That had to come through in our Kickstarter trailer. I sat down with creator, Ross Turner to figure out how to capture that “Feel Like a King” spirit: he wanted to do that through showcasing the new farming & food systems. I agreed. Nothing feels more regal than telling your people to farm for you — making them think you’re feeding them by making them do all the heavy lifting.
I can’t take credit. There’s something quietly majestic to building a settlement over time — seeing it become something uniquely your own. Jordan Chin’s sound design did much of the heavy psychological lifting. His musical composition puts you in the “Your Majesty” mood. His sound effects make your subconscious trust these folks to obey your royal decrees. This game will generate volumes of rad player stories.
King Under the Mountain is a sure thing. Still, it has 17 days left to work on those stretch goals! Back it on Kickstarter!
Your game should connect with players on an emotional level. This is the only way players can feel your game before picking up the controller.
Since most games don’t have human faces for emotional readability, you have to get creative at bridging that emotional gap. I mean, just after birth we start reading other people’s faces. But we spend our whole lives learning to really read emotions. It’s a long road until we grow to feel what others feel, but this is emotional intelligence in a nutshell. And if you get really good at it, you may even become a good listener.
Crafting your game’s trailer requires that you become as good of a listener as you can be: discerning each interaction’s precise emotions. Fortunately, developing emotional intelligence for your game is not as hard as it sounds: it’s just a skill forged over time — and iteration.
Let’s get into the trailer emotion toolkit.
Create an “emotion” column in your trailer’s script.
First you need to establish your game’s emotional vocabulary. Record some various gameplay. Or maybe just look at those GIFs you’re posting to Twitter that showcase key moments. Ask, “What’s the emotion here?” Write it down. Name the emotion. Maybe it’s, “Winking Fear of Death,” “Lips-Pursed Empowerment,” or “Holy Balls! What Am I Even Looking At?” It’s just a matter of thinking about the emotional intent of that scene. You might be wrong or inaccurate (we all read emotions differently), but starting with our first impression assumptions builds a place we can iterate on.
The most-helpful question for your trailer is, “What do I want players to feel… at this moment?”
Your trailer’s script works as a rubric: a lexicon of the full range of emotions you want to convey and contrast well-before you lay anything down in your working timeline. Slap all this information into a column on your game trailer script. This will be your springboard rolling forward.
Nobody cares about your facts — only how you make them feel.
I know game devs have a tendency towards the programmatic language of “features” instead of a game’s emotional benefits, but try to get past the features’ functionality.
Think about their heart-impact instead: “What will this feature make people feel?” Try to make them feel that. I mean, sometimes you have to state the facts. But discerning the heart of the feature will affect how it reads in the trailer. Like take what we did for Tricky Towers tournament update. We wanted to say “new tournament mode,” but this is how part of it came across in our trailer:
Granted, we had the advantage of player footage here, but it was our best tool for establishing the new tournament feature.
Say you get this: you’re feeling exactly what the players should feel for each of your features. You’ve already started mentally mapping the highs and lows of ‘how to craft a trailer’s emotional journey.’ It sounds like you’re actually ready to start showcasing with the most emotionally powerful moments from your game (we can tone it down if it’s too much). Let’s make them feel something.
Open on the most emotion-rich interaction. And iterate.
The bridge collapses at the end of the first shot in our Poly Bridge trailer. My toddler’s reaction to this breakdown moment? “OH NOOO!!!” That’s what we were going for, as it immediately leads to starting a new build from scratch. That sense of loss and retry is what we found endears engineer-type players the most to the game (and keeps them tinkering hundreds of levels in). But we tried at least a dozen different shots before we settled on this moment:
You can’t tell people how to feel, but you iterate on your emotional hypothesis until you get that ideal reaction. Keep trying intense shots until they feel like they land. Your opening is usually the hardest part of the trailer — and will be something you improve up until the trailer’s ready.
Request touchy-feely reactions.
