Presenting the New Twitch

I’m really excited by the new site and the capabilities it offers Todd and his team of crazy writers that they never had before.

It’s been over a week since I last posted anything on Opus, but I haven’t been lazy. Far from it, in fact. For the past few days, I’ve been working feverishly to get the new Twitch up and running, and I’m very pleased to say that, as of today, it’s live — check it out!

Obviously, the first thing you’ll notice is that the site looks completely different. For example, the redesigned site is now optimized for 1024×768 monitors. One thing that I tried to do with the new design was use some of the tricks I’d read about concerning grid-based layouts, specifically Cameron Moll’s advice concerning 960px-wide layouts and their grids. The finished product deviates somewhat from those guidelines, but the emphasis on keeping the design as grid-like as possible was of a huge benefit, and an approach I plan on referring back to as much as possible.

The obvious benefit of switching to a wider base design width is that, naturally, you have more space to play with. At least, in theory you do. The reality is that you never have as much space as you think you do. In this case, I had to figure out how to work in all of the necessary banner ads, which require all kinds of devoted space for them and them alone.

Banner ads are tricky little bastards. On the one hand, you want them to be as unintrusive as possible, so that they don’t shout at the users or distract them from what they’re really there for — which, in Twitch’s case, is an insane amount of cult, indie, and foreign film coverage (like the recent announcement of the Midnight Madness line-up for this year’s TIFF). But on the other hand, they do pay the bills and there are contracts and whatnot that must be followed.

I think the finished site struck a nice balance. Only three banner ads are displayed on the site at any given time — a 728×90, a 300×250, and a 160×600. The 300×250 was a new one, and in some ways the most problematic to work with. My initial design for the site was a three column affair, and it looked pretty sharp (if I do say so myself). Unfortunately, there was no way to work in the 300×250 in a way that wasn’t really annoying, and so the return to the original two column layout, albeit in a significantly redone manner.

Some folks have described the new design as “OS X”-ish, which I can see (and in my book, is a complement). While the previous design had two color schemes, the new one only has a dark scheme (for now), with a few highlight colors. I’m still working on some ways to subtly work in a bit more color, but the overall darkness lends the design a sleekness and modernity.

Another difference from the previous version was a downplaying of the primary site navigation. Whereas before it had been a fairly prominent thing, the primary site navigation has been minimized in the new design (it’s located directly below the 300×250 ad in the left menu). While this seems like a big no-no, especially coming from someone like me who tends to be fairly anal in these matters, the new design instead places more emphasis on the search engine, which runs a whole lot faster now. As does the rest of the site.

Which brings me to the biggest change of all.

Previously, Twitch was running on Movable Type, and a fairly older one at that. Which worked well enough initially. But Twitch has experienced a tremendous amount of growth (with over 10,000 articles to date), and MT just didn’t scale very well.

Enter ExpressionEngine. As of today, Twitch is now running on EE, a CMS that I have become increasingly enamored with over the last year or so. Many of the things that first attracted me to EE were reasons why Twitch is now an EE-powered site: flexible templating system (love those embeds!), completely dynamic publishing system (no more site rebuilds — yay!), flexible data structures, custom fields, and very importantly, its modular nature.

Before, Twitch consisted of several systems loosely stitched together: MT for the blog, SMF for the forums, plus a couple of custom systems that I created for mastheads and banner ads. Now, all of the Twitch — the blogs, the forums, the mastheads, the galleries — are all running on ExpressionEngine. Which makes it much easier to tie everything together.

For example, an author can post an entry on Twitch and, at the same time, create a topic in the forum to discuss that article, and have the two linked together. Nothing revolutionary, but it would’ve been incredibly difficult to do beforehand, if not outright impossible.

I still think that EE’s ability to create custom fields is one of its main selling points. Most CMS out there require you to put your data in a limited number of fields — summary, body, and extended text, or something similar. With EE, I can create an infinite number of fields, all tailored to hold a specific type of data. In Twitch’s case, that might be a movie title, movie director, DVD details, or movie stills.

The custom fields also came in handy for a long-request feature: the ability to switch over to a “work safe” version of the site. Since Twitch covers a wide number of cult and exploitation films, occasionally stuff gets posted that’s not exactly work-safe, like some stills from a particularly gory horror film.

Twitch authors can now flag their entries as “safe for work” or “not safe for work”. Twitch members can then decide which version of the site they want to see. This way, Twitch can still cover the films Twitch wants to, and noone has to worry about getting fired. It’s a win-win situation.

Another continued selling point of EE, at least in my book, is the ability to completely sidestep EE’s programming, and if you want to, write your own queries to pull out your data the way you want to. Is that {exp:weblog:entries} not working out for you? Well, then try using the Query module (which has become one of my best friends throughout this project).

EE can do a whole lot “out of the box”, but being able to do my own MySQL queries and pull out the data in ways that EE can’t is an absolute blessing at times.

The new Twitch isn’t finished yet. I’m still putting the finishing touches on a few more features of the new site — again, thanks to EE’s awesomeness. And it seems that, for every issue I figure out, ten more present themselves. But all of the tedious stuff — namely, migrating 10,000+ articles from MT to EE — is done, and with nary a bump or bruise.

I’m really excited by the new site and the capabilities it offers Todd and his team of crazy writers that they never had before. Which means that film buffs such as myself will be guaranteed an endless stream of info on the strange, bizarre, odd, and amazing films that would otherwise fall through the cracks. Yet again, another win-win-situation.

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