. I’ve got no experience, and am rather risk-averse, which leaves me with one option: wonder why no one else has done it, and wonder if anyone ever will.

 

 

* I’m 41, and since I’m considering this situation means that it’s not just Millennials and younger that would be attracted to an establishment like this, but there’s always that shadow of the career small-town politicians who kowtow to people who’d rather waste away in silence than to allow someone to change The Way Things Have Been Done.

Ultra Throwdown: Your Video And Streaming Options

Man, I apparently have a love/hate relationship with streaming my games. On one hand, I don’t have the time to put together a regular schedule, cultivate a following, and promote the process, but on the other hand, my ego would really like me to get involved in some kind of production. Streaming live gameplay is a good, low-cost way to get oneself out there, and I really like the notion that even when playing single player games, they can become multiplayer games in the same way that my friends and I used to sit on the couch and watch a person playing a console game. The comments, suggestions, and hilarity of a mob participating in what was never meant to be a participatory endeavor can be fun and comical.

Thanks to the explosion of Twitch as not just an outlet for amateur videographers but also as a respectable means for companies and events to reach the masses, streaming is the Next Big Business, judging by the number of companies that want you to share your experiences through their pipes. Which to choose? What features do the major players offer? Let’s look, shall we?*

 

The Leader – Twitch

TwitchBalloonIf you’ve ever had any inkling to stream, you no doubt first went to Twitch. Like Jell-O, Kleenex, and iPod, Twitch has become the defacto pronoun for a wider market of services.

The best reason to choose Twitch is that it’s ubiquitous. Events happen on Twitch. Companies stream stuff on Twitch. eSports happens on Twitch (and elsewhere, but it’s Twitch, so…). When people want to find a stream to watch, they lazily roll over towards Twitch and search for what they want.

When you want to stream, Twitch has you covered. You can stream from a PC using third party software, or you can stream from a current gen console (XB1 and PS4). Some games on the PC have streaming to Twitch built in, meaning you don’t need anything other than an account to get started. However, console and integrated streaming is limited; you can’t do the fancy overlays and presentations that you see a lot of users doing. For that, you need a PC and a copy of OBS, XSplit, FFSplit, or one of the sideline participants like Shadowplay, Raptr, or Overwolf.

Twitch’s biggest draw is also potentially it’s biggest problem, as a new streamer is the model of a small fish in a big pond. Unless you have a large social network following or some kind of gimmick or ultra-slick presentation, having people find your League of Legends stream is going to be an uphill battle.

PROS

  • Popular
  • Many streaming software options
  • Video archiving (PC/Mac/Linux only)
  • Export to YouTube
  • Built into many games
  • Built into consoles
  • Hosting mode highlights other streamers while your channel is dormant

CONS

  • Super-populated means discovery is difficult for streamers, and views need to wade through a lot to find you
  • No archiving for consoles
  • Must meet certain criteria in order to form a team with other streamers
  • Depending on software and settings, impact may range from negligible to severe

 

The Challenger – Hitbox

HitBox_Logo_BannerHitbox is probably less well known than Twitch mainly because Twitch is “good enough”, and was first. Hitbox is just as good as Twitch, and actually has some features that Twitch doesn’t have.

While there’s little on the surface that seems to differentiate Hitbox from it’s main competitor, there are some things to consider if you’re looking at Hitbox. First and most prominant is that the only (current) way to stream to Hitbox is from a PC using third party software. I’m not aware of any games that have Hitbox streaming baked in, and no console supports streaming to Hitbox. This means that you’ll be relegated to dealing with bitrate and other esoteric numbers in order to get the best stream. That’s also a plus, though, as some of the “automatic” streams (baked in and consoles) only give you conservative bandwidth options.

Hitbox’s controls are better than Twitch, IMO. Both dashboards allow you to set the title of the stream and pick the game, but Hitbox allows users to tailor the social media message that they can pump out, can push ads for the times when nature calls, and can create interactive polls and giveaway forms that show up in the chat window.

I think Hitbox is growing, and soon (if not already) discovery will start to become an issue if you rely on people to just drop by the Hitbox website and find your stream.

