Here’s the second episode in my game trailer takeaway series, ‘Damn-Near-Perfect’:
[Transcript] So, Bokida — Heartfelt Reunion: it’s out today! I did the trailer — working with Rice Cooker Republic. So I can’t objectively speak to its quality, but I can say we tried to make it Damn-Near-Perfect. Now, I started this series only planning on talking about others’ work. But, hey! It’s timely, so let’s check it out.
So we learned a ton on this, and I think we’ve got some useful takeaways for those of you making your own game’s trailer: 1. Hard-to-explain game? Let style drive. Bokida is…a puzzle sandbox, open world, exploration game where you are trying to reunite two stars with block-building—and powerful momentum mechanics.
Forget about all that. Let’s just run with style!
What’s your game’s weirdest most-style-distinct element? Yeah. Focus on that. But don’t forget to explain the game (with that style). 2. Ground things in a human voice. The first thing that we experience in life are human voices and human faces. So in lieu of one of those, use the other. Make your game feel human, and relatable. After all, your trailer is trying to build a relationship with the player. And like I said, if your game doesn’t have a voice, use a face. It doesn’t have to be a real face; could be a character face. 3. Focus on the player’s verbs and motivations Please, for the love of all that is gameplay, show me what I’m doing in the game! Even if it’s a little hard to follow, I need to know that the game lets me do something interesting. So, focus on your player verbs. And if possible, help me understand why I’m doing any of those things!
Player motivation is the single biggest factor to picking up your game. They might not know exactly why they really want to play your game, but you better know that. And you better connect those dots in the trailer.
4. FPS-Cam: Keep it clean, but include the player movement First-person trailers are nasty for the creator—I just gotta be honest with you. And getting gameplay footage that looks clean takes too many retries. So you need some clean, smooth trucking shots—typically made in the game’s debug mode.
So, not real gameplay.
But here’s the thing: I need to know what it’s like to move around in your game. So you better show me some first-person gameplay movement, so that I can see myself in the game. It’s just gonna take a few dozen tries to get right.
5. Build a story around a theme We spun this trailer around the theme, “To reveal beauty” — which is what the word BOKIDA means. So for your trailer, you gotta figure it out: what’s your game’s theme? Take time, and really answer that question: “What’s your game’s theme?” Then when making decisions, you can always ask, “does this moment support that theme?”
Once again, those key takeaways are:
Hard-to-explain game? Let style drive.
Ground things in human voice.
Focus on PLAYER verbs and motivations
FPS-Cam: Keep it clean, but include player movement
Build a story around a theme
I’m M. Joshua. Find my trailer work at mjoshua.com, where I’m available for trailer work and consultations. And? Feel free to subscribe — for the next time we look at a damn-near-perfect trailer.
I could play What Remains of Edith Finch a thirdtime right now (I loved it so much that I make all my friends play when they come in my door), but I think the game’s trailers struggled — as first person narrative trailers do —to show what makes the game great.
This trailer introduces the heroine, provides context to the setting, has spot-on editing, top-tier camera work, and perfect auditory composition. But I want to talk about the one thing left unanswered.
“What do I do in this game?”
Sometimes you pick things up.
(This is where the magic happens.)
As you pick up certain memoirs, you trigger a role-shift into that person’s shoes — at the most-permanent part of that person’s life: their death.
The PSX trailer (and the launch trailer) do a great job of framing this memento mori idea, but they chose not to show the player engaging these memoir moments. I mean, I get it. It’s a hard choice: do we show the player’s first-person gameplay (with all the drunk-wonkiness of movement — and time-constraints of gameplay animations), or do we wrest camera control and show the game’s beautiful setting instead?
By choosing setting, they got beautiful footage, but sacrificed the player’s voice (player-cam). I respect this decision. But I’d like to consider the player-cam option. Would this work? While I can’t guarantee that, I can guarantee they would have had a ginormous hot-sticky mess on their hands (though a potentially delicious one).
First-person camera movement is a hot-sticky bastard.
