Craft emotional intelligence into your game trailer

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.

The last thing you say before you leave the room is how people remember you. It’s one of my favorite moments in Seinfeld when “George Costanza” learns to leave on a high note. Leave them feeling all the feels, but do it on that one feeling you want to be remembered for. This was our exact approach for the conclusion for the Dead In Vinland launch trailer:

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.

Which parts of Bokida’s trailer were Damn-Near-Perfect?

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:

  1. Hard-to-explain game? Let style drive.
  2. Ground things in human voice.
  3. Focus on PLAYER verbs and motivations
  4. FPS-Cam: Keep it clean, but include player movement
  5. 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.

6 Trailer tips: Don’t offend your audience—like Mighty No. 9

Don’t offend your audience with your game’s trailer. This shouldn’t need to be said; but Mighty No. 9’s latest trailer forces the issue. It has over ten thousand dislikes—and for good reason. Take a gander:

Don’t insult the things your audience loves

Make the bad guys cry like an anime fan on prom night,” will go down in history as the worst line of video game advertising ever used. A top YouTube commenter calls-out this line and has over 1200 likes for addressing how cringe-worthy this line is. Considering how close Mega Man fandom ties to anime, it’s unbelievable nobody at Deep Silver stopped the press and said, “Hey this might not be such a great idea?” A normal trailer production process includes screening the trailer with intended audience members. Apparently somebody dropped the ball.

There’s a key lesson here for game devs: screen your trailers with your audience members before sharing it publicly, and ask them if there’s any parts they hate. If anything goes in the “hated it” category, toss it.

cry

Don’t treat your audience like idiots from the 90s

“Hey you, looking at the screen, let me ask you a question: do you like awesome things that are awesome? Then you gotta play this game, dude. It’s freakin’ cool. And crazy addictive—like popping bubble wrap addictive. Check this out.”

Commit this section to memory. Never say these things. None of them. Bad. Bad.

Show, don’t tell

The narrator tells you what you’re watching  like you don’t already know. “See that’s your dash move. There’s a short dash, long dash, jump dash, spiral, slide…” You don’t need to tell anybody about any of these things. We’re watching it, “dude.”

I still don’t know enough about Mighty No. 9’s absorption boosts, but the line of dialogue about them was the only thing in the trailer that piqued my interest—and it still didn’t tell me enough about them. Voice-overs can illuminate on-screen action, but this voice-over neglects anything important and only flirts with adding anything of value.

Prune your writing until only the essentials remain

If your trailer isn’t written by somebody with games writing experience, it shows. Industry veterans know when to rely on words and when to rely on visuals; it’s why we love games with perfect tone control. Chatty trailers can be fine (especially if you’re Supergiant Games), but anything spoken or written on-screen needs to add to the experience, not state the obvious.

Don’t make your Kickstarter backers hate themselves

Kickstarter backers for Mighty No. 9 saw this trailer and immediately started having second thoughts. “I’m starting to wonder if I should feel ashamed for helping to kickstart this…” Kotaku commenter, Sman X stated. This trailer should have leveraged the values and interests of their Kickstarter backers to gain a keen sense of what resonated with their intended audience. Value your community.

Study good game trailers

Devolver’s marketing team showcases some of the very best trailer practices, so be sure to look through their work. Today’s reveal trailer for ABSOLVER is a great place to start.

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M. Joshua Cauller makes game trailers that leverage the player experience. He offers free consultations. Contact him at mjoshua@mjoshua.com, check out his work at mjoshua.com, or sign-up for his trailer tips newsletter: