Indie Game Marketing Monday Live Streams

Recently, I partnered with two fellow game marketing pros for a live stream that airs every Monday at 4pm EST on Monastery’s YouTube Channel.

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Game marketing mogul, Justin Carroll joins me with game PR expert Racheal Mack as we put our heads together answering the toughest questions game devs face with marketing their games. It’s been great for all of us: lots of cross-learning and skill-refining that come along. Plus, devs are smart people who ask smart questions, which generally means that we get to dig deep for answers.

We’re only four episodes in, but you can watch our previous episodes on the following topics:

  1. Game Marketing Introduction
  2. Do-It-Yourself Press
  3. Crowdfunding
  4. Elevator pitch

Our best episode so far is our latest, one about elevator pitches. I’d recommend starting there.

If you’ve got any questions about game marketing, want to propose a topic, or ask a question?

Ask away.

We’d love to deep-dive a topic you’ve been thinking about, and make it the focus on one of our next streams. You can reply here in the comments, on one of the YouTube videos, or shoot me an email at mjoshua@mjoshua.com.

And be sure to check the show out when we’re live on Mondays at 4pm EST. We’ll be out December 26 and January 2 because of the holidays, but be sure to check us out on December 19, January 9, and every Monday after that!

Also, you can subscribe to the show and set a notifications to get an alert when we go live on our YouTube Channel.

Make game trailers full of awe — without No Man’s Sky’s traps

You need to build an honest game trailer — without sacrificing an ounce of sex-appeal. Now that we’re officially in a post-No-Man’s-Sky world, everybody is deathly afraid of overselling their game. But I promise that there’s a greater danger: not selling your game at all.

You can have both. It’s not that hard. 

Step 1. Show good hitting of things.

When Rocket League’s ‘OMG’ trailer came out last year, it grabbed me with one moment: when that rocket-car hit the ball for the first time. I bought it full price. No questions asked.

Show good hits in your trailer, and you quickly separate your game from the hype train, and open yourself up to being able to flesh out the rest of your trailer with non-hitting-of-things shot. Because once you show that first good hit, you bring confidence to your action-players.

Does your game have killing? Show somebody getting killed. Make those jabs, stabs, and metallic clanks blast at full-volume. Showing in-game action with real chunky flashes with matching sound-effects tells viewers right away: this game has a good hitting of things.

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Do me a favor, count the “hitting of things” shots in the first No Man’s Sky trailer. It’s not hard. You only need one hand — a problem that persisted through many of the trailers. The bigger problem was that the sizzle already hit the air well-before any steak got on the grill.

Sometimes it’s hard to show good hitting of things. If you’re building a game in a genre without combat (like a management sim, adventure game, or visual novel), then you’ll find a lot less things to hit. But you’re not out of luck: showing a climactic mechanical event, such as a simulated bar completing and producing a reward, or placing a key into a fancy keyhole and unlocking, or picking a dialogue option and showing a happy character response. Each of these register as “good hits” in the player’s mind, and can be instrumental in transforming trailer viewers into players.

Step 2. Show the ideal gameplay.

Say your game is a stealth game: don’t show your character just waiting in the shadows — at least not for the whole trailer. That’s boring.

Don’t focus on the boring bits.

Show players what the ideal action moments are. It’s okay to not-show 90% of stealth gameplay (searching dark corners, waiting under tables, listening for guard footsteps). Hide your low-emotion gameplay and go for the high-emotion highlights! Show the five seconds of payoff from hunting a mark from the shadows for five quiet minutes. Anticipation edits are useful too, but don’t feel obligated to show your less-attractive gameplay in your trailer.

Fellow trailer-maker Derek Lieu says, “The goal for game trailer capture is to show an idealized version of what it’s like to play the game. The only reason it might look “better” than the player’s actual experience is because capture for a trailer is perfected by doing take after take. I think anything goes as long as the capture doesn’t misrepresent the game or its mechanics.”

Derek’s point is clear: as long as you’re building the trailer in-engine and informing actual mechanics and/or plot-points, you’re golden. When Derek made the E3 trailer for Firewatch, he captured the core activities of the game, but in order to capture great “WTF” mystery of the game, he had to work with the devs to construct a moment not in the game, and show that. He details this process on Campo Santo’s blog — where he explains the how and why behind that decision.

Building-out custom scenes for your trailer is often absolutely necessary for your trailer. However, it’s essential that they run in-engine and do not betray the core interactions and experiences of your game. If you’re building your game to run primarily on PS4 hardware, it’s probably a bad idea to rely on any performance that’s only possible on a top-end PC — unless the general public’s version of the game will be able to do the same exact thing. Integrity here counts, especially since the player community will hold you in contempt if they discover that you’ve done something otherwise.

