Over the next few weeks, we will explore the ins and outs and the ups and downs of livestreaming MMOs in a new miniseries called Learning to Livestream. This week, I will introduce you to my rig and why I made the choices I made when purchasing the equipment. Then, in the following weeks, I will ask my Stream Teammates how they have set up their systems. It's also important for us to talk about streaming from a less-than-optimal system. I'm sure you'll also be interested in streaming from a console, so we'll cover that too, and then finish up by discussing my area of expertise: graphics.
First, let me introduce you to my new baby.
You'd think that the first thing I'd look at would be the processor, RAM, and motherboard, right? The reality is that for today's computers, there are more important factors to consider when you're designing a streaming machine. The primary concern is data transfer. Software like XSplit, which most members of the Stream Team use, will compress your game data and write them to your hard drive before sending them over the internet. So the most important idea conceptually is sending data across your hard drives. If there is a bottleneck there, it will not matter one bit what size of processor or how much RAM you have -- your stream will still lag.
Solid state drive
The first item on my list was a solid state drive. If you're not familiar with what these are, you should get that way quickly. Most should be familiar with flash disks, thumb drives, or USB drives. There are no moving parts to these drives, and the data transfer rate is extremely high. In my current system, I have a single solid state drive that holds my operating system and my primary game. This allows extremely fast transfer between game and other pieces of equipment.
The problem with solid state drives is that the price per gigabyte is extremely high. My 240GB SSD cost an insane $209. Although the price of these drives has dropped considerably in the last year, if you do not make money playing video games or if you don't have a lot of disposable income, this isn't the most cost-effective option.
When computer techs talk about RAIDs, they don't mean endgame MMO content. RAID is an acronym for redundant array of independent disks. There are multiple ways to RAID a drive. Striping refers to extending the capacity of a drive by adding two drives together, and mirroring refers to copying the same information to two separate disks. RAIDs can be extremely important to livestreaming, especially mirroring.
A side-effect of mirroring hard drives is the speed at which data are transferred from the drives to RAM. Since classic hard drives have a sensor arm that literally moves across the disk, there is a physical limitation to how quickly data can be transferred. It's still extremely fast, mind you, but when we're streaming, we're transferring gigabytes' worth of information at an alarming rate, so milliseconds count. Mirroring hard drives allow the processor to access the same information at the same time, effectively doubling the hard drive speed. Although my research has found that solid state drives are still a wee bit faster, mirrored hard drives are extremely effective as well.
I don't want to discount the importance of having a computer system that can run the games you're streaming effectively. If your computer struggles running the game itself, then adding the streaming software on top of that will make conditions that much more difficult to deal with.
Let me tell you what I have at the core of my machine. I have an i5 3.4GHz processor that can be easily overclocked to 3.8GHz. I debated getting an i7, but I didn't see the overall benefit to the extra cost. I have 16GBs of RAM, but it was important to me that I expand that in the future, so I bought a motherboard with four slots (an ASUS Sabertooth Z77). Although the graphics card is important to streaming, it's most important for rendering your game. Pick a card that fits your games well. I picked a medium high-ranged card: the Nvidia Geforce GTX 660 ti. That might be overkill for some games, but other games will have trouble running at full speed with that card. For the games I stream, it fits just right.
The last but possibly most important piece of equipment for livestreaming is a second computer and capture device, at least if you are building the ultimate machine, which I am. At the advice of Justin Lowe, I bought an Elgato Game Capture HD. This device takes your HDMI signal and converts it to a USB signal that can be read by the video capture software and your streaming encoder, like XSplit. If you split your HDMI signal with a powered splitter, you can send one signal to your monitor and the other to the capture device. Then plug the USB cable into the second computer and let that machine do all the streaming. This splits the resource load to two computers and should allow you to stream at very high frame rate and image size.
Not everyone will need this. In fact, I didn't use it last night because I didn't have time to set it up before the stream started (I've embedded the video below) This device just reduces the stress on one machine and allows for you to play your game at full resolution on your primary computer.
Next week, we will discuss the actual streaming software and how to optimize that for the game you are playing. Until then, check out the rest of the Stream Team, and happy streaming!