The best feedback you can request is precise guttural reactions. If you’re asking what other game devs think, remember that audience tends to be more systems-analytical and seem more like pulling teeth asking just for emotive insight. Instead, try asking games-unfamiliar audiences. Kids, family members.
Ask them what each shot makes them feel inside.
Once you have everybody’s emotional feedback, you can embellish on those emotions, or tweak the way your trailer reads in those defining moments. This is where the dials get micro-adjusted and long-hours of refinement come into play. You don’t have to communicate emotions with words anymore. You should be reading (and adjusting) your shot moments based on pure emotive feel at this point.
Close on the sharpest gut-punch — of your game’s core hook.
I typically ask devs, “What’s your most WTF moment?” Because that tends to be loud, outstanding, and memorable. But if it can call-back to the very special sauce about your game. That thing nobody else has done before? Oh man! That super crazy gun, or the way you can futz with time. Maybe it’s not a mechanic; but a theme. A narrative reveal. A call-back to the characters who does something really shocking?
Whatever is truly loud and special about your game, sock it to them. And if it doesn’t land at first, iterate.
Remember the Power Rangers Effect.
Power Rangers turned playgrounds into seemingly drunken brawls because kids thought they learned real moves. It made them feel like karate masters.
This is the same psychological phenomenon you want to establish in others: make them think they know what they’re doing. It doesn’t matter if viewers don’t actually learn anything about your game.
As long as you make them feel it in their bones, you’re winning.
M. Joshua makes indie game trailers. Find more of his work at mjoshua.com.
Visual novel game trailers are a special beast. The genre isn’t known for a lot of shot variety and whiz-bang visuals. So you may be tempted to get super creative in how you show things. For me? I recently wrapped up a trailer for The Pirate’s Fate. In this visual novel, your decisions shape how your characters look. Take a look to see what I mean.
The Pirate’s Fate can stand on its own unique proposition, but there’s some universal takeaways we gleaned for anybody working on visual novel trailers.
Learn what visual novel fans want
The key is representing a visual novel fan’s precise tastes (and sensors for quality). These can be quite different from other gamer profiles. You need to do some recon.
Kickstarter backers provided generous answers for us to glean from. They raised the following questions:
Are there endearing characters?
Do I make meaningful choices?
Will my choices have powerful consequences?
Does the story have emotional depth?
How much replayability is there (AKA, “How many endings?”)
We took this data quite seriously, and just went straight for the key points, making sure to focus on the characters, choices, consequences, and the depth of possibilities.
Don’t apologize for being a visual novel: keep it visually honest
It’s important that a game feels as close as possible to the actual game experience, so players know what they’re getting into. I rebuilt scenes from The Pirate’s Fate so I could control each scene’s minute details. Still, I never lost the true spirit of the player’s experience with the game: processing dialogue and interactions between characters—your mind filling in the blanks instead of animation.
The ideal visual novel trailer represents the game sincerely and without apology.
Use artificial special effects sparingly
If you watch most visual novel trailers, you’ll see way more action than what’s true to the experience. Titles swoosh. Characters glide over parallax backdrops. And every major bit of selling-point information gets crammed in. Oddly, story often feels like an afterthought.
In lieu of detailed in-game animation, you may be tempted to go motion graphic crazy. Zooms, pans, and flashy particle effects for the fun of it. But your visual novel only connects with people who trust it to immerse them in the fiction. So give them characters. Give them the story.
Tell a singular story
Visual novel trailers should feel like a jam-packed story. However, this is a bit harder because spoilers can be so tricky to navigate. Often visual novels trailers are so spoiler-averse that they forget to even bother telling a story. Don’t do that. Your story is your greatest asset.
Derek Lieu advised me once to take a game’s whole script and skim it for great framing questions: the central mystery. Grandiose framing statements. It’s worked well for me. So I’ll advise the same. Skim your whole script for the most powerful framing questions and statements.
Start with the basics: who are we, where are we? What’s the central mystery? What’s the active tension? Curiosity is your biggest tool. Try to leave questions without providing answers.
Sometimes your script is so massive that reviewing the whole thing would take weeks. So just limit it to your most choice material: how much of your game has voice acting? Start there.
