Stephen’s Sausage Roll piece & trailer review

Stephen’s Sausage Roll taught me how to overcome impostor syndrome. So I penned a piece about it (which Critical Distance recognized).

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome:

I feel like a Vegan at a sausage fest when I play Stephen’s Sausage Roll. Being out of place isn’t unfamiliar. I’ve worked at a tech company surrounded by MIT and Harvard grads when I’ve barely got through a local art school, but Stephen’s Sausage Roll questions my intellect at every juncture. I hammer my brain against its near-impossible puzzles, making almost no progress at all. It feels like a showdown against my old nemesis: Impostor Syndrome. He shouts me down at every step of the game, “You don’t belong here, dumbass!” That nasty old Impostor Syndrome isn’t going down without a fight, but I think I’m finally ready to give that old coot a swift kick to the sausage.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m ready to say uncle—again.

Continue Reading at Gamechurch.com

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A brief Stephen’s Sausage Roll trailer review:

This trailer didn’t invite me into the tensions of the play experience. While the length, tone, and single-shot stylings are admirable, you can’t gain a sense of the player’s motivation or the core verb set.  While it was wise to keep the lid on those puzzle-breakthroughs, I’m afraid that this trailer only serves as an additional gate to those on the fence of spending the $30 premium asking price. A different framing device could have showcased the smart tactical grilling required to ensure an even four-part sausage cook; and thus, helped would-be players over that final purchase decision hurdle.

6 Trailer tips: Don’t offend your audience—like Mighty No. 9

Don’t offend your audience with your game’s trailer. This shouldn’t need to be said; but Mighty No. 9’s latest trailer forces the issue. It has over ten thousand dislikes—and for good reason. Take a gander:

Don’t insult the things your audience loves

Make the bad guys cry like an anime fan on prom night,” will go down in history as the worst line of video game advertising ever used. A top YouTube commenter calls-out this line and has over 1200 likes for addressing how cringe-worthy this line is. Considering how close Mega Man fandom ties to anime, it’s unbelievable nobody at Deep Silver stopped the press and said, “Hey this might not be such a great idea?” A normal trailer production process includes screening the trailer with intended audience members. Apparently somebody dropped the ball.

There’s a key lesson here for game devs: screen your trailers with your audience members before sharing it publicly, and ask them if there’s any parts they hate. If anything goes in the “hated it” category, toss it.

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Don’t treat your audience like idiots from the 90s

“Hey you, looking at the screen, let me ask you a question: do you like awesome things that are awesome? Then you gotta play this game, dude. It’s freakin’ cool. And crazy addictive—like popping bubble wrap addictive. Check this out.”

Commit this section to memory. Never say these things. None of them. Bad. Bad.

Show, don’t tell

The narrator tells you what you’re watching  like you don’t already know. “See that’s your dash move. There’s a short dash, long dash, jump dash, spiral, slide…” You don’t need to tell anybody about any of these things. We’re watching it, “dude.”

I still don’t know enough about Mighty No. 9’s absorption boosts, but the line of dialogue about them was the only thing in the trailer that piqued my interest—and it still didn’t tell me enough about them. Voice-overs can illuminate on-screen action, but this voice-over neglects anything important and only flirts with adding anything of value.

Prune your writing until only the essentials remain

If your trailer isn’t written by somebody with games writing experience, it shows. Industry veterans know when to rely on words and when to rely on visuals; it’s why we love games with perfect tone control. Chatty trailers can be fine (especially if you’re Supergiant Games), but anything spoken or written on-screen needs to add to the experience, not state the obvious.

Don’t make your Kickstarter backers hate themselves

Kickstarter backers for Mighty No. 9 saw this trailer and immediately started having second thoughts. “I’m starting to wonder if I should feel ashamed for helping to kickstart this…” Kotaku commenter, Sman X stated. This trailer should have leveraged the values and interests of their Kickstarter backers to gain a keen sense of what resonated with their intended audience. Value your community.

Study good game trailers

Devolver’s marketing team showcases some of the very best trailer practices, so be sure to look through their work. Today’s reveal trailer for ABSOLVER is a great place to start.

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M. Joshua Cauller makes game trailers that leverage the player experience. He offers free consultations. Contact him at mjoshua@mjoshua.com, check out his work at mjoshua.com, or sign-up for his trailer tips newsletter: 


New Service: Mock-Reviews (In-Depth Assessments)

You need to predict what’s going to happen when your game goes to market, the best way to do this is to get your game in front of a professional reviewer who knows exactly what critics and players are going to think when playing the game. Testing is very valuable along the way, but testers become adept at catching mistakes, not necessarily identifying how the game will register with players (the primary goal of any good review). A solid mock can give you an edge—both for what to finish before your release, and how to plan your first patch.

You need mock reviews from somebody who knows their stuff. I know my stuff; having years of experience doing in-depth games criticism for a diversity of outlets—often receiving accolades from Kotaku and Critical Distance. I’ve written for countless outlets, honing my craft as a specialist in unique genres and as a generalist in player appeal. In the following example, you can see how this adds-up in video form:

You’ll note that this registers much more negative than the conventional review, and that’s with a singular goal in mind: catching that which can be improved. This is not a traditional review, but an in-depth assessment on what is getting in the way of an enjoyable experience. This means that every aspect of the game is considered for the benefit of play, and not surface-level criticisms like “are the graphics good?”

Achieving results in this realm means you need to go deeper into the heart of players, and sometimes need multiple voices. With additional resources, I can recruit fellow critics, devs, and gameplay professionals to acquire a diversity of perspective on your game. There’s always a diversity of opinion in critical consensus, but this approach ensures the closest comprehensive set of expectations: you’ll walk away with clear knowledge of what is working for players and what isn’t. For smaller studios and solo devs, this information is invaluable.

