Launch Trailers

Launch trailers are the easier kind of game trailer — you already know what your game is, who your audience is, and what players expect of the game. All you need to do is reinforce confidence to hit that “buy” button.

Still, there’s more to it.

Your launch trailer will champion your game for years to come. So it needs to achieve “shut up and take my money” status instead of, “…I’ll wait for the bundle.”

The split comes down to FOMO.

“You’re missing out!”

We buy games because we don’t want to miss a one-of-a-kind experience — the kind that makes us wonder what’s even possible. With every trailer I make, my gut is to draw people into “here’s what you’ve been missing out on.” It’s even better when the game already has already blown up.

Our Slay The Spire launch trailer starts in the thick of things. You don’t know who you are, why you’re here, or how card combat works. You’re on the ropes. Right where I want you.

I wanted folks to feel what they had been missing out on. This is best felt when we show streamers rocking the game at the highest difficulty. In this collage, you feel a sense of phenomenon — something that caught many of us by surprise. That surprise sensation is a luxury few launch trailers can afford, but it merely helped work-up to our best card: that emotive sense that you’ve been missing out.

Even if you know nothing of roguelike card games, and even if my gameplay footage is hard to contextualize, people leave the trailer with an unspoken sense of, “There’s more to this than the trailer could do justice.” That is not an accident. It’s a precision confidence strike that annihilates any chance for buyer’s remorse — or at least hits it 0.3% modifier. Not bad odds.

“There’s way more inside!”

I’m taken back to Star Wars’ Cantina: more worldbuilding gets done in that tiny little bar scene than anywhere else in Star Wars. The trick is the cutaway shots you don’t remember: the alien rejects flashed in two second shots inform the expanse of the galaxy at trailer-light speed. You can’t even remember how many you saw, just that there was a lot of them.

This is our move.

You want to stick within the comforts of established narrative, but cram as many flashes of related material into the margins, that nobody even realizes that you’ve shown them half your game. This just leaves an impression in the back of a viewer’s mind that there’s a whole world here.

If you have the perk of an on-board narrator, you can crack wise while you do it.

With Parkitect, it felt like I could never fit all of its toys inside a single toy box. So I made a script about how it was “300x bigger than any theme park ever.” While it’s just a roll-over joke, the real meat-qualifier is the seven shots before that  reveal theme parks inside of the real theme park. Typically, I prefer subtlety over braining viewers with “see more inside.” But I’m glad it works here as a heavy handed illustration. Haha.

Once you find a way to show there’s more meat than potatoes, it’s time to start making people feel comfy on the rug you’re about to pull out from under them.

“This feels comfortable…”

We first want to make players understand something about the game. Usually that requires we establish the genre and bring people up to speed brick by brick. But as with the Slay the Spire example, it was first important to make people feel like they’re missing out. So you can decide where to set the foundation to build on: whether that’s the very beginning, or a bit later.

In The Messenger’s launch trailer, I sought to first orient the player with the game’s most-unique mechanic—namely the air-strike-to-extra-jump “cloud stepping.” You see the technique used early, but then it’s used in advanced fashion all the way up to the end action shot. This technique is standard game design: teach, test, escalate, then test harder. This is basic gameplay trailer literacy in action.

Next, it’s time to complicate matters. Suddenly we reveal this isn’t just an 8-bit platformer, but transitions to 16-bit scenes on the fly. This portal transition can disorient if we didn’t first set the context. But because the player know what kind of game it seems to be, it’s the right time in the trailer to say, “oh but there’s more!” Once you frame things, you’re free to stack on top, and build-up further complications.

If you do this just right, you make the viewer happily disoriented.

“…This also feels really different!”

Once you’ve grounded your sense of orientation in reality, you have enough footing to swallow the weird pills. That’s best illustrated in how we did YIIK’s launch trailer.

YIIK starts with an odd feeling in a familiar town. Then it goes so far off the rails that you forget there were ever rails.

The key was for me to pour over the script looking for every human, relatable moment, and try to draw an underlying nest out of those very natural interactions. That way, when we get to talking pandas, mind dungeons, and JRPG battles with violent trash cans, we already made you feel connected to real things like Y2K panic, skateboards, and 56k dial-up modems.

Imagine if we didn’t first start with that Y2K footing. All of the surprise of getting hit by a giant asteroid at times square on New Years in the year 2000 would have zero weight. It would leave people with an unspoken “meh” instead of an audible, “WTF?!?”

