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Main Screen Turn On: Streaming PC Games Live

By Nathan Edwards

Today we'll talk about the different options for streaming, as well as some general tips and tricks, and next time we'll walk through the process of starting to stream.

The PlayStation 4 is out now. Guess it's kind of a big deal. Despite the fact that I'm firmly in the PC camp when it comes to gaming, I'm not going to harp on all the ways PC gaming can be better than console gaming. That's trite and tiresome and that way lie fanboys. But there's one thing the PS4 does, straight out of the box, that takes a bit of work to get on the PC. I'm talking about livestreaming. The PS4 and the Xbox One have that functionality built in.

Whether it's the fremdschämen of hearing someone cussing wildly into the mic while getting the undying tar beat out of them in Dark Souls, the thrill of seeing your friend ace a vicious platforming segment, or merely the appeal of watching people performing at the peak of human video-gaming prowess during a giant Dota 2 or Starcraft II tournament, there's a lot of meat on the vicarious enjoyment of a video game. Did you know Twitch.tv saw 4.5 million viewers in one day back in August during the Dota International tournament? That's a lot of eyeballs watching other people play games.

And of course, performance is fun too. If ten people (or a few thousand) are watching you play, offering advice and cracking wise in the chat channel, even a single-player game isn't quite a solitary endeavor. And if you're playing a competitive multiplayer game, there's even more incentive to show off your skills. Some people even make a living from streaming by offering subscriptions or soliciting donations.

It's not just games, either--many webcomics artists will stream their drawing process, so readers can watch them build the comics. Other people use desktop livestreaming to share presentations, Photoshop tutorials, and more. It's frankly fascinating.

Photo credit: Flickr user aatuoutinen via Creative Commons

So let's talk about streaming. Today we'll talk about the different options for streaming, as well as some general tips and tricks, and next time we'll walk through the process of starting to stream.

What we want is the ability to capture and stream video from the game to the world at large, as well as other stuff, like your charming voice and pretty face. It would It has to be high-enough resolution so that the audience can tell what's going on and it looks like video, not audio, but low enough that it doesn't overwhelm your upstream bandwidth. It's a delicate balance, although for the most part the software makes it easy. Many streamers opt for a resolution of 1280x720 and around 30fps.

Streaming Sites

28,000 people are watching this guy play LoL in the middle of the day.

There are lots of sites that offer livestream hosting. There's Livestream and Ustream, which aren't primarily for gaming, Azubu, which is, and of course YouTube, but the de facto standard is Twitch.tv. How standard? Well, the PS4 and Xbox One will have Twitch streaming built in. EA’s Origin frontend streams games to Twitch. So does Paths of Exile. And Planetside 2. And Minecraft, soon. Even Nvidia's GeForce ShadowPlay game recording will stream to Twitch from any Kepler-based video card. So it's not the only option out there, just like Steam isn't the only digital distribution / community system out there, but it is built expressly for this purpose (being an offshoot of justin.tv), and it's where the people is, so it's the one I'll be using.

The problem with all of those built-in Twitch implementations, though, is that they're not one-size-fits-all. ShadowPlay requires a powerful Nvidia GPU with output virtualization (GeForce GTX 650 or higher). Origin's streaming works best on Origin games (duh). And of course streaming that's built into a specific game sounds like a great idea, until you want to play another game. Or if you want to add your own video or audio (or other images), or stream something that isn't a game.

Streaming Programs

The good news is that there are many good streaming programs. The problem (if it's a problem) is there isn't a clear winner between them, or even a clear favorite. Twitch.tv has setup guides for OBS, Xsplit, and Wirecast.

XSplit is easy to use, and it's the choice of many amateur and pro streamers, but the free trial version is limited--you'll need to pay a recurring licensing fee to use the personal version and a higher one for the "premium" license, which is required if you plan to make money from your stream.

The free version limits you to broadcasting a section of your screen, rather than directly from the game source itself. For the purposes of getting started, we'll focus on free and open-source options that don't have that limitation, but XSplit comes highly recommended by both professional streamers like djWHEAT and enthusiast amateurs like Josh Augustine.

XSplit's free version doesn't let you capture directly from a game's source. Instead, you have to capture a screen region.

Josh, a developer for Sony Online Entertainment and former PC Gamer editor, started using XSplit a few years ago: "You have to buy the full version, but it's absolutely worth it for anyone that's serious about streaming. It's biggest strength is that it lets you create 'scenes' that put images/webcams/text/gameplay into position and layers, like a PSD. I experimented with a few other programs when I first started a couple years ago, but haven't since then. There was nothing even close at the time, in terms of features -- most of the free solutions were just pure game-to-website feeders."

OBS can capture footage.

That's no longer the case. In the past year or so many streamers have started using OBS, or Open Broadcaster Software. Like XSplit, it lets you create scenes composing multiple sources--say, the game you're streaming, plus your webcam, plus a graphical overlay. It's just a little less user-friendly than XSplit (check out the differences between Twitch's XSplit setup guide and the user-written OBS guide). Unlike XSplit's free version, though, you can capture video and audio directly from a game's source rather than just a screen region. And you don't need to create an account to use OBS, like you do with XSplit.

Marcus "djWHEAT" Graham, is a longtime pro streamer and Twitch.tv Senior Manager of Partnerships, New Media (fancy!): "Generally OBS and FFSplit are very good for beginners. Both programs tend to do quite well on single PC setups and both have a fair amount of user generated documentation and support you can find to help you get started. XSplit might require a bit more resources than the previous two, but will increase the production capabilities of what you can do and show as a streamer."

Other Ways to Stream

The cartoonist Jeph Jacques, of Questionable Content, uses Flash Media Encoder and a melange of small utilities to broadcast his comic-drawing sessions to Twitch. "Since I’m on a Mac, I have to run a few different programs to get everything to stream the way I want. I use Flash Media Encoder for video and audio capture. It’s pretty resource intensive and occasionally unstable, but it works really well when set up properly. I like that it gives you lots of options for video format, resolution, codec, and similar options for audio. It can simultaneously stream audio/video and save it to your computer, which is pretty cool if you want to go back and edit streams for YouTube later." He then uses CamTwist for desktop capture, Soundflower to route his music to Flash Media Encoder, and LineIn for his microphone input.

Wirecast is very powerful streaming software, but it costs $500 for the basic version and $1000 for the Pro version. Unless you need it, you don't need it.

The Gear You'll Need

In order to stream to Twitch, you'll need a decently powerful desktop computer and internet connection. As Twitch's support page says, you need at least an i5-2500K ("or AMD equivalent"), plus 8GB of RAM. This is just what you need to encode and broadcast your stream, and is separate from what you need to actually play the game. Game streaming is very CPU- and memory-intensive, since the software has to capture the game output (as well as any other audio or video that you're putting into the stream), encode it into video, and stream it out to the world. The higher your resolution, the more resource intensive the stream will be. OBS has a page that will help estimate your optimal streaming resolution based on your CPU generation, graphics card, type of game, upstream bandwidth, and resolution.

You'll probably start out by streaming from the same PC you're gaming from. That's the easiest way to get started. Pro streamers like Sevadus often offload their encoding to a second PC, via capture card, to avoid the performance penalty of encoding while gaming. According to his website, Sevadus uses an Avermedia Live Gamer HD ($170) and a BlackMagic Intensity Pro ($200), though it's not clear which he uses in which scenarios. A capture card can also be useful if you're streaming from a console that doesn't have streaming built in (anything that came out before this week, basically), from a less powerful computer, or anything else with a video-out signal. It's not necessary if you're streaming directly from your gaming computer, though the Avermedia's promotional materials claim that you can use it to reduce the CPU load. Still, at $180+, it's not something you need to invest in when you're just starting out.

Tips from Streamers

Once you're set up with a Twitch account, streaming software, and a game you want to play (something we'll cover in-depth next week, by the way), you're ready to get started. Here are some tips from pro and amateur streamers alike:

djWHEAT says:

Simply put, there is no such thing as a “bad game for streaming,” but there are bad ways to stream a game.

"I used to think there were certain games that weren’t very good for others to watch, even though they might be incredibly fun to play, but my thoughts on this have changed over the past few years. People have proven me wrong time and time again by taking something that could generally be considered boring and turn it into an interactive experience shared and enjoyed by many. Simply put, there is no such thing as a “bad game for streaming”, but I do think there are “bad ways to stream a game”. Here’s an example from Twitch: a streamer who regularly played NES games was randomly choosing games to play and landed on “Wheel of Fortune”. From a spectator’s perspective, this isn’t a very interesting game to watch because there’s not much challenge to it. So to spice it up this streamer decided to let the audience be the contestant, pick the letters, and solve the puzzle. He took a 'bad game for streaming' and turned it into something awesome to watch and play."

"The most common rookie mistake made by new streamers is thinking they aren’t making progress on building their audience and content. Every time an individual streams, and interacts with their audience they are making progress. This is a slow process, and will get easier as you become more experienced. Setting realistic goals for yourself will help you better understand how you and your channel are growing. When starting out, keeping a close eye on your stats via the Twitch dashboard will help you visualize that growth and identify which content is your most popular. Setting goals like, “I want to hit 100 viewers this week”, or “I want to reach 1,000 Twitch followers” will not only help you pace yourself, but you can encourage your audience to help you reach these goals."

Josh Augustine:

  • Spend time setting up your home page with visuals and explanations of what you play

  • Come up with a unique angle -- nobody cares about an average gamer playing a game in the same way everyone else does.

  • People don't watch for the games, they watch for you -- make sure you're putting effort into your personality and stories being told

  • Most big sites, like Twitch, let you set which game you're currently playing at the top of your homepage. This is easy to forget, and very important. When a viewer hits "I want to watch a League of Legends stream," you won't even be on the list if you didn't update your homepage.

Jeph Jacques: "Don’t draw cartoon cats with boners on streaming websites. That got me banned from Justin.tv."

Sage advice.

If you're a regular streamer, we'd love to hear from you! Sound off with tips and advice in the comments! We'll have more of djWHEAT's excellent advice, as well as a detailed how-to guide, in my next column.