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.

Lessons from the Severed trailer: race across the literacy gap

Severed’s trailer achieves masterful literacy in record time — it says 15 things about Severed within 28 seconds:

  1. Drinkbox Studios: makers of Guacamelee.
  2. (Notice a similar colorful Guacamelee style.)
  3. (Sinister music.)
  4. Meet scared girl.
  5. Evil dragons!
  6. Arm got chopped off.
  7. Family lost.
  8. See scared girl with bloody bandages — and missing arm.
  9. Go into scared girl’s head.
  10. Explore dungeons through girl’s perspective — on a rigid first-person grid (in pseudo 2D).
  11. Enter battle when walking into black spirit thins.
  12. Enemies surround you in battle.
  13. Hold-touch the screen to charge a touch-slash.
  14. Parry enemy attacks by swiping along their attack-arms.
  15. Slash the enemy enough and they turn into a bloody mess (Yay!).

This trailer makes the explanation of some of the most difficult-to-explain gameplay seem as easy as spreading butter. The director of this trailer, Marlon Wiebe captured so much about Severed because of a process of that he detailed in his trailer blog. In short, this was not the first trailer that Marlon made for Severed, and he sought to right some wrong impressions made from the previous trailer he made.

screenshot-2016-10-04-10-18-14

Marlon said:

After working with the guys at Drinkbox Studios on the previous trailer, they came back to me with a few things that people didn’t realize about the game after watching the trailer then playing the demo.

The key takeaway is to implement an iterative approach to solving a trailer’s gameplay communication problems. Drinkbox noticed players thought you tapped to attack in the game instead of the actual slicing. So Marlon tried an Apple-style circle, only to find that didn’t work right; instead he modeled a hand, gave it a screen-indicating drop shadow, and started with a sped-up charge-attack to draw eye-focus before turning into a slash.

severed-combat

These are all creative problem solutions that took some discovery and trial-and-error. Iteration, essentially. A first-time trailer for a hard-to-explain game will run into a bunch of challenges and problems. When you take time for discovery, you can communicates a game’s complex ideas in record time. Smart-and-steady wins the race.

Also, if you haven’t had a chance to try Severed on Vita or iOS, I couldn’t recommend it more. It’s probably my favorite game I’ve ever played on my phone. And it’s just come out on Wii U and 3DS.

Source: Severed PSX 2015, Marlon Wiebe

 

Indie trailer lessons from The Witcher 3’s trailer campaign (the multi-trailer approach)

Almost none of The Witcher 3’s trailers are particularly exceptional: they don’t capture the player’s journey — or what makes The Witcher 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?

Iteration.

These 46 trailers and dev diaries work because they compound in unison — multiplying as a string of touch points, forcing viewers to inevitably ask, “should I buy this?” Sure, that huge number of trailers is possible from a studio with CD Projekt Red’s cashflow.

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.

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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.

Lessons from the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided launch trailer

Mankind Divided subjected me to systemic prejudice countless times over my two play-throughs, yet its release trailer focuses on empowerment — showcasing all the superpowers you can use to conquer foes (which are limited in-game). This isn’t false-advertising, this is broad-shouldered video game advertising at its smartest. Square Enix knows players want “do what you want” simulators — regardless of whether or not they have themes of social injustice.

Power sells games.

Listen closely. The voiceover points to this power-focus: “If you try and rip the world apart, someone will always put it back together… You can kill freedom. But you can’t kill progress.” You are that someone and that progress is a super-charged robot fist — with a dozen beat-up-oppressor abilities.

You have to make players feel powerful and in-control. As such, Deus Ex games are in a bit of a bind: as stealth games where hiding and hacking are often preferable to all-out power-punching elbow-katana cyborg battles. But this is where we can learn from Mankind Divided’s lack of restraint and subtlety in the trailer: it harps on the power-usage. Then it builds towards the P.E.P.S.arm-gun-blast conclusion. It ends leaving viewers feeling like they can do anything (as Adam Jensen).

There’s a lot of challenges and problems to this. I could belabor Lord of the Rings’ “lust for power” theme or address how weird it is to cast a white guy (working for the most powerful people in the world) as a “victim” of social oppression. But that’s the game’s responsibility to handle with tact and nuance. The trailer’s job is to get players in the door — to make the would-be players feel the power to do as they will. 

This “do-as-you-will” emphasis makes people feel like kings. And it’s why they pick up the controller to begin with.

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.

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.

steamworld

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: