Darkest Dungeon stands at the precipice of my most-adored RPGs. The Color of Madness expands the original excursion: DLC inviting you to embark on a new Endless quest, rewarding players with many horrifying secrets. To craft the trailer for this new endeavor was a dream.
Or perhaps… the best kind of waking nightmare?
Creative reign was unfathomable to me — even after receiving Wayne June’s narration, active art files, and Stuart Chatwood’s new musical compositions. My drafts served as springboards — a dozen iterations that received flesh from Chris Bourassa’s direction of creativity. Jeff Tangsoc of Power Up Audio performed a master-pass on the auditory layer that made every vibration feel alive!
Your game should connect with players on an emotional level. This is the only way players can feel your game before picking up the controller.
Since most games don’t have human faces for emotional readability, you have to get creative at bridging that emotional gap. I mean, just after birth we start reading other people’s faces. But we spend our whole lives learning to really read emotions. It’s a long road until we grow to feel what others feel, but this is emotional intelligence in a nutshell. And if you get really good at it, you may even become a good listener.
Crafting your game’s trailer requires that you become as good of a listener as you can be: discerning each interaction’s precise emotions. Fortunately, developing emotional intelligence for your game is not as hard as it sounds: it’s just a skill forged over time — and iteration.
Let’s get into the trailer emotion toolkit.
Create an “emotion” column in your trailer’s script.
First you need to establish your game’s emotional vocabulary. Record some various gameplay. Or maybe just look at those GIFs you’re posting to Twitter that showcase key moments. Ask, “What’s the emotion here?” Write it down. Name the emotion. Maybe it’s, “Winking Fear of Death,” “Lips-Pursed Empowerment,” or “Holy Balls! What Am I Even Looking At?” It’s just a matter of thinking about the emotional intent of that scene. You might be wrong or inaccurate (we all read emotions differently), but starting with our first impression assumptions builds a place we can iterate on.
The most-helpful question for your trailer is, “What do I want players to feel… at this moment?”
Your trailer’s script works as a rubric: a lexicon of the full range of emotions you want to convey and contrast well-before you lay anything down in your working timeline. Slap all this information into a column on your game trailer script. This will be your springboard rolling forward.
Nobody cares about your facts — only how you make them feel.
I know game devs have a tendency towards the programmatic language of “features” instead of a game’s emotional benefits, but try to get past the features’ functionality.
Think about their heart-impact instead: “What will this feature make people feel?” Try to make them feel that. I mean, sometimes you have to state the facts. But discerning the heart of the feature will affect how it reads in the trailer. Like take what we did for Tricky Towers tournament update. We wanted to say “new tournament mode,” but this is how part of it came across in our trailer:
Granted, we had the advantage of player footage here, but it was our best tool for establishing the new tournament feature.
Say you get this: you’re feeling exactly what the players should feel for each of your features. You’ve already started mentally mapping the highs and lows of ‘how to craft a trailer’s emotional journey.’ It sounds like you’re actually ready to start showcasing with the most emotionally powerful moments from your game (we can tone it down if it’s too much). Let’s make them feel something.
Open on the most emotion-rich interaction. And iterate.
The bridge collapses at the end of the first shot in our Poly Bridge trailer. My toddler’s reaction to this breakdown moment? “OH NOOO!!!” That’s what we were going for, as it immediately leads to starting a new build from scratch. That sense of loss and retry is what we found endears engineer-type players the most to the game (and keeps them tinkering hundreds of levels in). But we tried at least a dozen different shots before we settled on this moment:
You can’t tell people how to feel, but you iterate on your emotional hypothesis until you get that ideal reaction. Keep trying intense shots until they feel like they land. Your opening is usually the hardest part of the trailer — and will be something you improve up until the trailer’s ready.
Request touchy-feely reactions.
The best feedback you can request is precise guttural reactions. If you’re asking what other game devs think, remember that audience tends to be more systems-analytical and seem more like pulling teeth asking just for emotive insight. Instead, try asking games-unfamiliar audiences. Kids, family members.
Ask them what each shot makes them feel inside.
Once you have everybody’s emotional feedback, you can embellish on those emotions, or tweak the way your trailer reads in those defining moments. This is where the dials get micro-adjusted and long-hours of refinement come into play. You don’t have to communicate emotions with words anymore. You should be reading (and adjusting) your shot moments based on pure emotive feel at this point.
Close on the sharpest gut-punch — of your game’s core hook.
I typically ask devs, “What’s your most WTF moment?” Because that tends to be loud, outstanding, and memorable. But if it can call-back to the very special sauce about your game. That thing nobody else has done before? Oh man! That super crazy gun, or the way you can futz with time. Maybe it’s not a mechanic; but a theme. A narrative reveal. A call-back to the characters who does something really shocking?
Whatever is truly loud and special about your game, sock it to them. And if it doesn’t land at first, iterate.
