Being a development streamer on Twitch

This blog post is a compilation of advice/tips on how to get started as a development streamer on Twitch. There are probably plenty of resources out there that cover this same sort of content for gaming streamers, so this will largely focus on development-specific topics.

Some quick background information about myself: I’ve been streaming the development of my game, Bot Land, on Twitch for about 1600 hours now. I started with essentially no Internet presence. My channel is by no means big, but I think it’s doing well for being in the Creative section on Twitch. You can track its growth here.

Why stream your development at all?

First, you should ask yourself, “what do I hope to get out of streaming?” Do you want to make a living off of it? Do you just want people to keep you company?

My two biggest reasons for streaming are:

  • Accountability: I find that when I’m coding completely on my own that I tend to wind up on Facebook, reddit, or Hearthstone somehow. Streaming forces me to avoid this. It also highly encourages me to start working at the same time every day.
  • Marketing: Bot Land can’t be successful without players. A major reason for streaming my development time was to build an audience for the game. I see this as the biggest difference between development streams and gaming streams: I’m making a product that I later need to sell.

You should be able to answer why you want to stream, that way you can steer yourself in the right direction. With that said, the most significant benefit I think you’ll get out of streaming is that a community will start to form around you and your product. Marketing aside, this confers many smaller benefits:

  • You won’t feel as lonely even if you’re developing the project by yourself. I once worked for 3 months on a project where I was the only developer, and the lack of regular social contact throughout the work day started to drive me insane (seriously).
  • People will offer to help with tasks that you would typically have to spend money on. For me, people offered to help code chat bots, make a web site, or even consult with me on technical issues.
  • Similar to the above, you’re networking without any extra effort. In the case of building a game, maybe someone in the stream knows an artist or musician to help fill out your team.
  • You can enter the feedback loop on what you’re developing much sooner than if you weren’t streaming. For example, if you’re making a game, you can have your viewers test it out without having to do a huge marketing push. To help smooth out this process, look into a public bug/issue tracker so that you don’t have to keep telling everyone “oh yeah, I already know about that bug”.
  • There’s another metric for progress. Instead of working on features and bugs, you’re also watching your viewership increase.

Your stream setup

As I mentioned in the intro, I want to cover topics specific to development, so I’m going to skip over advice on broadcasting software, computer specs, which microphone to buy, etc. However, keep in mind that a big reason people watch live streams as opposed to recorded videos is interactivity. Most people don’t want to actively watch someone code for 8 hours. To improve “watchability”, I highly suggest buying a microphone and a camera so that you can take advantage of the interactivity. Viewers want to know who’s behind the keyboard, and at the very least you’ll be able to respond to them faster if you have a microphone.

Keep in mind where the boundaries of your webcam are to your viewers. When playing games, there’s usually some unimportant part of the screen that you can cover up, but most developers tend to use their whole screen for typing code. If you don’t want to scroll code or move windows around all of the time, you could look into auto-hiding your video when your mouse/cursor gets close to it.

There are tons of streaming sites out there. I chose Twitch because I was most familiar with its culture. It’s possible to stream to multiple at once by using a service like Restream. I haven’t used this, so I can’t give much advice from a streamer’s perspective. From a viewer’s perspective, it’s annoying to me when it’s not obvious that a streamer is using this service. For example, if I’m sitting in a chatroom and I hear the streamer say “yeah, but only on Thursdays.”, I’ll be confused. I’ll scroll up in chat to see if I missed something. Then it turns out that they’re responding to someone from YouTube Gaming despite that I’m watching from Twitch. If you stream to multiple sites, consider showing chat on-screen. Still, I would say that at some point, consider picking one site and sticking with it so that your viewers have a cohesive experience.

Even if you’re not streaming to multiple sites, it’s helpful to respond in complete sentences. If someone types out “do you like lemonade?”, respond with “Yes, I like lemonade” instead of just “yes”. I know this sounds nit-picky, but it takes so little extra effort and helps to reduce confusion due to the stream delay (which can be up to 30 seconds sometimes on Twitch). Viewers will typically not do this, so try not to ask too many yes-or-no questions in a row.

I won’t comment on whether you should play music, but if you do, make sure that it’s not drowning out your voice.

Also, make sure your font size is legible. Not everyone is on the stream for the coding part, but the ones who are will want to be able to read what you’ve written.

Know your audience

In general, I think that you can sum up why viewers watch any stream with these two factors:

  • Personality: you’re entertaining, humorous, etc.
  • Competence: you’re really good at what you do.

There’s one other reason that’s specific to development: what you’re making is interesting. Once you have some viewers, try to find out why they’re watching you (you can even just ask them directly). Here are some reasons that I’ve heard for why people watch my stream:

  • They like to have a voice on in the background while they do their own work.
  • They like that I interact with chat.
  • They think Bot Land will be cool.
  • They say I have good keyboard skills.
  • They want to learn how to be a programmer or game developer.

Try to capitalize on these if you can. For example, enough people commented about my typing that I ended up pointing a camera directly at my keyboard and now I broadcast that too.

About personality: some people put on a persona when they stream. Based on what I’ve seen, I assume this is more popular with gaming streams rather than development streams. Either way, know your audience and find out whether it’s resonating with them.

About competence: I highly suggest honing your development skills off-stream. I find that streamers lose credibility if they are just hacking together their application with no technical direction. You should at least be able to explain in general why you’re doing something and what it means since your viewers will likely ask about it. You should also look into learning design patterns and tools (e.g. IDEs, debuggers, libraries, test frameworks) and figure out what would help you the most.

Another means of developing competence is to improve your execution. Learn how to type properly. Learn hotkeys for whichever commands you use most frequently. These improvements will affect all of your computer usage too, not just development, so it’s worth investing in. This lets you focus on the development aspect of your stream rather than the minutiae.

Most game development streamers try to make their streams as fun as possible. Some have games that can be played directly in the broadcast or in chat. Some have cool transition scenes when someone follows, subscribes, or cheers. I have a silly thing where people can control the lights in my room when they follow. I think that these sorts of things are hooks. They’ll get viewers to say “oh, that’s cool!” but you need the personality or competence to get them to stay.

Try to favor interactivity when possible. I’ve found that I get more followers if I take the ~1-2 minutes to explain what my game is about rather than linking to a canned YouTube video. This isn’t sustainable though; I can’t spend an hour every day introducing my game. At some point, you need to get back to work!

On favoring interactivity, I think that you should generally follow this quote: “never underestimate your ability to brighten someone’s day.” If someone does something nice for you, take some time to appreciate them, even if it’s just a “thank you”. Involve people as much as possible. Get a chat bot, add quotes from funny people, do events with your viewers, run giveaways, Skype with them, whatever you think you can handle to grow your community.

One more note about interactivity: it’s generally expected that you’re saying something throughout most of your broadcast. Development is a mindful activity, so you probably can’t talk about an unrelated topic while coding, but try to explain what’s going on with your code or why you’re approaching it a certain way.

Branching out into playing games will likely tank your viewer count for the time that you’re playing that game. This happens even with top-tier streamers that I’ve seen; I’ve watched people go from 22k concurrent viewers playing Hearthstone to 4k viewers when they play Duelyst within the same stream. Some part of your audience is watching you for you, but most of them are watching you for the combination of you and your activity (i.e. developing). If you plan on playing games anyway, then either don’t worry about your view count or follow the same general guidelines written here (be consistent, be entertaining, be competent).

Drawbacks of streaming

I’m not trying to convince you to avoid streaming, but you should be aware of what makes it difficult:

  • Development is already mentally taxing enough as it is. You need to be “on” for most of the day when you’re streaming. This can be hard for some people to do, especially when you’re usually talking to just a few viewers (i.e. you still need to form a habit of talking even when no one’s talking to you!). What’s more is that we can have a tendency to spiral into negativity when code doesn’t work for long enough. In my experience, this kind of negativity is not enjoyable to watch. Instead, it’s fun to watch a developer work through a problem while being positive about routes that they can pursue.
  • It’s easy to leak information. I’ve accidentally shown passwords, IP addresses, email address, etc. on-stream even though I have two monitors.
  • It’s another thing to maintain. You’ll end up putting many hours into finding moderation tools, chat bots, adding commands, building FAQs, emailing your community, finding art/overlays, chatting, etc. This is why I said it’s important to state your goals with streaming. One of my goals is marketing, and having a good stream will keep people coming back.
  • You’re displaying your code to the world. Let’s say you write a bug into some server code that you showed while streaming. If your application ever gets popular, people can weed through the videos to find potential exploits without telling you about them.
    • Your code is copyrighted when you write it, but that doesn’t matter to some people. For example, there are plenty of knock-off games in the various app stores that haven’t been shut down yet. Or maybe someone else takes your idea and beats you to market with it. Are you going to spend the time and money to legally pursue them?
    • The flip-side of this is that you may have copy/pasted code from the Internet or incorporated a library that you don’t have the license to use.
  • You’re interacting with the Internet. Sure, most people are going to be fine, but sometimes you’ll get a troll. That’s manageable. Rarely though, you’ll get a very persistent troll. It’s difficult to deal with them while still:
    • Keeping your cool
    • Keeping chat informed
    • Not giving attention to the troll

Other tips

These didn’t really fit into other sections, so here’s a mishmash of tips!

Watch your own broadcasts. I see streamers say “uh”, “um”, “basically”, etc. too much. Off-the-cuff speaking for many hours while programming is never going to be flawless, but try to eradicate as many filler words as possible from your speech.

Try to abide by a schedule, that way people can work you into their routine. I watch Twitch while eating lunch and sometimes while falling asleep, and it’s great when my favorite streamers are online for that time!

Don’t burn yourself out. I think consistency is more important than short bursts of progress. Don’t stream for several hours a day unless you know you can handle it.

I find it frustrating when I enter a stream and the streamer isn’t even present. Did they step out to get water? Are they heating up food? For this reason, I almost always put up a “BRB” screen with an estimated time of when I’ll be back. This means that every time I use the bathroom, take a snack break, or go to lunch that viewers are in the know.

On Twitch, you can apply to become a partner when your channel is big enough. At the time of writing this, Twitch has not updated their requirements specifically for Creative streamers, so it still appears as though you need 500+ concurrent viewers before they’ll accept you (which is next to impossible for 99% of the development streamers on Twitch). However, their guidelines are much more lax for development streamers. Once you have at least 25+ concurrent viewers, it wouldn’t hurt to apply. I’ve only been a partner for about two weeks, so I can’t comment too much on how exactly it will help your stream’s numbers, but it’s an official way of monetizing your channel.

Conclusion

Unless you’ve already released a playable game or you’re a famous developer, then it will be a slow climb to get viewers. Twitch is still a platform primarily associated with playing games. Keep at it though, and you’ll get there!

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