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 started a new video series today: What makes this trailer Damn-Near-Perfect? Here’s the first episode:
Dead Cells is out today! And I’m there. Why? Because the reveal trailer is damn-near-perfect. Let’s check it out.
There’s some takeaways from this trailer — that you can reproduce if you’re trying to make one for your own game.
1. First? Establish genre! If they don’t’ like action games, or “rogue-vanias”, they’re not gonna like this game, and that’s okay, but you’ve got to get there as soon as possible. Qualify your audience.
2. Show your GREATEST HITS! Dead Cells is a safe place — for you to hit things as hard as you possibly want! You gotta show the chunky-delicious fallout of your interactions! When players see this, they’re like, “Oh, okay! I wanna make these decisions in a game, myself!”
3. Emotional range, PLZ!
This moment with the scene changed to the ramparts — You’ve got to get to the emotional highs and lows. Give your audience some relief from tension. Then, get back to the tension! But make sure that you show the full breadth of emotional range through the journey of your game. Also, how did they fit a moment of rest in a thirty-second trailer?!?
4. Slow down to get a hurried-up trailer!
Thirty seconds in, and the trailer is done. How did they do that? The irony is that it takes a lot of time, to make a really short trailer. If you can take your time? Do it! It’s worth it.
5. Land on the emotional destination
Let’s just back up for a second (0:19). Where you land — what emotion you leave the trailer with — that’s how people are going to remember your game.
In this case, that’s TENSION!
Once again, those key takeaways are:
First: establish genre
Show your Greatest Hits
Emotional Range, PLZ!
Slow down to get that sweet hurried pace
Land on your emotional destination (TENSION!)
I’m M. Joshua. 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.
Friends started messaging me after they saw my MAGFest pics last week. They wanted to know: “Is MAGFest worth investing in? Is it like a smaller PAX?”
The 2-hour drive makes it worth it for me, since I can make it a single-day getaway that doesn’t involve any hotels or massive prep. But I’ve got to be up front with you, getting the most out of a massive conference like this depends on what you’re looking for: there’s tons of awesome things to do at MAGFest, but for me, I have one goal — meeting game devs. For that, the event is a tremendous value (especially at only $80 a ticket).
The venue is massive: with a dedicated island-like area on the Potomac’s National Bay, Gaylord National Resort is so huge that it’s open indoor atrium is the size of a village. It’s not unreasonable to just gawk at how nice and huge everything is.
With size, however, it’s also reasonable to get a little lost, fortunately, the staff is very helpful for finding the reception and getting where I needed to go, which was the expo hall where they were showing indie games — conveniently stationed between the sprawling merch hall, the massive arcade, and the less-massive pachinko machine arcade (but still quite impressive that they had that!).
I wouldn’t have MAGFest on my radar if it weren’t for Quadradtron Games, for whom I did my second-ever trailer (for Threshold). Their partners, Zenas Bellace and Christian Plummer told me it’s become their favorite venue, so I was sure to make them my first stop. Unfortunately, Christian was rendered unconscious by some malevolent food, so I was only able to meet-up with Zenas. Still, I’m excited that I could see how their local multi game, Super Rock Blasters, was shaping up into something very attractive to look at.
I loved being able to catch up with Ben from PXLPLZ games and checking out his booth for Robo Puzzle Smash. The dude is always full of cheer, and his puzzle fighting game is wildly unique. I can’t wait to share it with my wife, who always destroys me at Dr. Mario.
Two experiences stood-out to me: the first is meeting Chris and Dustin from Ghost Crab Games, playing their unique local multiplayer game, Hastilude. I loved how the game made sure that each character you played felt unique, and how there was simple to learn controls, but difficult-to-master depths, which only became apparent when we tried the survival mode. Each character can fall off of their mount (the first of two hits), but then they can jump in another player’s mount to recover that hit point, but then their style of movement is designated by the mount they’re in. So you can have a widely varied play experience even within the same life. It’s a rich game, that I can’t wait to share with the game group that meets at my house.
Second, I loved meeting Matt Conn of Midboss, the creator of Read Only Memories 2064 and the GaymerX convention. I didn’t realize who he was at the time, only that he sprinkled cracked pepper on the back of my hand as I stood there, confused but amused. This he did as he told me about his friends game, A Purrato Tail, a game about potato cats. Next, Matt told me about the framework behind Read Only Memories, as I was familiar from my friend Daniel’s Gamechurch article on the game, but I had not played the game. I knew that it was about fifty years in the future when LGBTQ rights have well-since been secured and the social issues turned more towards trans-humanism and technological integration, but I didn’t know what it was like to play or what the 2064 version was about (it’s a fully-voiced update). After talking to Matt, I had to sit down with his game, even if Visual Novel style games are not my jam. It was a pleasant experience, but there was something much more memorable about meeting Matt himself — that went beyond the cracked-pepper.
