Legendary Digital Networks (LDN) has created a new subscription streaming and video-on-demand service, Alpha, featuring geek-focused programming from Geek & Sundry and Nerdist. It’s due to launch Thursday, November 17th, 2016 (a delay from the original date of November 3rd). You can find the press release and video here, but if you’re reading this you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the service already.
You are also probably aware there has been controversy. There are a lot of opinions being voiced about the new service, few of them positive, some in the wait-and-see area. I have a pretty dim view of the service myself. In fact, I see it as pretty toxic. I’m writing this post to my fellow community members to convince them to steer away from Alpha.
Let’s start by talking about the fan community, because flagrant disregard thereof has been one of the unifying themes in so many of the problems with Alpha.
Fans of Geek & Sundry form a complex Venn diagram of different fandoms that often overlap substantially. For the purpose of discussion I’ll refer to “Team Hooman” mostly, the community that formed around Felicia Day and Ryon Day’s personal Twitch streams. It’s the group I most closely associate with, and I consider it to be the most pure representation of the core values that Geek & Sundry was founded on: Inclusivity, kindness, charity, promoting mental health, fighting bullying, and encouraging creative expression.
Team Hooman includes people of all income levels, religions, political persuasions, and countries.
It also includes many people who work at Geek & Sundry.
I’ll be revisiting the concept of community throughout many of my arguments.
Things That Might Get Fixed
There have been numerous criticisms of Alpha, but let’s start with the ones with the greatest potential to be corrected in the near future. I don’t want to dwell on these too much because they may become non-issues in the future, but they won’t necessarily fix what’s really wrong with Alpha.
It’s a brand new web site. Brand new web sites have bugs and limited features. Among those I’ve seen during the Alpha preview:
- No full-screen option on the video
- No volume controls (!)
- No ability to resize the video to accommodate different screen sizes
- Poor video resolution and quality compared to Twitch
- Up until recently, the video player was Chrome only
- Chat color scheme and font sizing is difficult to read
- General usability could use a lot of polish or outright redesign (I could write a whole post just on UX issues)
There are likely many more, but I’ve only spent a short time on the site. The overall feel is unpolished and bare.
There was some legitimate anger over the terms-of-use wording being predatory. I don’t want to make it out like this isn’t important — it’s critical! — but it’s in the process of being fixed, thanks to some eagle-eyed community members who are keeping LDN honest. I don’t have a lot to add to the discussion, being not very well versed in such matters, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. It’s a big deal.
Also in the fixable problems department, there is the $5/month price point, the free 6 months of Alpha for Twitch subscribers that many people missed out on (the announcement was made the day after the cutoff date), and the delayed YouTube release schedule for Alpha-premiered shows. I’ll touch on some of these points again from another angle later on, but they are things that could be fixed. If enough people balk about missing out on the free 6 months maybe they’ll have another promotion. Maybe the price will be lowered. Maybe viewers will only have to pay one subscription to Twitch or Alpha to benefit from both. Maybe TableTop will be released to YouTube days later instead of months later. I’m just throwing out ideas here. But they are things LDN could change in response to public reception. I contend none of them would truly fix Alpha, so I’m focusing less on these issues for now.
The Larger Problems With Alpha
Now let’s move onto the problems with fewer easy solutions, the problems at the root of Alpha’s existence. Some of these things could take months or years to correct. With some things the damage has already been done and can’t be corrected without a time machine. Some things would require a fundamental change in intent and motivation behind the entire endeavor.
Effects on Geek & Sundry’s People
Alpha is affecting people in all levels and roles at Geek & Sundry. As they are as much a part of our community as the viewers, it’s important to note what is going on with our friends.
(And this is a good time to differentiate between Geek & Sundry and LDN. LDN owns Geek & Sundry, and Project Alpha is an LDN initiative. Geek & Sundry is involved, but they are not steering this.)
Active fans of Geek & Sundry couldn’t help but notice a lot of attrition from the company this year, with a rapid escalation toward the end of summer.