PROS

  • Dedicated dashboard window
  • Ability to create polls, giveaways, and push ads for a breather
  • Can form a team with no pre-requisites
  • Export to YouTube
  • Video archiving of clips

CONS

  • Lesser known than Twitch (Prepare for a lot of “Hitbox? Why not Twitch?” questions)
  • Only works with desktop software like OBS, XSplit, and FFSPlit
  • No in-game integration
  • No hosted promotion of other streamers
  • Depending on software and settings, impact may range from negligible to severe

 

The Contender – Forge (Beta)

ForgeGGLogoForge is eschewing the traditional streaming paradigm of preparation and presentation in favor of ease of use, but also removes some of the features of Twitch and Hitbox which I suspect may be important to those who are attempting to build a brand.

Forge is aimed at those who are interested in the idea of streaming, but aren’t entirely sold on the whole setup and design and cultivation of an audience. Forge uses it’s own client which simply listens for a supported game to start, at which point it just starts streaming to it’s own website under your account. Super simple!

Whether it’s a downside or not depends on your needs, but Forge doesn’t allow streamers to archive their entire stream for replay later (it’s save for 48 hours, I believe). Instead, it allows streamers to extract 15 second highlight clips from the recording. This editing is handled through the desktop client, and the results are instantly (more or less) available on the website. Unlike the above services, Forge doesn’t have live chat, webcam support, overlay support, or microphone support (but they are taking suggestions and are super responsive to community interaction, so features are currently being evaluated).

Forge is also one part social network by allowing users to post comments in between the videos posted to their account. Again, this service seems squarely aimed at casual streamers or viewers who like to drop in/drop out without fuss, and for people who later smack their forehead and wish they’d recorded that raid boss take down.

Disclosure: I have received some promotional materials (T-shirt, sweatshirt, water-bottle, stickers) from the Forge team for being an early and active adopter/tester of their system.

PROS

  • Noob friendly for casual streamers
  • Always on; No forethought needed to start
  • Records everything, then presents the editor
  • Integrated social network
  • Low impact on performance (if any)
  • Super responsive team

CONS

  • Currently in beta
  • Currently invite only to use; can be viewed by anyone on the web
  • No customization of stream
  • No chat
  • No mic input (there may be hacks available, like using a virtual cable, but I’ve not tested it)
  • Only short, user defined clips (~fifteen seconds) are archived
  • Power streamers or brand-builders might find it too limiting
  • Requires the game to be supported by Forge in order for it to stream.

 

The Guy Weezing At The Back Of The Pack – Plays.TV (Beta)

PlaysTVLogoPlays.tv is a recently discovery, and although it’s not really a streaming option, it deals in game videos so I’m including it here. In a nutshell, it’s tightly integrated with the Raptr desktop client, is always on once activated, and saves in ten minute bursts when you tell it to. You can then edit out 90 second clips for uploading to the Plays.tv website.

I’m not entirely sure which market Plays is after. It sits closer to the Nvidia Shadowplay end of the spectrum in that once activated, it records gameplay in a rolling 10 minute window that is written to disk with a keystroke. It doesn’t output to a live website while the game is being played, so it’s more of an on-demand 10 minute snapshot option, and eventually can save 90 seconds worth of gameplay that can be uploaded to the site.

I’ve had problems with Plays, though. One 90 second clip I made said it had uploaded to the website, but that was a few days ago, and I still can’t see it. Another video uploaded right after that one made it through OK. They

The good news is that the quality is really high, and the files are accessible on disk through the UI, so if you want to edit a montage of action footage locally, Plays.tv might be one of the better options.

PROS

  • Uses Raptr, which is a pro if you use Raptr
  • Saves files to disk and are easily accessible
  • Low impact on performance (if any)
  • Excellent quality of local video files, and excellent quality when the files reach the Plays.tv site

CONS

  • Have to remember to start the rolling recording
  • Have to remember to save the clip when you want it
  • Spotty success in actually saving the clips to the website
  • Export to YouTube only exports at max 480 resolution

 

The Guy Handing Out Water Along The Route – Nvidia Shadowplay

NvidiaShadowplay Shadowplay is a weird option, mainly because it occupies a few different places along this spectrum. Natively, it records a rolling window of gameplay which can be saved to disk with a keystroke. However, it can also broadcast to Twitch.