Your goal here is to first identify: what is my ideal gameplay? What does my game do the best? Show that, build tools to showcase it if you have to, but whatever you do, show your game doing what it’s the greatest at.

Step 3. Build your world extravagantly — but do it honestly

Awe may be the single most important aspect of your game. This is the part of your trailer where you’re revealing how big the world is, showing the most beautiful shots, the most iconic and pristine moments. There are no limits to what you can do, say, and how here. Seriously.

But there’s a reason why this is Step 3.

Only once you’ve qualified your lead are you able to provide your pitch. And gamers feel the same way: if the game has qualified itself with a good hitting of things and an ideal gameplay establishment, you can go on to say whatever you want.

Take the launch trailer for Alien:Isolation for example. There’s not a ton of hitting or ideal gameplay moments, and most of it focuses on setting and tone, but that’s because they’ve established the hits: the alien kills you very suddenly. You run. And the hits come. It might not even say everything in that trailer because it assumes the hits from previous trailers have hooked you. But those popping moments leave a ton of play-room.

Facts matter, obviously. So don’t show anything that’s not a qualified fact. If you’re using accolades, don’t misquote. Be sure to cite your source. And as long as you don’t use artificial HDR lighting (that your game can’t pull) or any other disingenuous tricks, run free. Make your trailer as impressive as it can be.

Once you work with the baseline foundation of honesty, you’re free to do just about anything.

Step 4. Deliver the goods (release a game that matches your trailer)

This is the easiest step for me, because I edit trailers and I don’t have to worry about this at all. But for you, the developer, this is where the goods come into play. If you’re able to make good on all the promises you’ve put forth, then that’s wonderful. And speaking of wonder, it’s the talent of an experienced craftsman that bridges the gap between ambition and wonder.

Don’t be afraid to leverage your previous successes (and failures) towards the direction of your brand. Your name might not mean something this time; but it will after you find your audience. Hold on to your longevity: wear it around your neck.

And if at first you release a game that doesn’t match the hype of your first trailer, be like Slain: Back From Hell, which spent several months refining itself after launching to a poor reception — until it “came back from hell” with a better hitting of things.

At the end of the day, people remember your game for what it became (even if at first it didn’t make a good impression).

Step 5. Double-check: did you cover Step 1 and Step 2?

Once you’re almost done your trailer and second-guessing each shot, come back to Step 1 and Step 2: are you showing a good hitting of things? Are you showing your ideal gameplay scenarios? If so, you got the most important parts. Those are the parts people will remember even if they forget everything else in your trailer.

Towards the end of the process, the finishing touches often take way longer than you expected, but know that the more polish you put into the edit, the more it shows. Your trailer may be the first impression your game makes with a player. Be sure to make it count.

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This isn’t the end-all be-all of how to make fantastic trailers, but it should help. If you liked this piece, read more of my indie game trailer tip articles on mjoshua.com/blog.

Make trailers that capture the player’s emotional journey

The best movie trailers make me cry. It doesn’t happen often. But it’s happened. Game trailers, on the other hand, have never once made me cry. Yet the best ones are getting closer.

The best and most-powerful game trailers toss us through a ringer of ups and downs. That rapid-fire assault of emotional intensity is what grabs us. It’s what makes us say, “I want that.” The thing is, most game trailers forget the player’s emotions. They tend to land as one-note threads that focus too much on the features — and not enough on the game’s emotional roller coaster. It’s a shame because that roller coaster sells your game.

Take the final trailer for Life Is Strange for example. Track the emotions as you watch:

It starts full of fear, then tension builds. And just after the heroine sits and thinks, the tone shifts. The music turns into a melancholy hope. The colors shift to a warmer hue. Suddenly things feel hopeful. It seems like the game gives us the tools to try to fix things. Suddenly we’re in a montage all of the terrifying storm shots contrasted with scenes of optimism. It shifts from dark, to light, and back and forth. Scenes of danger come after scenes of loving support. Notice that progression: fear, tension, optimism, joy, destruction, hope, storms, friendship, and blood. That’s how you capture a player’s emotional journey!

There’s just one problem: you aren’t making a game like this.

Unless you’re in triple-A development, your trailer can’t include high quality character models with emotive human acting. The litany of positive press quotes and top-tier production elements are a pipe dream. So for most of us, we’ve got to find a way to make a trailer that captures the emotional journey in a different way. We have to think smaller. Weirder.

“Weird” is a badge of honor for us indie guys, and we have to wear it with confidence, but that doesn’t mean that we get a free pass for being oddballs. We need to work hard to capture the emotional journey through (and around) our eccentricities.

I think I have a solution.

Capture the player’s emotional journey. And I mean that literally. I record real players playing the games I’m making trailers for. I capture the sounds they make, and I watch how they react to the games. These are people I know that aren’t impressed with me or starstruck in any way. It’s just normal folk having honest reactions to the game. Sometimes they’re not positive reactions. And that’s okay. Their emotional lows mix with the highs to provide you the blueprint for your roller coaster.