Once you strip it down to the best bits, you’ll probably still have more than you could ever cram in a trailer. Time to pare down. With the core framework of The Pirate’s Fate extracted, I began to strip everything that wasn’t perfect and powerful. It might feel a little unusual at first, but this is where iteration and revision comes into the editing process.
Set-up the world, the key player in this world, and invite the viewer into a player role. Over time, it will start to feel like a short encapsulation of your game’s overall story.
Sound makes people believe something is real, even if there’s no visuals to go along with it. Something about the way our ears feel the auditory vibrations creates a resonance with in us. It makes us trust our ears more than our eyes. So making the trailer more sound-driven was one element that made the game feel like more real of a place and experience. Similarly, it couldn’t sound as great without the game’s incredible setting-grounding soundtrack.
Cram-in the (emotional) selling points
It’s not important that your viewers have enough time to digest all the key selling points of the game, only that they’re there and can be found on multiple views. Over-stuffing your trailer is highly recommended, because nobody remembers what you tell them, but everybody remembers how you make them feel. So if there’s too much information, that can make people feel like, “there’s so much here, I don’t have enough time to take all of this in!” Just remember your goal is not making people feel informed, it’s informing their feelings.
Emotional intelligence matters. When scripting, create a column next to each shot and ask, “What’s the emotion for this moment?” Question if this emotion would make you want to play the game or be curious, or feel scared, or make you angry (Anger is an effective tool if you’re trying to motivate somebody to do something). Your goal here isn’t to manipulate, but faithfully relay the active tensions of your game: to make them want to feel how your game feels.
Never lose sight of your audience: visual novel fans need their questions answered. So if you’re feeling lost in the woods, come back to the core questions: choice, characters, and consequences.
Spend five minutes with Jarryd Huntley, and he’ll remind you that you’ve valuable. You might even want to give him a hug. For his game, Art Club Challenge, it was essential that we captured his charm.
His game is a wondrous bastion of creativity. Capturing its essence required that we explain, “Solve puzzles by creating art.” So Jarryd talks us through the requirements of solving a basic puzzle, “Make a little blue bird….”
The inviting soundtrack comes from sax artist, Nathan-Paul. He makes the game feel like you’re in a jazz cafe, enjoying your favorite hot beverage, reinforcing that low-pressure “you can make great art” spirit.
For the launch trailer, the new story mode needed to shine. We amended the teaser, but realized it we need to re-frame the intro: different music, new question—and a little bit more open air to take things in.
The most rewarding thing is seeing a ton of new artwork from the game appearing online and from the galleries after its gotten to launch. I love the way it makes things fun for seasoned artists, but also makes it fun and easy for anybody to create and shine.
Tacoma’scritical consensus seems to be, “it won’t make the same impact as Gone Home.” But it would be a shame if we didn’t celebrate Tacoma on its own terms: that of its unique medium for connecting with the characters.
Tacoma’s body-frame recordings are so special to me: I can engage, rewind, process them. I dream of the future where I can receive a recording from a friend or loved one that I can watch over and over, feel connected while not feeling like I have to immediately know what to say.
This creates an imaginative playground—that opens my mind to the possibilities of this new form of interpersonal communication. While I’m more-present with this in-game character than any game experience I can recall, I’m also daydreaming about the future of communication preferences for introverts like me. There’s something beautiful about being able to feel connected to others, while also not being forced into being present with them, but rather electing to be there.
Motivations for designing a game like this really matters to me. So I was deeply excited when my buddy Drew told me Steve Gaynor wanted to come back onto our show to talk about what led to the design of Tacoma after his team’s work on Gone Home — and how his beliefs affected that. I was curious how they wove a story that diverged away from popular “Us vs Them” narratives. Be sure to add that interview to your podcast player of choice.