The main benefit of Shadowplay is that if you have a supported Nvidia card (600, 700, or 900 series, with some ‘M’ editions supported) and the “GeForce Experience” software, then you’re already 90% of the way there. The popup window (desktop, not in-game) allows you to record locally or to stream to Twitch, set the quality, and be done with it. There’s no need for additional software except for the eventual editing of the files you’ve saved to disk (if you’re using the “gameplay DVR” option).

I suspect (or hope) that because it’s an option from the hardware manufacturer that it’s got some ace in the hole in regards to how it operates. Some broadcast software sits between the game and the video output and redirects a copy to disk or a remote location, I’m guessing that Shadowplay operates at the hardware level, using your video card to do the crunching. Ideally this would lead to lower latency with your gameplay since there’s no disk I/O involved, and you won’t run the risk of triggering anti-cheat warnings by having something sitting between the game and everything else (see the next entry about that little gem). But that’s just me; I have no idea how it really works.

PROS

  • Already available if you have an Nvidia card and the GeForce Experience software
  • Records locally in DVR mode, or streams to Twitch
  • Easy configuration

CONS

  • Requires an Nvidia card
  • No customization of stream

 

The Over-Hyped Booster With The Obnoxious Banner – Origin

EA_Origin_Logo_723x250 This is a corner case at best. Origin is EA’s digital storefront, and perennial whipping boy of people who like to announce how much they hate Origin and EA.

If you’re playing an EA game that was downloaded via Origin, you have the option to stream – to Twitch, of course – using the Origin overlay system. It’s been a while since I’ve used it, but from what I remember it works pretty well, is easy to configure, and does a serviceable job of accomplishing what you want to accomplish.

However, there’s a slight caveat. Like the next entry, Origin allows you to register a non-EA/Origin game with the Origin client. The icon will show up in your Origin library, and can use the Origin in-game overlay for whatever people use the overlay for. You can also do this in order to stream the non-EA/Origin game to Twitch. I tried this a while back with Defiance, but in short order I was booted from the game and banned for what I was told was a cheat/hack attempt. I managed to explain myself to Trion’s satisfaction and had the record expunged, but Origin seems to use the “slip it in” method of putting itself between the game and the lower-level operations – including network operations, which I assume is what tickled Trion’s anti-cheat warning.

Overall, it’s probably good for Origin-centric games, but otherwise there are much better options out there.

PROS

  • Readily available for Origin-bought/registered games

CONS

  • Specific to Origin-bought/registered games
  • Might be detected by anti-cheat software if you try and use it with a non-Origin game

 

The Dark Horse – Steam (Beta)

Steam_Icon

Although everyone is patting themselves on the back for “having called it”, I think it was never a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when”, and that “when” is “now”.

First, I don’t think this is a game-changer by any means. It’s just another land-locked streaming option. It doesn’t stream to a known streaming outlet, although it does stream to the largest digital games distribution network on the planet.

If you have a game in your Steam library, this should work without any additional fuss. The most important setup option is to determine who gets to see your videos. Unlike the other services, most of the options for Steam Broadcast put the control in the hands of the viewer. The stream doesn’t actually start until someone starts watching it, which means that your bandwidth is safe until someone decides that they want to watch you play The Binding of Isaac.

Quality is decent, and you can watch directly in the Steam client (via their popup web browser) or on the web. You can even use the in-game Steam overlay to pop up a web browser so you can watch yourself in all of your narcissistic glory. I guess it can be used as a feedback monitor.

While it does have mic support, it doesn’t have webcam or custom overlay support. It does have chat support, but unless you have the chat window open (requiring the Steam overlay to be open), you only see a single line of text at the top of the game window.

Like Origin, though, you can add a non-Steam game to Steam and so long as you can use the in-game overlay, you can stream the game. I added Elite: Dangerous to Steam last night and was able to stream it through Steam Broadcasting. I have no idea if this will trigger anti-cheat software to raise an alarm, though.