We’ve lost two show runners, a social media manager, a director of content, a general manager, a marketer, and more. This is a very small company; that is a lot of departures.
As with any departure from a job, it’s generally not possible to get the whole story. You have to read between the lines.
Some of the people who left indicated they had no next thing lined up. Three of the major departures occurred within a span of two weeks. I think it’s fair to say they enjoyed what they did, enjoyed working with one another, and were deeply dedicated to the community of fans, so sudden departures without explanations are weird. Even a dream job may need to be abandoned for something that fits ones goals better, but the timing and urgency and sheer number of people is too strange to dismiss.
Were they fired or did they resign out of dissatisfaction? I’m inclined to believe the latter. The tone of these announcements struck me as one of regret and disappointment, like that of someone who has finally accepted defeat after fighting a long, losing battle. Firings generally aren’t announced publicly at all; the person just disappears. Relations between present and past employees still seem warm, not strained like a firing might cause.
The basic fact is that a lot of core people are now gone, and the timing coincided with Alpha being ramped up. Whether you think LDN fired these folks or they left on their own, it doesn’t paint Alpha’s effect on the employees that we love in a very positive light. Either Alpha pushed them out or aspects of the initiative were too unsavory to stick around for.
People I care about were forced out of jobs they enjoyed, the shows I like are no longer being influenced by those people, and the changes that are taking place in the company are clearly incompatible with these people staying. As most of the damage has been done already, it’s hard to see this as a fixable issue.
One of the more unpopular moves was to shift the Twitch broadcast day from 3-9pm back to 12-6pm. This was to make room for Alpha to broadcast during prime time. This change was incompatible with some hosts’ day jobs and other commitments, so some very popular shows had to be canceled as a result. It’s unclear if this was the only reason some shows were canceled, but the end result is a lot of beloved programming disappeared, and some beloved hosts could no longer continue hosting.
As a testament to the hosts’ and crew’s commitment to the community, some extraordinary efforts were made to continue some shows, with Gather Your Party being brought back at its original time, and Concession Stand being rebranded as CineVerse and picked up by HyperRPG’s Twitch channel. But Alpha’s existence shouldn’t be causing so much difficulty for a successful channel to simply survive.
The people that make the Twitch channel possible are the hardest working people you’ll ever meet. Take a look at this thread by former showrunner Lucas for a breakdown of the technical challenges of hosting Critical Role, the most popular show on the Twitch channel. They work incredibly long hours and are understaffed. Now Alpha equipment has been added into the mix, which only complicates and overburdens them further, causing more broadcast issues and longer hours. Alpha continually encroaches and bleeds resources from the Twitch channel.
Among the big names at Geek & Sundry are Felicia Day (actress, founder), Wil Wheaton (actor and host of the popular prerecorded show TableTop), and Matt Mercer (voice actor and host of the live D&D show Critical Role). Additionally, Chris Hardwick (actor, comedian) is the founder of Nerdist, the other brand associated with Alpha.
What’s remarkable isn’t what these folks are saying; it’s what they aren’t saying. There was a press release in spring with some short perfunctory quotes, and that’s it. These people have said virtually nothing since then. When they’ve said anything they’ve danced around mentioning Alpha at all, and when they do it comes out as, “I can’t really share my personal feelings on this whole thing” or something similarly restrained.
In the corporate world, if you’re excited about something there’s nothing keeping you from saying so.
If you have mixed feelings and you’re a professional you focus on the positive. You say, “It’s got some things I think you’ll really like [and some I really hate but I’m keeping that to myself].”
And if you have literally nothing good to say then you stay quiet.
These folks are staying quiet.
It might seem unusual for a fan community to be concerned with employees of an entertainment company, particularly those behind the scenes. But Geek & Sundry is not just any company, and Team Hooman is not just any fan community. We do care about these people. We respect these people and their opinions. We know they’re as committed to us as we are to them. What is bad for them is bad for us, and vice versa.