A trailer-crafting reflection
Since trailers are why you’re here, and what you want to think about, I’ll say that first-person narrative games are clearly Derek Lieu’s wheelhouse (especially after his work on Firewatch). So his writeup on the game capture process is pretty valuable, especially since it highlights what made Tacoma’s Launch Day trailer such a joy to craft. In Derek’s words:
At any point during playback you can pause, rewind or fast-forward the recordings. It’s necessary to do this because you can only hear conversations in your immediate vicinity. For game capture purposes, this meant at the press of a button I could rewind a scene, change the camera angle, and get a new take with a different shot composition.
Derek goes on to highlight the unique way he applied the Rule of Thirds, and some physical solutions for recording gameplay that way. I recommend reading his whole post.
Derek also had the opportunity to make a shorter Launch Trailer for the game, and provides some sage advice for rapid turnaround, that largely comes back to game and project familiarity. Derek says:
I managed to do this on a Sunday in about 7 hours (with some breaks for food/cats etc.), with only a few small tweaks the day after. My familiarity with the game greatly expedited my edit/capture creative decisions, otherwise I never would’ve considered taking on a project with so little time available.
That blog post is also very worth reading, as he details a bit more about giving the audience “a bit more about the universe, and set it to pretty images and music.”
I loved this game, and I would encourage anybody thinking about a first-person-narrative game trailer to study this game and the trailer resources around it. Tacoma is available now on PC and Xbox One.
I recently had the pleasure of showing up on the Wardcast, a game business podcast hosted by indie game dev, Dylan Ilvento (Peak). We talked about a lot of things, but I’m recommending it for anybody who’s starting to think about their game’s trailer. I talk a lot about the importance of capturing a players emotional journey — and how one does that.
Topping out at one hour and seven minutes, it’s a listen ideal for a drive or a workout. But Dylan is a great host, so he draws the best trailercraft information out. Plug it into your Podcast player of choice. Let me know if you like it!
Being offensive is sometimes a wonderful asset in the world of games. Tormentor X Punisher throws all the gore, vulgarity, and explosive sound that it can muster in your direction, and then frames the trailer around the framing ambition of the game: the score.ere’s my commentary on the gameplay trailer, and how that relates to the core experience (latter half of the video):
Special thanks to Joonas Turner and Roland Smedberg for their ferocious trailer!
NEO Scavenger mobile trailer may be the trailer I’m most proud of producing [scripting and editing]. That said… most advice I’d offer from the project is terrible! Seriously, it’s awful. But it worked for us. So, hopefully you at least you find it funny?
So, here it is — Six Terrible Tips from our NEO Scavenger trailer:
1. Encourage the developer do his own (half-naked) cosplay
NEO Scavenger starts with you wearing nothing but a hospital gown (and a necklace). Then you venture out into the cold and unforgiving world — alone. So when the game’s creator, Daniel Fedor, said “hey I wanna act all of this half-naked hospital-robe-wearing stuff out in real life.” I said, “Of course! Let’s do it!”
For added fun, think about what it would look like to cosplay for your own game’s trailer. Like I said, it’s probably a bad idea. Though it might be a useful practice If you’re showing your game at an actual trade show like PAX?
Terrible advice number two: show… Wait, no.
2. Tell, don’t show (live action)
Here’s the thing: NEO Scavenger is… hard to make sense of at first glance. Heck! Even after a good number of glances, you might still be lost. The game really plays up that “tell, don’t show” angle, especially in combat where it’s mostly about what happens in your imagination (and not on screen).
This was where we identified the perfect way to employ Dan’s half-naked cosplay: acting-out a scenario from the game!
NEO Scavenger takes place in a “slightly” crappier version of our world. Plus it was winter when we started this. So a simple backyard in late Winter looks like it’s survived an apocalypse. Dan was close with a cinematography team, Digital Cyclops — who was amazing, by the way. And even more conveniently, Dalias Blake showed up.
Dude’s a master of looking intimidating.
But yeah, seriously. “Show, don’t tell” is the right way to go with a game trailer 99% of the time. Except for when your game is literally the opposite. We did the live acting thing because it was the best way to put unfamiliar audiences into the mindset of the game.