Contact M. Joshua for an estimate on a mock review for your game.

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Kotaku exposure galore!

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I recently published Why your video game trailer didn’t work at Kotaku, The 7 worst mistakes you can make with your game trailer at Gamasutra, and Don’t make these mistakes in your game’s trailer at r/gamedev. Each of these outlets is a re-sharing of the same article posted here on this blog, Worst Trailer Mistakes. Expansions may be in-order.

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Beyond trailers, I’m fascinated with unfolding developments in the world of games. Couch multiplayer games have something of an exposure and a adoption problem that needs to be overcome for the genre to endure, so I wrote Trench Run and the future of local multiplayer innovation over at Indie Haven. Semi-relatedly, being lost in games is usually a bad thing, but here’s a powerfully good use of lostness:  Finding Home in ‘Paws: A Shelter 2 Game at Gamechurch.

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Worst Trailer Mistakes

“What shouldn’t I do in my next trailer?” is the second-most-asked question I get (the first is “how much?“). Anybody can make their own game’s trailer, but it takes craft to do it well. Here’s some traps to avoid:

I can’t read your game (you didn’t teach me how to play)

Think from the uninformed viewer’s perspective: they don’t know how your game works or what the goals are. Use that knowledge to teach them how to make sense of what they’re seeing. You don’t need to teach them exactly how to play, but they need to understand enough that they aren’t lost.

Games typically take hours to make players feel competent in a world, but your trailer has to do that in one minute. Pre-established genres have a huge advantage here, so if you’re genre-mashing or creating something altogether new, consider this your first major hurdle: players can’t imagine themselves inside of a game they don’t understand. You may have to straight-up tell viewers what’s happening on-screen (like in the FTL trailer) — and that’s okay. Just get them there.

You failed to hook me

Forget showing your logos. You’re not LucasArts, so flashing your logo doesn’t make people say, “Oh, this is gonna be good.” Your best game moments should do that.

Give context when needed, but make sure that you hook players fast. And don’t wait thirty seconds to show the best parts of your game. Some major movie trailers now start with ten seconds of the most interesting scenes from the movie, devoid of context. That might not work for everybody, but it demonstrates a good practice of hooking viewers first.

You said too much

Don’t try to cram too much into 90-seconds. I get it. You want to make sure viewers know enough to make an informed purchasing decision. The problem is that when you say too much, you end up saying nothing at all. Leave room for imagination and mystery. Stick to a singular focus. Apply the KISS principle. Stick to your heart (your game’s true heart — that speaks to the player’s motivations).

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You forgot the player’s motivation (and just listed features instead)

Don’t just list your game’s features. Drop the bullet-lists. Show what feels good about your game — the parts that make your lips curl into a smile and make you say, “Yeahhhh!” Hyper Light Drifter grabed me because the release trailer took me to a place full of tension, secrets, and underlying mystery. I didn’t know yet how much the brutal difficulty would shape and inform that, but I knew I wanted to feel what it’s like to be in that world. Players want your game because of how it makes them feel. Show that.

Your trailer feels flat (there’s no emotional journey)

The best stories feel like a well-designed roller coaster. There’s there’s a rising action, there’s loops, a climax, and a resolve. It’s this emotional back-and-forth that makes an impression. As I stated in my full article on this topic, Ask yourself: what are the player’s emotional highs and lows in my game? If either end is lacking in the trailer, the player will subconsciously feel it. The emotional ride will “taste” bland. Think of good Thai food. It focuses on four key notes: sweet, sour, spicy, and salty. Too much of any one of those and you crave more of the other. As Kert Gartner likes to ask, “Am I creating a story with my trailer?”

Your game looks like that other game

I’m not gonna share your trailer with my friends unless it’s unique and memorable. If it looks just like something else I played, I’m closing the tab. Only showing familiar game mechanic bores viewers. Don’t bore them. That’s a death sentence.

Play-up your game’s uniqueness. Feel free to go to town. It’s okay if your trailer looks better than your game itself, because some genres just don’t play well with trailers. If your game’s all about stealth, please don’t show yourself hiding behind cover for sixty seconds. Yes, that’s true to the game-feel, but players need to see what happens when the crap hits the fan. That fan-crap-spray makes a player’s day. Let it fly!

You rushed your trailer (and it shows)

I like to call this, “oh shit, we need a trailer tomorrow.” Another name for it is “meh, this’ll do.”

Everybody can edit video these days, but great video editing takes time. Ninety percent of great writing is rewriting — and the same goes for video production. First drafts only take a few hours, but if you think your trailer is ready to go at that point, you’ve got another thing coming. It annoys me how long that ‘hell stage’ of trailer production lasts, but great art takes time. You should put that as a reminder on your desk somewhere (especially if your game is taking years): “Great art takes time!”

Plan-out for when you need your trailer. Planning on a September release? Start your launch trailer no later than the beginning of August. I usually say “three weeks,” for a trailer turnaround. And sometimes that’s rushing it. If you’re doing the trailer yourself, you should keep that time frame in-mind. Your trailer is the first thing people see on Steam — it’s usually what pushes folks towards or away from a buying decision. Make sure it tips them in your favor and shows that you put time, thought, and quality into your game.

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Reach out to M. Joshua at mjoshua@mjoshua.com, on Skype at m..joshua.cauller, or you can call him directly at 717.201.5278. Sign up for his newsletter, where you’ll get all kinds of trailer tips and insights: