Podcast listening for your holiday travels

I’m about to head onto the open road tomorrow. It’s a twelve-hour drive to see my parents in Georgia. I need some brainy podcasts for the mind-numbing stretch of highway. I’ve got something for you if you’re in a similar boat.

An episode about crafting trailers

“What goes into a great game trailer?” Dylan Ilvento (developer of Peak) asks me this question and many other great ones. We talked about the way you capture a players experience, and touch-on a game’s emotional journey.

Listen to ‘Trailercraft,’ Episode 103 of The Wardcast

Episodes about how belief shapes games 

This year I talked to some of the greatest minds in games. We talked on the role that one’s beliefs shape a game’s design—a rare opportunity in this scene. My buddy Drew and I head up the Gamechurch podcast: a conversation about game, life, and belief. We work hard to make sure that folks of all backgrounds have a place where their experience is honored. And so we’ve had some incredible guests this year.

Here are my favorite episodes:

Austin Wintory — Journey, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate

Ian Dallas — What Remains of Edith Finch, Unfinished Swan

Laura Shigihara — Rakuen, Plants Vs. Zombies

Rand Miller — Obduction, Myst

Matt Conn at PAX East — 2064: Read Only Memories, Gaymer X

Jenn Frank —  Voice of: Super Hexagon, Videoball, Journalist

Marc Flury — Thumper

Steve Gaynor — Gone Home, Tacoma

Tom Chick — Quarter to Three

Zain Fahad — Asura

Theresa Duringer — Race for the Galaxy (digital), Cannon Brawl

Ricardo Bare — Prey, Dishonored

Happy Holidays!

You all have made this year amazing for me! I can’t wait to see what next year has in-store. Thanks again. Safe travels!

Dimension Drive’s Trailers: new eyes to new mechanics

One of the most fun challenges of my job (as a trailer craftsman) is when a game has original mechanics that are tricky to communicate. They lead to a difficult question:

“How do we show this?”

That conundrum was the biggest reason I loved working on multiple trailers for Dimension Drive: a game that splits your attention into two halves (and eventually unifies into one dual set of realities). One half is where your ship is, the other is where your ship will be. Each dimension is separate, but connected. And your core arcade shooter rules apply: avoid enemies and their fire, shoot them when possible. It’s not the hardest thing to describe verbally, but showing it effectively required a little bit of editorial gymnastics.

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Today, the game is out on Nintendo Switch.

Since the game has a great story mode, I wanted to bring all of its parts (story, differentiating mechanic, and core mechanics) together in a single opening scene. We ran into a lot of hurdles along the way — not the least of which is that cutting away to other shots in a dual-screen visual is particularly tricky unless there’s some background contrast. So, we changed-up shot-distances, faked a few transitions, and tried to make it flow evenly and quickly.

In those early draft stages, I didn’t find that the unique mechanics were coming across. So I got a bit didactic to make sure the framing narrative worked. Fortunately, we had amazing voice talent to carry my “boil it down for me” script. But I may have dialed too far into “let’s make sure they get this.” While we turned-down the explanations for our subsequent trailers for the game, I think this “Over-Explaining” approach was essential for moving forward. If you’re trying to figure out how to showcase what’s special about your game, I think that’s a key takeaway:

“Go full kindergarten teacher, before you trim your candy-coating”

You can see in our Early Access trailer, how I didn’t pull any Kindergarten teacher punches (er, maybe gentle repetitions is a better metaphor), but the hyper-emphatic gameplay framing makes sure that the audience really gets it.

Players take at least half an hour of playing Dimension Drive before they’re able to really see both sides of the screen in unison. But I wanted to somehow simulate that sense of control, by giving just a hint of camera focus, and precise cuts to make sure it feels like your eyes aren’t darting all over the screen (more than they should). This camera-and-cut granularity worked with the voice acting and boss battle sequence in a way that added-up. As a result, we ended up with a pretty meaty trailer (over two minutes long).

When  Nintendo gave us the thumbs-up to make the Switch announcement. It was a perfect time to ask:

“Okay, what can we trim-off of here?”

We only shaved off 18 seconds by shaving-out some of the more didactic explanations of the mechanics for the Switch Announcement version. A lot of comments on the YouTube video still questioned how it worked. So it confirms for me that still, some people won’t get all of what the game does unless you spell it out for them.

Nevertheless, we got what we came for. We needed to move on—and highlight what’s really important:

“SHOW ME THE ACTION!”

For the launch trailer, we wanted to get to the good stuff as fast as possible. So I had to quickly find shorthand for the mechanical framework. Again, I drew from my inner Kindergarten teacher: and said, “Let’s just repeat the opening mechanic eight times!” But we did this to the stylish beats of José Mora-Jiménez as a bit of a charge-up action before the real stuff kicks off. Essentially, we framed the differentiating mechanic in 6 seconds and then let the action drive itself.

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José soundtrack turned into the trailer’s spine for my edits.

José was a real pro. I probably sounded less like a kindergarten teacher and more like a Kindergartner explaining an action movie — describing how I thought the trailer should sound. He just nodded and smiled as I did all this, me not knowing if he was just thinking I was a crazy kid or if there was a method to all my literal ramblings and vocal sound effects. But somehow he knocked it our of the park! Satisfied my vision perfectly, brought his amazing talent to the table, and made the perfect base layer for the action story we were showcasing. The key for me was nailing that intro so it feels like we’re able to set the mechanical foundation in 8 seconds. But he made something perfect and complete in every way. So it mostly started to just fall in place after that.

Other trailer editors may disagree with me, but this is what I believe:

“When you fill your literacy gap, your edits can flow from instinct.”

You kind of just feel where things go—how to smack hard, into the action—or where to force a point. You can kind of just let the music drive, and place the shots where the rhythm lead you.

There’s always more refinements from there, but when you have your core edit, the fine tuning is all you have left (though that often is “the final 90%”).  Still, I think that captures how we assembled this final Launch trailer.

That should help you out if your game is hard to show: just put all your eggs in the literacy basket until it fully resonates with new audiences. Then, feel free to go wild!

“But don’t forget about the fun.”

There’s a bit of a test at the end of the process: does the game still come across as fun? As I discussed in my Echo article yesterday, capturing fun is an elusive task. Every player’s tastes vary: one man’s fun can be another’s torture. But playing the game now that it’s done, it’s clear to me that the game delivers a tension that made me want to lean-in.  I have had so much enjoyment with the experience, and I can see that gleaned-at in our trailers. It’s more than enough to abate my fears. 

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It’s been a long journey for the 2Awesome Team. It takes a ton of effort to make a game with such a distinct mechanic — that really stands-out in the minds and imaginations of players. I hope it catches your eye if you see it on Steam and the Switch eShop.

Thoughts on Axiom Verge (and its trailer)

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What makes Axiom Verge great

Axiom Verge sits near the top of my list of Switch games for two reasons: It subverts what powers you’d expect to get next, and it turns a video game essential into a framing device. First, it turns its unique save system into a major plot point. No spoiling, but imagine the potential of an egg shaped save station. Any time you die, the egg regenerates you: the “you” who just died. You remember everything up to your death — and get to keep all your new progress since the last time you saved.

In other games, death is a rewind or a “No, no, no. That’s not how it happened.” Then the story picks up as if your last actions never happened. In Axiom Verge, it did happen: you died and were reanimated in a Rebirth Chamber. That death is a part of your story.

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Shadow of Mordor uses this similar kind of death-remembering mechanic to frame its famous Nemesis system: while you are reanimating from death, the orc who killed you got a major promotion, maybe changed the whole orc hierarchy / ecosystem. Axiom Verge’s deaths don’t change everything, though: they go for something far more subtle.

Subtle implication seems the chief aim in Axiom Verge: the 8-bit-inspired graphical language suggests definition of every unsettling alien creature in the game’s hostile world. And of course this fares more loudly when you get your reliable secondary weapon: a wave of pure-glitch that reduces enemies to their bugged-out state. That’s all well and good, but the most disquieting element of the game is your monolithic alien-village-sized allies, the Rusalki. In fact, much as Axiom’s greatest mechanical influence is Super Metroid, it goes over Metroid’s head, direct to its inspiration: HR-Giger’s work in Alien. Thus, every encounter with life forms aches at a subtle sense of horror.

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Tools and weapons serve-up this same trend of subtle subversion: Want to turn into a ball so you can fit into those itty bitty tunnels? How about a “cute” mite drone. See that ledge just out of reach? Need a double jump, right? Nope. Here’s a weird grapple claw shooting out of your body (I think). Need a new gun to bust through that wall in your way? Nah. You get a brown trench coat with a short two-tile teleport. You’re welcome.

Axiom Verge subverts whatever new mechanic you’re expecting. That’s the chief reason why I kept playing.

What makes the trailer great

Let’s take a look at what Marlon Weibe did with the PS4 Launch trailer (which was used as a foundation for the others):

I just want to draw attention to a few moments. The first is the establishing shot: three simultaneous close ups of a bunch of science devices—with sound effects. This defines the “Axiom” name subtly by saying “it’s science stuff…” Narrative puzzle solved. Next, they establish the Egg save pods and perspective of the game—very smart, subtle way to establish the game’s genre. But that’s not enough, so there’s some basic jumping right after that. Genre established. Now you can do whatever. And that’s what Marlon does: focus on the game’s cut-scene art and press quotes.

The smartest thing about this first Jeff Gerstman quote is how it establishes that narrative surprise with better words than they could ever use. Gerstman says, “You think you know how Axiom Verge will play out. You don’t.” This is gold, because it adds credibility to the game that it couldn’t say or establish on it’s own. It’s undoubtedly why Happ and Weibe elected to go the press quote route. If you can’t say things well yourself, use other’s voices.

My biggest takeaway is the purposeful use of over-zoomed shots. The 300% zoomed-in shots where we see the player drilling, launching and activating a mite drone, or using short-range teleport to hop through walls. These mechanics don’t make sense to new eyes from a distance, so getting super close like this says, “You might not get why this is special yet, but trust me, it’s really a special tool that’s super different.”

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The last several shots (from 0:40-0:50) are ten shots in ten seconds. They’re far too quick for you to wrap your mind around them, but they’re there for one core reason: variety. They subconsciously say, “This game has a lot of action and variety.” And it’s relatively easy to throw a ton of shots into a trailer quick and call it a day, but Marlon’s composition here shows a deep understanding of shot-pairing harmony. It takes time to get this right, but it’s essential if you want to communicate depth and longevity to the game experience (the viewing player’s question of the value proposition).

The value proposition is an excellent place to end the trailer before the logo reveal, because it’s a close direct link to the viewer’s wallet. There’s other valuable ways of addressing this (I’m a fan of the “make them feel a powerful emotion they want to feel” approach), but this “Variety and Value” approach is Old Reliable for a Reason.

Axiom Verge is on just about everything, so if you have a way to play video games consider this a recommendation!

Thoughts on Tacoma (and its trailers)

If you’ll indulge me, I’d love to talk about the game, Tacoma. After completing the game a few times, talking to Steve Gaynor, writing about the game’s relationship mechanics, and reading-up on Derek Lieu’s process for both trailers, I think I get what’s really special about the game.

Tacoma’s critical 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.

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An article

In Introverts Welcome: A reflection on Tacoma, I said:

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.

You can read the full piece if you like.

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An interview

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.

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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.

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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.”

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A recommendation

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.  

A game trailer craft overview podcast

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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.

Listen in to this episode or subscribe to the Wardcast.

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!

Six terrible tips from our NEO Scavenger mobile trailer

[Transcript:]

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 terribleSeriously, 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.

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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:

  1. Encourage the developer to do his own half-naked cosplay
  2. Tell, don’t show (Live Action)
  3. Crowd-source your script
  4. Shove players’ words into (on screen) actors’ mouths
  5. String random player experiences into a singular story
  6. 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…

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.

Which parts of Bokida’s trailer were Damn-Near-Perfect?

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:

  1. Hard-to-explain game? Let style drive.
  2. Ground things in human voice.
  3. Focus on PLAYER verbs and motivations
  4. FPS-Cam: Keep it clean, but include player movement
  5. 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.

Thoughts on first-person-narrative game trailers

I could play What Remains of Edith Finch a third time 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?”

You walk.

You look.

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.

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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.

For That 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.

Thoughts on one-shot game trailers

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.

16 dev interviews that I did on game design motivation

bound

Last year, I interviewed many game developers about what motivates their work. The result is over sixteen podcast episodes that I strongly recommend:

  1. Adam Saltsman (Canabalt)
  2. Fernando Ramallo (Panoramical)
  3. Navid Khonsari (1979 Revolution)
  4. Justin Fox (ReElise)
  5. Ryan & Amy Green (That Dragon, Cancer)
  6. Logan Fieth (4 Sided Fantasy)
  7. Patrick Blank (Torchlight, Hob)
  8. Peter Castle & Tom Cox (Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire)
  9. Nic Biondi (Hardlander)
  10. Timmy Cleary (Aetherlight)
  11. Jon Remedios (SSMP)
  12. David Pittman (Eldritch, Slayer Shock)
  13. Michal Staniszwski (Bound)
  14. Evan Todd (Lemma)
  15. Jay Tholen (Dropsy)
  16. Rand Miller (Myst, Obduction)

Suggested starting points:

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.