Remember the Power Rangers Effect.
Power Rangers turned playgrounds into seemingly drunken brawls because kids thought they learned real moves. It made them feel like karate masters.
This is the same psychological phenomenon you want to establish in others: make them think they know what they’re doing. It doesn’t matter if viewers don’t actually learn anything about your game.
As long as you make them feel it in their bones, you’re winning.
M. Joshua makes indie game trailers. Find more of his work at mjoshua.com.
Tiny Bubbles does something impossible: it provides tactical-puzzling depth—as it puts a giggling smile on my toddler’s face. We captured some of that “deep, but approachable” dynamic in our PAX West trailer, but we needed to lean further into the “deep” for the Steam audience.
Kristoffer Larson again provided his AAA soundtrack talent, ensuring that every scene swam with auditory life. Tiny Bubbles’ lead developer, Stu and I worked-out the best scenes from his fancy new Infinity Mode. And we leaned-into the “assault to the senses” visual flourish that we established in our first trailer together.
Dead in Vinland is about as system-rich as a game get: the blend of survival, RPG management, exploration, and tactics all come together in a harmonious package.
The key here was framing things on the fierce Welsh heroine, Blodeuwedd, and getting into the psyche of a protective mother who will do anything to protect her family. We wanted to capture her tension—but also the sheer “WTF” moments that the game has to offer (which it does, a-plenty). The biggest trick was figuring out the right blend of those elements. So we went back and forth several rounds, finding the precise synergies of shots and concepts. It grew my muscles for “parsing a giant RPG for those ideal trailer shots.” I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I had a lot of fun trying to wrap my mind around this deep game, and translating it into the trailer. Massive thanks to Marlon Wiebe for the referral on this project; connecting me with Playdius &CCCP. These guys were a pleasure to work with; developing key debug tools to help me hop around their 30-hr epic.
Get the brilliant possibility space that is, Dead in Vinland on Humble, GOG, Steam, or Origin (10% off until April 19).
Visual novel game trailers are a special beast. The genre isn’t known for a lot of shot variety and whiz-bang visuals. So you may be tempted to get super creative in how you show things. For me? I recently wrapped up a trailer for The Pirate’s Fate. In this visual novel, your decisions shape how your characters look. Take a look to see what I mean.
The Pirate’s Fate can stand on its own unique proposition, but there’s some universal takeaways we gleaned for anybody working on visual novel trailers.
Learn what visual novel fans want
The key is representing a visual novel fan’s precise tastes (and sensors for quality). These can be quite different from other gamer profiles. You need to do some recon.
Kickstarter backers provided generous answers for us to glean from. They raised the following questions:
Are there endearing characters?
Do I make meaningful choices?
Will my choices have powerful consequences?
Does the story have emotional depth?
How much replayability is there (AKA, “How many endings?”)
We took this data quite seriously, and just went straight for the key points, making sure to focus on the characters, choices, consequences, and the depth of possibilities.
Don’t apologize for being a visual novel: keep it visually honest
It’s important that a game feels as close as possible to the actual game experience, so players know what they’re getting into. I rebuilt scenes from The Pirate’s Fate so I could control each scene’s minute details. Still, I never lost the true spirit of the player’s experience with the game: processing dialogue and interactions between characters—your mind filling in the blanks instead of animation.
The ideal visual novel trailer represents the game sincerely and without apology.
Use artificial special effects sparingly
If you watch most visual novel trailers, you’ll see way more action than what’s true to the experience. Titles swoosh. Characters glide over parallax backdrops. And every major bit of selling-point information gets crammed in. Oddly, story often feels like an afterthought.
In lieu of detailed in-game animation, you may be tempted to go motion graphic crazy. Zooms, pans, and flashy particle effects for the fun of it. But your visual novel only connects with people who trust it to immerse them in the fiction. So give them characters. Give them the story.
Tell a singular story
Visual novel trailers should feel like a jam-packed story. However, this is a bit harder because spoilers can be so tricky to navigate. Often visual novels trailers are so spoiler-averse that they forget to even bother telling a story. Don’t do that. Your story is your greatest asset.
Derek Lieu advised me once to take a game’s whole script and skim it for great framing questions: the central mystery. Grandiose framing statements. It’s worked well for me. So I’ll advise the same. Skim your whole script for the most powerful framing questions and statements.
Start with the basics: who are we, where are we? What’s the central mystery? What’s the active tension? Curiosity is your biggest tool. Try to leave questions without providing answers.
Sometimes your script is so massive that reviewing the whole thing would take weeks. So just limit it to your most choice material: how much of your game has voice acting? Start there.
Once you strip it down to the best bits, you’ll probably still have more than you could ever cram in a trailer. Time to pare down. With the core framework of The Pirate’s Fate extracted, I began to strip everything that wasn’t perfect and powerful. It might feel a little unusual at first, but this is where iteration and revision comes into the editing process.
