I’m about to head onto the open road tomorrow.It’s a twelve-hour drive to see my parents in Georgia. I need some brainy podcasts for the mind-numbing stretch of highway. I’ve got something for you if you’re in a similar boat.
An episode about crafting trailers
“What goes into a great game trailer?” Dylan Ilvento (developer of Peak) asks me this question and many other great ones. We talked about the way you capture a players experience, and touch-on a game’s emotional journey.
This year I talked to some of the greatest minds in games. We talked on the role that one’s beliefs shape a game’s design—a rare opportunity in this scene. My buddy Drew and I head up the Gamechurch podcast: a conversation about game, life, and belief. We work hard to make sure that folks of all backgrounds have a place where their experience is honored. And so we’ve had some incredible guests this year.
One of the most fun challenges of my job (as a trailer craftsman) is when a game has original mechanics that are tricky to communicate. They lead to a difficult question:
“How do we show this?”
That conundrum was the biggest reason I loved working on multiple trailers for Dimension Drive: a game that splits your attention into two halves (and eventually unifies into one dual set of realities). One half is where your ship is, the other is where your ship will be. Each dimension is separate, but connected. And your core arcade shooter rules apply: avoid enemies and their fire, shoot them when possible. It’s not the hardest thing to describe verbally, but showing it effectively required a little bit of editorial gymnastics.
Today, the game is out on Nintendo Switch.
Since the game has a great story mode, I wanted to bring all of its parts (story, differentiating mechanic, and core mechanics) together in a single opening scene. We ran into a lot of hurdles along the way — not the least of which is that cutting away to other shots in a dual-screen visual is particularly tricky unless there’s some background contrast. So, we changed-up shot-distances, faked a few transitions, and tried to make it flow evenly and quickly. In those early draft stages, I didn’t find that the unique mechanics were coming across. So I got a bit didactic to make sure the framing narrative worked. Fortunately, we had amazing voice talent to carry my “boil it down for me” script. But I may have dialed too far into “let’s make sure they get this.” While we turned-down the explanations for our subsequent trailers for the game, I think this “Over-Explaining” approach was essential for moving forward. If you’re trying to figure out how to showcase what’s special about your game, I think that’s a key takeaway:
“Go full kindergarten teacher, before you trim your candy-coating”
You can see in our Early Access trailer, how I didn’t pull any Kindergarten teacher punches (er, maybe gentle repetitions is a better metaphor), but the hyper-emphatic gameplay framing makes sure that the audience really gets it.
Players take at least half an hour of playing Dimension Drive before they’re able to really see both sides of the screen in unison. But I wanted to somehow simulate that sense of control, by giving just a hint of camera focus, and precise cuts to make sure it feels like your eyes aren’t darting all over the screen (more than they should). This camera-and-cut granularity worked with the voice acting and boss battle sequence in a way that added-up. As a result, we ended up with a pretty meaty trailer (over two minutes long).
When Nintendo gave us the thumbs-up to make the Switch announcement. It was a perfect time to ask:
“Okay, what can we trim-off of here?”
We only shaved off 18 seconds by shaving-out some of the more didactic explanations of the mechanics for the Switch Announcement version. A lot of comments on the YouTube video still questioned how it worked. So it confirms for me that still, some people won’t get all of what the game does unless you spell it out for them.
Nevertheless, we got what we came for. We needed to move on—and highlight what’s really important:
“SHOW ME THE ACTION!” For the launch trailer, we wanted to get to the good stuff as fast as possible. So I had to quickly find shorthand for the mechanical framework. Again, I drew from my inner Kindergarten teacher: and said, “Let’s just repeat the opening mechanic eight times!” But we did this to the stylish beats of José Mora-Jiménez as a bit of a charge-up action before the real stuff kicks off. Essentially, we framed the differentiating mechanic in 6 seconds and then let the action drive itself.
José soundtrack turned into the trailer’s spine for my edits.
José was a real pro. I probably sounded less like a kindergarten teacher and more like a Kindergartner explaining an action movie — describing how I thought the trailer should sound. He just nodded and smiled as I did all this, me not knowing if he was just thinking I was a crazy kid or if there was a method to all my literal ramblings and vocal sound effects. But somehow he knocked it our of the park! Satisfied my vision perfectly, brought his amazing talent to the table, and made the perfect base layer for the action story we were showcasing. The key for me was nailing that intro so it feels like we’re able to set the mechanical foundation in 8 seconds. But he made something perfect and complete in every way. So it mostly started to just fall in place after that.
Other trailer editors may disagree with me, but this is what I believe:
“When you fill your literacy gap, your edits can flow from instinct.”
You kind of just feel where things go—how to smack hard, into the action—or where to force a point. You can kind of just let the music drive, and place the shots where the rhythm lead you.
There’s always more refinements from there, but when you have your core edit, the fine tuning is all you have left (though that often is “the final 90%”). Still, I think that captures how we assembled this final Launch trailer.