Again, this is a “good enough” option. Most gamers have Steam, and most gamers have a massive Steam library. That means a lot of games are supported. You can add in non-Steam games to get the benefit of the service. But there’s no social media announcement feature and no easy way to direct people to the fact that you’re streaming or where to find you if you’re streaming to everyone (not just friends), no webcam or customization, and the chat requires that you “step away” from the game to read it in it’s entirety. It’s an option, but I don’t know that it’s a better option than one of the first three contenders on this list.

PROS

  • It’s Steam. It’s probably already on your system. Requires opt into the beta Steam client and then a reboot
  • Works with all Steam games
  • Works with non-Steam games added to Steam
  • Can control who can view the video

CONS

  • Land-locked to the Steam ecosystem
  • No announcement mechanism
  • No customization
  • Chat is awkward

 

Finale

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You have the stamina of an ox!

This is by no means an in-depth compare and contrast of each nuance of each service, but is merely an overview. In truth, I wanted to write this to suss out which audience is targeted by which product, and for what reason, because while there’s some overlap in each, there are three distinct categories at play here:

  1. Live streaming for a brand: If you’re looking to make a name for yourself in the gaming community, want to interact with people as the magic is happening, and desire to make your channel reflect your public face, then Twitch and Hitbox are your best options.
  2. You’re already here, so you might as well: Shadowplay for Nvidia customers, Origin for EA users, and Steam for everyone else. All but Steam require the user who is playing to actively initiate the stream, while Steam allows the viewers to jump in at their leisure.
  3. Casual streamers with bragging clips: For everyone else who’s intrigued with the idea of streaming, but who don’t want to put a lot of time and effort into the process and aren’t interested in creating a brand, Forge is the way to go, assuming your game is supported. It’s easy to set up, easy to use, and you can keep those memories in fifteen second clips for later reminiscing.
  4. Local video for other purposes: While desktop apps like OBS and XSplit allow local recording as well as/in place of streaming, Shadowplay and Plays.tv’s rolling window of gameplay means you don’t need to dedicate your disk space to a massive file, nor do you need special editing software to tease out the clips. It’s the least social of the group, but if you use Raptr and remember to activate the recording, it can produce some nice quality local video for whatever purpose you need.

 

* This is merely an empirical overview and not a guide on how to maximize your followers or promote your video. I’ve had a total of five people online watching me at one time at the peak of my career, so I’m not one to help you get groupies.

Thoughts on The Extra Life Experience

Extra Life 2014 is now unofficially over, although it’s something that’s never really over. You can continue to donate and receive donations, but I’d guess that the core draw for sponsors — the playing and watching of games, and the community effort over a 24 hour period — is winding down significantly.

I have to say, it was really fun! Nevermind that what we were doing — playing games — is what we’d have been doing anyway during the same time period. But our group, the Alliance of Awesome, is a kind of meta-group of people from other groups who interact on social media, mostly, but who often find our interests align in-game. Many members probably played alongside one another in the past without really knowing it, and with many of us being so transient about the games we play, the AofA is meant to widen the pool of people who are around that we can tap for mutual in-game support.

The team did fantastic during Extra Life, raising over $1700 for various children’s hospitals. Most of us were first timers and took it slow, carving out just a few hours of the 24 hour window to do our thing. I think it did well, but I wish there was a better technical support system in place to accommodate situations like this.

We used Hitbox, because Hitbox allows for anyone to create a team. A team is really just a page that aggregates the members for easy searching, and also shows you who’s live at the time, and where you can find their library of recorded videos. Ideally, you’d pass out your team’s URL so that anyone stopping by can pick a stream to watch, without having to pass viewers down the chain to the next streamer, and the next streamer, and so on.

Twitch, of course, has the mindshare for video game streaming, but the streamers need to have some kind of minimum viewership in order to form a team. I don’t understand the thought process behind that, though. What really sucks is that Twitch implemented their “sharing” mechanism which allows a streamer to feature another streamer on their channel when their channel is not in use. I don’t think it would alleviate the need to jump from channel to channel, but it could have been leveraged for something like displaying a schedule that’s replicated across the dormant channels.