Player-cam movement shows the player’s role in a first-person game, but the tiniest little slip-up reads like it’s recorded by a teenager on their fourth Monster Energy drink.
Pro-tip: never use a mouse to try to capture first-person gameplay. It doesn’t end well. PS4 and Xbox One controllers work well for getting smooth camera movement, but it still takes countless retries to get just right.
It’s an enormous pain. But I think it might be worth it.
I tried some camera-movement-centric techniques for Anamorphine’s trailer.
We needed to show relationship dynamics in Anamorphine using just the player camera. Our reliance on player-camera movement meant it also took more hours worth of retries than anybody would expect from a thirty second trailer. We also were forced into this decision. Since the game doesn’t have any human voices, we had to show a “human voice” somewhere, so we opted for camera movement (and Beatrix Moersch’s phenomenally-brilliant sound design). The subtle bob of player movement further-captured the human-like movement we were after. And in the end, we captured just what made Anamorphine: it’s about moving towards, moving away-from, and processing a relationship with somebody special.
Consider the hybrid approach: smooth-cam + player-cam.
Watch any mainstream FPS trailer. Count the actual-gameplay shots. If it’s really good, it might have one player gameplay shot. And most of the time it’s just a gun shooting down iron sights to minimize any remote semblance of shakiness. While I’d call this a hybrid-approach, I still don’t get on a horse until I see how it actually rides.
Show me at-least some actual player-controlled movement!
We tried a real hybrid approach (smooth-cam + player-cam) for the the trailer of Bokida – Heartfelt Reunion. See if you can spot the moments that are (A) player-cam or (B) smooth-cam.
How many did you count? Every shot in the trailer was gameplay — honest, natural, un-debugged gameplay, but it doesn’t count to the viewer as “gameplay” until they can see the player’s voice — when the camera moves.
We used these teensy camera movements to hint at the player’s role, up until the real bullhorn moment at 0:31. The player takes control in a single camera tilt—that practically screams (by comparison to the smoother shots before it). Then we’re off to the races: the real player verbs that illustrate explicit gameplay.
Let me back-up a moment. A lot of work went into that one “small” tilt moment (it took me about 50 tries or more to get that two second clip just right). While I’m proud of the effects, it’s a tad disheartening to realize how many dozens of takes (and many hours of work) go into each of these shots. Still, the player-cam-effect offers a necessary window — players might see themselves in those shots.
Let’s look back at What Remains of Edith Finch for a second. I’d love to say that player-cam footage is the solution to the communication problems the game faced. But that’s not the whole story, the whole story needs to be told just as it is: through a grander narrative than the momentary stuff.
A framing device might be the single-most powerful tool for first-person narrative game trailers.
ForThat Dragon, Cancer, we also committed to using a player-cam to frame everything, but more-importantly, we frame the game’s grand concept through a framing device: a baby toy called a See ‘N Say.
In a chapter titled, “I’m sorry guys, it’s not good,” spin the See ‘n Say toy to hear the thoughts of everybody in the room. Pull the picture with the fuzzy-bearded man with glasses to hear what the dad, Ryan, thinks about the doctor’s declaration. Spin the See ‘n Say on the brown-haired woman to hear what the mom, Amy, thinks. You also can hear similar thoughts from both medical caretakers in the room. We realized this toy could frame the whole game: pull the cord, hear a line from that parent. So that’s what we did in the trailer.
Interestingly enough, What Remains of Edith Finch also uses a framing device in their trailers. But because we don’t see the player interacting with this framing device directly (the house), the concept is lost.
It would have further complicated the trailer production should they have taken this approach. I’d actually love to speak again with Ian Dallas (Creative Director at Giant Sparrow) to see if they tried a more-literal gameplay approach that tried to employ the framing narrative. I’d love to hear about their trailer decisions to forego showing player-cam and framing-device interaction.
In the end, maybe it just failed to work.
First-person game trailers require give-and-take, but remember the trailer’s goal.
You have to answer, “What do I do in this game?.”
