Friday, October 18, 2019

The Streamer's Guide to Focus

You've been streaming for a while, slowly improving your consistency. But when it comes to things around the edges- fixing issues, designing graphics, updating social media, or tracking channel metrics to name a few- you simply can't seem to maintain your attention. Whether you're unable to sit down at all, or you start to wander away from your goal while in the middle of working, this fleeting focus is a very common problem that all of us face at one point or another. Of course as I've mentioned in previous entries, streaming should always come first, but maintaining and upgrading the shows during your off-stream hours is also crucial. In this entry, I'm going to share with you how I'm able to focus completely on each stream task I work on, completing it faster and with more accuracy than I had ever thought possible through my previous methods.


When we're busy, most of us begin searching for a way to spend less time on our mountains of incoming work. "I want to get these two hours' worth of stream improvements done in a single hour," you might say to yourself. "But how can I achieve that?" Enter the multitasking workflow. You're now not only upgrading your stream graphics, but you're tweaking OBS settings as well. Two objectives complete in half the time! Or so you tell yourself.

There's a secret most people don't know about multitasking: it doesn't work. 

Unless you're this guy, you shouldn't try it.
As it turns out, the human brain simply isn't built to handle two disparate tasks at the same time. Instead of taking on two workloads concurrently, the mind simply imitates this objective by switching quickly between two tasks of primary focus. This ultimately causes you to not only do a worse job at both tasks, but to actually take longer in the end than it would have taken to complete each task separately.

So get rid of multitasking altogether. Set aside chunks of time to sit down and work only on a single problem regarding your stream. Whether that's designing a graphic, changing PC hardware, tweaking your sound mix, or even engaging with social media, don't do anything else but the one thing you're trying to do. Get used to switching your phone to silent mode, laying it face-down on the table and never picking it up during these times. Turn off all music, Netflix, and other sounds or visuals around you. This all sounds like a no-brainer, but it's harder to do than you might expect. For more details about blocking out time, see the entry Get in the Habit of Streaming. Once you can master the challenge of simplicity, you'll be ready to move on.


One thing that helps me immensely is tailoring tasks to a specific environment. If I'm about to stream, I have everything set up in a specific way- even down to the tabs and windows open on my PC. I actually have an app that opens the exact same configuration of custom-shaped tabs on my two monitors every time I stream. This creates a familiarity with my environment when it's time to go live. When I'm working on graphics, I close everything except what I'm working on. This creates a different environment.

Break stuff down like you're in Red Faction
However, at the beginning of The Twitch Playbook's run, I found it very difficult to concentrate while I was at my PC. So for this task, I took my laptop and relocated to the dining room. And it works wonders. I get an incredible amount of work done on these entries every day, because I'm in a larger open space free of distractions. I'm also physically separated from the space I associate with having to solve other stream-related things, so I don't feel the weight of my mountain of other stream tasks bearing down on me. I never even feel the pull to check social media while I'm in this new location. I've successfully trained my brain to know that when I'm working in the dining room, that time is only for writing. I've never written a single word of The Twitch Playbook from my streaming PC since. If you have a hard time concentrating on a certain stream task on your own, try changing your environment when working on that one thing- see if it works for you.

If you didn't do it during the past entry titled How to Free Up Time for Twitch, you could also try cutting out one of your other, less productive habits. Everything you do in life is competing for not only your time, but your focus as well. Condensing my Facebook usage from dozens of check-ins per day to roughly one check-in per month has done wonders in clearing the fog from my mind. The sinister thing about social media is that it chips away at our focus so gradually that we don't even realize what happened. If you often check in on Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, YouTube, Reddit, or anything else, consider slashing your usage time in order to increase your daily focus.


The nice thing about retraining your brain to focus on streaming is that you'll not only have an easier time getting into the zone, but staying there. Focus isn't something that can be regained so easily when it's broken, so making sure it doesn't slip through your fingers is crucial if you want to get things done quickly and effectively. By removing multitasking, changing my environments, and cutting down on distractions I've been able to massively increase my quality of work in a fraction of the time. When you do the same, the only question that will remain is, what amazing things can you build with all the extra time you've saved?

Friday, October 11, 2019

Create Your Own Stream Graphics

Creating graphics for your stream can be a harrowing process. There are so many things to consider that most people simply don't know where to start. This leads many new streamers to hurry toward commissioned work, or simply discount the idea of having graphics altogether. It's true- making transitions, layouts, alerts and other visual designs on your stream can be pretty daunting, especially if you have no prior graphic design experience. Despite all this however, I think being able to create your channel's graphics is an important step for a growing Twitch stream. It allows you to quickly come up with ideas for your channel, change them fast, and not pay a dime for it. They can go on to define your channel's identity, or lay the groundwork for future commissioned upgrades. And you don't need to be a master artist to create them, you just need to approach the challenge with the right mindset.


Even with no experience, you'd be surprised how
well you can do if you only try.

