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DF Weekly: Live stream quality can be awful - and it should be better

Tips and recommendations based on our experiences.

This week's DF Direct Weekly is what you might call a 'come down' episode. After the highs of the Sony State of Play, Summer Games Fest and the best Xbox Showcase in years, we take things a little more slowly - though we do spend a fair amount of time looking at Ubisoft Forward. While the gaming content gets plenty of commentary, it's actually the quality of the live streaming presentation itself that we really take issue with. Why did it look so bad?

For years now, digital showcases have had a problem: the state of live streaming technology on YouTube. Low bit-rates, low resolutions, inconsistent frame-rates, terrible macroblocking. It got to the point where we'd need to watch the content twice - first to get the news via the live stream, then secondly to check out the individually uploaded trailers which looked an order of magnitude better from a quality perspective. The good news is that things are improving. Streaming 4K at 60fps with decent bit-rate is now possible. We saw it with the Xbox Showcase. Even Summer Games Fest streamed at 4K, even though it looked like nearest neighbour upscaling of 1080p content. In both cases, we're seeing genuine improvement over their 2023 presentations.

However, Ubisoft Forward was a retrograde step. In fact, it featured just about every poor practice we've seen when it comes to live streaming new games. The first time I watched it I was shocked and when we consider the amount of money it takes to make a game like Star Wars Outlaws or Assassin's Creed Shadows, the concept that these titles should look so bad during a major live streaming event is almost inconceivable, so what happened and how can things improve?

The new DF Direct Weekly sees the return of Rich Leadbetter, alongside John Linneman and Alex Battagalia at the mics.Watch on YouTube
  • 0:00:31 Introduction
  • 0:02:29 News 01: Star Wars Outlaws demo reaction!
  • 0:28:42 News 02: Assassin’s Creed Shadows unveiled
  • 0:46:55 News 03: Clarifying the Gears of War cinematic trailer
  • 0:55:05 News 04: Epic Games Store leaks upcoming games
  • 1:01:05 News 05: Riven demo released
  • 1:08:59 Supporter Q1: Has any console generation been more boring than this one?
  • 1:13:43 Supporter Q2: Was Microsoft showing Series X or PC footage at their games showcase?
  • 1:20:20 Supporter Q3: Is delaying a physical release the best option for modern games?
  • 1:27:06 Supporter Q4: Will you make an updated PC Gaming on a Budget video?
  • 1:34:32 Supporter Q5: Do you have ambitions for growing your audience?

First of all, live streaming revolves around real-time video encoding. The source computer talking to YouTube is encoding video in a fast, none-too-efficient manner. Then YouTube needs to decode that content and encode it - again, in real-time, with minimal latency. Real-time encoding diminishes video quality in a way that offline encoding does not. Secondly, Ubisoft streamed at 1080p resolution at 60 frames per second. YouTube is notoriously stingy with bandwidth at full HD resolution, resulting in awful artefacting. There is now 4K functionality, which doesn't fully solve the real-time encoding issue but certainly mitigates it, thanks to much higher levels of bandwidth, which translates into superior image quality.

However, the Ubisoft stream had other issues beyond image quality. In the stream, Star Wars Outlaws had jerky camera movements, dropped frames and even screen-tearing. Two issues seem to be at play here. First of all, the egregious tearing seemed to be an artefact introduced either by the source computer tasked with the live stream or else within the live streaming process itself. Take a look at the separately uploaded trailer and there is no tearing, so something amiss happened not related to the quality of the source asset. What made it far worse for me as a viewer coming to the show late is that the GameSpot rendition of the event was the number one search result for 'Ubisoft Forward 2024' meaning that initially I was watching a second generation version of the stream, which looked truly horrendous.

The stuttering camera and dropped frames in the Outlaws trailer, though? That's something different. We can only speculate here, but we've seen these issues before and if we had to put money on it, it would be on Ubisoft running the PC version and using a technology like Nvidia Share (aka Shadowplay) to record footage. The fact that the trailer itself tops out at 1440p resolution is also indicative. Regardless, the point is that Nvidia Share grabs images direct from video memory at the frame-rate you specify, but doesn't accurately reflect the pacing of the output - exacerbated if the game's performance level is higher and/or lower than the recording speed. Outlaws seems to have been captured at 1440p60, while the game looks to be running above and below that frame-rate resulting in inconsistent movement and genuine performance drops.

Assuming it's running on a PC, the answer is to deliver enough horsepower to deliver the target frame-rate at all times, turn on v-sync and capture externally. There are numerous capture card solutions, but bundled software typically uses sub-optimal real-time video encoders. Our recommendation would be to invest in an Atomos Ninja V capture box, available for $600 (and often on sale for a lot cheaper). Plug in a fast SATA SSD and hook up the source via HDMI 2.0 it'll record your game in the broadcast standard ProRes codec at 4K 60fps - playable and fast on any modern editing system. Numerous flavours of ProRes are available of varying quality with the Ninja V, but anything from standard ProRes up to ProRes HQ is fine.

Other relatively inexpensive broadcast quality solutions are available. There are even HDMI 2.1 capture cards now capable of 8K 60fps or 4K 120fps. However, all video playback platforms top out at 4K resolution at 60fps, so nothing more is needed. The key benefit is that frame-rate is capped and should be properly paced (otherwise we're talking about a software problem!) but the point is that you're using a broadcast quality device for recording that's built for the task, and is actually capturing the output of the game as users would see it. As a bonus, you also have a ready-made solution for broadcast-quality console capture too.

We have a further tip for game developers and publishers creating game trailers - even if your game runs at 30fps, we recommend capturing, editing and uploading at 60fps. It ensures that the manner in which a title presents on a standard 60Hz display is accurately mirrored in your final asset. Let's put it another way - if a game targeting 30fps has some mild frame drops, the dropped frame persists for 16.7ms on a 60fps capture. On a 30fps video, the frame drop either won't be visible at all or else it'll present for twice the duration - 33.3ms - making the game look far choppier than it actually does in person. Games totally locked to 30fps with consistent frame-pacing can look fine in a pure 30fps video. However, games with inconsistent frame-pacing at 30fps will look truly awful in a 30fps capture. Another bonus of a 60fps workflow is that YouTube allocates more bandwidth, typically delivering a better quality image.

While it's Ubisoft Forward that has prompted this article, a great many have got it wrong in the past. Until we played Starfield ourselves on Xbox Series X, every piece of media we saw - up to and including the grand presentation at Gamescom 2024 - was presented in a choppy state not representative of the game itself. And of course, Sony presented its initial reveal of PS5 gameplay in a live-streamed 1080p 30fps container with questionable video quality! Again, it was a case of waiting for the 'proper' trailers that followed to get some idea of how good the games actually looked, but first impressions matter, right?

As of right now, I'm pretty sure the best way to deliver 4K at 60fps via YouTube is via its 'Premiere' functionality - which is effectively a standard YouTube video that goes live when required and where the viewer can't skip ahead when playback begins. This is the best fit for a pre-recorded show and you should get the maximum image quality the platform is capable of. However, it's not the right format for a live event, where in that case, a native 4K 60fps stream should be mandatory at this point. I should note that Sony did switch to the Premiere format for State of Play and has benefitted immensely because of it, while Xbox seems to have demonstrated that live streaming tech has evolved. There are solutions then, along with ways to guarantee the best quality footage going into the presentation to begin with - and we hope to see better going forward.

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