Think hard about that last shot. The last emotion you land on: that’s the lasting connection folks have with your game. You want them to leave with some big feelings.

“This is my stuff!”

Your farewells should wave the freakiest freak flag that you’ve got. This rally call reminds your unique tribe of who they want to be. So don’t be ashamed of any bit of your game’s greatest eccentricities. It’s best if you just end by showing things jamming on their maximized cylinders!

I didn’t plan on landing here, but I want to draw an emphasis on how we ended with Risk of Rain’s Nintendo Switch trailer. It’s almost unreadable. Which is sorta the point.

Paul Morse recorded this gameplay footage for me, so I had to interpret his actions. I can definitively tell you that that the big circle is getting bigger, and things are getting more intense. Past that, it’s just almost too much for me to process.

We leaned into the chaos instead of opting for a cleaner UI.

Typically you want to turn off all the UI of a game. But in our Switch build, there weren’t any reasonable ways to do this. So we leaned into the on-screen clutter the same way the game itself does. If you don’t like seeing crazy numbers pop out of gargantuan beasts, this probably isn’t the game for you anyway. That’s okay. Those who see this and like big numbers flying out of beast butts, know this is totally their jam. These players were the ones who already shared their first run of the game before I got my copy — an hour after it came out.

Serious fans know what they want. So leave them feeling like they seriously matter — by showing them their favorite selves in-game.

Lessons From Our Launch Trailer for Poly Bridge

The Poly Bridge launch trailer was a dream-job. Dry Cactus’ Patrick Corrieri brought me on after finding my Gamasutra piece, Worst Trailer Mistakes. He believed together we could retro-engineer those mistakes into the Best Trailer Practices” (which could be another name for this post). After a savvy dose of elbow grease, it worked. We produced a trailer that connected the game with would-be-engineer-players. We had high hopes, but it turned out better than we imagined — so good that it might serve as a help for other trailer producers. Let me show you what went right and how to replicate that process.

First, check out our trailer:

Hook desired players with the first shot  — to establish setting, tone & genre simultaneously

Think of your trailer’s first shot as the framework for your whole game. You’re probably not making an engineering game like Poly Bridge, but the lesson is the same: if you can answer a player’s framing questions right off the bat, why wouldn’t you?

Since Fuller House uses the San Francisco Bridge as its establishing shot, we figured “Hey, we’re making a game about bridges! Let’s try the same thing!” So opened with a nice bridge… falling apart. Falling to pieces establishes Poly Bridge as a bit of a comedy game where failure is a fun and essential part of learning. So in one shot, we established the playful tone, the low-poly world, and bridge-building gameplay. Oh! And we perked the ears of our engineery-player (our main goal).

Think of how you might show all four of those things in your first shot:

  1. Reveal the world
  2. Define the gameplay
  3. Set the emotional tone
  4. Snare the player’s attention.

Can you find a shot that does all of those things at once? I know it’s hard, but it’s worth it.

Build player literacy — as soon as you hook their attention

You need to teach viewers how to play the game — and you need to do that within about twenty seconds. It’s not easy, but it’s essential for teaching viewers how to make sense of what they see (and doing it fast, while you’ve got them). Your trailer’s literacy layer gives viewers what they need to understand late-trailer complexity (like a triple-decker hydraulic bridge).

I played Poly Bridge’s intro levels about twenty times up front and another twenty throughout production. I learned that they show best when you record them in backwards-order (Memento-style) — to make sure the engineering shots made perfect sense with a final build.

We want viewers to be like the kid who watches Power Rangers and suddenly “knows karate.” That way when we toss the car with a catapult, they think, “I could do that too” (with a little training, of course). “I could do that” is the Ultimate Weapon for game trailers. If you can get them to think they actually know how to do something, it’s even better. This is basic immersive psychology — and something players look for without having words for it.

If you really want to get your trailer literacy right, know your intro levels backwards and forwards. Can you teach somebody how to play blindfolded? This might sound extreme, but it can help.

Take us through the ups and downs — of the player’s emotional journey

Failure is essential to learning, especially in Poly Bridge. So we made it a special point to showcase that kind of failure early on — with a two-car bridge collapse (while teaching viewers how to read the game). Remember this: early disappointment catalyzes the joy of breakthrough when learning.

