Growing pains 2

Sorry, no quick TL;DR for this post, but you can read just the first and last sections (background/conclusions) to get the best summary.

Background

This blog post and the first one in the series were the only two posts that I’ve disliked writing. It just sounds so self-entitled to write a post that’s seemingly about “having too many viewers”. However, I’ve always wanted to be as transparent as possible, and to that end, informing people about potential changes is crucial.

I’ve always loved interacting with chat. It’s something that separates the entire platform of live-streaming from watching prerecorded videos. However, as time has passed, I’ve gotten more and more comments saying, “when are you going to code?” and “it seems like you’re always talking to chat when I come in here”. I’ve noticed a steady decline in the pace at which I get features done, and my first and foremost goal of the stream has always been accountability. I tend to say that there’s exactly one way I can fail, and that’s to not finish Bot Land.

I think that coding and interactivity are generally at odds with one another. This comic illustrates exactly why. There are certain areas where it’s easier for me to split my attention, e.g. pure CSS work. Anything more mentally taxing than that and I’m just giving off the appearance of multi-tasking. At that point, my goal of remaining accountable is being compromised.

Potential solutions

There are really only two high-level ways to address this issue:

  • Stream less
  • Interact less

Streaming less is straightforward: I would change my schedule from 32 hours a week down to something like 24. I would then spend the 8 hours that I “gain” with my nose to the grindstone.

Interacting less is a trickier beast. As I mentioned earlier, interaction is core to the platform, not just my channel. I’ll talk about several potential high-level solutions and how I feel about them:

  • Sub-only mode (i.e. you have to spend $5/month just to be able to chat at all): this is incredibly restrictive and too “sellout-y” for me to seriously consider.
  • Follower-only mode (i.e. you have to click the follow button to be able to chat): this seems agreeable enough to myself and to viewers, but I don’t think it actually addresses the issue since I doubt it would cut down on messages; I only average about 20-25 new followers for an 8-hour stream, and I don’t know how many of those people type anything at all.
  • Slow mode (i.e. people can only send messages every X seconds as opposed to having no delay): again, this is probably agreeable enough (although I imagine less so than follower-only mode), but it could lead to longer messages that require the same amount of interaction.
  • Only respond to messages where people tag me (i.e. you have to type “Adam” somewhere in your message to get my attention): I think it’s worth giving this a shot. When chat gets busy on a “regular” day, this is what I tend to do anyway.
  • Respond to fewer messages arbitrarily (i.e. scanning chat and ignoring messages (perhaps the ones that someone else could answer with a command like “!faq”)): I think this dampens the overall mood/feeling of the stream. Almost every streamer with 1k+ viewers employs this strategy; they’ll pick out some messages from chat to respond to and pass over most of the others. You’ll probably never see a streamer with 1k+ viewers meaningfully interacting with absolutely everyone who comes through. Of course, I don’t have 1k viewers, but I’m also trying to develop a game while I stream.
  • Only respond to messages at certain times (i.e. something like the Pomodoro Technique where I would code for 25 minutes and then interact for some time): I feel like this would require a lot of work to get right. For example, I’d need a way of filtering messages such that I don’t have to read through 25 minutes’ worth of chat all at once, and it would still end with me missing something. As a viewer of other people’s streams, I can’t stand when they’re not interacting at all, so I think this isn’t a viable option.
  • Combined with any of the above, I could try to foster more self-sufficiency in chat, e.g. by having regular users answer questions for newcomers.

Impact and other thoughts

Something to keep in mind is that almost any solution is going to stunt the growth of the channel. If I’m cutting down on the amount of time I’m streaming, then I’m hurting my discoverability. If I’m cutting down on interactivity, then I’m hurting part of what makes the stream fun. These could make it so that the original issue simply disappears. While this would be a good thing for the development aspect of the stream, it detracts from the second major goal I have: marketing. I need people to know that Bot Land exists!

Related to that: the increased traffic could be a temporary uptick caused by any number of variables outside of my control: exam schedules, external sites directing more traffic to Twitch, etc. Regardless of how it happens, if my stream ends up with only 1-2 viewers at some point, I think this thought process is still helpful to publicize.