Feel free to copy this approach.

While it’s hard to get people over to my place to play the games, it’s so worth it when they do. It puts a human angle on the games. It allows me to find the games’ key qualities that resonate with players. And it lets me hone-in on those highlights so that I can show those moments to would-be players through the trailers.

Take a look at my first example:

Recording players playing Threshold helped me to find the emotional gold. Players truly resonated with the “ah-ha” moment of discovering a puzzles solution. I also saw that women preferred the game more than guys. So right after about four play tests, I learned right there that I should record women playing the game with guys so that there’s clear audio contrast and the players are verbalizing their experience (which few did by themselves). This worked splendidly.

The emotional journey wasn’t complete, however, until I figured out how to get the low-moments in there. Players started to show visible signs of frustration as they went through the “what the crap do I do?” moments. And I realized that these moments were critical to making the breakthrough moments enjoyable. So I used both the players’ frustration and discovery experiences to build that coveted roller coaster. That’s the real story for a puzzle game: a player’s journey from confusion to clarity, often repeated.

I have no illusion that I make the best game trailers. But I do believe that there’s something ripe and potent about this player-journey approach. It’s not to say that it’s a one-size-fits all solution. Each game genre is completely different: a spacecraft engineering game will require a different trailer storytelling method than a four-player brawler. But the overarching rule is consistent: the player’s emotional journey is always what makes them want to play your game.

My next trailer example takes us to the arcade. More specifically, the arcade action game genre. Story doesn’t matter here as much as the exhilaration of play. It can be a challenge to capture the emotional journey of this genre, but this is how we went about it for Super Flippin’ Phones:

Notice how the journey starts at comedy, dives into the game’s tension, ends in a moment of defeat, and then resolves in another “brave attempt,” punctuated with more humor. This was key for showing off the arcade action. We needed to show the victory and the defeat in a play-through; Winning is intense. Failing is easy to recover from. It’s an emotional roller coaster.

Emotional contrast is essential. You never start a romantic comedy with love birds already together; they have to be as far apart as possible or it their coming together lacks weight. Similarly, the first Hotline Miami’s trailer focused on this same up-and-down journey (quite literally). There’s anticipation, coldness, a “How could I do that?” moment, small success, dread, and then victory (albeit still melancholy). That sense of loss was key to that game, but it’s somewhat absent in Hotline Miami 2’s trailer. While Hotline Miami 2’s trailer is cooler, richer in game content, and full of energy, it lacks the depth of the low-notes in the first game’s trailer. It’s ostensibly still a cool trailer (and an amazingly well-produced one), but the low degree of despair keeps it away from the same emotional range of the first trailer.

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.

Say you have the lows and highs sorted. Next, you have to figure out how you’re going to capture the emotional journey.

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If you wanna me like me, get the game in front of people and then study how they play. It’s important that they play in a neutral space. Make the player as comfortable as possible so they can provide honest and thoughtful feedback. The more homelike and comfortable, the better. Record that experience both on-screen and the player’s vocal reactions. Video is helpful if you’re doing party games, but the setup, lighting, and environment can make normal players uncomfortable and provide an inauthentic experience. Most players don’t naturally talk or express when they play, but they will if you put multiple people together and encourage them to figure the game out together. Review all of the player input and feedback. This is exhaustive and can take a lot of your resources, but it’s key to finding the essential data that will drive your game’s trailer and subsequent marketing.

Say you do all of this and then find that the player’s voices and input don’t work for the trailer itself. That’s when you need to get creative in how you show the player themselves without them noticing. Check out how we did this in the next trailer:

We used a brilliant voice actress (Leonora Haig) to embody the player’s imagination within the game. The game’s creator and I were ecstatic about how this one turned out, but it started with much humbler beginnings.

The first thing we did was captured his emotional journey playing the game. The journey was there, but it didn’t resonate with tested audiences. You might see why in this earlier cut. We knew the emotional journey was good and rich. But we needed a better storytelling device. After retooling the script and hiring Leonora, we ended up with a trailer that we’re extremely proud of.

Sometimes the player’s emotional journey needs to be told through abstract means. One size never fits all and each project requires a unique approach. But the overarching lesson is true: emotional journeys sell games, and if you tap into the player’s heart, it’s just a matter of time before they hit that “buy” button.

[This post by M. Joshua was originally featured on Gamasutra on November 20, 2016.]

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[About the author: M. Joshua makes indie game trailers. You can read more of his indie game trailer tip articles on his blog, or review his portfolio at mjoshua.com. He’s available for trailer production and consultations at mjoshua@mjoshua.com.] 

