Almost none of TheWitcher 3’s trailers are particularly exceptional: they don’t capture the player’s journey — or what makes TheWitcher 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Don’t live in the center of the screen. That’s boring and confrontational.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
“…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.
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.
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.
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:
Reveal the world
Define the gameplay
Set the emotional tone
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.
Most folks need a trailer yesterday, but shortening the gap between “yesterday” and “two weeks from now” means that you might need to take a few steps to ensure a quicker transition.
In two days, I produced a trailer for Goliath: Summertime Gnarkness (DLC for survival sandbox game, Goliath). This speediness was made possible largely by the smart planning and preparation of the client (Alawar Entertainment). They prepared a list of resources that empowered me to complete the project in record time.
Here’s what they gave me and why it went right:
“We need this trailer for when it releases on June 21.”
Clear Game Description:
The client explained what the expansion is, what it’s key features, and the most attractive selling point (It’s free!).
All of the footage I needed for the trailer was already pre-captured, uploaded, and ready for me to use. This saved infinite time by ensuring that I didn’t need to spend any time capturing footage.
The client provided the exact phrases to be used as selling-points throughout the piece. The lines were things like, “NEW EPIC WEAPONS!” and “NEW CHALLENGES AND ARENAS!” I modified these slightly, but they were perfect places to start the conversation and get me right into production.
Music and Artwork:
The client providing me with the whole soundtrack, I could easily scan each track and find exactly what I needed to pair up with the key logo artwork and messaging.
I don’t often get a copy of the game when the client provides game footage. This was an impressive professional courtesy in Golaith’s case. It ensured that I could tap-into the spirit of the game itself, even if I didn’t have the time to fully wrap myself around the experience. It’s a generous detail.
As you can see by the final product, all of those clear instructions and pieces empowered me to create something that was delivered quickly and efficiently; thus saving everybody involved time and money.
If you like tactics games, you must play Steamworld Heist (I wrote an article on why it’s great), but for indie devs, the most valuable lessons are in the trailer. Let’s dive in.
Check out Steamworld Heist’s trailer. It rightly harps on the unique gameplay benefits of playing the game by showing you the best moments and using a narrator to explain what you’re seeing. It may just look like a features trailer, but these “features” are actually benefits to the play experience.
First, the trailer teaches you how to read the game, then it shows the unique gameplay (the selling point). After the establishing shots, it introduces the gameplay section, then the narrator sells the game’s unique combat element: use free-aiming to line up your shots. Then they sell the game’s MOST unique selling point: pull off ricochet trick shots. Notice how the trailer lingers on this main distinctive.
Next, we learn about recruiting a team and how each character uses unique abilities for a tactical advantage (unique selling point). Then they talk about equipment and missions; this is basic game structure stuff that shows players that there’s a lot to do when they get the game. The trailer ends by teasing a few of the game’s bosses and flashing a ton of procedural level designs. This boosts the confidence of potential players that Steamworld Heist will be well-worth their investment.
The trailer gets too long (nearly three minutes for what could be one and a half), but they were smart to fill it to bursting with impressive ricochet trick shots so that you can see how much of your role in the combat can lead to creative solutions—and more importantly, selling the unique gameplay feature that no other game has.
The takeaway for any action game developer is clear: after teaching viewers how to read, harp on your game’s best and most-distinct selling point gameplay—showing it many different ways. Then, build confidence by showing that there’s plenty of game to play that justifies the purchase (show maps, bosses, etc.). Finally, show the very best shot of your unique gameplay one last time before showing them the name of the game—and where they can go to buy it.
M. Joshua Cauller makes game trailers that leverage the player experience. He offers free consultations. Contact him at email@example.com, check out his work at mjoshua.com, or sign-up for his trailer tips newsletter:
Faces are the first thing we learn to connect with as children; they’re how we learn to trust. So when you’re trying to sell a game that can’t show human faces, you’re working with one arm tied behind your back. That’s why it’s so brilliant that Sea of Thieves’ trailer focuses on player’s faces to show you how to read the game. Using player’s faces to teach viewers how to read the game is absolute genius. You might even forget you’re watching a trailer.
The introduction calls your attention
This is how you do an establishing shot: a camera quickly pans over the ocean with a bit of on-screen text as the orchestral score escalates, pauses on a reveal of the pirate ship, then it goes dark. Next you’re learning what it’s like to actually play, starting from below the deck of a pirate ship. It’s a perfect way to ensnare the player’s curiosity. Then, just as they get above ship and you’re wondering where the game is going, we get a player showing up picture-in-picture to explain the game.
Players’ faces guide you through the emotional journey
Players laugh, tell jokes, and get virtually sloshed together. The players’ journey together spreads a sense of joy, excitement, and “OH NOOO!” Those shouty bits get viewers into the emotional tension of the game. It’s hilarious when you can see that the ships start sinking and you can also feel the gravity/hilarity of the loss from the players’ responses. I love how every potentially-confusing moment comes with a real player guiding us through the feelings of that moment. Plus, using players to showcase the play experience is just plain old brilliance in structure, planning, and editing.
It teaches you how to play without you realizing it
Notice the key cues that players shout to one another like, “Okay Mike, you’re repairing, right?” and Mike says, “Uhh, we’re sinking.” It’s funny and brings you up to speed on a complex in-game system. It doesn’t matter what the meta-goals of the game are, it’s clear to the viewer what’s going on in the moment, thanks to players explaining what’s going on. You always have enough information to read the whole experience—and hopefully—see yourself in it. Their playful tone teaches you how you’re going to enter into that world. If you pay close attention to the picture-in-picture framing colors, you’ll see that it changes colors to show which team is in control.
Subtle graphic branding immerses you into Sea of Thieves
Anybody who streams regularly uses picture-in-picture, but they don’t have ripples in tears on the video frame. That little touch keeps you in the spirit of the game; same with the roll-on graphics that tell you which crew you’re looking at. The smartest graphical choice was shooting the player cameras at the same angle—it means we feel like each crew-shot is a part of the same experience, unified in theme and position. When you make a game trailer, make sure every visual compliments your game’s spirit.
It makes you feel like you’re in the game
You will feel important when watching this trailer, though you might not know why (I’ll tell you): the on-screen players draw you in. Your role in this experience isn’t clear at first, but they’ve designed this trailer around the very best moments of a live-captured game. It drew me into the experience in a way that goes far outside my preferences (I don’t prefer online multiplayer games); and that extra-preferential immersion is the very highest achievement of game trailers.
M. Joshua Cauller makes game trailers that leverage the player experience. He offers free consultations. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, check out his work at mjoshua.com, or sign-up for his trailer tips newsletter:
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.
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.