After checking out “all” of the rad indie games, I realized there were many games I shamefully missed. Tragically, I missed a few games that have some instant win factor. Most notably, BattleSloths. I mean, c’mon! It’s about sloths that battle! And I definitely didn’t get to spend as much time as I would have liked with some of the quieter and more meditative games. But I did get a few minutes in the arcade, where I got to try some extremely rare games like Taiko Drum Master and Sega Golden Gun — big highlights for me.
If you’re thinking about MAGFest for showing-off your indie game, it seems like an unparalleled value, especially since indie games are given more priority to shine than something like PAX.
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 email@example.com.
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.
You need to build an honest game trailer — without sacrificing an ounce of sex-appeal. Now that we’re officially in a post-No-Man’s-Sky world, everybody is deathly afraid of overselling their game. But I promise that there’s a greater danger: not selling your game at all.
You can have both. It’s not that hard.
Step 1. Show good hitting of things.
When Rocket League’s ‘OMG’ trailer came out last year, it grabbed me with one moment: when that rocket-car hit the ball for the first time. I bought it full price. No questions asked.
Show good hits in your trailer, and you quickly separate your game from the hype train, and open yourself up to being able to flesh out the rest of your trailer with non-hitting-of-things shot. Because once you show that first good hit, you bring confidence to your action-players.
Does your game have killing? Show somebody getting killed. Make those jabs, stabs, and metallic clanks blast at full-volume. Showing in-game action with real chunky flashes with matching sound-effects tells viewers right away: this game has a good hitting of things.
Do me a favor, count the “hitting of things” shots in the firstNo Man’s Sky trailer. It’s not hard. You only need one hand — a problem that persisted through many of the trailers. The bigger problem was that the sizzle already hit the air well-before any steak got on the grill.
Sometimes it’s hard to show good hitting of things. If you’re building a game in a genre without combat (like a management sim, adventure game, or visual novel), then you’ll find a lot less things to hit. But you’re not out of luck: showing a climactic mechanical event, such as a simulated bar completing and producing a reward, or placing a key into a fancy keyhole and unlocking, or picking a dialogue option and showing a happy character response. Each of these register as “good hits” in the player’s mind, and can be instrumental in transforming trailer viewers into players.
Step 2. Show the ideal gameplay.
Say your game is a stealth game: don’t show your character just waiting in the shadows — at least not for the whole trailer. That’s boring.
Don’t focus on the boring bits.
Show players what the ideal action moments are. It’s okay to not-show 90% of stealth gameplay (searching dark corners, waiting under tables, listening for guard footsteps). Hide your low-emotion gameplay and go for the high-emotion highlights! Show the five seconds of payoff from hunting a mark from the shadows for five quiet minutes. Anticipation edits are useful too, but don’t feel obligated to show your less-attractive gameplay in your trailer.
Fellow trailer-maker Derek Lieu says, “The goal for game trailer capture is to show an idealized version of what it’s like to play the game. The only reason it might look “better” than the player’s actual experience is because capture for a trailer is perfected by doing take after take. I think anything goes as long as the capture doesn’t misrepresent the game or its mechanics.”
Derek’s point is clear: as long as you’re building the trailer in-engine and informing actual mechanics and/or plot-points, you’re golden. When Derek made the E3 trailer for Firewatch, he captured the core activities of the game, but in order to capture great “WTF” mystery of the game, he had to work with the devs to construct a moment not in the game, and show that. He details this process on Campo Santo’s blog — where he explains the how and why behind that decision.
Building-out custom scenes for your trailer is often absolutely necessary for your trailer. However, it’s essential that they run in-engine and do not betray the core interactions and experiences of your game. If you’re building your game to run primarily on PS4 hardware, it’s probably a bad idea to rely on any performance that’s only possible on a top-end PC — unless the general public’s version of the game will be able to do the same exact thing. Integrity here counts, especially since the player community will hold you in contempt if they discover that you’ve done something otherwise.
Your goal here is to first identify: what is my ideal gameplay? What does my game do the best? Show that, build tools to showcase it if you have to, but whatever you do, show your game doing what it’s the greatest at.
Step 3. Build your world extravagantly — but do it honestly
Awe may be the single most important aspect of your game. This is the part of your trailer where you’re revealing how big the world is, showing the most beautiful shots, the most iconic and pristine moments. There are no limits to what you can do, say, and how here. Seriously. But there’s a reason why this is Step 3.
Only once you’ve qualified your lead are you able to provide your pitch. And gamers feel the same way: if the game has qualified itself with a good hitting of things and an ideal gameplay establishment, you can go on to say whatever you want.
Take the launch trailer for Alien:Isolation for example. There’s not a ton of hitting or ideal gameplay moments, and most of it focuses on setting and tone, but that’s because they’ve established the hits: the alien kills you very suddenly. You run. And the hits come. It might not even say everything in that trailer because it assumes the hits from previous trailers have hooked you. But those popping moments leave a ton of play-room.
Facts matter, obviously. So don’t show anything that’s not a qualified fact. If you’re using accolades, don’t misquote. Be sure to cite your source. And as long as you don’t use artificial HDR lighting (that your game can’t pull) or any other disingenuous tricks, run free. Make your trailer as impressive as it can be.
Once you work with the baseline foundation of honesty, you’re free to do just about anything.
Step 4. Deliver the goods (release a game that matches your trailer)
This is the easiest step for me, because I edit trailers and I don’t have to worry about this at all. But for you, the developer, this is where the goods come into play. If you’re able to make good on all the promises you’ve put forth, then that’s wonderful. And speaking of wonder, it’s the talent of an experienced craftsman that bridges the gap between ambition and wonder.
Don’t be afraid to leverage your previous successes (and failures) towards the direction of your brand. Your name might not mean something this time; but it will after you find your audience. Hold on to your longevity: wear it around your neck.
And if at first you release a game that doesn’t match the hype of your first trailer, be like Slain: Back From Hell, which spent several months refining itself after launching to a poor reception — until it “came back from hell” with a better hitting of things.
At the end of the day, people remember your game for what it became (even if at first it didn’t make a good impression).
Step 5. Double-check: did you cover Step 1 and Step 2?
Once you’re almost done your trailer and second-guessing each shot, come back to Step 1 and Step 2: are you showing a good hitting of things? Are you showing your ideal gameplay scenarios? If so, you got the most important parts. Those are the parts people will remember even if they forget everything else in your trailer.
Towards the end of the process, the finishing touches often take way longer than you expected, but know that the more polish you put into the edit, the more it shows. Your trailer may be the first impression your game makes with a player. Be sure to make it count.
The best movie trailers make me cry. It doesn’t happen often. But it’s happened. Game trailers, on the other hand, have never once made me cry. Yet the best ones are getting closer.
The best and most-powerful game trailers toss us through a ringer of ups and downs. That rapid-fire assault of emotional intensity is what grabs us. It’s what makes us say, “I want that.” The thing is, most game trailers forget the player’s emotions. They tend to land as one-note threads that focus too much on the features — and not enough on the game’s emotional roller coaster. It’s a shame because that roller coaster sells your game.
Take the final trailer for Life Is Strange for example. Track the emotions as you watch:
It starts full of fear, then tension builds. And just after the heroine sits and thinks, the tone shifts. The music turns into a melancholy hope. The colors shift to a warmer hue. Suddenly things feel hopeful. It seems like the game gives us the tools to try to fix things. Suddenly we’re in a montage all of the terrifying storm shots contrasted with scenes of optimism. It shifts from dark, to light, and back and forth. Scenes of danger come after scenes of loving support. Notice that progression: fear, tension, optimism, joy, destruction, hope, storms, friendship, and blood. That’s how you capture a player’s emotional journey!
There’s just one problem: you aren’t making a game like this.
Unless you’re in triple-A development, your trailer can’t include high quality character models with emotive human acting. The litany of positive press quotes and top-tier production elements are a pipe dream. So for most of us, we’ve got to find a way to make a trailer that captures the emotional journey in a different way. We have to think smaller. Weirder.
“Weird” is a badge of honor for us indie guys, and we have to wear it with confidence, but that doesn’t mean that we get a free pass for being oddballs. We need to work hard to capture the emotional journey through (and around) our eccentricities.
I think I have a solution.
Capture the player’s emotional journey. And I mean that literally. I record real players playing the games I’m making trailers for. I capture the sounds they make, and I watch how they react to the games. These are people I know that aren’t impressed with me or starstruck in any way. It’s just normal folk having honest reactions to the game. Sometimes they’re not positive reactions. And that’s okay. Their emotional lows mix with the highs to provide you the blueprint for your roller coaster.
Feel free to copy this approach.