Quick announcement: I was featured in the ZAM article, ‘How video game trailer editors hook us in’

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ZAM published an article about the trailer-making craft that featured a lot of input from myself and Derek Lieu. The article highlights my production goals for That Dragon, Cancer’s trailer — and how that informs the importance of emotional journey. You can also a lot out of what Derek says about his production of the Firewatch trailer, and some deep insights from Kuldeep Shah. Check it out.

The art of the trailer: how videogame trailer editors hook us in

 

Indie trailer lessons from The Witcher 3’s trailer campaign (the multi-trailer approach)

Almost none of The Witcher 3’s trailers are particularly exceptional: they don’t capture the player’s journey — or what makes The Witcher 3 unique. I can say this with confidence after completing the sixty-hour story, watching most of its 46 trailers, and deep-diving the unexpected ways the game deals with love. Despite the weakness of the game’s trailers, they do one thing incredibly right: they secure a HUGE player-base — one strong enough to help developer CD Projekt Red to become worth $1 billion.

How did these trailers help secure so many players?

Iteration.

These 46 trailers and dev diaries work because they compound in unison — multiplying as a string of touch points, forcing viewers to inevitably ask, “should I buy this?” Sure, that huge number of trailers is possible from a studio with CD Projekt Red’s cashflow.

Indies can use this multi-trailer approach too — even with a tiny budget.

You have to first ask, “How many stories can I tell about our game?” Every detail about your game has the potential for more exposure. Quick snapshots can go a long way. Remember that The Witcher 3’s trailers weren’t great at informing the gameplay experience, but stuck to core branding and just showed more of the world. They trusted that under-informing video impressions would be enough to whet an appetite. And boy did that deliver.

Keep your project in front of players — that’s the key lesson here. By the time somebody sees The Witcher 3: Game of the Year edition’s trailer, they’ve likely seen at least one of the other forty five trailers. And once a product is familiar, it’s that much easier for players to hit that “buy” button.

Some indies have tried this multi-trailer approach successfully. Take Broforce for instance. That game was in Early Access for two years: warranting update trailers out the wazoo — which kept that game in front of players. That’s invaluable. The Broforce team kept pumping-out the update trailers post-release too, which again, kept the attention flowing.

Multiple trailers won’t work for everyone. Especially if you don’t have any time or money to spare for them. But for those who are able to keep pumping out content, the multiplied exposure can be very worthwhile.

Practical multi-trailer tips:

If you’re gonna step-out and try this approach, you’re gonna need some wisdom, planning, and smart re-purposing of assets to craft a unified brand around your game. This kind of process takes a lot time, but these tricks can save you a few dozen hours:

1. Map your plan of messaging and delivery.

This isn’t a mandatory detail, but it will definitely help you to develop a core strategy to stagger your trailers evenly (say, once a month) to keep from an over-abundance or an under-abundance of market saturation.

2. Craft reusable trailer assets.

For the first time around, refine your title graphics to be appealing-enough for later reuse. This allows new footage to be be slotted-in while establishing your core brand as high-quality.

3. Determine a core and consistent voice.

Notice the “Hell Yeah, Bro” voiceover in the Broforce campaign. You don’t have to do something so overt, but each trailer should feel like it’s clearly connected to all of the others.

4. Cut fast and loose.

Don’t worry about getting the edit perfect straight out of the gate. Let velocity be your friend. Don’t worry about having the perfect messaging. Your messaging is “lots of content” and updates, which shows you care.

5. Try new things (like dev diaries and experimental “weird” trailers).

Show and team members being themselves can be a great way to break-up the expectations on what your game is. Focus on what makes your team unique, while interspersing shots from the other trailer cuts. Or try something completely different and maybe a little crazy. Nobody got kicked out of the indie game space for being too weird.

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Let me know if any of that helps your game. I’d love to hear from devs who have tried this multi-trailer approach and hear how it worked.

Salvage your game trailer with these 12 tricks

You made your game’s trailer — and something isn’t quite working. You (and your testers) love your game, but that love is getting lost in translation to video. In my experience, trailers often feel lifeless — like a skeleton going through a living person’s motions — up until a clicking moment. Once you get to that key breakthrough, it feels awesome. Often, you just need one readjustment for it to all come together. These tricks can get you to that moment.

1. Track eye-flow.

Notice where you’re looking. Which part of the screen has your eyes’ attention? Eye-flow is a delicate and essential thing: motion speaks to our survival instinct. When things move, your adrenaline spikes. Is there danger? Where is it? Use this to your advantage.

You’re driving their eyes.

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Move their attention all over the screen, but keep in-mind where you want them to go — and what shape you want that motion to move in. Sudden changes in movement feel jarring, so consider pausing or cutting to a shot that complements the shot before it. Work your way to your destination. Avoid jump-cutting-around (unless that is a part of your game somehow). Your key here is to flow — keep their eyes where you want them.

