Broadcast anywhere: A look at Twitch's move into mobile game streaming

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Games are for playing, not watching—right? That's the conventional wisdom, but try telling that to the 45 million monthly viewers on video game streaming service Twitch, who tune in to watch more than a million broadcasters that operate from living rooms and competitive gaming events alike. Twitch has become big business and commands a staggering slice of overall web bandwidth these days, and it's drawn some interest from Internet heavyweights: YouTube is reportedly nearing a $1 billion acquisition of the service following failed buyout attempts from others.

Broadcasting began as a PC-based option, which remains the most popular draw on the service, as games like League of Legends and Hearthstone pull in many thousands of viewers at any given time. However, both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One now offer built-in streaming capabilities, and have made it easier than ever to share your live gameplay and interact with viewers.

In March, Twitch expanded its reach even further by launching a mobile SDK that developers can use to build native streaming capabilities right into their games. Unlike with other platforms, you don't even need a separate program or launcher to broadcast onto the Internet: just click a button or two within supported games and you're live. You can even transmit your image and audio from your smartphone or tablet while playing—just don't cover the camera with your thumb.

twitch app

The free, universal Twitch app allows access to all of the site's streams, whether they generate from PC, a console, or a mobile device.

"The choice to bring broadcasting to mobile devices was an easy one when you consider just how large the mobile audience is," asserts Marcus "djWHEAT" Graham, a well-known video game broadcaster and Twitch's director of community and education. "With smartphone sales practically doubling from year to year, the market simply cannot be ignored."

Mobile streaming does seem like the perfect gateway option to turn players of all types onto Twitch, as millions upon millions of users play popular iOS and Android games. Those users may feel compelled to build an audience and then broadcast on consoles or PC, as well, or simply view content from other users. Graham notes that Twitch has more than 12 million installs of its mobile viewing app, so the general intrigue is there—but do people really want to stream mobile gameplay?

Stream me

Just one updated game launched alongside the mobile streaming SDK: Gameloft's raucous and excellent racer, Asphalt 8: Airborne. The freebie is available on multiple platforms, including Android and Windows Phone, but only the universal iOS version supports broadcasting at present. Nearly three months later, it's still the only mobile and tablet game to bundle in Twitch capabilities, but it's a great example of how easy and accessible broadcasting can be on a portable touch device.

It really is as simple as loading up the game, hitting the Twitch button on the main menu, and tapping the "Start Broadcasting" button—after signing into (or up for) a free account, of course. You can choose the streaming quality, opt for the camera and/or microphone to be on, and decide whether to keep a chat log from viewers, but otherwise it's kept delightfully straightforward and free of confusing jargon.

asphalt game

Viewers can chime in with text comments that appear along the bottom, and you can pop into chat to tap out a response—or simply use the camera.

I kicked on my Asphalt 8 broadcast and started tearing up the virtual tracks within moments. During my first event, I didn't draw a single viewer. On the second run, however, I pulled in a chatty user who seemed to think I didn't know how to play the game—not much of a confidence booster, considering I'd pumped hours into it while writing a review months prior.

"Try not to hit the walls," he said. "Nice," he added, after I took down a pair of rivals with glorious, glass-spattering crashes. I couldn't tell if he was patronizing me or earnestly tying to help and encourage, but I'll admit: I enjoyed the attention, even if it was only a single viewer watching my apparently mediocre driving skills.

Prior to the SDK's launch, Asphalt 8 finished first in a poll about which games should add streaming features, and Gameloft says that Twitch reached out about updating the game to make it the first with native broadcast abilities. "Being both highly popular and skill-based, Asphalt 8: Airborne seemed like an interesting game to test with the Twitch mobile SDK," says Baudouin Corman, Gameloft's vice president of publishing for the Americas. 

Gameloft worked closely with Twitch to implement the service and make sure to find the right balance between streaming quality and gameplay performance. Based on what I played, I'd say they nailed it—and according to Corman, more than 1 million Asphalt 8 streaming sessions have been initiated from within the game since March. That tally follows the more than 300,000 viewers that tuned into Gameloft's 24-hour livestream event to detail the streaming features upon launch.

Crowd control

Clearly, there's notable interest from mobile and tablet gamers in live streaming gameplay, but building a consistent community may be another subject altogether. I searched for active Asphalt 8 streams regularly over the course of several days and rarely encountered more than a couple broadcasts at a time, and never with more than two viewers tuned in to a single stream.

asphalt stream

With a free account, setting up your live Asphalt 8 broadcast takes only moments. Video and audio are thankfully optional.

Asphalt 8 is a very entertaining game, and maybe the best racer of its kind on mobile devices—but while indeed skill-based, it's rather straightforward and doesn't allow for a huge array of strategic approaches. The games that yield ample viewers on other platforms are often complex, multiplayer-centric affairs with wide tactical opportunities; or they might be single-player titles that can be manipulated in entertaining ways, like speeding through a campaign as quickly as possible, or hunting down every obscure collectible.

And while several PC broadcasters have become well known streaming stars in their own right, even pulling down significant income from ads and donations, mobile gaming doesn't have standout hosts just yet. That may change over time as additional games add Twitch support and both broaden and effectively legitimize the practice on mobile, but it remains a void for now. 

Graham says that Twitch is working with developers to add streaming integration to further to-be-revealed mobile and tablet games, "including one coming out soon that boasts a different set of functionality than Asphalt." And Gameloft is looking into building the feature into additional titles, but nothing has been announced.

Whether Twitch broadcasting becomes a common feature for mobile titles remains to be seen. However, as a proof of concept, Asphalt 8 is stellar—and an encouraging sign that streaming from anywhere at any time is not only doable, but also plenty fun.

This story, "Broadcast anywhere: A look at Twitch's move into mobile game streaming" was originally published by TechHive.

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