3. Crowd-source your script
So, this might be the worst advice yet. Never ask your players, “what should I say in the trailer?” You’re gonna get a whole lot of useless garbage that you’ll have to wade through. Glad we didn’t do that. Well, we sorta did.
If you ask “What precise experience in this game captures this full emotion?” And you really curate the question? You might be able to focus people towards one sentence responses — you might get something usable. You might even find something perfect!Now we actually had players to ask. We had over a hundred responses. So, that’s a lot for me to pick from. But seriously, crowd-sourcing your script is usually such a bad idea.
Now I’m gonna stop right here and show you the trailer. Then we’ll get to the last few pieces of terrible advice. Cool? Let’s check it out.
Cool. Final pieces of bad advice?
4. Shove players’ words into onscreen actors’ mouths.
Nobody likes it when you put words in their mouth, but we did it anyway. You couldn’t see our actor’s mouths because they were (like characters in the game) wearing rags that covered their mouths as rudimentary air filters. So,we made sure our actors acted like they were talking, with the plan of putting another actor’s voice on them. We did this, because it was important to me that the players of the game really gave voice to the experience. But because players aren’t typically voice actors, I went for the uber players: those who love the game, but also create their own content.
I’m not 100% sure that the we did this perfectly. But I am sure that it was the right call. Because when you share player’s voices, you can actually capture their passion for the game. These guys, Nelson and Phil — they really really love NEO Scavenger. So I was like, “Yes! I’m-I’m going to use you guys because you really really get it!” Usually people can tell if somebody’s just hired help. But passion transcends.
If you dare try this kind of approach? Go for it, but go for the passionate.
5. String random players’ experiences into a singular story
This is the weirdest one: we took all these player testimonies, the half-naked cosplay, voice actors, and glimpses of gameplay, and we brought it all together — in a way that’s… clearly not for everybody.
The best trailers are just one clear story. It starts, it ends. You feel like you’re along for the ride. This is a universal truth. You can keep that in your pocket. But we had like over a hundred stories. And we wanted to link it into a single one.
That took first writing a modular script — designed with targeted emergence. This modular script had one goal: extract the stories, and assemble it into one single story.
Like I said, you gotta be super specific to make any of this work. This was really just planning — that mostly worked because NEO Scavenger just kind of automatically naturally generates these kinds of stories, and because of the pre-existing audience.
6. Leave viewers with a sick taste in their mouth
NEO Scavenger’s tone is so weird! Like normally? You want people to feel smart, powerful, capable of doing anything! And excited when they end the trailer. Maybe itching for a fight! Instead, we figured it was better to make people feel icky!
You’re welcome to copy the idea if you think it might work for you. But because we wanted to hit the distinctives of the game, and what made it what it is, we ended on the creep-factor.
If you’re looking for something actually usable here, I’d say that’s it: focus on your game’s distinct one-of-a-kind feeling.
Also, it’s worth noting that we lightened-up the whole “bleak as hell” thing. At least a tiny bit.
So yeah, this is all terrible advice because it’s really specific to NEO Scavenger.
So once again, those tips are:
Encourage the developer to do his own half-naked cosplay
Tell, don’t show (Live Action)
Crowd-source your script
Shove players’ words into (on screen) actors’ mouths
String random player experiences into a singular story
Leave players with a sick taste in their mouth
So yeah, all of this is terrible terrible advice. Don’t do these things unless you’re sure it’s going to work for your game. It’s terrible mostly because it’s so specific to NEO Scavenger, but I want to leave you with…
A real useful takeaway
Consider your game deeply. How people play it, how they talk about it, what they dream about after playing it before bed time. Then craft your game’s trailer around these experiences.
I’m M. Joshua. Find me at mjoshua.com. And feel free to subscribe, for the next time we look at some Game Trailer Takeaways.