Another thing to consider is that some of these solutions only push off the problem until even more people join. I can’t stress enough that I’m not trying to assume that my channel will grow to 300+ viewers or that I’m Mr. Popular. Instead, I’m just trying to come up with more permanent solutions so that the next 8-9 months of development can go smoothly and I can launch the game in as good a state as it can be.

I think that there’s clearly a desire for “IRL Programming” streams from me where I focus almost entirely on chat interaction. The Visual Studio Code stream was great for that: I had a vague and unimportant goal (trying out a text editor), and I could prioritize interacting with chat. They would probably need to be standalone streams so that I could advertise them as such (a “free-for-all” stream for chat, so to speak), so I can’t promise that they’ll happen with regularity.

I do know what it’s like to be in a channel where 50 people are all shouting the same thing at a streamer. It’s a frustrating occurrence from the perspective of the viewer, but it got to be that way for a reason. For all we know, the streamers in those cases went through the same thought process that I did here and gradually came to the conclusion that they couldn’t interact with chat without sacrificing some other goal (which is usually to be entertaining!). It’s impossible to please everybody, and the dog who chases two rabbits catches neither. This dog wants to finish Bot Land and make a great game for you all to enjoy.

Conclusions

Unfortunately, I don’t have a single strategy going forward. I’m likely going to try different things: maybe taking off one day per week to code, maybe testing other ideas out… The whole reason I wrote this blog post is to let you all know that there are going to be changes to the stream even though I don’t know exactly what they’re going to be just yet.

Here are some things you can do as a returning viewer to help me out:

  • Help on-board new viewers by answering their questions. If they say “what’s Adam working on?”, feel free to type “!new”, “!botland”, or “!faq” (and don’t forget to @-tag them!). It’s nice to feel welcome as a new viewer, so even just saying “hi” to them is great!
  • Provide feedback to me over a Discord private message on absolutely anything: the stream/game, this post, the water bottle I drink from, etc. I read every PM, and by sending it over Discord, you’re cutting out the need for me to handle it immediately.
  • Be understanding with me. Transitional periods are rarely easy for everyone involved. I still want to provide entertaining and educational content, but I need to lower my overall stress level in order to do that.

I’m grateful for the support that you’ve all shown to me time and again while making Bot Land… I am living my dream right now and I am incredibly lucky to be doing so. I don’t want to take this opportunity for granted. Thank you for reading this and I hope we can find a happy equilibrium going forward.

 

Growing pains

TL;DR

I’m putting this summary at the top for people who get linked here from the stream and don’t want to read the whole post:

  • Due to the growth of the stream, I need to cut back on how long I spend conversing with chat so that I can focus more on development.
  • The biggest thing you can do to help is to post game feedback and suggestions on the Bot Land GitHub. If you want to go the extra mile, you can first check to see if your feedback or suggestion already exists, but don’t let that step stop you from posting there.
  • I still want to be as interactive as possible without cutting into the development process too much.
  • Please read the rest of the post for the full explanation!

The post itself

My stream has been growing recently:

Stream growth chart

I’m by no means a big streamer and it’s not a goal of mine to become one. Instead, streaming is all about making Bot Land as good as it can be (as discussed in this post). I used to be able to thank each individual viewer as they followed me. Now, I find myself hardly able to devote more than a “hey <viewer>” to each person who chats. It feels less personal to me, but when tens of people greet you at random points in the day, you can’t deviate from your current mental context too much or you risk a big time-loss recovering your train of thought.

I always try to remind myself: “something’s gotta give”. I’m at critical mass right now with the stress of development, and it’s been bleeding into my life outside of the stream. I need to shift some of the weight of interactivity to viewers and moderators, which means I need your help!

Duplication

When it comes to the stream, I learned long ago that I would keep getting the same kinds of questions: “what are you doing on stream”, “are you standing”, etc. This prompted me to make commands to answer these, e.g. !botland and !desk. Eventually, there was so much chat spam from just running these commands that I made an FAQ page to consolidate the list.

That worked fine for basic questions; viewers are generally okay with looking through a single page for the answers to their questions. However, now that the beta of Bot Land has been released, the feedback flood gates have been opened—I’m getting bug reports, overall feedback, and feature suggestions in droves. This is great and I welcome it, but as mentioned, it’s detracting from the stream for me to respond to everything in real-time.