Super-important detail: if your gameplay has tons of action all over the screen, you need to hone the focus on the one thing you want them to look at. Feel free to be super-controlling here and clarify things or it gets really disorienting otherwise. Focus where you want people to look — by any means necessary.

2. Try sound design.

Your players feel the game through the sounds, though they might not realize it. If you’re showing a trailer with just music and no sound effects, more than likely, it feels dry and lifeless. Some talented composers and editors can use music alone to convey interaction, but in that scenario, there’s still some serious sound design and composition.

Your trailer will go from boring to amazing in very little time with the right sound designer, since their work will make each of your cuts and edits feel completely intentional. Use your game’s sound designer if they’re talented enough. If not, I have some recommendations of amazingly talented sound designers that have been a pure joy to work with: James Marantette, Adrian Talens, and Jon Hillman.

A good sound designer will improve your trailer — more than anything else you can do.

3. Consider the See-n-Say approach.

A title card can save your trailer from confusion — with that extra push of explanation. This is called the ‘See ‘N Say’ approach.

Game trailer savant, Derek Lieu says, “Make a title card that says something about your game — then show the thing. This seems like such an obvious thing to do, but I have consulted on multiple trailers that think telling is enough.” Derek’s right: you have to show that idea in action. This makes people believe what you’re saying — you’re backing it with evidence.

Notice how this approach works in the Inversus Launch Trailer:

4. Shorten your intro.

Answer player’s biggest question: “What do I do in this game?” Do this and every other detail suddenly becomes relevant.

Get to the point. Now do it faster.

How many seconds pass before you show gameplay? If you answered, “10,” you may be alright. But if you said “30,” your viewers will scrub-through your timeline for anything interesting — you’re likely to lose them once they start that.

Heck, make your whole trailer faster.

5. Hide your HUD.

Your HUD is the least important thing in the trailer. If you can hide it, you should. The same goes for any in-game text.

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Any information that isn’t primary will attempt to steal your viewer’s eyeballs. You don’t want your viewers trying to read something they can’t. That’s frustrating. Plus, they don’t know how to read your user interface anyway, so showing it won’t help.

It’s okay. Just let the action tell the story.

6. Teach how to play.

You know how to play your game, but nobody else does. If your game is even remotely complicated, you need to build literacy — fast.

You have twenty seconds.

How fast can you teach somebody the core basics of your game? Start by saying, “Here’s how you play:” and then fill in the blank. Now try it again, but faster. Build your tutorial backwards and forwards in your mind. When you really have these basics down, you’re ready to teach viewers in record time. Only then will viewers be able to read the crazy action at the end of your trailer — feel free to go buck-wild!

7. Do you show uniquely-distinct gameplay?

You know the market is flooded; you need to be unique — hammer on those qualities nobody else has. Jam on what makes your game truly different.

Show what’s special about your game.

Adam Saltsman talked at GDC about 6 games that do a great job of standing out and selling themselves, where he outlined how one needs to make games that are recognizable at first glance. You need to be instantly recognizable, but your most distinct gameplay needs to be your primary focus. And you don’t need to be shy about it.

8. Try the rule of thirds.

Don’t live in the center of the screen. That’s boring and confrontational.

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Photography teachers teach you to focus in a “third” of the frame — this allows lead room and feels more natural. The trick is to imagine your screen as a tic-tac-toe board and each cross-section is where a person’s eyes feel the most comfortable.

Read-up on the rule of thirds, then re-compose your shots to emphasize one of the “thirds” of your screen. It makes a huge difference; even if you’re making a 2D game — where the rule of thirds might be trickier to implement, but can greatly improve the way your game looks and plays.

The rule of thirds isn’t always the right tool for the job. Remember that you can also try lots of other helpful theories on composition.

9. Flaunt your style!

Fellow trailer maker, Derek Lieu loves to showcase stylish games. He says that if a game has enough style, you can coast on that. Of course, show informative gameplay. But if something is stylish or cinematic enough — you can get people hyped up enough to look into the game. Case in point? Watch the trailer he made for Quadrilateral Cowboy.

Your game’s style should be wholly its own, so what could it be like if you were to lean harder into that stylistic inspiration? What does your game’s style remind people of? Maybe play a word-association game to get friends and family brainstorming about what might be a related style that you can re-purpose for your trailer.

Also important is that your whole project has a consistent unified style. Is there another way to make each part feel more connected? Make those little touches that bring everything together.

10. Build mystery.

Start by stripping things away.

Don’t show anything but what you absolutely have to. Then present questions related to the setting and story. Don’t give any answers away. Let them wonder.

Take your time. Realize that this can be a delicate dance between literacy and mystery. You need people to be able to read your game, but you also need them to want to know more.

