Twitch is a popular service, and there's a good reason Amazon paid nearly $US1 billion for it. But as a streamer and viewer, I've come to realise it's not perfect; there are lots of problems, actually.
It's not an exaggeration to say Twitch is largely responsible for popularising (and democratising) the live streaming of games. It wasn't long ago that spitting live video onto the internet was the domain of production studios with millions of dollars in equipment. Now, it all happens with the click of a button, whether you're sitting at a PC or PlayStation 4. It's incredibly simple, and it's led to a paradigm shift in the way games are talked about, especially after they're released.
But the rise of Twitch has brought new, legitimate competition. Hitbox doesn't have the same copyright restrictions as Twitch, and allows smaller broadcasters to become money-earning partners. The elephant in the room, however, is YouTube. Long known for video on demand, YouTube is quickly moving into livestreaming. While it may not have the users (yet), it's quickly catching up to — and surpassing — Twitch in the technology department. Twitch cannot be idle.
For now, though, Twitch is king. But as one of its peasants, I have some complaints.
Chat Is The Worst
When I asked people on Twitter about their biggest problems with Twitch, I should have said "besides chat," as it quickly dominated the discussion. Almost nobody enjoys Twitch chat.
It's not without merit; chat is useless on bigger channels, despite interaction with users being a key appeal. People want to interact with their favourite streamers, but Twitch makes this a living nightmare, and Twitch chat is quickly gaining the same notoriety as YouTube comments. Gross.
The problem with chat, as with comments, has much to do with scale. If you're watching or hosting a small stream with a few dozen — heck, even a few hundred — viewers, it's possible to police chat, especially with moderators chipping in. But once thousands become involved, Twitch chat devolves into a shouting contest between users that's often filled with hate speech, misogyny, and everything else that we've come to expect from the vilest corners of the internet.
Gaming's biggest tournaments regularly pull in hundreds of thousands of viewers at once, and while it might sound nice to see what the spectators are thinking, that almost never goes well.
And if you're a women who's streaming on Twitch? Let's just say it's not usually a pretty sight.
It's already possible to filter out certain keywords and require users to have a verified email, but that's not enough. It's not difficult to get around either of those restrictions, so everybody does.
My Twitch streams pull in between 50 and 300 viewers, and it's a lovely group of people who regularly come back to watch me flail at Rocket League or scream at horror games. I know the usernames of folks who come back each time the stream goes live, and it makes playing games more fun. Victories are sweeter when others are watching; the defeats ever more heartbreaking.
More than once, I've found myself sighing after playing a good match of Rocket League before going to bed, knowing how much the chat would have enjoyed it. Do I want more viewers? Sure. Do I want to lose this connection? No. But in its current form, Twitch offers up few alternatives.
Pro-tip: if you hide chat, it does stay hidden, even if you switch to another stream or log out. However, there's no way for a streamer to 100% disable chat — that's something Twitch has to do on their own. The Pokemon World Championships happening right now, for example, has chat disabled (as of this writing, anyway).
The Obnoxiously Long Stream Delay
Chat is the best way for streamers to interact with viewers, but it doesn't happen in real-time. As the video pipes from your computer to Twitch and back out to viewers, there's a delay. If you're a streamer who enjoys interacting with users, the longer the delay, the harder that becomes.
As a streamer, besides getting disconnected entirely, there's nothing more frustrating than asking a question and having to awkwardly wait around while it filters out to everyone watching.
While it's easy for me to wave a magic wand and say "make it better," it actually used to be better. When Twitch started — i.e. when it was a company dealing with a much smaller group of people hitting their servers — the delay was only a few seconds. But that number has steadily increased over time. As of right now, it's about anywhere from 12 seconds to more than 30 seconds, based on what I've both experienced personally and heard from people using Twitch.
The delay spiked when Twitch moved streaming technologies — RMTP to HLS. (In short, RMTP was old and Flash-based, while HLS performs better on modern browsers and devices.) They were shaking off their Justin.tv roots. Never heard of Justin.tv? I don't blame you, but Twitch is the evolved form of Justin.tv, a livestreaming service ahead of its time. Justin.tv was shut down to focus on Twitch. (The company name was even changed from Justin.tv to Twitch.)