You need to show the emotional journey of ups and downs that players face throughout your game. Do your trailer’s shots show emotional range? Or is it all “kill time” and “now we walk through the world?” That has it’s place, but you really want a more varied emotional response. Start by bringing joy and sadness together to create advanced and complex emotions (like Inside Out). You can find these hearty multifaceted feelings in most film, and video game trailers are no exception — as long as you specifically design them in.

Take for example, our motorcycle jump shot at 0:36 — this begins Act 2 of the trailer’s emotional arc. Notice how the biker looks like she’s gonna miss the jump (“oh no!”), then at the last second, the bike flips around and turns into a surprise landing (“huzzah!”). But that’s not all: then we show level selection (“whoa, that’s a lot of levels!”), which provides a bit of emotional rest. Then we’re suddenly in Sandbox mode, tugging on those creative-emotion strings. Then we’re popped into an elaborate catapult plan about to go off (“wait for it”). The catapult launches our car! Again our heart is in the air (“is it gonna make it?”), just before making a perfect landing (“phew!”). So there you go: that’s Act 2 of the emotional journey.

Before we leave this topic, remember this: video gets them there, but the sound makes their heart believe it. Nothing beats working with a competent sound designer. Adrian Talens custom-built the Poly Bridge trailer’s entire soundscape to coincide with the soundtrack he authored for the game. I recommend working with him if you’re looking for somebody on a similar project. Sound design and a score isn’t always in everybody’s trailer budget, but when you can afford the sound designer for the emotional punch, it’s an easy choice.

Discover what players are looking for — through Early Access

Post-Early-Access launch trailers punch harder than most trailers. That’s because once the game exits Early Access, players have had a chance to figure out what the game is, and what its best parts are. By the time 1.0 is ready to push, you know how to show what players love about your game.

Patrick had enough real player-data to determine that serious Poly Bridge players loved the engineering tools: hydraulics, copy-and-pasting, line curves, as well as the advanced Sandbox and Workshop options. We took this data and applied it to our shot selection — to show would-be-engineers what they want.

Early Access clearly isn’t for every game, but its process in this trailer made me want to work on another Early Access project. The data practically sells itself.

Highlight your game’s most-unique qualities — don’t be afraid to trust players to spot them

This is where the craft and nuance of it comes into play: it’s not enough to show your game’s biggest distinctives, but knowing how to highlight those features takes patience.

We focused on hydraulics in the Poly Bridge trailer, so you’ll find them in a large amount of shots. Early Access taught Patrick that our engineery-types really dug hydraulics, so we just let them frame the whole trailer as almost an accessory. Hopefully whenever you hear the hydraulic lift truck picking-up your dumpster for the next three weeks, you’ll think of Poly Bridge.

Take your time when honing your feature highlights. Trusting your audience with information is hard, but when they can take those pieces and own them without feeling like you told them to, it’s a win. It’s like seeing a kid wearing your band’s shirt and having no idea who they are —  your idea connected naturally because you took the time to patiently study and listen.

Start with a super-rough animatic — that gets your idea into (crappy) video form

I’m stepping back here because a video sketch is key. I call it an animatic. Some call it a rough-cut. What you call it isn’t important. Just get all your stuff on a timeline so everybody you’re working with can get on the same page.

In case you feel like your first draft is awful, our first animatic might make you feel a little better:

Notice how different it is shot-wise, especially the abundance of jump shots and garbage builds. They didn’t offer any value past holding my attention (which isn’t important). Patrick course-corrected this (later) by sharing his Early Access findings, and generally knowing his game. Most importantly, the animatic became a point of reference that we could talk around. And even though we’re on opposite ends of the planet, we were looking at the exact same thing.

You’ll have a clear idea of what you need to improve once you first get things into draft. Remember that velocity is your friend at the beginning of the creative process.

Collaborate and listen — about what is/isn’t working in the trailer, and iterate

Creating anything by yourself sucks — because you become blind to your own shortcomings. Your game’s trailer is the same. Test it with others who have wise critical eyes that know what can be improved.

Nobody knows Poly Bridge better than Patrick Corrieri, so his full attention (in short windows between crunch) ensured for us a trailer that faithfully represented his game. We went back and forth a lot more than we expected, but it was worth it. It showed in the details.

Don’t be afraid to hit-into what you hate or love about the project. Share clarifications and encouragements with each other. Patience with one another defines great collaboration — and gracious listening goes a long way.

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For more on Poly Bridge, please check out http://polybridge.drycactus.com/. You can find out more about me (M. Joshua) and game trailer production at http://mjoshua.com.