While perhaps the hardest “trick” of this list, it may be the most valuable — this is the only way to hand your players something: questions. They’ll hold onto those questions ( perhaps subconsciously); then they’ll translate those question into action — seeking for answers.

Consider Hyper Light Drifter’s second trailer.

Notice how many questions this trailer raises. What’s behind that door? Who’s that dog? Where are they going? And what is that giant black thing at the end?!? (I like to call this last question a WTF-moment — essential for building trailer mystery). Every one of these questions was carefully engineered to make viewers thirsty for answers.

11. Variety. Variety. Variety.

All-around master of the craft, Kert Gartner says, “Capture ten times the footage that gets used in the trailer — since it’s so hard to get good clean moments. The word we use again and again is variety: variety of enemies, characters, environments etc to show the breadth of the game. Then, just get a lot of it!”

A player’s second question is, “Will there be enough to do?” The easiest solution: overwhelm their senses with diverse settings and verbs. Here’s an idea: reuse the same action while changing scenes, like in the Dungeon of the Endless trailer.

Zoom distance provides another form of variety. Pixel-graphics scale well, so zooming-in very close can get provide same-scene variety that compliments eye-flow — and keeps you trailer rapid. Kert Gartner is a master of this — which you can see in his Hotline Miami 2 trailer.

12. Aim for impressions — not sales.

You want people to buy your game, but it’s even more important that they want your game. You build that desire by compounding impressions over time. For example, No Man’s Sky had an amazingly impressive string of trailers that, over years, created enough impressions that it broke Steam store records at launch — even at a full $59.99 asking price. It could do this because it build-up impressions. My favorite trailer of recent memory was Enter the Gungeon gameplay trailer. It jam-packs the action so well, that I discover new details upon each viewing that I never even noticed in the main game — even after 90 hours with it.

Your key question should be, “Is the trailer entertaining-enough to warrant multiple views?” Are they going to feel rewarded for re-watching? Did you jam-pack it with advanced-level-play material?

Derek Lieu reminds us: “A successful trailer doesn’t mean the person buys at the moment it ends (though that’s great if it happens of course), but if they want to know more about the game right away — that’s a success. Then it’s up to the game to do the rest of the heavy lifting.”

Try these out.

Let me know how it goes. The worst thing that could happen is that you tried something out that only improves your trailer a little bit. But hopefully, you’ll find a wholly excellent trailer that connects with your intended player-base. And when that happens, that little extra effort is all worth it.

M. Joshua

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Duskers has the Rosetta Stone for hard-to-explain game trailers

Dusker’s trailer gets everything right. It might be one of the hardest games to explain to the uninitiated (as I found when I wrote about it on Gamechurch), but the trailer communicates the game clearly:

Notice the immersive (and instructive) narration

This trailer explains the game better than I think anybody possibly could — because it keeps to its fiction, while telling the player’s story. It ping-pongs between literacy and tension with a masterful arc, but here’s the key: it dips us into the player brain-space with an immersive narrator that exists inside the game’s world. It’s not a high-level narrator telling you “about the game.” It’s “the player.”

If you’re reading this as a primer on trailers for hard-to-explain games, I pulled-out some other key takeaways:

  1. Hook with an establishing framework

    “If there are any survivors out there, please respond.” With this single line, you’ve told players everything they need to know about why they want to play the game. By using voiceover, we’re able to watch and listen at the same time, having a personal voice to connect with.

  1. Establish game literacy

    “I’m dangerously low on supplies, but I’ve re-purposed some salvage drones to explore all these derelict ships.”The voiceover provides context on what we’re seeing (the drones exploring a ship in weird video feed format). This teaches viewers how you play the game and how to read what’s going on.

  2. Establish the core tension

    “I’ve been in over twenty ships now and I haven’t found a single body.” This line clearly suggests something is wrong. It builds mystery, amplifies player curiosity, and further hooks their interest.

  3. Answer player questions — with a press quote

    “Unlike anything I’ve played before. -Charlie Hall, Polygon” This adds credibility to the game and answers two questions we’re wondering: Why doesn’t this look like something else I’ve seen? Do games critics think it’s worth playing?

  4. Ratchet-up tension

    “…useful for when the motion sensors pick up movement… I seem to be running into them more frequently.” This still builds literacy, but takes us into the core tension of the game.

  5. Provide navigational literacy — while concluding on core tension

    “I’m still trying to piece together what happened.” We see a few corrupted ship logs, and the traversal map. This is the high-level navigation detail of the game, showing that it’s big and expansive.“End of File A301. Repeating broadcast…”The player story ends here, establishes the loneliness of the experience, and then also hints at the central mechanic of permanent death and restarting the game often. Then we get the logo screen and call-to-action while the voiceover continues to repeat.

