April 21, 2012 7:00 AM | John Polson
Ask IndieGames is a new monthly feature that takes a range of topics relating to indie gaming and development and poses them as a question to the editorial staff.
Whereas our sister site Gamasutra explored last month (in)effective press releases, we narrow our focus on what makes an effective game trailer.
We understand indies generally do not have big budgets for internal press teams, outsourced public relations or marketing outlets. That's why, as we curate the finest indie news for our readers, we view practically every trailer (at least in part) and appreciate when it's not embedded in a lot of marketing-speak.
What would compel us to watch a trailer in its entirety? When can a dubstep actually help a game? We attempt to address all this and more in this month's topic: what makes an effective indie game trailer?
Mike Rose: I have a very specific formula that I've devised over the last several years for what makes an effective game trailer. While I'd say it's my own personal preference, whenever I've discussed it with other journalists they always seem to agree, so I must be on to something of a winner. So here it is: how to make the perfect indie game trailer:
Length: Preferably nothing longer than 90 seconds, and definitely not longer than two minutes, or else you risk losing the attention of the viewer and, in turn, their interest in your game. If you can't convey how great your game is in 90 seconds, you're doing it wrong! Which leads me to...
Show the gameplay: Game trailers are not movie trailers. We don't want to see the words "IN A WORLD..." appear against a black background, nor do we want to spend the first 20 seconds of your trailer viewing the various logos of your game and development team. Fill the trailer with what you're trying to sell - your gameplay! Find lots of interesting parts of your game, set a video recording program like Fraps running, and then bang them all together.
Music: If you're about to add heavy metal, techno or dubstep music to your game trailer, stop and think: does this even match my content? The answer is most likely going to be no. The music in your trailer is far more important than you believe, and in some cases, is one of the main draws - I mean, check this trailer for Fez to see what I mean. Give it huge consideration, and maybe explore free samples and tracks that you can use from the old interwebs.
Konstantinos Dimopoulos (Gnome): I'll have to be brutally honest here and admit that even the very best trailer for an indie FPS or another tower defense variant would have to be more than exceptional to actually intrigue me. Other than that, I will also have to admit that screenshots and a game's description are usually more than important, but, well, let's focus on the subject at hand here: trailers.
On a rather more technical yet very important level developers should first of all make sure their trailers are readily available both on an easily embedded form (YouTube should do fine) and as downloadable files. More than a few journalists and bloggers do after all seem to prefer uploading videos themselves, most sites demand specific widths for their media and, admittedly, more options never hurt anyone.
Another important point, one that does actually determine whether I at least actually go on to watch a trailer or not, is its running time. Anything over four or five minutes, unless it's something I've been waiting for since the early 90s or has been designed by Tim Shafer, will most probably remain unwatched.
Assuming the above criteria have been met, I'd say that an effective and thus memorable trailer is a rare and difficult to analyze beast.
Yes, aesthetics are definitely important, as is a great soundtrack and enough information to actually describe the game on offer, but I'm pretty much convinced a good trailer needs to tell some sort of story. You know, have a beginning, middle and an ending; feel coherent and informative. Check out the latest Star Command trailer: one of the few recent ones I actually fondly remember and a trailer that provides enough gameplay footage to intrigue (but not answer everything), looks stunning and is akin to a very short movie.
Oh, and do keep in mind that any trailer mentioning the words ground-breaking, unique and innovative more than once doesn't make itself any favors. And, no, pre-rendered videos showing off cutscenes aren't a great idea either. Not unless you're preparing the next Starcraft of Dishonored.
Danny Cowan: Here's how I typically view a trailer:
1. Before it even starts, I skip to the middle, bypassing the company logos and that storyline you've put so much work into (sorry).
2. If it starts to drag, I skip toward the end (sorry again).
3. If I haven't seen any gameplay footage after about 30 seconds of
skipping around, I close the tab (super sorry about this).
Basically, I'm a jerk, and I'm sorry. Trailers are key to attracting interest in your game, though, and you should focus on making them concise and impactful, regardless of how dumb I am.
In skimming a trailer, I'm looking for a brief explanation of the game's mechanics and an idea of why your game is fun, interesting, or unique. Everything else is secondary. A length of one minute is ideal; thirty seconds is even better. Sound doesn't matter at all -- I reflexively mute most videos before they start playing.
Good stuff to include for people who want to talk about your game: a link to your site, a release date, and a list of supported platforms.
If your trailer is for a mobile or tablet game, I consider whether the genre is underrepresented on the platform and whether its controls are a good fit for touch screens. If I so much as catch a whiff of Angry Birds, I'm out.
Steve Cook: An effective trailer for me isn't too long; around 1 - 2 minutes length is perfect. If it is longer, I tend to lose interest after the 2nd minute, unless the game is complex enough to really justify it.
I prefer to watch snippets of gameplay footage cut together with a soundtrack that matches the mood from the game rather than explanatory voice-overs or bits of writing. I don't want so much footage as to show me every single mechanic in the game (I enjoy discovering some things on my own) but enough so that I understand how the basics will work.
A title or 'introductory' screen is a good way to begin so that I know the name of the project I am looking at. A fade out to an 'ending' screen is also acceptable - possibly announcing when the game will be released and for what platforms.
Humor can be a good thing to, if injected into the trailer properly. Making me genuinely laugh out loud definitely makes it that little bit more likely that I'll stick with a trailer to the end.
Cassandra Khaw: I'm embarrassingly easy when it comes to game trailers. If it shows gameplay for something that I'm interested, I'll sit down and watch it, regardless of how crappy the music/sub-titles/introduction/video quality is.
That said, I'm probably not going to watch it till the end. Once I've assessed the game, I'm going to shut it down and move on to my next piece of work. OF course, that's only applicable if you're operating without a sense of humor. If you want an example of what works wonderfully, you should check out Magicka. Seriously. Check out the trailers for Magicka. They're one of the few that I would rewatch just for the pleasure of it.
As for what doesn't work, well, that's also pretty simple. Trailers that don't show anything. Those don't work for me. I'm talking about the ones that don't do anything but show two pieces of concept art for two minutes. I'm talking about the ones that linger lovingly on the logo. I understand there is a need to do teasers from time to time but there's a reason they're called 'teasers'. They're supposed to titillate, to entice, to make me desperately curious as to what is going to happen next.
John Polson: A trailer is effective for me if it educates and entertains.
I want to learn about the gameplay. Edited, short bursts of the game can be effective, but sometimes clips need a few extra frames to complete a certain mechanic. Words and transitions aren't cop outs if needed to explain what makes certain clips so special. At the very least, an educational trailer teaches me a game's pitch or message. A more educational, and effective, trailer demonstrates this game pitch to the point that I can explain paraphrase it to my readers.
I wouldn't mind learning about the game more, too. Aside from gameplay mechanics, inject the game's narrative, music, sound effects and even its personality. Learning if a game will be fun, sad, serious, fictional, dense, intense, or methodical helps me frame the game in a context as both an editor and a gamer. Release and platform information should either be in the trailer or in an accompanied website; otherwise, we can't help couple the game with its target audience.
I also wouldn't mind learning about developers in the trailer. Developers are vulnerable in exposing their work to judgment in under two minutes (a sensible length for trailers), so this is no time to feel shy. That said, not every person performs well in front of a camera or microphone, so I consider this an added bonus. If a trailer becomes slightly viral, though, the developer also becomes more widely known and has effectively already broken the ice at events like conventions and conferences.
Entertainment is entwined with a lot of what I feel should educate the viewer. While not revealing everything that makes a game special, clever snippets of dialogue, menus, cut scenes, in-game action, world maps, boss fights, or even customize or option screens can add flavor to a trailer. Stringing these elements together carefully in two minutes conveys that there's not just a bunch ideas, but a game, behind the trailer.
Audio and visual stimulation add to effectively entertaining. Unlike screen shots, I am looking at something in motion, hopefully with sound. I won't stop watching a trailer if the sound is poorly orchestrated, but rich audio (be it chiptune, 16- or 32-bit synth, or other instruments) adds heavily to my entertainment. Since the game is in motion, the importance of a cohesive art direction-- foreground, background, and everything between-- can't be understated, either.
Once developers cut a trailer, they should show it to someone who's never played or heard of the game before. If this new person can't describe the key mechanics or quirks, then the trailer needs to do a better job at educating the viewer. If this person is part of some targeted audience and doesn't want to play the game after watching, the trailer (or the game) may need to be made more entertaining.
I've spent too many words already, but I'd suggest checking out Kert Gartner's epic trailers or Tim Rogers's fourth-wall-breaking ZiGGURAT trailer. Gartner's also posted a lot of helpful, technical tips on making trailers, which were taken from his Indie Game Summit talk during GDC 2012.
Do you have a question that you'd like the IndieGames editors to tackle? Email EIC John Polson at johnpolsonfl at gmail dot com. Feel free to also check out our sister site's Ask Gamasutra, which inspired this new feature. [image source]