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.

Worst Trailer Mistakes

“What shouldn’t I do in my next trailer?” is the second-most-asked question I get (the first is “how much?“). Anybody can make their own game’s trailer, but it takes craft to do it well. Here’s some traps to avoid:

I can’t read your game (you didn’t teach me how to play)

Think from the uninformed viewer’s perspective: they don’t know how your game works or what the goals are. Use that knowledge to teach them how to make sense of what they’re seeing. You don’t need to teach them exactly how to play, but they need to understand enough that they aren’t lost.

Games typically take hours to make players feel competent in a world, but your trailer has to do that in one minute. Pre-established genres have a huge advantage here, so if you’re genre-mashing or creating something altogether new, consider this your first major hurdle: players can’t imagine themselves inside of a game they don’t understand. You may have to straight-up tell viewers what’s happening on-screen (like in the FTL trailer) — and that’s okay. Just get them there.

You failed to hook me

Forget showing your logos. You’re not LucasArts, so flashing your logo doesn’t make people say, “Oh, this is gonna be good.” Your best game moments should do that.

Give context when needed, but make sure that you hook players fast. And don’t wait thirty seconds to show the best parts of your game. Some major movie trailers now start with ten seconds of the most interesting scenes from the movie, devoid of context. That might not work for everybody, but it demonstrates a good practice of hooking viewers first.

You said too much

Don’t try to cram too much into 90-seconds. I get it. You want to make sure viewers know enough to make an informed purchasing decision. The problem is that when you say too much, you end up saying nothing at all. Leave room for imagination and mystery. Stick to a singular focus. Apply the KISS principle. Stick to your heart (your game’s true heart — that speaks to the player’s motivations).

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You forgot the player’s motivation (and just listed features instead)

Don’t just list your game’s features. Drop the bullet-lists. Show what feels good about your game — the parts that make your lips curl into a smile and make you say, “Yeahhhh!” Hyper Light Drifter grabed me because the release trailer took me to a place full of tension, secrets, and underlying mystery. I didn’t know yet how much the brutal difficulty would shape and inform that, but I knew I wanted to feel what it’s like to be in that world. Players want your game because of how it makes them feel. Show that.

Your trailer feels flat (there’s no emotional journey)

The best stories feel like a well-designed roller coaster. There’s there’s a rising action, there’s loops, a climax, and a resolve. It’s this emotional back-and-forth that makes an impression. As I stated in my full article on this topic, 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. As Kert Gartner likes to ask, “Am I creating a story with my trailer?”

Your game looks like that other game

I’m not gonna share your trailer with my friends unless it’s unique and memorable. If it looks just like something else I played, I’m closing the tab. Only showing familiar game mechanic bores viewers. Don’t bore them. That’s a death sentence.

Play-up your game’s uniqueness. Feel free to go to town. It’s okay if your trailer looks better than your game itself, because some genres just don’t play well with trailers. If your game’s all about stealth, please don’t show yourself hiding behind cover for sixty seconds. Yes, that’s true to the game-feel, but players need to see what happens when the crap hits the fan. That fan-crap-spray makes a player’s day. Let it fly!

You rushed your trailer (and it shows)

I like to call this, “oh shit, we need a trailer tomorrow.” Another name for it is “meh, this’ll do.”

Everybody can edit video these days, but great video editing takes time. Ninety percent of great writing is rewriting — and the same goes for video production. First drafts only take a few hours, but if you think your trailer is ready to go at that point, you’ve got another thing coming. It annoys me how long that ‘hell stage’ of trailer production lasts, but great art takes time. You should put that as a reminder on your desk somewhere (especially if your game is taking years): “Great art takes time!”

Plan-out for when you need your trailer. Planning on a September release? Start your launch trailer no later than the beginning of August. I usually say “three weeks,” for a trailer turnaround. And sometimes that’s rushing it. If you’re doing the trailer yourself, you should keep that time frame in-mind. Your trailer is the first thing people see on Steam — it’s usually what pushes folks towards or away from a buying decision. Make sure it tips them in your favor and shows that you put time, thought, and quality into your game.

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Reach out to M. Joshua at mjoshua@mjoshua.com, on Skype at m..joshua.cauller, or you can call him directly at 717.201.5278. Sign up for his newsletter, where you’ll get all kinds of trailer tips and insights:


How much for a trailer?

Everybody’s first question to me is “how much for a game trailer?” My response is always, “What kind of a trailer do you want?”

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Think of your trailer like a vehicle — after all, your trailer is the vehicle for your game online. So how much is a vehicle? You might find a used scooter for a few hundred, but you probably want a fully-equipped SUV that will cover you in any situation — which starts at a much higher price point.

Know what kind of vehicle you want? Great. Now we can figure out what kind of vehicle you can afford.

How much for a FULLY EQUIPPED Trailer?

These trailers are loaded. In this Tesla Model X of game trailers, just provide your game and I’ll take care of everything trailer-related. Sit back in the plush leather seating — that empowers you in the last string of crunch before your baby releases into the game-o-sphere. You pay for a quality ride.

Price: $$$$

My That Dragon, Cancer trailer shows this in motion.

How much for a CUSTOM Trailer (where devs capture the footage)?

You captured the game footage yourself (and you might even have an idea for how to use it). I take care of everything from there — so you can get back to jamming on your game. You get the performance and qualities of a FULLY EQUIPPED trailer, but you take the edge off of the production cost. You pay for a collaborative ride.

Price: $$$

Ecotone’s Early Access trailer serves as an example.

How much for a LIVE  Trailer (with real players)? 

You want to know how people experience your game, so I put your game in front of real players. They play the game on camera (with sound) while I capture their in-game experience. I showcase their emotional highs and lows, providing the truest sense of what your game is like. Couch multiplayer and stream-friendly games come across brilliantly in this setting. Plus, your audience gets to experience true human emotion. You pay for an authentic ride.

Price: $$$$$

Case in point? My Threshold’s trailer.

How much for a consultation?

You don’t need somebody to make a trailer for you, but you do need a trailer expert to make sure your trailer kicks people where it counts. I’ll provide my trailer expertise at the cost of my time. You pay for expert advice.

Price: $

When do you give me a real dang number?

Let’s sit down. Tell me what kind of ride you want, and I’ll draw up an estimate. Reach out to me at mjoshua@mjoshua.com, on Skype at m..joshua.cauller, or you can call me directly at 717.201.5278. Also, sign up for my newsletter, where you’ll get all kinds of trailer tips and insights:


Gamasutra

I want you to have the best indie game trailer resources—especially a guide on how to make trailers around the player’s emotional journey.

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Here’s an assortment of my very best Gamasutra contributions. Enjoy!

1. Make trailers that capture the player’s emotional journey

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.

2. Best indie game trailers of Q1 2016

The best game trailers distill your interactive experience into a non-interactive shorthand that feels like shadow of something greater. These trailers bridge that player-shadow gap very well.

3. Your game’s trailer isn’t for you

Being careful doesn’t sell a game. Taking risks does. Fierce space-action [in the trailer] sold me on Galak-Z even though it wasn’t accurate to my experience with the game… You’d rather see what happens when the crap hits the fan. Fan-crap-spray sells games.

4. Best indie game trailers of 2015

Since starting to make indie game trailers, I’ve learned that the best ones make you want to play regardless of whether or not the game is fun. Not only do these trailers do this by captivating our longings and our fears, but all of them do this exceptionally well.

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