Friday, September 27, 2019

How to Deal with Your Streaming Weaknesses

Everybody is bad at something. Actually, not just one thing. There's not a person alive who isn't terrible in several fields. This of course extends to Twitch streaming as well: we all have trouble with either tech, audio, graphics, confidence, chat interaction, or any of a hundred other subcategories involved with our craft. So how do we combat these deficiencies? Fixing the issue is the common approach- this is what we've been taught will make us more well-rounded people. And while this old-school idea is sometimes necessary, it's not always the best option. I've found that it's often better to go in the extreme opposite direction: forget about your weakness entirely, and instead bolster the opposing strength.


"But Nick," you might be asking, "If I give up on improving my weak points, wouldn't that make me even worse?" It's a fair question, because it follows general common sense. But consider this example scenario:

Mix-Max, just like you would in an RPG
Let's say that ever since elementary school you've been terrible at writing in cursive. You simply couldn't remember all the ornate squiggles, and all your English teachers graded you poorly for it. Now that you're further along in life, you have a clear weakness: your cursive writing skills are lacking. But if you need to improve your writing ability, which are you more likely to find useful: fixing your ability to use an archaic and largely decorative writing system like cursive, or bolstering your ability to type on a computer's keyboard? It's likely that in both your personal and professional life, you type on a computer more often than you write in cursive.

We all have limited time on Earth to spend on self-improvement. And we need to be very careful about how much of that time we waste solving irrelevant problems. Many of you who play RPG games will recognize the concept I'm describing. Min-Maxing in an RPG involves allocating all your skill points toward one or two of your most important abilities, but the same strategy can apply to Twitch as well. Improving a weakness will make you average at that skill, but wouldn't you rather further improve a strength and become extraordinary?


To combat a weakness, you must first understand your weakness. Your decisions on what to do about your on-stream deficiencies will all stem from your ability to identify these problems. What is truly important about the weakness you're trying to solve? Take a step back and think about it from all the different possible perspectives: not just from a close-up angle, but also from the viewer's position, and by looking ahead to what's best for the stream in the long run. Then bolster whatever skill will improve what actually matters. 

Attack it for massive damage
One weak point in my channel is self-imposed: I never talk over cutscenes or story moments in my singleplayer games. This however, is the only way I enjoy playing video games, and it's crucial to my channel's identity. But it's always important to remember: whether this feature is crucial or not, it's still a weak point in my engagement level from the viewer's perspective. So how do we solve this? Talking over the cutscenes is the obvious answer, but this isn't what I enjoy, and I'd be miserable in the long run. So instead, I bolster my opposing strengths: I make sure I'm providing as much entertaining commentary and viewer engagement as possible outside of the cutscenes. I ask viewers for opinions on what just happened in the story when a cutscene ends, and analyze the subtler character motivations that we wouldn't have noticed if I were talking the whole time. Plus, I use chat commands- viewers can send reactionary emote strings representing love, sadness, or excitement during cutscenes to show how they're feeling about story moments when I won't be talking. This means there is engagement during the cutscenes, but not from me. And there is as much engagement as possible during my shows, but not during the cutscenes

When you think about weak points in your channel, make sure you're taking a similar step back. Even if something is your number one favorite thing on your channel, like story in video games is for me, it might still be a weakness from the viewer's perspective. If you want to keep that feature, what opposing strengths could you improve instead of simply homogenizing your shows?


Sometimes the weaknesses on our streams aren't self-imposed, but are instead harsh realities of our lives. Then we're really put up against the problem with no choice but to solve it somehow.

What happens when the internet goes down?
There was a 6-month span on my channel when my internet service would intermittently drop out. It would happen with no rhyme or reason, and the dozen or so technicians who visited couldn't fix (or even diagnose) the issue. Without any warning, my streams would be turned into slideshows for a full 30-60 minutes. This was happening several times per week, sometimes multiple times per day. Instead of simply giving up on streaming, I came up with an alternative idea that my stream could switch to in these dead zones. Utilizing my strengths in chat engagement and community features, I would move to a Just Chatting stream, showing my computer screen as I worked on behind-the-scenes aspects of the shows. The work had to get done anyway, so it was still useful for me, and it provided an opportunity to talk more directly with viewers about the channel. Because this behind-the-scenes work involved mostly static web pages and Photoshop windows instead of a constantly moving video game image, it became less of a problem that the stream was only outputting one frame every second.

