How to craft visual novel trailers

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?”)

Screenshot 2018-03-29 16.41.27

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.

Screenshot 2018-03-29 16.43.06

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.

Screenshot 2018-03-29 16.42.27

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.

Screenshot 2018-03-29 16.40.57

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.

Go sound-crazy!

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.

Screenshot 2018-03-29 16.42.10

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.

Art Club Challenge teaser & launch trailer

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.

Art Club Challenge is available now for $3.99 on iPhone and iPad.

 

 

Tech Support: Error Unknown Teaser Trailer

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 Unknown on Steam. It releases later in 2018.

New trailer: Mama Hawk

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).

New: DEADBOLT – Launch Trailer | PS4, PS Vita

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.

New trailer: Disc Drivin’ 2

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 Batman action sequence.” My goal was to keep it humble: provide context, but let the game speak for itself.

Touch Arcade gave Disc Drivin’ 2glowing review. The game released on iOS for free February 1st.

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.

gameplay
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.

timeline
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. 

shop

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.

ECHO’s amazing launch trailer—and the difficulty capturing “fun.”

I just finished Ultra Ultra’s ECHO this morning, and wow! It’s something special: there’s truly nothing like it. The closest thing you could say is that it’s if a bunch of Hitman developers really loved the film Moon, and managed to build an entire science fiction universe using only one on-screen character—who is also all of the enemies.

I bought it because the trailer was so great:

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy the game as much as the trailer. When I say I finished the game, that’s a partial truth: instead of playing through the last two difficult chapters, I just skimmed them on YouTube and watched the ending. Because everything about the game is great, except that, it wasn’t as fun as I had hoped.

The stealth survival horror mechanics are tight, and everything you hear and see in the game has an elegant beauty unlike anything else. But I lost my draw to completing the objectives in the game. Maybe it was one too many cases of, “Find all thirty-two blue orbs to unlock the gate, while being hunted by your echoes.” Or how the plot lost its lure of, “Why are these echoes here and why do they look like me?” Also, I never got an answer on “What really is this place?” Instead all dialogue between your character En, and her AI companion, London, focuses on her relationship to an off-screen (and off-script) character named Foster, who we only hear her talk about. It’s not much of a carrot on a stick.

20171019150622_1

The trailer is still a front-runner for my favorite trailer I’ve seen this year. I’m here to talk about what makes the it truly exceptional, highlight that elusive secret sauce it may be lacking, and how devs can learn from this trailer / game relationship. So here we go!

“What are the trailer’s two strongest hooks?”

There’s two: (1) the beautiful framing mystery, and (2) the fresh new mechanics.

The mystery framed in the launch trailer is among the best of any game trailer I’ve ever seen. Right off the bat, we’re wondering why any of the things we’re seeing are happening, and where the story is going. The voice of the AI, London, makes it sound like he’s a trustworthy companion. And when En says, “It seems familiar, somehow…” that line evokes a powerful twist and reveal that we as the would-be player just want to unearth. Then there’s empty space of just taking-in the beauty of the mysterious palace setting. The mystery gains an extra potent layer when En meets the forming echoes of herself that then attack her. Color me intrigued.

20171019160424_1

The new mechanics get framed through this mystery (another brilliant choice) where you discover “they do what I do, the learn from me.” while we’re punctuated with shots of all the mechanical verbs. The action takes over, the music ramps-up. And we have just enough time to realize that this “teach your enemies” gameplay is really special.

The trailer then alludes to En’s ambition with restoring this Foster fellow (which I never remembered). I’m more interested in seeing how the gameplay verbs play out. The trailer ends on a creepy mysterious blank stare coming from En while she asks, “Foster, are you doing this?” Her pupils contract. And we land on the feeling of “WTF is going on here?”

20171019145117_1

This was enough for me to get the game and want to play through all of it, even when I wasn’t enjoying it. I wanted to find out where the mystery led. So, for that: the trailer is beyond excellent. It’s what kept me playing the game, even when the game itself lost its lure of mystery.

“What’s the trailer missing?”

In a word: fun. Admittedly, this is a terrible and elusive word that can mean next to nothing, but that’s why it’s so hard to get at—especially with a trailer. The trailer certainly captures tense and gratifying moments from the game: pulling off a last-minute shot, getting away from enemies, and enjoying mechanical tension. But I don’t know if it effectively says, “you will enjoy this game.”

Truth be told, most game trailers don’t—or can’t—effectively convey this. But that’s why trying is so important.

20171121162005_1

Many developers say that their games aren’t fun for most of development—and may never get to that fun factor at all. Even more difficult is making sure that a game is continuously fun.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have fun with Echo. It’s earliest teaching moments were where I had a big goofy grin on my face. But I fear Echo is more innovative than it is enjoyable. As such, it’s incredibly difficult to nail down the brief windows of fun in the experience overall—especially in the trailer. But I think that Ultra Ultra did the very best that was possible with what they had.

“What’s the trailer takeaway for devs?”

I don’t think mystery and innovation is enough to secure the confidence in your audience for your game. I used to think that differentiation, quality production, and emotional impact were enough to grab your would-be players’ attention in a trailer, but now I’d suggest that if there’s any way to really ensure the most-fun parts of your game are what we land on, maybe there’s a stronger way to convey this.

It’s a long hard question that’s not easily solved in the trailer crafting process, but one that should effectively haunt you: “How can we show that our game is fun?”

Thoughts on Axiom Verge (and its trailer)

ss_6fa9f9993bd867660e70f42f4e37f66c1359feb1.1920x1080

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.

ss_4aaaa46e1448faa76504c80bc2622fa57dc0aaff.1920x1080

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.

ss_978607583bf147d520f488bb9acdb1c00ea3349b

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.”

ss_9aac92ee9a9e7b7593cf8a53a160c671defa0c42.1920x1080

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!