This trailer knocks several birds out of the air with each single-stone-throw. It’s absolutely brilliant, so I wouldn’t fault you for studying it when you make your game’s next trailer — especially if you’re struggling with how to get your ideas across.

Duskers on Steam

INSIDE: Trailer Assessment

Four hours was all it took to finish INSIDE, but I spent more than twice that just thinking about the game — and that was before writing about its player-creator faith connection. INSIDE makes you think. And that thinking goes far beyond the easy puzzles that the game presents you with. It actually made me start to think, “Why are these puzzles easy?” Still, I’m not here to talk about the game’s philosophy, I’m more interested in what we can learn from its trailer. There’s two trailers for INSIDE, and I’m not gonna spend much time talking about this year’s trailer that mostly reminded people that the game still existed; I’m far more interested in what was established in the Announcement Trailer from two years ago:

It’s nearly impossible to avoid a foreboding sense of dread in this trailer; and for good reason. The game’s horrifying — and something you should stay away from if paranoia and fear have a grip on you. But there’s something deeper here and it’s most apparent at the end of the trailer. What image sticks in your mind the most?

For me, it’s the part where the boy and al the adults else are looking at what’s inside (*wink*wink*nudge*nudge) the giant aquatic tank at the end. What is it? That’s the mystery. And with that mystery, you’ve hooked us with a lasting impression that makes the name stick with you. Iconic moments like this aren’t accidental, the’re earned with specific precision.

If you have designed these kinds of iconic moments into your game, you darn well better show them in your trailer. They won’t make sense, and that’s okay. It builds mystery!

The second most important part of this trailer is the sound design. Notice that there’s no music, just ambient sound effects that create a sense of place. First the downpour of rain. Then you hear a rhythmic march that sounds like it’s an army of civilians in cheaply made shoes. Next, the boy’s breathing gets louder and louder; more breathless. His breathing overlaps the shots, while each scene’s unique sounds push through to help you believe each scene is separate — despite the consistent breath track. Then, submersion. Everything else hushes as we only hear water for a moment. Then we hear the foreboding groan of an ambient “song” in the distance.

This is how you create atmosphere.

Lessons From Our Launch Trailer for Poly Bridge

The Poly Bridge launch trailer was a dream-job. Dry Cactus’ Patrick Corrieri brought me on after finding my Gamasutra piece, Worst Trailer Mistakes. He believed together we could retro-engineer those mistakes into the Best Trailer Practices” (which could be another name for this post). After a savvy dose of elbow grease, it worked. We produced a trailer that connected the game with would-be-engineer-players. We had high hopes, but it turned out better than we imagined — so good that it might serve as a help for other trailer producers. Let me show you what went right and how to replicate that process.

First, check out our trailer:

Hook desired players with the first shot  — to establish setting, tone & genre simultaneously

Think of your trailer’s first shot as the framework for your whole game. You’re probably not making an engineering game like Poly Bridge, but the lesson is the same: if you can answer a player’s framing questions right off the bat, why wouldn’t you?

Since Fuller House uses the San Francisco Bridge as its establishing shot, we figured “Hey, we’re making a game about bridges! Let’s try the same thing!” So opened with a nice bridge… falling apart. Falling to pieces establishes Poly Bridge as a bit of a comedy game where failure is a fun and essential part of learning. So in one shot, we established the playful tone, the low-poly world, and bridge-building gameplay. Oh! And we perked the ears of our engineery-player (our main goal).

Think of how you might show all four of those things in your first shot:

  1. Reveal the world
  2. Define the gameplay
  3. Set the emotional tone
  4. Snare the player’s attention.

Can you find a shot that does all of those things at once? I know it’s hard, but it’s worth it.

Build player literacy — as soon as you hook their attention

You need to teach viewers how to play the game — and you need to do that within about twenty seconds. It’s not easy, but it’s essential for teaching viewers how to make sense of what they see (and doing it fast, while you’ve got them). Your trailer’s literacy layer gives viewers what they need to understand late-trailer complexity (like a triple-decker hydraulic bridge).

I played Poly Bridge’s intro levels about twenty times up front and another twenty throughout production. I learned that they show best when you record them in backwards-order (Memento-style) — to make sure the engineering shots made perfect sense with a final build.

We want viewers to be like the kid who watches Power Rangers and suddenly “knows karate.” That way when we toss the car with a catapult, they think, “I could do that too” (with a little training, of course). “I could do that” is the Ultimate Weapon for game trailers. If you can get them to think they actually know how to do something, it’s even better. This is basic immersive psychology — and something players look for without having words for it.

If you really want to get your trailer literacy right, know your intro levels backwards and forwards. Can you teach somebody how to play blindfolded? This might sound extreme, but it can help.

