Make game trailers full of awe — without No Man’s Sky’s traps

You need to build an honest game trailer — without sacrificing an ounce of sex-appeal. Now that we’re officially in a post-No-Man’s-Sky world, everybody is deathly afraid of overselling their game. But I promise that there’s a greater danger: not selling your game at all.

You can have both. It’s not that hard. 

Step 1. Show good hitting of things.

When Rocket League’s ‘OMG’ trailer came out last year, it grabbed me with one moment: when that rocket-car hit the ball for the first time. I bought it full price. No questions asked.

Show good hits in your trailer, and you quickly separate your game from the hype train, and open yourself up to being able to flesh out the rest of your trailer with non-hitting-of-things shot. Because once you show that first good hit, you bring confidence to your action-players.

Does your game have killing? Show somebody getting killed. Make those jabs, stabs, and metallic clanks blast at full-volume. Showing in-game action with real chunky flashes with matching sound-effects tells viewers right away: this game has a good hitting of things.

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Do me a favor, count the “hitting of things” shots in the first No Man’s Sky trailer. It’s not hard. You only need one hand — a problem that persisted through many of the trailers. The bigger problem was that the sizzle already hit the air well-before any steak got on the grill.

Sometimes it’s hard to show good hitting of things. If you’re building a game in a genre without combat (like a management sim, adventure game, or visual novel), then you’ll find a lot less things to hit. But you’re not out of luck: showing a climactic mechanical event, such as a simulated bar completing and producing a reward, or placing a key into a fancy keyhole and unlocking, or picking a dialogue option and showing a happy character response. Each of these register as “good hits” in the player’s mind, and can be instrumental in transforming trailer viewers into players.

Step 2. Show the ideal gameplay.

Say your game is a stealth game: don’t show your character just waiting in the shadows — at least not for the whole trailer. That’s boring.

Don’t focus on the boring bits.

Show players what the ideal action moments are. It’s okay to not-show 90% of stealth gameplay (searching dark corners, waiting under tables, listening for guard footsteps). Hide your low-emotion gameplay and go for the high-emotion highlights! Show the five seconds of payoff from hunting a mark from the shadows for five quiet minutes. Anticipation edits are useful too, but don’t feel obligated to show your less-attractive gameplay in your trailer.

Fellow trailer-maker Derek Lieu says, “The goal for game trailer capture is to show an idealized version of what it’s like to play the game. The only reason it might look “better” than the player’s actual experience is because capture for a trailer is perfected by doing take after take. I think anything goes as long as the capture doesn’t misrepresent the game or its mechanics.”

Derek’s point is clear: as long as you’re building the trailer in-engine and informing actual mechanics and/or plot-points, you’re golden. When Derek made the E3 trailer for Firewatch, he captured the core activities of the game, but in order to capture great “WTF” mystery of the game, he had to work with the devs to construct a moment not in the game, and show that. He details this process on Campo Santo’s blog — where he explains the how and why behind that decision.

Building-out custom scenes for your trailer is often absolutely necessary for your trailer. However, it’s essential that they run in-engine and do not betray the core interactions and experiences of your game. If you’re building your game to run primarily on PS4 hardware, it’s probably a bad idea to rely on any performance that’s only possible on a top-end PC — unless the general public’s version of the game will be able to do the same exact thing. Integrity here counts, especially since the player community will hold you in contempt if they discover that you’ve done something otherwise.

Your goal here is to first identify: what is my ideal gameplay? What does my game do the best? Show that, build tools to showcase it if you have to, but whatever you do, show your game doing what it’s the greatest at.

Step 3. Build your world extravagantly — but do it honestly

Awe may be the single most important aspect of your game. This is the part of your trailer where you’re revealing how big the world is, showing the most beautiful shots, the most iconic and pristine moments. There are no limits to what you can do, say, and how here. Seriously.

But there’s a reason why this is Step 3.

Only once you’ve qualified your lead are you able to provide your pitch. And gamers feel the same way: if the game has qualified itself with a good hitting of things and an ideal gameplay establishment, you can go on to say whatever you want.

Take the launch trailer for Alien:Isolation for example. There’s not a ton of hitting or ideal gameplay moments, and most of it focuses on setting and tone, but that’s because they’ve established the hits: the alien kills you very suddenly. You run. And the hits come. It might not even say everything in that trailer because it assumes the hits from previous trailers have hooked you. But those popping moments leave a ton of play-room.

Facts matter, obviously. So don’t show anything that’s not a qualified fact. If you’re using accolades, don’t misquote. Be sure to cite your source. And as long as you don’t use artificial HDR lighting (that your game can’t pull) or any other disingenuous tricks, run free. Make your trailer as impressive as it can be.

Once you work with the baseline foundation of honesty, you’re free to do just about anything.

Step 4. Deliver the goods (release a game that matches your trailer)

This is the easiest step for me, because I edit trailers and I don’t have to worry about this at all. But for you, the developer, this is where the goods come into play. If you’re able to make good on all the promises you’ve put forth, then that’s wonderful. And speaking of wonder, it’s the talent of an experienced craftsman that bridges the gap between ambition and wonder.

Don’t be afraid to leverage your previous successes (and failures) towards the direction of your brand. Your name might not mean something this time; but it will after you find your audience. Hold on to your longevity: wear it around your neck.

And if at first you release a game that doesn’t match the hype of your first trailer, be like Slain: Back From Hell, which spent several months refining itself after launching to a poor reception — until it “came back from hell” with a better hitting of things.

At the end of the day, people remember your game for what it became (even if at first it didn’t make a good impression).

Step 5. Double-check: did you cover Step 1 and Step 2?

Once you’re almost done your trailer and second-guessing each shot, come back to Step 1 and Step 2: are you showing a good hitting of things? Are you showing your ideal gameplay scenarios? If so, you got the most important parts. Those are the parts people will remember even if they forget everything else in your trailer.

Towards the end of the process, the finishing touches often take way longer than you expected, but know that the more polish you put into the edit, the more it shows. Your trailer may be the first impression your game makes with a player. Be sure to make it count.

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This isn’t the end-all be-all of how to make fantastic trailers, but it should help. If you liked this piece, read more of my indie game trailer tip articles on mjoshua.com/blog.