I intended to write this while on a 4 hour layover on my way back from PAX South but the night before we left, promptly got a big ol’ case of PAX Pox. I’m still hacking up my lungs as I write but it’s time to stop putting this off.
When I wrote my last post about Mixer’s issues, I expected to publish it, go to PAX and never have it brought up again. Boy is that not what happened. It started making the rounds among other Mixer streamers, then partners, then I got a ton of great comments, then it got picked up by OnMSFT and then a staff member invited me to talk to them about it at the booth. That conversation turned into 3, including with people who have been with the organization since it was called Beam. I went into the show very apprehensive about its future and my place in it and came out feeling that while they still have a lot to do and prove, that things have a chance of finally turning around. I’d like to explain what I learned as best I can so that when people are deciding their own futures in streaming, they can hopefully have a better idea of what’s coming.
Before I begin, some ground rules. I won’t be naming the people I spoke to and while I wasn’t told anything was off limits to repeat, I will be generalizing it a bit as I’ve no interest in getting people in trouble who were generous with both their time and insider knowledge. Rest assured, I will still be conveying the weight of everything I was told. If this makes you question the trustworthiness of what I say, that’s unfortunate but those who know me can vouch for my integrity and if you read through the post, you’ll see that I don’t take every assurance at face value. Cool? Alright, let’s get rolling.
To my great surprise, I learned that not long after word of my post got around, it was forwarded to the entire Mixer team and most of them read it. I really didn’t expect that and honestly, that knowledge made me a lot more nervous. However, the conversations never felt tense, nor was I made to feel like I’d insulted anyone. I have been spun to many a time in my life and know what it sounds like. I can smell a phony a mile off and have no concerns with telling truth to power (ask my boss if you don’t believe me.) Not only did I never feel that way in my conversations, 2 of them were with people who don’t work in public facing roles and aren’t trained in such things.
The people I spoke to all said my criticisms were valid and they didn’t disagree with any of them, nor that it’s taken too long for most of them to be addressed. If there’s one thing that was very clear to me from their tone and expressions, it’s that the staff are just as frustrated as we are, particularly those who have to face the brunt of the complaints. However, we’ll break out communication issues specifically later on.
Agreement’s good and all but it doesn’t help get anything fixed. I said that the big concern many of us have isn’t just that progress on development is slow, it’s that it seems to have all but ceased. I honestly expected pushback to a lot of these things, sort of like “Well yeah but don’t forget that we’ve X, Y and Z.” That didn’t happen, not once.
From what I gathered, the main issue right now seems to be one of the Microsoft org chart. Those of you who’ve never had to work in a large company (count yourselves lucky) might not know what that is or fully understand just how slow big companies tend to move, even wildly successful ones like Microsoft. Very basically, an org chart shows where different business units or people fall within the corporate pecking order, who reports to whom and who has authority over what. In publicly traded companies, this is vital and is taken very seriously, even having potential legal ramifications. A simple org chart might look like this:
Since it’s acquisition by Microsoft, Mixer has reported under the Xbox unit, meaning that Xbox is “in charge” of Mixer, even though Mixer has their own managers. This makes sense when you first think about it. Mixer’s primarily a gaming focused streaming service and Xbox is Microsoft’s gaming division. Indeed, I’ve said before that I think Xbox head Phil Spencer is one of the best executives in the games industry right now and someone who actually gets this business and its customers.
However, upon further consideration, these two businesses are actually fairly distinctive with very different needs. Mixer needing to get everything approved by Xbox is to put it politely, inefficient. Plus I don’t know if you’ve heard but Xbox kind of has their hands full with this little thing they’ve been working on. This makes for a very slow moving operation in an industry that demands the exact opposite. I don’t need to tell you how fast the streaming world moves and even the gaming division of Microsoft isn’t built to move that fast. Console cycles are measured in years, streaming trends are measured in what feels like minutes sometimes.
