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.

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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.

How do you hand-off your game for smooth trailer-production?

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:

  1. Firm Deadline:
    “We need this trailer for when it releases on  June 21.”
  2. Clear Game Description:
    The client explained what the expansion is, what it’s key features, and the most attractive selling point (It’s free!).
  3. Downloadable Footage:
    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.
  4. Key Messaging:
    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.
  5. 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.
  6. Game Copy:
    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.

In related news, a very similar process

Steamworld Heist trailer review

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.

Trailer Review

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.

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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.

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


5 reasons Sea of Thieves has the best trailer of E3

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.

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


Stephen’s Sausage Roll piece & trailer review

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

Stephen’s Sausage Roll: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome:

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

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

Continue Reading at Gamechurch.com

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A brief Stephen’s Sausage Roll trailer review:

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

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

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

Don’t insult the things your audience loves

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

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

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

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

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

Show, don’t tell

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

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

Prune your writing until only the essentials remain

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

Don’t make your Kickstarter backers hate themselves

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

Study good game trailers

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kotaku exposure galore!

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

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

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