That should help you out if your game is hard to show: just put all your eggs in the literacy basket until it fully resonates with new audiences. Then, feel free to go wild!
“But don’t forget about the fun.”
There’s a bit of a test at the end of the process: does the game still come across as fun? As I discussed in my Echo article yesterday, capturing fun is an elusive task. Every player’s tastes vary: one man’s fun can be another’s torture. But playing the game now that it’s done, it’s clear to me that the game delivers a tension that made me want to lean-in. I have had so much enjoyment with the experience, and I can see that gleaned-at in our trailers. It’s more than enough to abate my fears.
It’s been a long journey for the 2Awesome Team. It takes a ton of effort to make a game with such a distinct mechanic — that really stands-out in the minds and imaginations of players. I hope it catches your eye if you see it on Steam and the Switch eShop.
I just finished Ultra Ultra’s ECHOthis morning, and wow! It’ssomething special: there’s truly nothing like it. The closest thing you could say is that it’s if a bunch of Hitman developers really loved the film Moon, and managed to build an entire science fiction universe using only one on-screen character—who is also all of the enemies.
I bought it because the trailer was so great:
Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the game as much as the trailer. When I say I finished the game, that’s a partial truth: instead of playing through the last two difficult chapters, I just skimmed them on YouTube and watched the ending. Because everything about the game is great, except that, it wasn’t as fun as I had hoped.
The stealth survival horror mechanics are tight, and everything you hear and see in the game has an elegant beauty unlike anything else. But I lost my draw to completing the objectives in the game. Maybe it was one too many cases of, “Find all thirty-two blue orbs to unlock the gate, while being hunted by your echoes.” Or how the plot lost its lure of, “Why are these echoes here and why do they look like me?” Also, I never got an answer on “What really is this place?” Instead all dialogue between your character En, and her AI companion, London, focuses on her relationship to an off-screen (and off-script) character named Foster, who we only hear her talk about. It’s not much of a carrot on a stick.
The trailer is still a front-runner for my favorite trailer I’ve seen this year. I’m here to talk about what makes the it truly exceptional, highlight that elusive secret sauce it may be lacking, and how devs can learn from this trailer / game relationship. So here we go!
“What are the trailer’s two strongest hooks?”
There’s two: (1) the beautiful framing mystery, and (2) the fresh new mechanics.
The mystery framed in the launch trailer is among the best of any game trailer I’ve ever seen. Right off the bat, we’re wondering why any of the things we’re seeing are happening, and where the story is going. The voice of the AI, London, makes it sound like he’s a trustworthy companion. And when En says, “It seems familiar, somehow…” that line evokes a powerful twist and reveal that we as the would-be player just want to unearth. Then there’s empty space of just taking-in the beauty of the mysterious palace setting. The mystery gains an extra potent layer when En meets the forming echoes of herself that then attack her. Color me intrigued.
The new mechanics get framed through this mystery (another brilliant choice) where you discover “they do what I do, the learn from me.” while we’re punctuated with shots of all the mechanical verbs. The action takes over, the music ramps-up. And we have just enough time to realize that this “teach your enemies” gameplay is really special.
The trailer then alludes to En’s ambition with restoring this Foster fellow (which I never remembered). I’m more interested in seeing how the gameplay verbs play out. The trailer ends on a creepy mysterious blank stare coming from En while she asks, “Foster, are you doing this?” Her pupils contract. And we land on the feeling of “WTF is going on here?”
This was enough for me to get the game and want to play through all of it, even when I wasn’t enjoying it. I wanted to find out where the mystery led. So, for that: the trailer is beyond excellent. It’s what kept me playing the game, even when the game itself lost its lure of mystery.
“What’s the trailer missing?”
In a word: fun. Admittedly, this is a terrible and elusive word that can mean next to nothing, but that’s why it’s so hard to get at—especially with a trailer. The trailer certainly captures tense and gratifying moments from the game: pulling off a last-minute shot, getting away from enemies, and enjoying mechanical tension. But I don’t know if it effectively says, “you will enjoy this game.”
Truth be told, most game trailers don’t—or can’t—effectively convey this. But that’s why trying is so important.
Many developers say that their games aren’t fun for most of development—and may never get to that fun factor at all. Even more difficult is making sure that a game is continuously fun.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun with Echo. It’s earliest teaching moments were where I had a big goofy grin on my face. But I fear Echo is more innovative than it is enjoyable. As such, it’s incredibly difficult to nail down the brief windows of fun in the experience overall—especially in the trailer. But I think that Ultra Ultra did the very best that was possible with what they had.
“What’s the trailer takeaway for devs?”
I don’t think mystery and innovation is enough to secure the confidence in your audience for your game. I used to think that differentiation, quality production, and emotional impact were enough to grab your would-be players’ attention in a trailer, but now I’d suggest that if there’s any way to really ensure the most-fun parts of your game are what we land on, maybe there’s a stronger way to convey this.
It’s a long hard question that’s not easily solved in the trailer crafting process, but one that should effectively haunt you: “How can we show that our game is fun?”