While it’s hard to get people over to my place to play the games, it’s so worth it when they do. It puts a human angle on the games. It allows me to find the games’ key qualities that resonate with players. And it lets me hone-in on those highlights so that I can show those moments to would-be players through the trailers.
Take a look at my first example:
Recording players playing Threshold helped me to find the emotional gold. Players truly resonated with the “ah-ha” moment of discovering a puzzles solution. I also saw that women preferred the game more than guys. So right after about four play tests, I learned right there that I should record women playing the game with guys so that there’s clear audio contrast and the players are verbalizing their experience (which few did by themselves). This worked splendidly.
The emotional journey wasn’t complete, however, until I figured out how to get the low-moments in there. Players started to show visible signs of frustration as they went through the “what the crap do I do?” moments. And I realized that these moments were critical to making the breakthrough moments enjoyable. So I used both the players’ frustration and discovery experiences to build that coveted roller coaster. That’s the real story for a puzzle game: a player’s journey from confusion to clarity, often repeated.
I have no illusion that I make the best game trailers. But I do believe that there’s something ripe and potent about this player-journey approach. It’s not to say that it’s a one-size-fits all solution. Each game genre is completely different: a spacecraft engineering game will require a different trailer storytelling method than a four-player brawler. But the overarching rule is consistent: the player’s emotional journey is always what makes them want to play your game.
My next trailer example takes us to the arcade. More specifically, the arcade action game genre. Story doesn’t matter here as much as the exhilaration of play. It can be a challenge to capture the emotional journey of this genre, but this is how we went about it for Super Flippin’ Phones:
Notice how the journey starts at comedy, dives into the game’s tension, ends in a moment of defeat, and then resolves in another “brave attempt,” punctuated with more humor. This was key for showing off the arcade action. We needed to show the victory and the defeat in a play-through; Winning is intense. Failing is easy to recover from. It’s an emotional roller coaster.
Emotional contrast is essential. You never start a romantic comedy with love birds already together; they have to be as far apart as possible or it their coming together lacks weight. Similarly, the first Hotline Miami’s trailer focused on this same up-and-down journey (quite literally). There’s anticipation, coldness, a “How could I do that?” moment, small success, dread, and then victory (albeit still melancholy). That sense of loss was key to that game, but it’s somewhat absent in Hotline Miami 2’s trailer. While Hotline Miami 2’s trailer is cooler, richer in game content, and full of energy, it lacks the depth of the low-notes in the first game’s trailer. It’s ostensibly still a cool trailer (and an amazingly well-produced one), but the low degree of despair keeps it away from the same emotional range of the first trailer.
Ask yourself: what are the player’s emotional highs and lows in my game? If either end is lacking in the trailer, the player will subconsciously feel it. The emotional ride will “taste” bland. Think of good Thai food. It focuses on four key notes: sweet, sour, spicy, and salty. Too much of any one of those and you crave more of the other.
Say you have the lows and highs sorted. Next, you have to figure out how you’re going to capture the emotional journey.
If you wanna me like me, get the game in front of people and then study how they play. It’s important that they play in a neutral space. Make the player as comfortable as possible so they can provide honest and thoughtful feedback. The more homelike and comfortable, the better. Record that experience both on-screen and the player’s vocal reactions. Video is helpful if you’re doing party games, but the setup, lighting, and environment can make normal players uncomfortable and provide an inauthentic experience. Most players don’t naturally talk or express when they play, but they will if you put multiple people together and encourage them to figure the game out together. Review all of the player input and feedback. This is exhaustive and can take a lot of your resources, but it’s key to finding the essential data that will drive your game’s trailer and subsequent marketing.
Say you do all of this and then find that the player’s voices and input don’t work for the trailer itself. That’s when you need to get creative in how you show the player themselves without them noticing. Check out how we did this in the next trailer:
We used a brilliant voice actress (Leonora Haig) to embody the player’s imagination within the game. The game’s creator and I were ecstatic about how this one turned out, but it started with much humbler beginnings.
The first thing we did was captured his emotional journey playing the game. The journey was there, but it didn’t resonate with tested audiences. You might see why in this earlier cut. We knew the emotional journey was good and rich. But we needed a better storytelling device. After retooling the script and hiring Leonora, we ended up with a trailer that we’re extremely proud of.
Sometimes the player’s emotional journey needs to be told through abstract means. One size never fits all and each project requires a unique approach. But the overarching lesson is true: emotional journeys sell games, and if you tap into the player’s heart, it’s just a matter of time before they hit that “buy” button.