Edith Finch’s trailers are fantastically produced, but since they they left too much to mystery, we can’t see how you play it. At the very least, they should have taken the hybrid approach: showing beautiful pre-composed shots (like they do), but also some of the player walking in the house (player-cam shots). In addition, we needed to see two memorial interactions (one to establish the action, a second to stress its importance). These moments would help players see themselves in the game, and better bridge that “what do I do” gap.
I get it, every genre comes with difficult trailer decisions: first-person games may be one of the hardest to show, because so much of what happens exists between your ears. Very few first-person trailers are enjoyable to watch when they’re entirely player-cam. And when they are, the work-load is exhaustive. Still, I hope this article helps you strike a balance — as you sort-out the most-ideal technique for your game.
Last week, David O’Reilly released the trailer for his game, Everything. True to the title, the trailer tries to encapsulate all that the game has to offer in a single stretch — that’s ten minutes long.
Ten minutes is a lifetime in trailer-terms, but something about it works.
Up until seven minutes into the trailer (or ‘film’ as the game’s creator calls it), the shot is uninterrupted. Cuts start at the 7:35 mark, but before that, it’s absorbing — immersive.
There’s something about this peculiar choice, to show nearly eight minutes of uninterrupted gameplay… It goes against every convention for common game trailers — as developers are wanting shorter and shorter trailers — for shorter attention spans.
While I didn’t linger around for the whole 10 minutes of Everything’s trailer, I did see the coherent thread — which made me want the game.
Continuity is necessary for immersion.
I think this is the third or fourth edit for Everything’s trailer. The original trailer seems to show up at 7:53. Watch that.
Notice the beautiful editing, the lovely cuts, the composed scenes. It’s alluring and radiant, but completely betrays the spirit of the game if that’s all you see. I’m so glad David decided it wasn’t enough for the narration to talk about continuity — they had to show it — in long-form clarity. Somebody kiss the person who said, “let’s just shoot an overlong-thread of continuous gameplay!”
Play Virginia (steam link) or 30 Flights of Loving (steam link) if you’re looking for a fascinating case-study on harsh cuts from one scene to the next. For me, this mode of scene separation created an fascinating combination of closure and anxiety — I was left with a feeling of “what just happened?” instead of “I feel like I have enough tools to make sense of this.”
“Making sense of things” should always be a trailer’s highest ambition. This gets insanely difficult when you’re trying to nail a sense of mystery, but “just enough sense” is the sweet-spot.
Man-oh-man is this more easily said than done.
I tried cutting some one-shot trailers.
When Germán Cruz reached out to me for a trailer for 64.0 (steam link), I immediately saw an opportunity to ape the idea of Terry Cavanagh’s one-shot Super Hexagon trailer (which holds-up well ). Because 64.0 isn’t as visually dynamic as Super Hexagon, we had to edit scenes to make things ‘one-shot.’
Feel free to try to spot my edits as you watch:
If I did my job right, you shouldn’t be able to see any edits, but game devs are a sharp bunch. So I expect to get a few “ah-ha’s.” 🙂
Time is out of your control.
The biggest advantage for 64.0 is that its name refers to the length of a successful run: 64 seconds. Sounds like perfect length for a trailer, right? Right. Unfortunately, this didn’t force me to think about how little control I had over time.
When we tried using a similar approach on the online tabletop RPG, Conclave (steam link), we went way-over the typical trailer length.
Our three minutes may seem a bit long, but we still had to fight to make it that short. I’m convinced that the developers (Nick Branstator, Derek Bruneau) and I did the absolute best we could, but there’s a decision one has to make when they make a one-shot game trailer:
Are you willing to sacrifice control over time?
I’m veering towards one-shot sequences.
One-shot trailers work really well — on rare occasion, but the concept of the practice is essential for addressing other trailers.
In our Early Access trailer for Dimension Drive (steam link), David Jimenez, Alejandro Santiago, and I focused on key “one-shot” sequences where we tried to apply this one-shot philosophy. I still had to rely on a lot of cuts to make the scenes fit, but I think the narrative thread is clear:
Look at the first 26 seconds. You’ll see that we were able to encapsulate the game’s philosophy in a single segment. Later in this trailer, we go for a bit of the standard action-montages that most trailers use, but the interest is always in creating a singular thread that links the story and action together.
The biggest takeaway I hope to offer is that when you cut the trailer for your game, look for continuous threads. Use smaller one-shot sequences to frame the action — or (if you’re feeling lucky), make a full trailer with just one-shot.
Grey hair is under-appreciated in game dev discussion, so I super-loved Rand Miller’s wise responses to questions about success and suffering. He talks about what it meant for Myst to be the “most successful PC game of the 90s.” Talking to Michael Staniszwski about Bound was one of the most illuminating chats I’ve had. Start there if you like charming Polish accents, game philosophy, and want to understand the tension between demoscene “games” and traditional games. Parenting while in game development is something we’re all wrestling with more and more. So I can’t heartily-enough recommend Amy and Ryan Green’s interview, where we talk about life/crunch balance and their game, That Dragon, Cancer.
Most of those are Gamechurch podcasts that I did with my co-host Drew Dixon. Others were with Thomas Henshell (Archmage Rises). In addition, Drew and I interviewed experts like Kert Gartner (a fellow trailer producer) and Science Mike (a science & religion guy). Drew and I also hosted a few more discussions on themes like grace in games,PAX West, and what games Jesus loves (a tongue-in-cheek discussion).
I look forward to continuing these kinds of interviews in 2017 — and can’t wait to share our most recent interview with Thumper designer/programmer, Marc Flury.
It’s strange; seeing things in categories — realizing how many I just can’t quite share yet — or won’t get to at all. Still, it’s nice to realize that I’m not insane for feeling like I did more than that which can be seen.
MASSIVE THANKS to everybody who’s chosen to work with me. I couldn’t be more proud of our work together. None of this would be possible without amazing devs and their incredible games. Thank you, sincerely.
As for 2017 and the current queue of projects: I’m actually sad that I’m going on Christmas vacation and won’t be jamming hard on projects. I love my job. And I love what we get to create together.
Game marketing mogul, Justin Carroll joins me with game PR expert Racheal Mack as we put our heads together answering the toughest questions game devs face with marketing their games. It’s been great for all of us: lots of cross-learning and skill-refining that come along. Plus, devs are smart people who ask smart questions, which generally means that we get to dig deep for answers.
We’re only four episodes in, but you can watch our previous episodes on the following topics:
Our best episode so far is our latest, one about elevator pitches. I’d recommend starting there.
If you’ve got any questions about game marketing, want to propose a topic, or ask a question?
We’d love to deep-dive a topic you’ve been thinking about, and make it the focus on one of our next streams. You can reply here in the comments, on one of the YouTube videos, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And be sure to check the show out when we’re live on Mondays at 4pm EST. We’ll be out December 26 and January 2 because of the holidays, but be sure to check us out on December 19, January 9, and every Monday after that!
Also, you can subscribe to the show and set a notifications to get an alert when we go live on our YouTube Channel.
ZAM published an article about the trailer-making craft that featured a lot of input from myself and Derek Lieu. The article highlights my production goals for That Dragon, Cancer’s trailer — and how that informs the importance of emotional journey. You can also a lot out of what Derek says about his production of the Firewatch trailer, and some deep insights from Kuldeep Shah. Check it out.
When Justin said “let’s put a freestyle rap in the trailer,” I really didn’t know what to think.
Black people don’t get to be the heroes in too many games, even less so black women — and victims of sexual objectification. But that’s where ReElise starts: in the shoes of a black woman who recently freed herself — and got her hands on a sweet blade.
I’m gonna try to not shout “GO BACK THIS GAME ON KICKSTARTER!” (Crap, I just did, didn’t I?) Anywho, this was a fun project to work on. Kindly consider it if you’re looking for more games about black folk who are working out issues of justice and revenge — or if you just like really weird RPGs.