Ideally, though, there’d be a mechanism that allows streamers to get together on one channel. This baffles me, really. How do none of these services allow for a merging of signal, or allow for multiple inputs from different remote sources? It’s not a technical limitation; I set up my own RTMP server, which is probably a much smaller version of what Twitch and Hitbox use, but I found a way to get several different signals into a single output. It would require some management tools on the server side — the display management that we use via OBS or XSplit would have to be ported to the web to allow for users to arrange the output to the channel — but I’m sure there are smarter folks than I who could make it happen. I suppose that these services are all about the individual branding and promotion, so allowing a non-standard rotation of people to show up on the channel would defeat that.

Still, a single channel with multiple streamers, even if they had to switch off use of the entire channel, could be quite an attractive prospect. We had people popping in and out of each other’s channels, with some folks showing up to watch and support when they could, but ducking out when they had real life responsibilities. I think it would have been a lot more convenient if there were one channel where everyone could hang out during the 24 hour period.

Maybe next year we can come up with an actual “team channel”, and agree to carve out blocks where the current streamer abdicates the channel for the next streamer. Or maybe I could get the RTMP server up and running, have people connect, and then someone (or someones) could be the “channel manager” to do the channel layout and composition. It might be a lot of work, but I think it’d be really cool to try, and could present a really united front from the team.

What Twitch Can Do To Improve

The fine people over at Anook.com fired off a quick Twitter poll yesterday asking Twitch (or other) streamers if they felt it was important to welcome their viewers by name:

Personally, I don’t really care. I rarely return to view any amateur channels, and will only view professional (read: companies that stream) when there’s breaking news, so being recognized as a repeat viewer isn’t going to happen for me. But I do know that some people are using streaming to “become a brand” by streaming on a schedule or streaming a specific game. They do up their display with backgrounds, chroma key effects (“green screen”) and tickers. For them, recognizing their viewers is good PR.

Twitch is a great resource for gamers on either side of the camera, but they could really do a lot better for the people who are broadcasting. I’m not a professional, but here’s some thoughts I had that I think would make streaming a lot more powerful for everyone.

1. Multi-Location Input

RTMP (Real Time Messaging Protocol) is a fancy way of saying “video goes in, video comes out”. It’s essentially Twitch’s business, but their system only allows a single stream in, and a single stream out. Most users get around video composting at the client level by using apps such as OBS, FFSplit, or XSplit, all of which allow for multiple inputs at the local level.

But wouldn’t it be great to allow gamers from different locations to merge their video into a single output? It’s possible; You can do it right now. Setting up your own RTMP server is quick and painless, with the right instructions, and you and your friends can broadcast to a custom server, and have another friend accept each feed into a single source, passing it on to a specific Twitch channel. Complicated? Yes, but I’m sure Twitch could set up this kind of merge on their side, and ease people into it to allow remote users to stream together.

2. Live Stream Tools

I used to use a service called Livestream, but that was before they dropped their free tier and went pro-only. That was a few years ago, but their tools were lightyears ahead of what Twitch offers.

Using the Livestream web dashboard, users could merge multiple inputs from multiple remote sources, preview “on-deck” video, and switch over to it on the fly, just like you’d expect from real live broadcasters like your local 6 o’clock news shows. It had built in tickers and watermarks and graphics, and you could add clickable links to the video that users could click for whatever purpose you desired.

If Twitch had something like this, it would work great with item #1. Just these two elements would make Twitch a lot better than it is today.

3. Better Interaction

Users watching a stream can chat with the broadcaster, but it’s more like the floor of the NYSE than a way to interact. In a crowded room, text streams by so quickly that it requires a second person working with the streamer to filter it all and handle the channel interaction. Some users will block off a region of their screen where they can broadcast Twitch chat via the web page or via IRC, but that takes up real-estate.

I really don’t know how to solve this, but better tools for the streamer to keep up with conversations while still playing the game would be a massive boon to interaction on the channel.

4. Pre-Recorded Content

Although Twitch’s bread and butter is live streaming, it records and saves the content that’s streamed for later playback. That means they have storage, and that means that they could offer a platform for pre-recorded video.

As timely and exciting as Twitch streaming is, let’s face it: most channels are just people’s floating heads and a live feed of a game that the viewers could be playing themselves. Unless the streamer is particularly engaging or is offering unique content, a viewer’s time might be better spent playing the same game herself.