Twitch Channel Versus Alpha
Alpha is sometimes described as living alongside Twitch. “The Twitch channel isn’t going anywhere,” they’ve reassured. But in every competition for resources, time slots, personnel, and promotion the Twitch channel loses by a landslide, so this description seems incongruous with reality. It isn’t a huge speculative leap to say the Twitch channel is being kept on life support just long enough to transplant its audience to the preferred service.
Since Alpha is being groomed as the successor to the Twitch channel it’s useful to compare the two. Looking at both the specific Geek & Sundry channel and the Twitch service as a whole is informative. Alpha is not only worse for viewers but for Geek & Sundry and LDN as well.
The problems I listed earlier are Alpha-only. Twitch is already pretty technically solid. The issues that tend to happen with Twitch can usually be attributed to general internet problems or software/hardware in the studio, not with Twitch itself, so those would be problems for Alpha as well. The Twitch service was built from the ground up to broadcast game streams, has evolved to serve that goal, and has done a pretty good job at it.
It may seem unfair to compare a brand new site to one so established. But that’s exactly the point: why replace something that works very, very well with a homegrown solution that will invariably suffer lots of bugs and incomplete functionality for a long time before (if) it catches up? The only way that works is if the new site has fundamental advantages over the established site, which Alpha simply does not.
A compelling argument for going your own way is to have more flexibility and customization. Truth be told, this is a possibility I was excited about way back during the spring announcement. Twitch is great, but wouldn’t it be better if you could incorporate things into the site that support the shows and interactions specific to what you’re broadcasting? You could have polls appear in the sidebar! You could have even more custom emotes! Have better moderation tools! Have different kinds of customizable flair on users! Who knows?
So the very first disappointment that greeted me during my pre-release tour was discovering video and chat are being provided by a third-party, general-purpose widget stuck into the page. The widget is by SmileTime, which itself has only been in beta since August of this year. This isn’t a rich, established, customizable solution. It’s a minimum viable product. I am a software engineer, and I’ve integrated with a wide gamut of third-party vendors, and early adoption is not an asset. Issues take forever to iron out. You’re at the mercy of their development cycle, which you must mesh in with your own. Things move slowly. If the vendor has lots of other customers then your needs and feature requests are in competition with everyone else’s. This beta product is built on another beta product. It’s a foundation of sand.
SmileTime feels like something chosen because it checked off some feature requirements on paper. “Video: check. Chat: check. The video area displays video. The chat area allows you to type messages. What more is there, right?” This is not an improvement and fails to grasp the subtleties of what makes interacting on Twitch so fun and inviting.
One of Alpha’s selling points was that Critical Role would have extra Alpha-only stuff like character sheets and animations. “Hey, that could be quite cool. So like you can page through the different characters’ sheets and stuff?” Oh, no no no. These extras are simply overlays in the video stream. They’re added in the studio. Alpha is getting a feed with extras mixed in. A better way of saying this: the Twitch channel is getting a special feed without these extras mixed in to make it less appealing. One of the few things Alpha has going for it has nothing to do with Alpha technology.
The Twitch community at large is a culture of cross-promotion. If you aren’t broadcasting right now you can host someone else’s channel. It’s an endorsement of another channel and helps boost their visibility within the Twitch algorithms. People who watch you will likely check out other broadcasters you host. And it means your own channel is a nice place to stop by even if you aren’t broadcasting. Your viewers can stick around and chat with each other while watching another channel together. Geek & Sundry often hosts the personal streams of its on-air talent, thus getting free additional programming to pad out its broadcast day and increasing visibility of hosts that viewers might want to come back and see more of.
Similarly, when a Twitch broadcaster ends their stream there is a common practice of “raiding” another channel that is still live. The broadcaster tells their viewers to go raid the other channel, paste some friendly greeting that announces where they’re coming from, and everyone goes and joins that other channel. It’s fun and a nice way for broadcasters to support each other.
Then there’s Twitch itself, promoting channels on the front page and making channels easy to find by searching for games that are being played.
All of this leads to lots of casual outside traffic. You have your regulars, but you also get interlopers who can drop in and discover something new and maybe stick around a while.
Alpha loses out on all of this. No hosts. No raids. No discoverability.