Twitch knows this is a problem, too.
A "Stream Delay" feature was introduced in May for all streamers (previously, it was limited to those in Twitch's partner program), and the company claims it reduces the delay by 33%.
How have we reduced the delay? We've successfully cut the video segment size from four seconds to two seconds, which decreases the amount of video that is stored in the processing pipeline. If you're a broadcaster who spends a lot of time interacting with chat, this new reduced delay option means you'll spend less time waiting for replies.
Unfortunately, it comes at a cost for viewers with slower internet connections, as the tricks Twitch deploys for this means some will have to suffer through additional stream buffering.
Twitch isn't alone here, of course. Livestreams on other platforms have a delay, including YouTube, where it seems to wildly vary, based on the live stream. Most reports suggest Hitbox deals with this best, but streaming to Hitbox means you have access to a smaller pool of users.
The Player Runs Like Garbage
Leave a Twitch stream running for a little bit and it won't take long for your computer's fans to spin up and your laptop's battery to start draining like its life depends on it. Twitch's Flash-based player is a notorious resource hog, one that can sometimes tax even my modern MacBook Air. Netflix, YouTube, and other streaming service don't have that problem.
I'm not sure I'd call that minor, actually. There's a reason the web is conspiring to remove Flash ASAP: other than Flash being slow as hell, it's riddled with security problems that keep coming up. The web works best when it's dealing with open standards, not proprietary software hobbled by a single company that has little incentive to be at the top of their game.
Flash played an important role in the web's early days, and helped usher in web-based video, animation, and games. We owe Flash a great debt! In 2015, though, it's an abomination, a shambling software zombie, and it drags down Twitch and other services.
Fortunately, it shouldn't be long before these complaints are a thing of the past. Twitch has slowly been moving to an HTML5 browser, which YouTube fully converted to earlier this year. Twitch has already moved chat over to HTML5, and some users have access to a hybrid video player whose controls are HTML-based. The video itself, however, is still Flash — for now.
Here's how the updated player looks:
It looks nice, right? Sadly, it's still Flash.
"This is an important step to releasing the much-anticipated full HTML5 player," the company wrote in a blog post in late July.
It can't come soon enough.
I Hope Someone Archives This On YouTube
If one word comes to mind with Twitch, it's livestreaming. Unfortunately, it's not possible to be available for every stream for every second of every day. Video archives, commonly referred to as videos on demand, are supposed to solve this problem, but it doesn't work how you'd think.
Archives don't last forever, no matter if you're a paying Twitch subscriber or a partnered streamer. They used to last forever, but last year, Twitch made them last 14 days for most users and 60 days for people forking over cash. The only videos that sticks around indefinitely are what're called "highlights," selected clips from livestreams up to two hours long.
Twitch's recommendation for all this? Use another service: YouTube. The service has a built-in tool that exports videos to Google's service.
Rather than deal with the escalating costs themselves — technically, this last round of changes happened prior to Amazon buying them out — Twitch wants Google to host the lengthy videos users previously stored on Twitch. It's not an elegant solution, but Twitch's argument is that most users don't watch archives.
"We found that the vast majority of past broadcast views happen within the first two weeks after they're created," the company wrote. "On the days following, viewership reduces exponentially."
But it's just as easy to argue users have been conditioned to expect videos on demand to suck.
Twitch made these changes last year because the experience used to be even worse. The mobile apps couldn't load any kind of archives, the quality was all over the place, and it was somehow possible for videos to disappear entirely with no chance of recovery. It wasn't great.
Take, for example, the trying journey to figure out where That One Cool Thing happened in a video that your friend told you about. When you try to scrub through a Twitch video, there's no thumbnail previewing what's happening, which means a whole lot of endless, random clicking:
And here's what it's like on YouTube:
It's made covering Twitch Plays Dark Souls painful, since the streams are often going for days at a time, and there's no way for me to figure out what I've missed without straight up asking for timestamps from observant viewers and hoping the video on demand shows up eventually.
Dealing with videos on demand can be such a pain that many folks use download sites to grab videos, since it's ultimately faster and easier than trying to load them through Twitch's website.
