Gamescom Live: Doing what others didn’t

Old Beater
Last week, Cologne saw the second incarnation of gamescom since it moved from Leipzig over to western Germany. Tim and I had an idea on how to cover it this year: we decided to do a live stream à la Leo Laporte or the Pixel Corps from on location aka the show floor.

Our plans were really on short notice which meant we’d run into trouble with various things. Like getting someone to be in front of the camera. Since Tim already got booked by Nintendo he wasn’t an option. Other people we knew from back in the day at Giga also weren’t available (turns out August is a month where people like to go on holiday, who would have thought?). That problem was solved by having Max and later on also Patricia.

Then there was the planning stage on what hardware we needed to actually be able stream live from on the go. First we needed a notebook and secondly a camera. Getting a camera was no issue, all it had to have was a firewire out, a simple job for a rental. The notebook was provided by Dell UK. A toughbook-like XFR XT2, which had its very own issues as it turned out during the week.

After that it was a question of what Internet connection we were going to use. We first decided to go with 3G but then decided to talk to the guys at NetCologne, who have a wifi network all over the place at koelnmesse. They were nice enough to give us almost exclusive access to part of their network. (Now we also know a “secret” way to get a good connection even during packed days like Saturdays, when everyone is at the convention.) This way we had great up- and download speeds that were at 2 MBit/s or above across the board.

Before heading to the convention we did some testing what settings we were going to use, think bitrates and resolution. We decided on a rather low resolution to be able to stream without getting too many dropped frames. I prefer a low-ish resolution to a stuttering high-res stream that only refreshes every once in a while.

Audio was also a rather high priority. We used wireless mics by Sennheiser and Shure. The SM58 was a great choice there. Cheap, good sound and practically indestructible.

A problem we first ran into were the FireWire cables that tend to fall out of cameras, even without moving them. But there’s nothing a nice set of ductape can’t fix. Don’t ever leave home without it! The notebook connector was rather tight so we didn’t have to tape it down there.

Walking across the show floor might however get you into trouble when using wifi (or whatever wireless connection you use). This is especially true when you enter a closed booth, like -for example- Blizzard’s Diablo 3 booth. Sorry for that guys…

There are just some things you cannot test before going live with such a small team. It was usually just me and a guy in front of the camera. A small note on the team thing: be sure to know your people and that you can depend on each and every one of them. Basically living on the show floor for a week usually isn’t the best time to discuss about every small thing.

But back to the technology. Gamescom was only a trial to figure out what is possible and where the problems will happen. We have learnt a lot during these ~7 days alone! These things will provide important information about future projects.

For example we are thinking about doing this with a number of small camera teams and do live switching between these people. Also integrating the viewers better is a high priority for upcoming events. Think: IRC, Twitter, etc. It was already planned to be better than it was this time but it couldn’t be done because of the team thing I mentioned above.

But you know the best thing? There were so many camera teams at gamescom, but I haven’t heard of any who did/thought about doing a live stream. Of course lame stream media could have rolled in with their millions of Euros and cover it live in HD and whatnot, but they didn’t.

We did this whole week on our own dime and didn’t spend a percent of what they would have spent for an hour. We used off the shelf hardware with the support of companies like NetCologne and Dell. The support of companies like this makes it possible for small startups to do what they do best: innovate and disrupt, in this case big media.

I’d like to thank all the guys and girls involved in this project! It was a great experience and hopefully not the last event like this…