In the previous entry Attempt Your Worst Idea for a Twitch Stream, I talked about another of my channel's weaknesses: my business trips. Over a dozen times per year, I'd be in a completely different US state, and therefore wasn't able to stream from my usual setup. But instead of trying to 'fix' this by either asking not to go (unreasonable), or bringing a bulky PC with me on these trips (equally unreasonable), I took advantage of another of my skills instead. Having studied fine arts for about a decade in my early life, I started doing artwork streams while I was on the road. I'd bring a normal coloring book and apply advanced shading and lighting techniques to make the pictures my own. This became a favorite change of pace for viewers, and allowed me to keep the streams going strong even when I was away from the computer. I wasn't 'fixing' the problem put before me, I was taking advantage of a different strength to offset the problem entirely.


There's one streaming problem I talk about all the time: lack of equipment or other monetary investments. In almost every entry so far, I've suggested that you not spend money on equipment to improve your stream, effectively helping you create a self-imposed weakness. But instead of trying to 'fix' this weakness by making purchases, I help you bolster the opposing strengths. When you improve all the other things needed to make a great stream except the equipment, you actually end up a better streamer- something that wouldn't come from making purchases alone. In other words, this is an example of how buying things to 'fix' your weakness would be hurting you in the long run, rather than helping.

You don't have to be perfect at everything. Heck, you don't even have to be good at most things. All you need to do is identify what's truly important and focus on being as skilled as possible in those few categories. Whether the thing creating problems on your channel is a hard reality of your schedule, a lack of internet coverage, or even something self-imposed, you always have lots of options to improve. The trick is, 'fixing' your weaknesses isn't always the answer- try embracing your greatest strengths instead!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Your Channel is Not a One Stop Shop

When attempting to grow your Twitch channel, it's easy to follow false leads. You want to please the people who watch your streams and attract as many new viewers as possible, so you make content that you think will appeal to the widest audience. If you play a variety of games, this might mean chasing every new release. If you stream one popular game, you may shoot for the type of show you've already seen work on other channels. Or you may aim to stream every conceivable genre of game, hoping to cover every base for every kind of viewer. I call this the 'One Stop Shop Approach' - you're trying to make your channel the only one your viewers ever need to watch on Twitch.

Here's the problem: no matter how much you do, your channel will never be a one stop shop. 

A minuscule percentage of your viewers, if anyone, will watch you and only you when they visit Twitch. That's simply a fact. Most viewers will watch a variety of streamers, and they don't want you to cover a subject they can already see someone else covering if you're not passionate about it. You should only do what you do best, and let others do what they do best. Not only will your viewers prefer this, but you'll be much happier for it.


Your Twitch channel may become this big over time,
but don't try to start this way.
To use a recognizable equivalent, many Twitch streamers attempt to make their channels similar to Target- a place someone can to go find a large range of content for every demographic. In one visit to Target, a shopper could conceivably get everything they need, without ever having to visit another store. But if you were trying to open your own store in real life, you'd never even dream of opening a single, small shop meant to directly compete with the Target in the area. You'd never have enough money, staff or variety of products to hold a candle to them. You'd be quickly driven out of business. Instead, you want to stand out.

Have you ever been to a truly great local mom and pop store? A place that caters to a very specific need, offering a wide selection of products in their niche field, probably sporting a unique ambiance, maybe even holding community events with hands-on interaction. It could be an art supply store that offers night classes, a fabric shop with prints you can't find anywhere else, or a liquor store whose staff you can trust to help you find the perfect craft beer for any occasion. No matter how many different types of products Target offers, they would never be able to replicate the experience of visiting a really good one of these shops. Twitch is the same way: no matter your size, if you can do something nobody else is doing, you immediately become a commodity. The best way to compete in any field is not to defeat your competition- it's to work within a specific enough niche that you make all competition irrelevant.