Furthermore, the barrier for checking out the channel is now much higher. You’re either a subscriber or you’re not. How many Twitch viewers have casually popped in, not knowing what Geek & Sundry is about, liked what they see, and eventually joined? You don’t have to subscribe to just check it out. In fact, you don’t even need to create a Twitch account if you just want to watch without participating in chat (“lurking”). Whether Alpha has some kind of promotional free trial or not, even creating an account for a single channel will be too much bother for some potential viewers.
The Twitch channel is a booth at a bustling amusement park; Alpha is a walled garden in the countryside. The battle to attract an audience will be a tough one, especially in a market currently glutted with subscription VOD/streaming services to choose from.
There’s that word again: community. Twitch has it in spades, especially in the G&S channel. Alpha might form a community, but I argue it’s doing little to preserve the one that exists.
Take things like chat. On the Twitch channel there is one chat. It’s there 24/7, whether a show is on or not. In fact, some people hang out there during off hours just to talk with other members of the community (“Team No Stream”). Alpha has chat for the stream, but it’s presently inaccessible unless a live program is airing. There is a separate general chat hidden on the side bar, but it’s an awkward solution. Most people will be in the live chat during a show, so I guess move over there during the show then go back to general chat after? This wasn’t thought through, and is likely due to the sealed box that is the SmileTime component.
The egalitarian nature of the broadcaster-viewer relationship also vanishes with Alpha. The G&S Twitch channel feels like ours. Team Hooman is a generous lot, and we’ve donated everything from money to equipment to pizza to the channel. Fans visit the studio and appear as guests on shows. Hosts watch chat and interact with us. It feels like a project by our friends, because it is! When I met a lot of the hosts and crew at San Diego Comic Con I was impressed how many of them thanked me for watching and for being part of the community. They see us as partners and equals who just happen to be on the other side of the screen. It’s a deeply personal and enriching relationship that goes both ways.
Alpha is not a project by friends. It is not a community effort. Alpha is there to extract more money from what is perceived to be a lucrative viewer base. The egalitarian nature is nowhere to be found.
Virtually every medium Team Hooman congregates around is inclusive. Forums, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch. Anyone can join us. Alpha, on the other hand, is for paying subscribers only. Sorry, friends who are working three jobs or struggling college students.
This stratifies the community into haves-and-have-nots. Those of us who can pay will enjoy a communal viewing experience. Those who can’t have to wait for it to be posted on YouTube, if it’s posted on YouTube, where they can watch it alone. Sure, they’ll get the content eventually, but they’ve effectively been shunned from the community. They cannot chat with the rest of us. They can’t watch and react and share in the experience.
Twitch rewards those who subscribe, but it’s never a requirement for basic participation. Yes, you miss out on custom emotes. Yes, you miss out on VODs and have to wait for YouTube. Yes, you cannot chat during certain high-volume shows. But for the most part you’re there with us. You are not separated from your friends. You can watch the rebroadcast as a group. You’re part of us.
Why You Shouldn’t Join
Alpha is bad for Geek & Sundry. Alpha is bad for hosts. Alpha is bad for the crew. Alpha is bad for viewers who are tight on money. Alpha is bad for community cohesiveness. And the sad irony is Alpha is even bad for LDN.
If you consider yourself part of this community, I ask you to consider not supporting Alpha. The most direct action is to not pay for a subscription. Furthermore, I would ask you to avoid even signing in, even if you benefit from the free 6 month promotion. They’ll be watching their viewership numbers; don’t add to them. Most everything shown on Alpha will be on YouTube later or is simulcast on Twitch at the same time. It may require patience to wait for your favorite shows, but you’ll be sending an important message.
Conversely, do support everything else to the extent you can. Watch Geek & Sundry on the Twitch channel. Subscribe if you’re able (and if you’re an Amazon Prime member you can use your free Twitch Prime subscription). Tip with “bits”, which go directly to the hosts and crew. Support their personal streams. If you can’t support financially you can support by retweeting and promoting your favorite shows.
And get the word out that Alpha isn’t good for the community.