Trailer Trouble: Dealing with Pixel Art Backlash
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
On January 26th we at Necrosoft Games released a teaser for our game Gunsport. We had been meaning to release it back in July, but various circumstances prevented us (namely, not finishing it in time), so we delayed until we felt the time was right - we chose the day after PAX South, anticipating that we might get some press coverage during the event. And we did! So it looked like a really good time to do it.
We also managed to get Sony and Microsoft to both host the trailer on their respective YouTube channels, since the game is coming to Xbox One, PS4, and PC, and Sony even did rather different posts on the US, Canadian, and EU PlayStation blogs. They also tweeted our trailer out, which was great for getting views. Across all instances of the video, we got over 34,000 views in around 24 hours. That's pretty awesome for a small team like us, with a relatively small game!
However, not everybody was happy about it - there is a group of people out there who got really upset about the fact the game exists at all. On the PlayStation channels, likes and dislikes are about equal, which is bad. On the Xbox One channel, dislikes definitely outweigh likes, which is worse. A lot of the comments are pretty negative, which is the exact opposite of our experience at tradeshows. People who actually play the game pretty universally love it - maybe 1 in 200 people has a criticism of it, or has a bad time. Generally people have found the game to be engaging. But the trailer just didn't work the same way - it's totally possible that the majority of people saw it, thought it was fine, and didn't comment or vote it up or down. That's how I interact with YouTube. But all we have to go on is those who did respond. Here's the trailer, for reference.
Now, as an indie game teaser trailer, I think what we have is pretty decent. There are things I'd like to fix, but I did not expect it to offend anyone. With all that in mind, here are some things I've learned from the release of our first trailer.
1) We should have explicitly called it a teaser. It is a teaser, so that's what we should've called it. People expected more gameplay in the video, though we really just wanted to hint at it to get people excited. It seemed to have the opposite effect, at least with some folks. We should have either explicitly called it a teaser, or shown more gamplay. We will be releasing a gameplay trailer in the future though, with our new and upgraded graphics, so I was trying to save something for later, so to speak.
2) Didn't get the web site updated. For reasons beyond our control, our official website was not updated. This means we had old info on the site during PAX South and during the launch of the teaser, which means a lot of sites reported that it's coming out Q1 2015, which it is not. It's coming out at the end of the year! So that created some confusion. People thought it was coming out soon, but we didn't show enough gameplay, so they didn't know what to make of it.
3) Certain very vocal groups are extremely anti-pixel art. Our pixel art took a real long time to make - actually what you see in the trailer is at about 1/4 the quality of what we're doing going forward, it really was just a prototype. But there is a vocal backlash against anything that has "Game Boy-style graphics" (as though a Game Boy could do this!). Things seem to have really changed in that direction in the last few months. Compare the comments on this post from November to the comments on this new post. While there are way more positive comments on the blog in general (compared to YouTube), the newer one is about 1/3 "anti pixel."
Another factor may have been that both of these platform channels channels mostly feature triple-A content, so this may have somehow directly accosted the audience's senses, since they're not used to seeing this kind of content on their channel.
3) Xbox One users felt certain Gunsport was going to be their new free game, and they were really mad about it. It's not going to be free, or at least microsoft hasn't told us anything to that effect. This has led the charge toward our video getting more dislikes than it has gotten likes, which is... not good. There are huge discussions in the YouTube thread where people are just absolutely certain this game will be their only choice for a free game in the coming months. Speculation has turned into fact, for them!
4) PlayStation people were mad about the "8-bit" graphics, and were talking about how there are not enough games that showcase the PS4's power. More than that, they were making fun of the PS4's slogan, calling it a paperweight, and saying Sony's work with indies is ruining their experience. This led our PS4 version of the video to have just slightly more likes than dislikes. Also not good, and also not the general experience of purchasing behavior on PS4 (indies do quite well).
5) People are mad at these console makers for having indie games at all. Again, this seems to be a vocal minority, as indie games that get noticed are doing super well in general. It reminds me of certain other unfortunate movements of today, where a bunch of loud folks will get together and yell about a thing they don't have to deal with at all. They're so mad about a game that they don't have to buy ever! They just don't want it to exist on a high end console! But for us, pixel art isn't a "retro" thing, it's an aesthetic and a style, and it takes a whole lot of hard work. We aren't looking to the past, we are trying to look forward with this stuff (you'll see more of that when we reveal our final graphics).
6) On my personal YouTube channel, which shows all the platforms Gunsport is coming to, the comments are all positive, and I have more likes. But of course the views are minimal compared to the platform holders' channels. But directed, targeted messaging to a fanbase unsurprisingly seems to generate more positivity.
7) The idea of the trailer might just not be that good! People didn't see enough gameplay, and just don't seem to know what the game is. I thought teasing it this way would get people to sort of appreciate the mystery of it, but that does not seem to be the case. Like I said, people who play it at tradeshows really like it - but I push them to try it in person. Maybe our game doesn't grab people visually immediately, and we need to do more to showcase how it's actually played, and what's fun about it. We're not changing our visual style or anything about the game in reaction, but changing how we present it in trailers could be helpful.
So, what do we ultimately learn here? Was releasing through the major channels a mistake? Should I just have released it myself? Or does this ultimately help awareness and give us a chance to convince these people? I'm really not sure. I do think that releasing through the major channels gives us more exposure than we would have otherwise, and it's hard to think that's a bad thing. I've also heard from many folks "in the know" that this pixel art backlash is being felt everywhere, and that these angry people aren't representative of sales or interest. "Don't read the comments," and all that.
The bright spot in this is I've realized we need to deal differently, and more carefully, with video. Maybe trailers (as such) aren't even right for us, maybe we just show live gameplay. We should do more controlled experiments with our videos, perhaps starting with our smaller channels, and expanding from there.
It's interesting to compare this to our Gunhouse trailer (above), which is definitely worse in terms of quality, but got around 8,000 views anyway, because the game also got featured on the PlayStation blog - but, perhaps importantly, it wasn't on their official YouTube channel. The reaction to the Gunhouse video was almost completely positive - nobody was personally offended that it existed. That game was coming to Vita, where the audience is generally happier, and also hungry for content. They also seem to actively enjoy 2D. I wonder how a Gunsport for Vita trailer would have done?
In all, the Gunsport teaser trailer was a good thing for us - it raised exposure, and we learned a whole lot about audiences for certain kinds of content. Ultimately, I really had no idea there was such a pixel art backlash going on right now. I think pixels are great, and we'll keep doing games in that style, but it may be useful to educate people about the actual artistry behind it - or, maybe, haters are just gonna hate, and we should strut our way to the finish line.