If you want to grow, try aiming to become a 'Mom and Pop Twitch Channel' like your local art supply store, rather than a 'Big Box Twitch Channel' like Target. The more specific you can get with the experience you offer, the less relevant all other competition gets, because nobody else is able to do what you do. You can grow later, but trying to start big only leads to problems. Even the largest businesses in the world started in ultra-specific fields. Take Amazon for example- right now it's the ultimate one-stop shop if ever there was one. But many of you may not know that when Amazon launched in 1994, it only sold books and nothing else. It was a full four years before they branched out to other products in 1998. More of you are likely aware that at its launch, Facebook was exclusively available to university students- it was three whole years before they let anyone else sign up. Both of these companies knew it was best to become the biggest fish in a small pond of their choosing before attempting to branch out.

You're this size right now. Do one thing really well.
In the past entry Don't Be Afraid to Be Yourself on Stream, I spoke about bringing the things you love doing personally into the forefront on your channel, and doubling down on those. If there's something you're truly knowledgeable about, or have a fiery passion for, it won't matter how big another channel is. You might be completely unique in the way you see the world or approach your streams. If you can establish yourself as an authority on a certain subject among viewers, no matter how small that subject is, people will want to come to your shows just to see your viewpoints.

Are you a person who talks in-depth about Tolkien lore? When a new LOTR or fantasy game comes out, your viewers will be looking forward to specifically seeing your perspective on that game. This is much more valuable than simply attracting viewers by playing a new release- in this scenario you're attracting people who are actually interested in you personally, not just the game. It doesn't have to be a new game either. Maybe you're known for doing no-hit challenge runs. Now, when you start playing the original Xbox version of Ninja Gaiden, fans of your channel have a reason to get excited, other than the simple nostalgia of seeing a game they used to like- they want to see how your type of show holds up against the game itself. Even if you play one of the most popular games in the world like Fortnite or Overwatch, you can still differentiate yourself from the crowd greatly by having something unique about your persona, your stream format, or your gameplay style.  Embracing as small a niche as possible will pay great dividends going forward.


I'm going to ask you a question and I want you to answer as honestly as possible: If someone were telling their friend about your Twitch channel, what single feature would they describe?

If people have a reason to tell their friends about
you, that's a good sign.
Get rid of the general answers like 'I play new games,' 'my skill level' or 'my community' - every channel has these things. Find out what aspect of your shows comes to peoples' minds when they think of you. 'My 80's movie knowledge.' 'My creative OBS layouts.' 'My funny hats.' It doesn't matter how small this thing is, as long as you'd be proud to have your channel be known for that trait. If so, then double and triple down on that thing. Make it a huge part of your shows, until everyone knows you as the streamer who can fully recite every John Landis film, or always has a new crazy raid alert video, or does awesome cosplay based on the video games they show on stream. Being 'known for' something is much more important than simply being noticed. Anyone can attract new followers by playing a new game on launch day, but this won't encourage almost any of those new people to come back for the next new game. Having a clear and relatable hook will.

It's not about whether the thing you love doing has been done before either. No matter how many other streamers love solving daily crossword puzzles while queueing in Fortnite, You'll be much more differentiated by embracing that identity on your shows than simply trying to blend in with all the other Fortnite streamers. And after you've established yourself as 'the person who does crosswords with viewers while playing Fortnite,' people may join the shows just to be a part of that.

As I mentioned in the entry If You Can't Describe Your Channel, Who Can?, finding something unique about your channel doesn't mean simply inventing a gimmick. It has to be something authentic about you or the way you do your streams. If you don't have anything like that yet, don't worry- just keep streaming and things will naturally reveal themselves. Nobody truly knows their specialty when they first start their channel, and even when you find one it may change and evolve over time. But if you can identify even one thing to really differentiate you, you'll be better off than all the other streamers out there trying to be like everyone else.