Set-up the world, the key player in this world, and invite the viewer into a player role. Over time, it will start to feel like a short encapsulation of your game’s overall story.
Sound makes people believe something is real, even if there’s no visuals to go along with it. Something about the way our ears feel the auditory vibrations creates a resonance with in us. It makes us trust our ears more than our eyes. So making the trailer more sound-driven was one element that made the game feel like more real of a place and experience. Similarly, it couldn’t sound as great without the game’s incredible setting-grounding soundtrack.
Cram-in the (emotional) selling points
It’s not important that your viewers have enough time to digest all the key selling points of the game, only that they’re there and can be found on multiple views. Over-stuffing your trailer is highly recommended, because nobody remembers what you tell them, but everybody remembers how you make them feel. So if there’s too much information, that can make people feel like, “there’s so much here, I don’t have enough time to take all of this in!” Just remember your goal is not making people feel informed, it’s informing their feelings.
Emotional intelligence matters. When scripting, create a column next to each shot and ask, “What’s the emotion for this moment?” Question if this emotion would make you want to play the game or be curious, or feel scared, or make you angry (Anger is an effective tool if you’re trying to motivate somebody to do something). Your goal here isn’t to manipulate, but faithfully relay the active tensions of your game: to make them want to feel how your game feels.
Never lose sight of your audience: visual novel fans need their questions answered. So if you’re feeling lost in the woods, come back to the core questions: choice, characters, and consequences.
Spend five minutes with Jarryd Huntley, and he’ll remind you that you’ve valuable. You might even want to give him a hug. For his game, Art Club Challenge, it was essential that we captured his charm.
His game is a wondrous bastion of creativity. Capturing its essence required that we explain, “Solve puzzles by creating art.” So Jarryd talks us through the requirements of solving a basic puzzle, “Make a little blue bird….”
The inviting soundtrack comes from sax artist, Nathan-Paul. He makes the game feel like you’re in a jazz cafe, enjoying your favorite hot beverage, reinforcing that low-pressure “you can make great art” spirit.
For the launch trailer, the new story mode needed to shine. We amended the teaser, but realized it we need to re-frame the intro: different music, new question—and a little bit more open air to take things in.
The most rewarding thing is seeing a ton of new artwork from the game appearing online and from the galleries after its gotten to launch. I love the way it makes things fun for seasoned artists, but also makes it fun and easy for anybody to create and shine.
Tech Support: Error Unknown made me feel like I was talking to real people. I had to stop a few times; remind myself that these were NPCs with procedurally-generated dialogue. But man, the emotional impact of this game experience is intense. So I really wanted to make sure we got some of that emotionally-connected feeling through the trailer.
I also learned desktop game trailers can be quite tricky to direct emotionally. The guidepost for this trailer was bringing in a little sound design to make it emotionally readable. James Marantette made everything come alive by composing the music and designing the sound effects. The creator, Kevin Giguère, crafted a brilliant hacking element in the game, but this mechanic didn’t read clearly until we added James’ keyboard sound where the player clicks on elements in the Terminal, reinforcing my belief that in trailers, everything needs a sound. James’ audio work gave voice to all of the emotions I was feeling when I played the game, especially that notification sound of “somebody’s talking to me!”
You can wishlist Tech Support: Error Unknownon Steam. It releases later in 2018.
Mama Hawk snared me with her talons when I upgraded her: suddenly this loving single parent transformed into something incredible. We wanted to capture that magical moment—showcase that moment of, “Wait, what?”
Kati Nawrocki brought her Mama character to forefront with some custom illustration (that I animated). We wanted the focus to hone-in-on the arcade gameplay (crafted by Andrew Garrahan, and Genaro Vallejo of Computer Lunch).
Mama Hawk is available February 22nd on iOS and Android—for free (ad-free for $1.99).
I cried when Hopoo Games came to me for Deadbolt’s launch trailer. That’s not hyperbole. I was just so excited, tears happened. Stealth games are my absolute jam, but solving the challenge of how to showcase stealth planning and execution is something of a masocore delight: fitting for Deadbolt’s incredible difficulty. Chris Christodoulou’s amazing track The Great Beyond has these amazing snaps and stops that made editing a dream.
The game’s comes out on PS4 and Vita Feb. 20. You can also get now it on Steam.
When Pixelocity Software came to me for a trailer to the sequel of Disc Drivin, I had no idea it was practically THE game of Touch Arcade. After playing it, I got why: flicking your disc is an amazing tactile way to race. Disc Drivin’ 2 improves that formula with a double-flick, power-ups, and more vertical tracks: for more Rainbow-Road-like opportunities to make your own shortcuts. James Marantette came on board for custom musical arrangements. My direction to him was, “Let’s try to do Mario Kart by way of 30 Rock’s show opener, punctuated like an Adam West Batmanaction sequence.” My goal was to keep it humble: provide context, but let the game speak for itself.