Since the co-founders “left” a little while back and even a little before that, Mixer has had a new General Manager in place. She came from another large company and her role involved working with small businesses and business units that needed to adapt and become more agile. In other words, exactly what most of us think Mixer needs. She’s been head down and working away since she started and it sounds like she’s purposefully stayed out of the public light in order to focus on that. The team believes in her and also that she’s the right fit for Mixer. It was also confirmed to me what I had theorized in the linked podcast above was largely true, that being Matt and James were mostly figureheads and consultants since the acquisition and weren’t really leading anything. My understanding is that one of the new manager’s first goals is to get Mixer’s place in the org chart changed so that they’re much more in charge of their own decisions.
The latter is also how Twitch sits in relation to Amazon in their org chart. They’re a wholly owned Amazon subsidiary but operate with their own C-suite executives and leadership. They’re accountable to Amazon for their decisions but make them on their own. That’s why they’re able to move at the pace they do and it’s what I think we can all agree Mixer has needed for a long time as right now, Mixer can’t make their own decisions and has to run everything through Xbox.
This may seem like an easy change to make but in a large public company, it’s anything but. It requires tons of approvals and consultations with legal people. In a company like Microsoft, every I has to be dotted and every T crossed because if not, it can mean big problems later. Should they have done this a lot sooner? Absolutely but for various reasons, that didn’t happen at the time.
On the subject of communication, those I spoke to were also frustrated because like everything else, those have to go through Xbox as well and by the time they get approval to address a thing that’s upsetting the community, it’s already too late. I said in my last post that in the absence of a meaingful official explanation, people will substitute their own. The staff are acutely aware of that but are hamstrung by current structure and policies. One told me that several times, they’ve just wanted to go on Twitter and tell everyone what they know to quell the frustration but had to stop themselves because they knew to do so could mean their job. The reason no one responds to the UserVoice page any more? No one’s assigned that role and thus, can’t speak there in an official capacity. I told one of them that if they needed someone to fill that role, I’d happily take the job. I was only half joking.
In order to implement all the things people are asking for, they need developers and plenty of them. Microsoft does have a number of Mixer specific job postings up right now and most of them are for developers and engineers. A lot of the original developers are not there any more and Mixer is still a very small team in relation to the product they’re maintaining. Online video is also its own beast of a niche, plus it’s a buyer’s market for software engineers right now, meaning the number of open positions in the industry greatly exceeds the talent out there to fill them. Mixer is hiring and when they get some people in, they can start making bigger changes but again, all this takes time. Even in an industry that moves as fast as streaming does, the realities of software development are still present. It may sound strange but finding millions of dollars to buy over some big Twitch partners for publicity was probably a lot easier for them to do than quickly recruiting video specialized software engineers in the current market.
Some will say that too many people give Mixer a pass against the competition by saying that Twitch had such a head start over everyone else in the streaming world. I can both agree with this and not. Twitch was doing this many years before anyone else was and like it or not, that gives them a huge leg up. They were a lot bigger and more established than Mixer when Amazon bought them (which I should add, is believed by many to have been necessary because they were rapidly running out of cash) and the acquisition was structured in a way that allowed Twitch to be more nimble. Twitch has a lot of problems of its own, some of which you can argue is due to a lack of proper oversight but I don’t think anyone can deny that Microsoft treated Mixer as another product acquisition and didn’t understand what its needs or the market’s needs were when they bought it. If they did, things might look a lot different now. While that’s obviously not what happened, the vibe I universally got from those I spoke to was that the lesson has been learned and steps are being made to correct it.
I also said in my last post that Microsoft does nothing short-term. The OnMSFT article (which while I thank them for the traffic, I think was poorly written with a bad core thesis), equates Mixer to the disaster of Windows Phone. I think that’s ridiculous because if you know the history of Microsoft, you know that’s an exception and not the rule. I’m a guy who did a corporate rollout of Windows Phone once upon a time. I know first hand just what a mismanaged cluster of an otherwise great potential product that was. The people who oversaw that (including the CEO at the time) are also no longer at Microsoft. The company lost billions (some say as much as $10 billion) on Xbox before it started to turn a profit about halfway into the 360’s lifespan. Thanks to the inept launch of the Xbox One (led by another person who was shown the door shortly after), they looked almost DOA in this generation but have turned it around into a fairly strong success, despite still being a distant second to PS4. Again, this is not a company who typically does things in the short-term and to claim otherwise because of one exceptionally mishandled initiative shows a profound ignorance of their history.