Being able to record video, edit it, work with audio, compost other video, and add effects, and then upload it to Twitch (or better yet, be able to do all of that on the Twitch website) could open more opportunities for gamers with more time and skill to reach other gamers. Right now, the outlet of choice is the general purpose YouTube. Twitch could certainly benefit from a healthy stock of videos that have higher production values, and gaming videographers could benefit from opportunities to showcase more than just their gear score.

5. Better Game Integration

This is really outside of Twitch’s control, but if you look at their API you’ll see that there’s a lot of stubs that streaming software isn’t using, like providing the name of the game that’s streaming, or the setting of the stream title. I doubt there’s been any streamer who hasn’t started streaming a game only to realize that they’ve Tweeted the title of their last streaming session. For streamers looking to build a brand, that’s inexcusable.

With Twitch finding its way into specific products, there’s no reason why the service can’t auto-update it’s game and title without forcing the user to visit the website to do it manually.

6. More Platform Integration

Twitch was just a PC thing, but now the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 have it at the system level. I’ve heard that there’s video capture devices for Nintendo xDS, and that Twitch streaming abilities will be coming to mobile and tablets.

One place that Twitch isn’t, and which is as conspicuous as a black hole appearing in Times Square? Steam. Steam is the biggest PC game distribution network, but it doesn’t have any kind of broadcasting abilities. EA’s Origin distribution client does. With SteamWorks as an option for developers to hook into Steam as a platform, why doesn’t Valve integrate Twitch streaming? Maybe they have plans to create their own streaming service…?

How To Automate #Twitch Streams on Google Plus

I don’t stream a lot, but when I do I like to announce it where I live, which is primarily Twitter and of course Google Plus. Setting up the stream, however, can be a chore:

  1.  Remember to set the name of the stream and the game on the Twitch website. Some clients allow you to do this, but not enough do. Forgetting to change the name of the stream to the current game can lead to confusion when…
  2. …You announce that you’re going live through social media. Twitch has Facebook and Twitter integration, but you have no control over the text that the service puts out there except through the title of the broadcast. Naturally, if you have one title but are streaming something different…well, tragedy ensues.
  3. For those of us who use Google Plus, there’s a manual step for announcement because Google — in its infinite and unquestionable logic Praise Be To Google — doesn’t have a full public API for the service. So we have to start the stream, and then compose a post with the URL to the stream, while the stream is running. Yes, boo friggin hoo, but in a First World society, these are the things that matter. Sadly.

So here’s a way to hack it. Kinda.

You Will Need:

  • A Twitch account! If you didn’t expect this, stop reading now.
  • A Google Plus account! If you’re breathing, you have one, even if you only make smart-ass remarks about it to look cool to your friends (and I use that term in the loosest possible way).
  • A Twitter account! If you are streaming and don’t have a Twitter account, this may be why no one watches your videos. Just sayin’s all.
  • A Google Voice account! Wait, what?
  • An IFTTT account! Because really, why the hell not, right? If registering a new account, use the same Gmail email address you have assigned to your Plus and Voice accounts. This is important!
  • Post-It Notes! Seriously.

Step One: The Convoluted Part

I’m not going to re-iterate the steps involved here because someone has taken the time to write it out, and I’m not going to steal his thunder.

The short version is that you need to use Google Voice to accept text messages, to have those text messages sent to your Gmail account so you can determine the email address that SMS notifications to the Google Voice service are sourced from. This email is the linchpin to the whole operation, because sending an email to this address will auto-post the contents of the email to your Google Plus stream if you have the “Post from SMS” enabled in Google Plus.

Protect this info with your life. Then check out Bamajr’s instructions and return here when you’re done.