Take us through the ups and downs — of the player’s emotional journey

Failure is essential to learning, especially in Poly Bridge. So we made it a special point to showcase that kind of failure early on — with a two-car bridge collapse (while teaching viewers how to read the game). Remember this: early disappointment catalyzes the joy of breakthrough when learning.

You need to show the emotional journey of ups and downs that players face throughout your game. Do your trailer’s shots show emotional range? Or is it all “kill time” and “now we walk through the world?” That has it’s place, but you really want a more varied emotional response. Start by bringing joy and sadness together to create advanced and complex emotions (like Inside Out). You can find these hearty multifaceted feelings in most film, and video game trailers are no exception — as long as you specifically design them in.

Take for example, our motorcycle jump shot at 0:36 — this begins Act 2 of the trailer’s emotional arc. Notice how the biker looks like she’s gonna miss the jump (“oh no!”), then at the last second, the bike flips around and turns into a surprise landing (“huzzah!”). But that’s not all: then we show level selection (“whoa, that’s a lot of levels!”), which provides a bit of emotional rest. Then we’re suddenly in Sandbox mode, tugging on those creative-emotion strings. Then we’re popped into an elaborate catapult plan about to go off (“wait for it”). The catapult launches our car! Again our heart is in the air (“is it gonna make it?”), just before making a perfect landing (“phew!”). So there you go: that’s Act 2 of the emotional journey.

Before we leave this topic, remember this: video gets them there, but the sound makes their heart believe it. Nothing beats working with a competent sound designer. Adrian Talens custom-built the Poly Bridge trailer’s entire soundscape to coincide with the soundtrack he authored for the game. I recommend working with him if you’re looking for somebody on a similar project. Sound design and a score isn’t always in everybody’s trailer budget, but when you can afford the sound designer for the emotional punch, it’s an easy choice.

Discover what players are looking for — through Early Access

Post-Early-Access launch trailers punch harder than most trailers. That’s because once the game exits Early Access, players have had a chance to figure out what the game is, and what its best parts are. By the time 1.0 is ready to push, you know how to show what players love about your game.

Patrick had enough real player-data to determine that serious Poly Bridge players loved the engineering tools: hydraulics, copy-and-pasting, line curves, as well as the advanced Sandbox and Workshop options. We took this data and applied it to our shot selection — to show would-be-engineers what they want.

Early Access clearly isn’t for every game, but its process in this trailer made me want to work on another Early Access project. The data practically sells itself.

Highlight your game’s most-unique qualities — don’t be afraid to trust players to spot them

This is where the craft and nuance of it comes into play: it’s not enough to show your game’s biggest distinctives, but knowing how to highlight those features takes patience.

We focused on hydraulics in the Poly Bridge trailer, so you’ll find them in a large amount of shots. Early Access taught Patrick that our engineery-types really dug hydraulics, so we just let them frame the whole trailer as almost an accessory. Hopefully whenever you hear the hydraulic lift truck picking-up your dumpster for the next three weeks, you’ll think of Poly Bridge.

Take your time when honing your feature highlights. Trusting your audience with information is hard, but when they can take those pieces and own them without feeling like you told them to, it’s a win. It’s like seeing a kid wearing your band’s shirt and having no idea who they are —  your idea connected naturally because you took the time to patiently study and listen.

Start with a super-rough animatic — that gets your idea into (crappy) video form

I’m stepping back here because a video sketch is key. I call it an animatic. Some call it a rough-cut. What you call it isn’t important. Just get all your stuff on a timeline so everybody you’re working with can get on the same page.

In case you feel like your first draft is awful, our first animatic might make you feel a little better:

Notice how different it is shot-wise, especially the abundance of jump shots and garbage builds. They didn’t offer any value past holding my attention (which isn’t important). Patrick course-corrected this (later) by sharing his Early Access findings, and generally knowing his game. Most importantly, the animatic became a point of reference that we could talk around. And even though we’re on opposite ends of the planet, we were looking at the exact same thing.

You’ll have a clear idea of what you need to improve once you first get things into draft. Remember that velocity is your friend at the beginning of the creative process.

Collaborate and listen — about what is/isn’t working in the trailer, and iterate

Creating anything by yourself sucks — because you become blind to your own shortcomings. Your game’s trailer is the same. Test it with others who have wise critical eyes that know what can be improved.

Nobody knows Poly Bridge better than Patrick Corrieri, so his full attention (in short windows between crunch) ensured for us a trailer that faithfully represented his game. We went back and forth a lot more than we expected, but it was worth it. It showed in the details.

Don’t be afraid to hit-into what you hate or love about the project. Share clarifications and encouragements with each other. Patience with one another defines great collaboration — and gracious listening goes a long way.

~

For more on Poly Bridge, please check out http://polybridge.drycactus.com/. You can find out more about me (M. Joshua) and game trailer production at http://mjoshua.com.