Compared to both of those initiatives, Mixer is a rounding error to Microsoft’s finances. I actually think that’s a good thing because it means they can keep investing in it without irking shareholders. Everyone I spoke to told me that Phil Spencer and CEO Satya Nadella regularly visit the team and do town halls with them. They said both executives strongly believe in Mixer and its potential and sees it becoming a serious competitor in the space.
Consider as well the Mixer booth itself at PAX South if you were there. I went to the show all 3 days and even on the Sunday when the floor was oddly quiet, the Mixer booth was heaving. Not just with partners and staff but just show goers who wanted to see what it was about, meet streamers and learn about it. It was often wall-to-wall people. For all its problems, that there was this much interest speaks volumes to me.
If your first response to all of this is to go “That’s not a good enough reason when partners and non-partners alike have been screaming and begging for answers for over a year.”, I agree with you. The candor and lack of spin in my conversations with Mixer staff was both surprising and very welcome but don’t think I’m also taking it all on face value. They have a lot to prove and despite making promises for years in some cases, have failed to deliver on many of them. I do believe that things have the potential to be different this time and that the core issues behind their sluggishness are being addressed but the proof will be in the pudding and there’s no pudding yet.
Many people have already called me a fanboy and that I’ve bought into spin because I didn’t come out of my conversations more cynical than when I went in. I think that’s a bullshit way to look at things and that those who make such accusations have already made up their minds and just want validation. I’ve put many hours of my time into this to try to impact change for the benefit of everyone. We shouldn’t need a lesson on the inner workings of Microsoft to know why Mixer has issues but knowledge is power and I’m attempting to provide that. I’m not a partner (if anything, being this open about my criticisms has hurt my chances of becoming one) and don’t plan to be a career streamer, yet here I am. I could have kept my mouth shut but things don’t get better by saying nothing and frankly, what I’ve done seems to have made a greater impact then just screaming on Twitter, which I used to be well known for as well. None of these staff members had to talk to me and I didn’t expect them to but they came to me, I didn’t seek them out. Hell, if anything, more people leaving Mixer means less competition for me but I’m trying my best to encourage people to hang on just a bit longer, not just for my benefit but because I think it will be better for everyone in the end.
I’m not here to tell you what platform you should be on, whether you should consider abandoning Mixer or whether you should be upset. I think everyone is right to be upset about the platform’s stagnation and frankly, even if the organizational changes happen, they’ve got to motor and soon if they want to right the ship. We’ve all been way more patient than we should have had to be and I can assure you, no one is more aware of that than the Mixer team themselves. They’re out of a job if Mixer fails and they’re not hanging around because they expect it to.
If that’s still not enough for you, then here’s my own position as bluntly as I can put it: Despite the frustrations of the last while, I personally believe in light of my conversations that 2020 is the year Mixer will get its shit together and start moving forward. I said in my last post that I’d quit streaming before I start over somewhere else and I hold to that. This year will be my 10th year of doing Extra Life. It’s an important milestone for me and one I intend to see through. That gives Mixer the rest of 2020 to show me that change is being made for the better. If we go through this year and things are still stuck in the mud after Extra Life, that’s the time I will likely hang up streaming for good and most certainly, many will head out the door before I do.
I’m a nobody in the grand scheme of Mixer. I’m fully aware of that and I don’t pretend to share the same struggles as those who are trying to make a living at this. However, if you’ve been grinding like I have to build a community and you know how hard it is to start over again, I do truly believe that a bit more patience will be rewarded and that things are different this time. I don’t have an incentive to tell you that, it’s what I believe. I might be wrong and you don’t have to take my word for it but if you’re considering leaving Mixer, I would suggest at least just multi-streaming for now and see what happens before jumping ship entirely. If you think differently, I welcome your comments below and am always up for a respectful debate.
Mixer, the ball’s in your court now. Don’t fuck it up.