The two biggest reasons people shy away from making their own graphics are actually the same two reasons many people don't start their Twitch channels in the first place- a perceived lack of experience, and a perceived lack of equipment. We know you don't need either of those in order to start streaming, and the same is actually true when making graphics. You don't need to spend any money at all to wield powerful design software, and experience is not necessary if you're willing to put your mind to the task. In this entry, I'll refer to all image-editing software as Photoshop, as it's become a household name, but there are dozens of great free Photoshop-like solutions out there that you can use to great effect as well.

Experience in graphic design is nice to have, but if you're completely new to the process you still have many options. You can simply learn as you go, drawing inspiration from other channels or designs out in the world, or even lean into your lack of experience. One channel I enjoy has graphics made with intentionally hideous MS Paint spray can brushes. That streamer used their lack of design experience to their advantage to craft a really memorable and funny visual identity for their shows. There are many avenues you can use, as long as you're actually putting your mind to it. The only wrong answer is assuming you can't do it before you even try. There are two top-level concepts I keep in mind when making graphics: communication and iteration. Stick to these precepts and you'll go far.


This is the most important thing about any on-stream graphics: how well it communicates information. If you've been following along with The Twitch Playbook up to this point, you may be noticing a pattern. Communication is the most important point about every category of streaming, in one way or another. For your graphics, this is extra important, because most people will form their impression of your channel in the first few seconds of seeing what's on-screen.
Communication is important.

So where do you start? The big things come first. Things like 'can the viewer see the game?' It might sound like a no-brainer, but many graphical layouts can get overly complex, shrinking the game needlessly or covering important areas with pictures, text and other stream elements. Make sure you're always taking a step back and confirming that the game (or other main subject of the stream) will be clearly visible before moving on. Another huge point is whether someone can read what you're writing on screen. This is not always a given either- try looking at your graphics in different contexts. Maybe the text color you chose looked fine in Photoshop, but against various colored backgrounds it's illegible. Maybe you chose a font that's hard to decipher without really concentrating on it. It's important to be sure that the subject of your stream, and the text of your graphics are both clearly visible to the viewer.

Another big point to take into consideration is the size of the viewer's screen. Try to optimize your graphics for the smallest size screen that a viewer will be watching from. You might be able to see your facecam clearly in the 22" monitor on your desk, but how will it look to someone on a 5" phone screen, or someone who has your stream open in a small window on their computer? After seeing my shows on a phone, I ended up having to enlarge my facecam a few different times for this reason. Break your visual concepts down into an order of importance. Make sure the most important things, like your game, facecam and any text that you want the viewer to definitely see, are very visible on all size screens. Then any other stuff, like event lists, tickers, leaderboards and such, can be smaller.


Be willing to iterate when needed.
This next piece of advice is hard for many people to take to heart: just because your graphic is done, doesn't mean it's done. You should always assume you'll have to go back to the drawing board and tweak things several times before you're truly ready to leave a graphic alone. On my channel I've done this for layouts, panels, emotes, transitions, filters, anything and everything I've designed.

Be open to iteration at all points of your graphic's implementation, not just while Photoshop is open. Let's say you're making a new layout for your game Scene. Yes, you'll be shifting ideas plenty while you're editing your images- that's a given. But once the files are saved and ready to import, you may notice that the thumbnail doesn't look good, now that you see it at a smaller size. So you need to go back in and change it. Later, you're in OBS and you've added the new graphic to your Scene. But you see now that, combined with your camera, game or other graphics, the colors are clashing or the translucent background behind your text isn't opaque enough. So you have to go back in and change it again. Even after you've started streaming with this twice-revised overlay, you may be watching your broadcast after it's over and notice that certain parts of the game look bad with the overlay for one reason or another. So now, even after implementing the graphic fully, you have to go back and change it a third time. And so on. And so on. This is a natural part of creating graphics for your channel. Just like setting up any other part of your stream, you simply need to have patience. Don't be discouraged when you constantly have to go back and fix things- iteration is good for your overall level of production value.


As long as you keep the mindset of communication and iteration at the forefront when making your graphics, you'll do very well. The graphics you make now don't have to be perfect, because you can change them any time. That's what's so great about designing everything yourself- you didn't pay any money to have them commissioned, so there is no sense of loss when you get rid of them to create new ones. And you're able to pivot your channel on a dime, without waiting on turnaround times from any third party. In the beginning of your channel's life, flexibility and speed are huge commodities, and having total control like this will give you a big advantage.

You may even find you love the look of the channel designs you've made. I've created all my own stream graphics, emotes, panels, alerts and banners from the outset, and they've since become a major part of my channel's identity. I've iterated on each of them several times since I began my channel, but the overall concepts are still there, and newcomers still comment on how much they enjoy the designs. Yes these graphics could probably be a lot better, but I can take pride in having created them, and I know that I could change them at a moment's notice completely free of charge if needed. Even if I did want to commission a professional design, I'd now have a solid blueprint on which they could base their artwork. So give it a shot- try designing your channel's graphics yourself. You may just fall in love with the look you create!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Stream Before You're Ready

Have you started doing streams on your channel yet? If not, what have you been doing? Have you been looking up tutorials and equipment specs instead? Have you been asking your favorite streamers in their chats for tips on getting started? Have you been through every Twitch Playbook entry, but still haven't started streaming? It's understandable. We all naturally want to acquire as much information as possible before fully embarking on any new endeavor. Our schooling has conditioned us to behave this way since we were small children. However, gaining too much knowledge without putting it into practice can bury you. If you're waiting until you're 'ready' to start your channel, understand this:

You will never be ready. 

