Make trailers that capture the player’s emotional journey

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.

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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.

[This post by M. Joshua was originally featured on Gamasutra on November 20, 2016.]

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[About the author: M. Joshua makes indie game trailers. You can read more of his indie game trailer tip articles on his blog, or review his portfolio at mjoshua.com. He’s available for trailer production and consultations at mjoshua@mjoshua.com.] 

Indie trailer lessons from the Nintendo Switch announcement

You already saw this First Look trailer. You already know whether or not the Nintendo Switch will have a place in your life. But do you know why you have this already figured out in your mind? I would suggest it’s because of how this trailer is produced and edited.

Can you remember any of the faces of the people playing the Switch in this trailer? I can’t. But I can remember their emotional reactions or their looks of concentration, and I felt connected to the experiences they were having.

I could see myself in their shoes. 

This is game-trailer gold.

You may have had a different experience with this trailer, but I, for one am really excited to discover the price-point on this device — there’s a chance I’ll be there day one. The key is that I felt like I was having these same experiences with the Nintendo Switch as I watched. That may be because I love playing games on the go and with others, so the mileage may vary. But here’s the key: When you show people in an experience that they can insert themselves into, you grab your game’s audience.

It also helps to hand your game off to players and see what they do with it.

How do players prefer to play your game?

When you’re showing your game at a PAX or Gamescom event, you control the setup and you control the experience — it’s not authentic to how player actually play your game. This can be very hard and scary — since you have no idea what players are going to to when they get their hands on your game. But try this out: just give a few regular players (not developers) your game. Then see what they do with it.

What do players do with your game when you give it to them? This leads to a whole litany of questions from that experience:

  • How do they sit?
  • At a desk?
  • On the couch?
  • On a plane?
  • Do they share it with their non-gaming family members?
  • Is any of that special?
  • What surprises occur?

You’re going to be surprised. That may be because of how foolish their play experiences seem to how you intend. Or they may come up with something you never thought of. When I shared That Dragon Cancer with my game group, we had fourteen people cram into my living room. We found ourselves passing the controller from scene to scene — meaning everybody got to play and feel connected to the experience. We didn’t plan that; it just happened naturally — and it worked perfectly. These kinds of discoveries only happen when games are given a proper chance to be put in players’ hands.

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These player-surprises can make your marketing material story. Who wanted to play Skyrim on an airplane? I don’t know, but give that person a medal. That created one of the most powerful selling points on the system — and I could easily play the game on my laptop in a flight right now, but the idea of playing it with a controller on a personal sized screen that sits in front of me (and not overheating my lap)? That’s attractive.

Put your game in player’s hands.

See what they do with it. Make note of the surprises. It doesn’t have to be an open alpha event — just a few friends are fine. This will tell you so much about what actual player experiences are like — and most importantly: how to show your game.

Local multiplayer and co-op games have the biggest advantage in this department — it’s why Nintendo Switch’s strongest trailer moments relate to player interaction. But there’s still benefit to trying this out if your game is, say an RTS or a hidden object puzzle game. There’s this thing about heartfelt player reactions that tell a story even greater than that which is grasped on-screen.

Consider showing your players in your trailer.

The most powerful tool in comedy is the human face. Since they’re the first thing we learn to connect with after we’re born, it’s amazing that there’s so few faces in trailers. We connect with emotions by seeing them on somebody else’s face.  I would argue it’s the standout feature in this Move or Die trailer. And again — you don’t remember any of the actual faces, but you remember their emotions.

Your connection with your players can come through those sincere reactions of player’s faces. And when they’re not sincere, players recognize that immediately. The tricks to capturing honesty is an art unto itself — we’ll get to that in a future post. For now I’ll leave you with a reflection:

Did you connect with a moment in the Nintendo Switch trailer?