Step Two: IFFTTFTFTFTFTFTFTTFFFFFT

IFTTT (If This Then That) is an automated service that “does logic” on “stuff”. I’ve found it to be potentially useful, but there’s always just one really useful option missing from the available building blocks. At first, I didn’t see how I would make this service work for this purpose, but then it dawned on me, and it can dawn on you too if you just. Keep. Reading…

Here’s the recipe:

If new tweet by @YOUR_TWITTER_HANDLE with hashtag #streaming, then send an email from YOURNAME@gmail.com

And the long, drawn out version:

  • THIS: Search or scroll to the Twitter condition. It may ask you to authorize IFTTT to access your Tweeter, so do that. It’ll then offer you a trigger. The service will only parse YOUR Tweets, and I was dissapointed to see a lack of “contains specific text”, like “twitch.tv/CHANNEL_NAME” as a trigger, so I selected “New tweet by you with hashtag”. I opted to use #streaming because that’s what it’s about. I could have chosen #chocolatesparrow or something. Make sure it’s something you don’t use often, though, or else you’ll spam The Plus.
  • THAT: Search or scroll to the Gmail action. NOT THE EMAIL ACTION. You will need to connect your Gmail account (same one used for Plus and Voice). The only action is to “Send an email” from the Gmail account.
  • TO: Add in the funky address you stole from the SMS email that was sent to your Gmail account from Google Voice. It should look like ###########.####.[BUNCH_OF_JUNK]@txt.voice.google.com.
  • SUBJECT: Whatever. The Plus doesn’t care about the subject
  • BODY: Clear the default text and click the “+” in the upper right corner of the entry box. You’ll get a Twitter token selector which allows you to auto-enter stuff from the Tweet that triggered the action (pretty slick!). I added “Twitch Streaming Time! {{Text}} +Public” for the body of my email. This includes the link to the Twitch stream. If you want to omit the contents of the Tweet, then enter your custom text and choose {{FirstLinkURL}} to add just the Twitch URL. The explanation of what The Plus recognizes in an email body is covered in Bamajr’s instructions.
  • Save it! IFTTT will now monitor your Twitter account for any Tweets by you with the hashtag #WHATEVER_YOU_PICKED, will send an email to the funky long email address, Voice will convert it to an SMS and forward it to The Plus to compose a new post on your behalf using the BODY content of the email as the content of the post.

Step Three: Post-It Notes

This is probably the weakest link in the whole process. Remember how we had that chat about how Twitch doesn’t allow custom Twitter announcements? Remember how I instructed you to use IFTTT to watch for a Twitter hash-tag in your “Going Live” Tweet? Remember how we laughed at all those times we started streaming, but the title of the stream didn’t match the content?

On your Post-It, write yourself a note to always change the stream name, and to include #WHATEVER_YOU_PICKED as your hashtag trigger.

The logic, naturally, is that the title of the stream is what’s Tweeted, so by including the hashtag in the title, it’ll be available for IFTTT to catch. The catch is that you have to remember to update the title of the stream before the announcement goes out, which means before you start streaming. Change it after you press the “Go Live” button, and it’s all for naught.

You can include anything you want, either hard-coded and universally added in the body of the email, or in the title of the Twitch stream, and Plus will take it, but it won’t provide the “remote content footer” format that adding a link to a new post via the Plus web UI normally does. The downside is that you’ll get an email to your Gmail, and an SMS to your Google Voice account every time this trips, so if you’re really fussy about having stuff lying around, you’ll have to create a rule in Gmail to auto-dispose of those messages, and clean up your Google Voice mailbox regularly.

Using Multiple Locations with #Twitch

[I’ve dredged this up from the Way Back Machine, because it’s still relevant and potentially useful]

In the same day in which I lamented the lack of multi-input to Twitch from remote locations, I did some digging and found that yes, it is entirely possible to have broadcasters from remote locations stream to one Twitch channel. However, there’s a massive asterisk there. Twitch itself doesn’t allow re-broadcasting, so it’s basically one stream in from your broadcaster, one stream out through their player. You can fake it if you set up multiple viewers through Twitchify or Multitwitch, and isolate each player in its own layer through OBS, XSplit, FFSplit, or other broadcast software, but you’re probably going to suffer from re-broadcasting a broadcast.

If you want to truly aggregate streams, you need an RTMP server. Here’s an example of how that works:

Steve, Kelly, and Mittens are all playing MechWarrior Online with other members of their clan, and want to create a slick recruitment video. Using their broadcaster-of-choice, they all stream to a custom RTMP server using the url rtmp://server.address.com/[personal-channel]/[personal-key] instead of the predefined setup that allows them to stream directly to Twitch.