As far as my channel is concerned, I genuinely believe there is no one else on Twitch making the same kind of content that I make. That's not to say my streams are better than others, but simply that they are totally unique. All my favorite streamers are the same way- there is nobody else out there who can do the same kind of show. This makes all our channels like puzzle pieces, letting viewers watch each person's stream when they're in the mood for that kind of show, rather than all of us trying to build our own entire puzzles from scratch. By embracing the fact that your channel can never be a 'one stop shop,' you too will be able to truly stand out from the crowd.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Perfecting Your Stream Prep

Everyone's streams are different, but we all have to deal with the process of setting up our shows just before going live. This might mean adjusting cameras or lights, installing game patches, relocating a console to our streaming area, adjusting audio sliders, or any of a million other little tasks which slowly chip away at our time and motivation. If your stream prep takes even five minutes longer than it should, that time adds up more than you might think. After your 100th stream, you would have wasted more than 8 combined hours, just on that five minute activity! I want to teach you to standardize your setup and minimize variables. This will make it so that there is as little time as possible between when you decide to stream and when you actually press that 'Go Live' button.


How long does it take you to set up your show? Time yourself, from the moment you decide you want to stream on a given day, to the moment you go live. Don't rush because you want to make 'good time' and don't leave out steps because they 'don't count'. For bonus points, measure this span of time across multiple stream preparations to get a more accurate figure. It doesn't matter how big the number you write down actually is, as long as it's truthful. We just need to understand what it's like for you now, before we can start improving your future shows.

Get your stream done, then get to the next stream faster.
Many of the steps you'll hear in this entry might sound inconvenient, like you'll have to spend valuable extra time improving your show's startup prep rather than actually doing your streams. It's true: stream improvements like this are going to theoretically take time away from your ability to do a longer stream on a given day. But so does every activity you could do in life. The key is understanding when it's appropriate to take the time for improvements rather than normal streaming. There are two considerations to make before jumping into these kinds of future-proofing changes:

  1. Did you already stream today? Make sure you only work on these kinds of improvements after you've already done your stream. Being live on the internet is always priority one after all, and you don't want these improvements to become an excuse for not showing up.
  2. Have you already done ten official streams on your channel? Unless you've been streaming for a while, you won't know which aspects of your setup time need improvement, and you should be focusing on honing your on-camera craft rather future-proofing. For more info about this, see the entry Surviving Your First Ten Streams.


The ideal setup for streaming is completely stationary: a scenario in which you could simply sit down, press a button, and be live on the internet. This is far from reality for most however, because before the show starts there are things that need to get physically moved or changed every time they go live. This might mean a camera that needs to be positioned, a set of lights that need to be adjusted, or a green screen to be laid out. Each of these takes time to complete, and when you put them all together, they sap much more than your time.

When nothing is nailed down, things get out of
hand pretty fast.
See if there are any large-scale physical things you're able to regulate. Does your camera need to move every time you stream, or is there some way you could keep it in the same spot without ever moving it between shows? Can you keep your game console in your streaming area? Can you leave your green screen in place? What in your setup needs to be adjusted each time you want to go live? Can you think of a way to keep that thing stationary around the clock?

Physical changes like this might require rippling alterations to your streaming area as well. For my streams, I relocated my desk, the lamps and all the wall art in my room so I could make my stream lighting live in the optimal spot, and hook it up to the main light switch. Now when I enter the room, I simply press the light switch on the wall and every single light needed for my stream is already positioned and turned on. No adjustments, no digging on the floor or behind lamps for switches, no forgetting to turn on one of the lights before the show starts. It's all ready to go every time, and completely infallible. Imagine how much time and headache I've saved from that single change alone over the past 1,500 streams.


Be like a mechanic on your streams.
Virtual things should ideally be just as unchanging and regimented: volume levels, video window positioning, or capture card settings can all be controlled if you get creative. For my streams, I go through a huge amount of different games, which means juggling a crazy amount of volume levels to account for each one. Every time I'd start a new game, there were new factors to consider. Is the dialogue too quiet? Are the sound effects drowning out my voice? Since most PS4 games are natively quieter than PC games, how do I match their levels? I needed a way to solve all these problems without having to change a million settings every time I went live, or I would have been buried in busywork rather than actually streaming every day. Eventually I built three master OBS layouts: one for an average game volume level, one for uncharacteristically loud games, and one for games that are quiet even at 100% volume. This now allows me to simply 'go live' without ever touching an audio slider in OBS before or during my shows. See if there are any similar changes you can make on your channel, whether for audio, video or other settings, which will remove hassle from your day-to-day prep.