The plan

I would like to collect feedback about the game on the GitHub issues page. This includes bugs and suggestions. Ideally, I’d love it if you could do some quick searches to see if your issue already exists. If it does, please comment on it if you feel you have something to add. Regardless, feel free to file an issue even if you have a hunch that it was already submitted; it’s better to have duplicates than to lose track of a problem!

With that said, if you are filing a bug, please follow standard guidelines, the most important being: include as much information as possible (screenshots, steps to reproduce, any errors in the console).

Use your discretion when it comes to typing game feedback in chat. For example, if you run into a game-breaking bug whose error message says, “this definitely shouldn’t happen! Tell Adam immediately”, then add it to chat. Likewise with “passive” feedback like “cool game” or “I showed this to a friend”—those kinds of things are fine.

Beyond the plan to use GitHub more, I will also likely need to gloss over messages that I previously would have responded to. For example, people sometimes ask about choosing between text editors, computer hardware, etc. You can still discuss that in chat, but I probably won’t reply beyond acknowledging that I can’t help. If I get enough of those kinds of questions, I’ll try to add them to the FAQ so that you can still hear my opinion without me needing to respond individually each time.

Please understand if have to say something like, “this isn’t productive for me to talk about more than I already have”. It’s not a slight against you. Also, if I seem to ignore your message without any acknowledgment, feel free to tag me (with “Adam13531” or just “Adam”) until I notice it.

do care about interacting with viewers/chatters, but I feel like developing Bot Land is my one shot at achieving my dreams and I don’t want to pass this up!

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!

Twitch and you

As promised, I started streaming last Tuesday. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I had a feeling it would be <10 people coming and going throughout the day.

What actually happened was this:

View count: 1028 viewers, 213 followers
1,028 views, 213 follows

And it’s all thanks to you! I streamed for ~25 hours over the course of three days this week and it’s overwhelming how much support I’ve already gotten! If the stream didn’t get any larger than this, I’d still be a happy camper. I owe you all a big, sincere “thank you” for dropping in. 😀

Being brand new to this, there were some hiccups: the Internet cut out multiple times, my fan was apparently very loud on Friday, I didn’t have the usual chat bots or social media set up, et cetera. I’m doing everything I can to provide an entertaining and informative stream (as well as a fun game of course!), so expect some improvements.

Regarding social media, I made a Facebook and a Twitter, and although they’re relatively bare now, there will hopefully be more content in the next few months. I connected Twitch to Twitter, so a tweet will go out automatically every time I start streaming. I’ve also set up a YouTube account where I can post recap videos from the last week. Here is the first recap video:

Note that the recap videos are separate from my past Twitch broadcasts; I don’t plan on just taking a piece of my broadcast and using it as a recap video.

Finally, a small bit a real-life business to mention: I am moving in a week and a half, which means I have a lot on my plate right now. I plan on keeping up my streaming schedule, but all that time has to come from somewhere, so I will probably only be posting development recap videos for the next few blog posts.

Twitch, here I come!

My only foray into Twitch streaming was when I wrote my own version (now and forever offline) of Twitch Plays Pokémon. That project was a lot of fun, but I didn’t get to interface with any viewers. Heck, I didn’t even have a webcam running. How am I ever going to achieve my goal of Twitch fame if no one on the Internet knows who I am?

Well that’s all about to change…! The world will watch as my view-count soars into the double digits. That’s right, forget about PewDiePie and Kripp, Adam13531 is about to have upwards of 10 viewers!

Here’s the plan:

  • I’ll be streaming the development of Bot Land™. The majority of the code will likely be written while I’m on Twitch. The only work that I’ve already finished pertains to prototyping and research, so you get to see me produce the very first lines of real code!
  • I plan on streaming for four days a week. I’ll post a schedule on my Twitch page once I’ve got some consistency.
  • I’ll start mid-morning on Tuesday, 9/8/15 (roughly 10:00 AM PDT).
  • If you want to support me, you can do so simply by tuning in or following me. If you’re feeling extra generous then you could pass the link on to a friend or two.

I’m super excited for this! I’m looking forward to having a “workplace” again despite being at home all day. I also love sharing knowledge and tips, so feel free to ask me lots of questions. And I’ve got a couple of fun things in store for viewers…

Remember: mid-morning PDT on Tuesday, 9/8: https://www.twitch.tv/Adam13531. Be there!