When people are circumventing your service in order to have a better time, it's not a good sign.
Less Popular Streams Aren't Treated Well
There are actually two tiers of streamers on Twitch: partnered and non-partnered. Twitch can grant partnership status to an account or you can apply for partnership status, but there are a handful of requirements.
- Regular broadcast schedule of at least 3 times a week
- Average concurrent viewership of 500+ (not just a one-time peak)
- Content that conforms to our Terms of Service and DMCA Guidelines
It's possible for Twitch to waive these, if they want to, but it's also possible for Twitch to reject you, even if you hit these. For more insight, watch this video with one of the folks who approves Twitch partnerships from PAX East earlier this year.
Earning partnership status has several benefits.
One, there's the ability to make money off stream ads and sell subscriptions, up to $US5. Subscriptions can simply be an ad-free version of the channel or have more specific benefits, such as exclusive emoticons or access to chat during subscriber-only streams. Ads do appear on non-partner streams, but likely to cover their costs, Twitch keeps all of the revenue.
Two, streamers receive quality settings for viewers: mobile, low, medium, high, source. Source looks the best, but requires the most amount of bandwidth from viewers. Non-partnered streams don't have access to any quality settings, so viewers must watch at source (maximum) settings.
Twitch tries to split the difference by granting quality settings to streams, based on popularity. Maybe you don't usually attract hundreds to your channel, but for whatever reason, you're doing something cool and people are tuning in. At that point, Twitch may temporarily flip on quality settings. When this happens, the stream resets for everyone watching, forcing them to miss a few seconds of whatever's happening, and often making folks wonder if the stream has died.
As someone who isn't partnered and doesn't always have hundreds of people on a stream, it's frustrating to watch folks drop out because it's too much for their bandwidth. But I know how annoying it is to watch a video stream buffer over and over, so I don't blame them for ditching.
What's perplexing is how Twitch doles out quality settings to non-partnered streams. I've sometimes streamed Rocket League to less than 50 people and, out of nowhere, there are suddenly quality settings for everyone. Hooray! And while that's cool 'n all, it doesn't help anyone who never decide to come back because they had a crappy time.
Without partnered status, it's possible to sign up for Twitch Pro, which removes most ads from Twitch, grants custom emoticons, slaps a special badge next to your name, provides more chat colours, and allows archives to be kept on file up to 60 days. That costs $US9 per month. It does not, however, grant access to quality settings. No matter how much you pay, it's locked away.
It's no surprise, then, to see folks considering YouTube as a serious alternative. There are no restrictions when it comes to streaming, and earning money has zero audience requirements:
- In your account's settings, go to the monetisation tab.
- Click Enable My Account. You'll only see this option if your account is in good standing and hasn't been disabled for monetisation.
- Follow the on-screen steps to accept the YouTube monetisation agreement.
That certainly sounds more appealing and inclusive, doesn't it?
OK, I actually have more than five complaints about Twitch, but I'll make them quick:
- I'm tired of watching usernames and donation amounts eat up valuable real-estate on the screen. There has to be a better, more natural way for Twitch to integrate this.
- Notifications are wildly inconsistent. Given this is the primary way people find out if a stream is going live, this should work every single time, no excuses.
- When you drop into a livestream on Twitch, you can't rewind the broadcast. You can, however, do this on YouTube. Once you've experienced it, it's impossible to go back.
- I realise ads are vital to funding these services, but it'd be nice if Twitch broadcasts accommodated for them when big events are happening. When my friends are losing their shit over something happening on a stream, the last thing I want to do is wait 45 seconds for an advertisement to finish up. That's why people download AdBlock.
Twitch is a terrific service, but competition is growing, and they have access to Amazon money now. Their shortfalls, especially when it comes to technology, grow less and less understandable as times goes on. Twitch is not Facebook, an entrenched part of our culture that would take a massive upheaval to remove. Right now, Twitch is more like MySpace; it's incredibly popular, lots of people are using it, and it's got a strong, passionate community.
Nothing lasts forever on the internet. Nobody thought MySpace would go away... until it did.