Here’s five trailer takeaways from ‘Blasphemous‘ — especially for those making a Kickstarter video game trailer:
Blasphemous just launched [on Kickstarter] not even two weeks ago and it’s already tripled its goal. So it is definitely successful. And even though the trailer might be off-putting to some (okay actually, most) — I still think it’s damn-near perfect. Now, bear with me. You might not dig this trailer and that’s totally alright — there’s some absolutely key takeaways in here for game marketing. So, hang in there.
Now here five key takeaways for anybody who’s making a Kickstarter trailer:
1. Disgust everybody—EXCEPT your target audience Rally your tribe around what makes you you. Don’t be afraid if that puts anybody off.
Blasphemous knows exactly who it’s after: the kind of folks who see black-metal twisted imagery and go, “Hell, yeah!” Maybe they like Dark Souls, but would like more gore. Gory and twisted things don’t work for everybody, but for those that it does work for, it says to them, “Hey, this this game is just for us!” That’s the thing that makes them click “back this project.”
2. Show mechanical substance
The action in your Kickstarter game is by-definition not complete. But when we see it in motion, we can have grace for it if the audio-visual feedback isn’t quite there yet. As long as it looks cool and there’s some solid tension in there, we’re with you.
Sharp editing — where each player action is linked in separate scenes — that doesn’t hurt, either.
3. Establish your unique setting
We all know in this descending shot is that this is a weird-dark world with graveyards and bloodshed. And just like that, Blasphemous sets itself apart apart from the rest of herd. With kickstarter trailers, your world should draw us in more than anything else. Nobody knows anything about your game. Nobody knows anything about your world.
Suck us in!
4.Distinct musical composition Notice this song, how there’s this juxtaposition of two kinds of metal at once: the slow droning of Doom and the incessant Black Metal march. There’s even moments where this ultra-gloomy jam gets straight-up triumphant! Nobody else has this kind of music in their game. You can tell the composer created something new and unusual just to match the vibe.
If you can afford an original composer? At the very least, people are going to buy your soundtrack!
5. Land on your theme’s PUNCH
Whatever your game is really about? Be that twisted bloodshed, or rainbow-laden-peacemaking. Stick hard to that tension. And make it the most-important thing that we see the last thing.
Once again, those Kickstarter trailer takeaways are:
Disgust everybody—EXCEPT your target audience
Show mechanical substance
Establish your unique setting
Distinct musical composition
Land on your theme’s PUNCH
I’m M. Joshua. Find my trailer work at mjoshua.com [which has nothing to do with this trailer]. And? Feel free to subscribe — for the next time we look at a damn-near-perfect game trailer.
Here are some takeaways for your own announcement trailers — especially if you’re making a tactics game.
1. TACTICS? Show the interactions in SUPER-SPEED Anybody who plays tactics games knows most of the game is sitting there thinking about what to do. Don’t show that! But do show the fast-breaking action. Make us feel these hits connect — as fast as possible!
2. Frame the player’s role If your game’s objective isn’t clear. Try telling them. You can always pare-back if it’s too hammy. See how the city is under attack by kaiju and the big robots arrive with the, “Protect the city?” This establishes the objective for the player. A little bit of context is all the viewer needs to see themselves in the game.
3. Establish street cred — while establishing new gameplay
If you’ve got experience, show it, but highlight your new hotness.
4. Use some swirly-twirly camera focus!
It’s your job to make sure folks only see what you want them to see. When your game has a really-busy heads-up display, you gotta snag the camera control, zoom-in, get in there, keep the camera moving along. Drive their eyes.
5. UNIQUE FRIGGIN’ GAMEPLAY
I don’t know any other tactics games that involve time travel, at least not off the top of my head. This line right here: “If you really can go back in time, do it now?” That’s fancy! Highlight, underline, ALL-CAPS that stuff! Be unique.
Once again, those key takeaways are:
TACTICS? Show the interactions in SUPER-SPEED
Frame the player’s role
Establish street cred — while establishing new gameplay
Use some Swirly-twirly camera focus
UNIQUE FRIGGIN’ GAMEPLAY
I’m M. Joshua. Find me at mjoshua.com. And? Feel free to subscribe — for the next time we look at a damn-near-perfect trailer.