You simply have to start doing it.

Information is important, but only when obtained in the right way. Good advice for one person can be detrimental to another- it's all a matter of perspective. The educational foundations on which you build your project are very important, and in my experience I've found that there are really only two ways a person can learn. I call them 'stockpiling' and 'stacking'. Stockpiling is the act of hoarding as much knowledge as you can before starting a project. Stacking is the act of alternating between real-world experience and short bursts of knowledge acquisition. I truly believe that many new streamers' chances of success hinge on how well they can stack their learning, rather than stockpiling it.


It's common in RPG games to get overwhelmed
by the sheer amount of options
There are very real dangers with learning too much before taking action. Think of the black hole many of us get sucked into when trying to decide what to watch on Netflix. We load up the app without any specific intention of what to watch, we only know that we vaguely want to watch something. We then end up scrolling through endless lists of movies and series, trying to find the perfect one. By the time we've decided, we've either wasted a considerable chunk of time doing so, or we've started our 50th watchthrough of The Office. The same thing would happen to me with video games as well. I'd spend minutes or hours some days just looking through my Steam backlog, sometimes never even playing a game at all because I couldn't find the 'perfect' one to suit my mood. Analysis Paralysis is a very real phenomenon- real enough that it has a hefty Wikipedia article associated with it- and it can happen to anyone, faced with any decision.

Watching Netflix, playing video games, and other decisions like choosing a restaurant are all relatively self-contained tasks though. They really only affect you or the group you're with. Starting a major project however, can multiply your analysis paralysis exponentially, because now other people will eventually be able to see (and judge) the work that you're putting out. This typically means you'll simply continue stockpiling knowledge until you feel you're an expert, then give up without having ever taken more steps toward your dream. Make no mistake- the acquisition of knowledge, without regularly putting it to practical use, is just another form of procrastination.

I've tried to make all the anecdotes and advice in The Twitch Playbook completely authentic, but I also try to force you into action as often as I can. That's because you can't truly understand what I'm talking about in many of these entries if you don't actually start streaming. If you try to stream after absorbing all 40 entries, the sheer weight of trying to take all my insights and tips into account could cripple you. This is because you have no foundation on which to base them. In short, if you've been listening to all these entries but still haven't started streaming regularly on your channel, here's the best advice I can give: Do a stream right now, and forget everything I've taught you. Only after you've streamed several times will you start to truly understand which advice in this playbook might be useful to you, and your specific style.


Before they ever appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show,
The Beatles had performed for thousands of combined
hours on stage.
Did you know that all four members of The Beatles, the most influential rock band in music history, didn't know how to write or even read musical notation? How is it possible that so much genre-defining art could come from a group of people who didn't even know one of the basic prerequisites of their craft?

There's a famous story about how John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who had already been performing together, took a bus across Liverpool only because they heard about a guy who could teach them the "B7" chord on guitar. After seeing it, playing it a few times, and memorizing it, they went back home with one more piece of the puzzle figured out. This is the ultimate example of stacking knowledge- they didn't wait until they had learned everything about their subject before they started working hard at it. They loved their craft so much that they didn't mind getting on stage and being uninformed, or even downright bad. They just wanted to play music, and extra bits of knowledge were welcome only when they could help with that singular goal.

The Beatles would play at nightclubs on stage for 5-6 hours per night, seven days per week, for hundreds and hundreds of underground performances. Malcolm Gladwell famously estimates that they had clocked 10,000 hours of live performance before they ever recorded their first album in 1963. Experience is always what matters, and you'll never accomplish your dreams if you never start putting them into action.


If you're at home right now, please... do yourself a favor and start streaming. If you're at work, or out of the house, commit to doing your first show when you get home. If you feel yourself coming up with an excuse about not owning the necessary equipment, see the entry Start Your Twitch Channel with NO MONEY. There is no acceptable excuse. Your first stream will be scary, you won't be able to do the exact show you'd like to do, and it will probably turn out badly, but don't let that stop you. Keep going, pay attention to what can be improved, and you'll start to enjoy the upward climb.

The reason you should stream before you're ready is that you'll never actually be 'ready' to stream. There's always one more thing you could know about, one more piece of equipment you could buy, one more piece of inspiration to get you motivated. Gaining knowledge is important, but stockpiling insights without taking action only makes you feel productive while getting nothing tangible done. When you stack bricks of knowledge between bricks of experience, you'll be surprised how quickly you're able to build something amazing.