Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

Exercise Your Rights

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By Dan Moren

How to stream games with your friends (and other things too)

Even in this age of social distancing, we still need human contact. As someone who’s worked from home for 14 years–and lived alone for much of that time–I’m more than familiar with having to come up with ways to stay in touch with friends even when we can’t get together.

One thing we’ve been doing over at The Incomparable–in addition to playing a whole ton of D&D–is playing games online that we stream live for our listeners.

A few people have asked what my setup is for these games, in particular the Jackbox sessions we occasionally do, so I’m going to run down how I make it work. Note that my method is a little complex and very specific to me, and there are definitely other–and probably easier–ways to make it work. Where possible, I’ll mention alternatives, but this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive examination–just an explanation of how I do it.

Play

Jackbox Games’s Jackbox Party Packs are collections of delightful little mini games, usually intended for a bunch of folks clustered around a single game console. But they adapt pretty well to online play, thanks in large part to the fact that, besides the person hosting the game, other players need only access to a browser, regardless of whether it’s on a computer, tablet, or phone.

Jackbox Games

I own five of the Jackbox Party Packs on my Xbox One, which is definitely not the ideal setup for streaming with friends who aren’t on Xbox. (Microsoft actually has pretty solid built-in tools to stream games via Mixer, which it now owns. If you’re only playing with people on that platform, it’s by far the easiest and best option. There’s also a Twitch app on Xbox which is reportedly pretty easy to use as well.)

However, I’m streaming with folks who are on a variety of different devices, so I use my iMac to stream. Again, it would be much easier if I simply owned the Jackbox games, which are available on most common platforms, on my Mac. But I’m bought in on the Xbox, so that’s what I have to work with.

Capture

So, the first challenge is getting those games from my Xbox onto my Mac, so I can, in fact, stream them. For this I use an older version of an Elgato capture box, the Game Capture HD. The one I own1 isn’t for sale anymore, but frankly, that’s fine because the newer models that Elgato sells are better. If I were buying a new box today, I’d pick up the HD60 S+, which supports up to 1080p at 60 frames per second. (There’s a 4K version that is considerably more expensive, as well as internal capture cards which would require a PC or a Mac Pro.)

Most of these capture devices work on roughly the same principle: plug the HDMI from your game console into one end, plug an HDMI cable from the other end back into the TV, so the capture box essentially sits in the middle, intercepting the signal. Then plug a USB cable into your Mac, fire up Elgato’s Game Capture HD software (or some other supported software) and you’ll be able to see the game in a window on your computer.

Game Capture HD

One of the downsides to having an older version of this hardware is that my only option on the software side is Elgato’s program–third-party software no longer supports or recognizes my game capture box. So I’m locked in to using Game Capture HD which, while serviceable, has its limitations. (More on which in a bit.)

Share

Okay, so I’ve got the game on my computer. Now to share it with my fellow players so they can see the screen while we’re playing. Like most of the world, I’ve been using video conferencing software Zoom to keep in touch with friends and family as well as recording podcasts. (This is what we’ve been using for Total Party Kill on The Incomparable for a while now.) That said, you don’t strictly need everybody to broadcast their camera for a game like this; as long as your players can see the screen, they only need to provide audio.

However, you do need communication software that supports a) multiple people and b) screen sharing. Zoom works well for this, and it does have a free plan, though it’s not without its limitations. (Most crucially that it has a 40-minute limit on group calls.) Skype should work as well, although, full disclosure, I haven’t tried it in this workflow.

Zoom also has the benefit of providing software that lets you not only share your screen but also your computer’s audio, which in games like Jackbox, which have a lot of audio cues (and amusing dialogue), is pretty necessary. You could also use a piece of software like Rogue Amoeba’s Loopback to create a virtual interface that meshes the game audio with your own mic input (assuming you’re participating in the game and not just hosting it).

Zoom screen capture
Zoom lets you share one window off your screen; just remember to check the “Share computer sound” box if you need audio.

A few notes about using Zoom: first, you may need to configure it to show both your screen and your camera (again, assuming that you want or need your camera as well). Play with the Preferences > General settings for Dual Displays or Side-by-Side Mode if it doesn’t seem to be working at first. For other systems, you might need to rely on a piece of software like CamTwist, which can let you merge multiple video sources into one.

Second, since I’m sharing the Game Capture HD window, it means my players also see the sidebar of controls in that app. Though you can hide it using the View menu, it automatically–and annoyingly–appears whenever you mouse over the window. You could in theory fullscreen Game Capture HD, which also hides it in a separate space, but then you can’t see the game on the same screen as your video chat, and Zoom’s screen sharing seems to pause when you’re sharing from a separate space. Alternatively, you could capture just a portion of your screen, but be aware that if you move the window, another app overlaps on the game screen, or you use something like Mission Control, it will disrupt your screen sharing.

And do be aware that, no matter what you do, both the capture and sharing via Zoom add some degree of delay to the game. While this is generally okay in games like Jackbox, it’s not really suitable for anything that requires fast reaction times. (Even in Jackbox, it’s worth turning on the Extended Timer options most of the games have, and reminding your players that the countdown timer they see is probably a few seconds behind the actual time.)

Stream

The game is coming into your Mac and all your players can (hopefully) see it. Now, how do you get your game out to the masses? Well, Elgato’s Game Capture HD does have built-in streaming that works pretty well and even allows you to layer over game commentary…and wouldn’t it be nice if that were the answer. Unfortunately, since Game Capture HD serves as both the input and output, trying to pipe audio from the game to the Zoom call, and then send it out again results in a whole lot of feedback.2

So instead, I fell back to another piece of software that we use for TPK: Telestream’s Wirecast. Wirecast is an extremely powerful piece of software that allows you to stream to one (or more) places, including YouTube and Twitch.

Wirecast
Wirecast is a powerful–but pricey–piece of streaming software.

I use Wirecast’s screen capture features to grab the Game Capture HD window, just as I do in Zoom. You may remember that I had problems with capturing the sidebar for my players–the good news is that Wirecast makes it easy to scale and crop the screen capture, so that only the portion of the screen you want is sent to the stream.

That said, Wirecast is very expensive, especially if you’re just looking for a way to relax with your friends. While perhaps not as user friendly, the open source OBS Studio offers a lot of the same features for free, and is probably a much better choice for most folks.

There’s also a service named Streamyard that some folks have recommended; it has both paid and free plans, though the latter has more limitations. I don’t have any personal experience with it, so can’t speak to its utility.

Conclusion

Not everybody needs all of the above steps. Some might just want to get together on a chat program like Zoom or Skype and play a game. Others might want to stream a Zoom chat live. You can mix and match these various steps to get the parts and tools you need.

The most important thing about all of this is that it’s a great way to bring people together. Even in this time of isolation, the best way to deal with these things is together.


  1. Originally purchased by my former employer when there was no way to get high quality captures of the Apple TV interface without this kind of hardware. 
  2. It’s possible there is a simpler way to do this using Loopback or some other audio routing software, but I definitely haven’t figured it out yet. 

[Dan Moren is the official Dan of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]

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