Sometimes improving your streams actually requires downgrading your streams. Is your camera a huge time-sink because you're borrowing it from your brother every time you go live? Is your Xbox One supposed to live in the family room, and you have to dig behind the TV to unplug its cables before each show? Does your green screen put up a fight every time you want to put it up, but there's no way to keep it up throughout the day? In other words, is there a single step that, by itself, takes 80% of your stream setup time? Then consider cutting that feature from your stream entirely. Yes, it'll lower the production value of your show, but if it allows you to stream more consistently then you'll be gaining much more than you lose. There is such a thing as growing too fast. It's the main reason new startup companies fail, and it's the main reason most Twitch streamers get burned out without even realizing what went wrong.


The biggest killers for streamers aren't huge losses or major mistakes- they're completely invisible enemies, things that creep up without the streamer even noticing, until one day they're ready to give up streaming altogether. Believe it or not, the stuff you're doing to prepare your stream right before going live could be quietly poisoning the well. By having a mountain of variable tasks, requiring you to get down on the floor, move things between rooms, unplug cables, or adjust settings, which all might take drastically different amounts of time or encourage mistakes in your execution, you'll start to subconsciously resent the activity of streaming altogether. It might not happen tomorrow, or a month from now, or even in a year, but if you keep a sloppy and undefined prep regimen, this stream fatigue will eventually creep up and you won't even know why.

When you make your stream setup process as stationary as possible, you won't be expending a bunch of mental energy to prepare your shows. Your setup time will be drastically shorter, and you'll be able to make significantly fewer mistakes. None of us will attain that mythical stream setup which needs absolutely no preparation before going live, but if you can adjust your stream to be as close to that ideal as possible, a huge weight will be lifted from your shoulders. When you perfect your stream preparations, you'll gain much more than time- you'll help your future self stay motivated for many more streams to come.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Don't Apologize for Your Streams, Just Improve

Let's play some Twitch Mad Libs. Fill in the words as they apply to you, if you've ever started a stream like this:

"Hey guys, sorry I missed yesterday's stream but (noun) needed me to (verb) at (time) and I was too (status effect) to stream. (Future date) I'm going to be better though, and every (span of time) going forward I'll be streaming at (hour). You can count on it!"

We've all followed this script before in some way or another, and it's understandable. It feels bad to break your promises and let people down, after all- you want them to understand why you weren't around so they aren't upset with you. But conducting streams like this is very problematic- not only is it unprofessional, it snowballs into missing more shows in the future. Wean yourself off this habit as soon as possible. Don't apologize when you miss your streams, or even bother acknowledging that you did so. Just do better next time, and silently excel as you move forward.

This is a very important step for a content creator. When you stop apologizing and promising, you drop all the baggage of your failures, and are able to move forward confidently with your plans. It also means you are truly taking responsibility for your actions. You stop depending on the sympathy of others to fuel your excuses, and learn to rely only on your own perseverance and work ethic. In short, you simply become a better streamer.


On Twitch, there's no boss to give excuses to.
It's natural that most of us would want to seek forgiveness for missing content releases. This habit has been conditioned into us for our entire lives, after all. Through all our years in school and work, we've come to learn that it's usually okay to miss a day as long as you can come up with a sufficient excuse. If you tell your teacher why you were gone, they might let you retake that day's test and save your grade. If you can sound sick enough on the phone, your boss will probably let you take the day off, sometimes even with pay. Throughout childhood, teenage years, and early adulthood, we've learned that we're supposed to explain ourselves when we mess something up, so our superior understands why it went wrong.