The RTMP server handles the input and makes it available to the public at the same address each broadcaster uses for input.

Another clan member — The Producer — isn’t playing. Instead, he’s got two apps running: a web browser which has multiple video viewers that display the RTMP streams on one page, à la Twichify, and a copy of XSplit. Unlike the broadcasters, The Producer needs to use XSplit because it’s the only broadcaster that can use RTMP streams as input (get on that, OBS and FFSplit!). Each RTMP stream behaves just like any other input within XSplit, allowing the producer to move and resize windows, aggregate them onto one canvas, or give them their own full-screen canvas. Each input displays what the individual streamers are streaming, so if Mittens has a webcam overlay on her game input, it’s what The Producer will see, and will have no control over moving multiple input sources from the broadcaster.

Finally, The Producer uses the normal Broadcast to Twitch settings to pump the aggregated stream to the public.

Why?

This allows for streamers to get groups of people together into one broadcast, something that Twitch doesn’t support. With a producer at the helm, a group of people can make some pretty slick, live, near professional quality video without the need for post-processing. If one stream were a webcam focusing on some commentators who are watching the RTMP streams themselves, you could set up a League of Legends style eSports presentation. Also, by having one aggregate display, and then each stream on their own canvases, a group can create a pretty decent show, live and without post-processing.

Also, if you have an embeded video player which can accept RTMP streams, you could put your own video player on your own website using Flowplayer or JWPlayer, and skip the Twitch ads! It’s entirely possible to have broadcasters input to the RTMP server, have a producer aggregate those streams, and then re-post to the RTMP server. If your embded video player picks up on any of those streams, it can be posted to your own website.

Caveats

First, you need the RTMP server. I did some leg-work, and found two commercial servers, and one free server. You need hosting, virtual or otherwise, or a box in your own home.

Obviously, to make this work, you need someone to act as the producer who will aggregate all the streams and send it out to the public. Sadly, it can’t be one of the streamers, unless someone wants to run two broadcasters: one to send out, and one to aggregate and publish. While possible, that person would need a pretty hefty PC, a lot of bandwidth, and insane multitasking abilities.

Also, you have to use stand-alone broadcasting software. Games which pump out the streams directly to Twitch won’t work, which also excludes the next generation of consoles (unless you do something like this).

Technical Junk

There are some commercial options available, like Wowza or Red 5, if you have dedication and money to burn. You’ll also need a physical server on which to run them.

I set up a virtual Ubuntu server on Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing system and followed a set of instructions I found on the OBS forums for setting up the free and lightweight nginx web server with an RTMP plugin. I’m not a Linux guy, so I had to kick my way through the installation, but once I understood what I was doing wrong, everything went off without a hitch (which never happens for me when dealing with Linux!).

If you want to have multiple inputs, each input will need it’s own endpoint. When using Twitch, this is the channel name: http://www.twitch.tv/CHANNEL_NAME. The OBS forum instructions explain how to set this up in the nginx.conf file (the config section labeled “live”), so if you have a team, name each endpoint by the streamer’s nickname and you should be all set.

Twitch has a layer of security in it’s broadcast key, but nginx isn’t so secure. You will need to provide a suffix to your RTMP url (http://www.myrtmp.com/CHANNEL_NAME/BROADCAST_KEY), but that broadcast key can be anything you want. The only thing to keep in mind is that the whole URL needs to be provided to whatever input catcher is being used. So when using XSplit or VNC to pick up the stream, you’ll need to include the URL, channel name, and whatever arbitrary broadcast key you decide to stream to. Change it, and the stream catcher will need to update it’s input URL. As if that wasn’t enough, some stream catchers may or may not need that broadcast key bit. Yeah, sorry about that. I know VNC (for monitoring the stream) does need it. XSplit may or may not. FlowPlayer may or may not. I have to run a few more tests to determine which ones need which data.

One of the benefits from this is that you can use this set up to also record streams to disk (on the server) or even to send the stream direct to Twitch from the RTMP server. This is basically replicating the functionality that the broadcast software offers out of the box, but it’s possible that there might be a situation out there that doesn’t offer a direct pipe to a broadcasting outlet, and putting an RTMP server in between might solve that issue.