On Twitch, there is no one above you to answer to. There is only you. You're not an employee on your Twitch channel, you're the business owner. Someone who is responsible for their entire business doesn't make excuses when they miss a day, they work twice as hard the next day to make up for it. If you didn't stream, it doesn't matter how valid or understandable your excuse is- at the end of the day, you didn't stream. You can only move forward, so just focus on not missing streams in the future.


Schedules are a killer for new streamers. Deviating from a schedule is the main reason that streamers end up needing to apologize in the first place. The way most streamers plan out their channels is as follows: the streamer thinks about what they'd like their content to look like, then they announce a streaming schedule and do their best to stick to it. I think this is a totally backwards mindset.

You should prove what schedule you're capable of executing first, and then announce it.

On Twitch, like in Monster Hunter, preparation
is key.
It's important to understand the practical realities of working on whatever schedule you're shooting for, before you commit to it. If you decide to only play horror games on Wednesdays, it might look good on paper, but in practice it could make you miserable to not be able to play your favorite genre six days out of the week. Maybe your new showtime is too close to when you get home from work, and you often can't make it in time to start your stream. Maybe your streams now intersect with when your significant other likes to eat dinner or when your favorite TV show airs. Plus, just because it looks like you have a free three hours this week from 7-10pm doesn't mean you will next week. Make sure you're executing first, living that schedule for at least a week or two, and only then promising when and what your content releases will be.

As a freelancer, my work schedule is very irregular, and on a given day I might be flying somewhere, working at an office in the morning, from home at night, or in a hotel room in the wee hours. If I promised that I'd be live on Twitch every night at 8pm, or at any concrete time with the life schedule I keep, I'd never be able to deliver consistently. For weeks and months, I created multiple shows every day to try and see which showtime worked best for me. And after all this, I decided on an unorthodox idea. I would do three shorter streams per day, but never promise a specific showtime. This means I can now fit streaming in whenever I'm available, and still make a whole lot of content. I lose some viewership from not being live at the same time every day, but I gain rock-solid consistency and peace of mind in knowing that I can deliver on my promises. I've done roughly 1,500 individual streams so far since going Affiliate last year, and I've never missed a single show. I was only able to come to this conclusion by heavy experimentation however- not just announcing a schedule I wish I could keep and then hoping I wouldn't break it. There's an ideal stream schedule out there for you too, but it won't simply come to you- you'll have to go looking for it.


When a content creator seeks validation for their failures by apologizing, they are hurting much more than their level of professionalism. This path leads to a dark payoff. Apologizing for missing streams can cause you to give up streaming.

Don't let it feel good to miss your streams.
In the entry Build Your Twitch Channel Like You're a Secret Agent, I spoke of how telling people about your plans trips the same chemical response in your brain as actually executing on those plans. The same is true for apologizing when you miss streams. By doing this, you're seeking a way to still feel good when you fail to deliver. "This is great!" you might say. Nobody is mad that you missed your show, they're even encouraging you! Now you don't associate missing your streams with negative emotions. So the next week comes and you miss two streams, but that's fine because no one is mad- you 'got away with it'. And from here you slowly start missing more and more of your shows until you've slipped too far and aren't doing it at all anymore.

I've seen it happen to plenty of channels before. Heck, it's happened to me before- I used to always announce a schedule for my content, and then start half my shows by apologizing for having missed the previous one. Those channels didn't work out. Don't forget, in the first Twitch Playbook entry I mentioned I had been on Twitch for a year, but I've been doing livestreaming for the past six years. That's five years of other personal channels on various platforms where I made every mistake in this book before anyone had ever even heard of me, and most of my previous efforts fizzled out because of a need to constantly apologize for missed content.


So just do your streams without announcing anything, and keep track privately whether you're able to stick to the schedule you want. Once you're able to prove over a week or two that your stream schedule works, then you can announce long term plans. This will ensure you're able to actually keep your promises and not have to constantly apologize. Don't be someone who announces new things every week and then breaks those plans the next. Build trust with your community, and with yourself. If you want to be a better and more consistent streamer, don't apologize for your content. If you keep silently improving, you'll be just fine.