Things every trailer should do
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I write for IndieGames.com and one thing I write is weekly trailer roundups (you can find my latest one here for an example). Any indie game trailer that comes through my inbox and any that I see via Twitter or other social media is considered for inclusion. I watch a trailer and if it looks like a promising addition to a trailer roundup, I file it away until it comes time to write the article. I often end up with 20-25 trailers vying for a maximum of 10 slots and have to whittle the pile down.
In this blog post, I will lay out things every trailer should do or at least aim for. This is not specific to the trailer roundups; if the email description of a game leaves me on the fence about whether I want to cover it in its own article, the trailer is often what tips the balance. It is my hope that this article will help indie developers understand what impression their trailers are leaving on viewers and how to make them better.
Before I get to the list itself, I want to point out that "having amazing graphics" is not on here. Not every indie game has gorgeous art hand-painted by a talented artist. Thomas Was Alone is far from being the only indie game about rectangles. Good graphics help a trailer stand out, of course, but "pretty" is far from being the best quality a trailer can have.
Another thing I'd like to add is that this isn't really aimed at teasers. Teasers are a whole 'nother ball of wax. I'm specifically talking about trailers designed to show the game off.
Without further ado, here are the things I think every trailer should do, roughly ordered from what I consider least to most important.
1) Have sound
"But Lena, you just said that trailers don't have to have good graphics!" They don't. But they do have to have graphics of some kind. That comes with the territory by default; a video with no images isn't really a video. A video with no sound is still technically a video, but as a tool for showing your game off, it's an inferior video. As with graphics, the sound quality doesn't need to be amazing -- though it does need to avoid grating on the ears. If your game is a free browser game with absolutely no sound, try to find some royalty-free music to drop in the background or something. If you're not going to have sound you might consider just making a series of animated GIFs instead. Those double as potential social media PR tools.
2) Be shorter than two minutes
Ideally, one minute is the max length I want to see in a trailer, though that's flexible. If it's longer than two minutes, though, it's just too long. A five minute video with gameplay in it is better labeled a gameplay preview, which can be useful but is not a trailer. If it shows nothing but story for five minutes, it better be a damned good story or people will get bored before finishing it.
3) Have a minimum of text (unless the text is in the game itself)
Some developers like to show a few seconds of gameplay and then cut to a text description of some feature of the game on a plain background, then show a few more seconds of gameplay before going back to more text. Not only does the viewer have the game footage ripped away from them just as their eyes are getting used to following what's going on, but half the trailer could be text instead of game.
"Show, don't tell," is a common mantra in creative writing which is doubly (at least) true of video game trailers. Your game is a moving thing and your trailer is a way to put that motion in front of a player's face without giving them the game itself. Don't waste it on unnecessary text. If you feel like all that text is absolutely necessary to get the point across, maybe you should consider the possibility that a) the footage you're using to make the trailer was poorly chosen, b) your game doesn't do a good job of showing itself off.
Case B is going to be harder for you to deal with, but overcoming it can help you improve your marketing strategy overall or even improve your game. Does the game simply lack visual indicators of everything going on? Maybe you can improve your interface. Is it a strategy game whose depth is mostly in complex choice webs and stats accumulated over hours of gameplay? Maybe a time lapse can help show how the game develops over time.
But maybe not. It's possible that your game is just not visually trailer-friendly, in which case you really have your work cut out for you. Be creative. If worst comes to worst and you must supplement footage with descriptions of features, try doing a voiceover instead of text. (EDIT: In the comments, someone pointed out that a phrase slapped on top of some footage here and there to give a slightly deeper explanation of something that isn't apparent can be a good option, too. That also made me think about people watching your trailer with no sound because they are deaf or their computer has no speakers or something. So that's another thing to consider.) That way you can keep the gameplay video flowing and still get your descriptions in.
This is not to be confused with showing in-game footage including text, which needs to be done for any game whose story is a/the main selling point. RPGs, visual novels, and the like will of course include text in their trailers. That's different from adding non-game text for purposes of explaining the game.
(Ironic how much text I used to explain this, eh?)
4) Leave viewers with an understanding of how the game plays
I've started writing and rewriting this section at least a dozen times now. Every game is different, which means every trailer must achieve this in a different way. But hard as this is to address, it's one of the most important things in this list. In spite of the fact that video is potentially one of the best ways to show off a game, a depressing number of trailers don't really leave the viewer understanding what the game is.
Sometimes I'll watch a trailer, get what feels like a solid understanding of the game, and then read the developer's description and find that they are calling it something completely different. "Oh, this looks like a cool platformer. Wait, it's an RPG with a crafting system? Why does this trailer show none of that?" Whatever the core elements of your game are, they need to be present in the trailer. It seems like this one should be obvious, but there are a lot of devs who say their game has/will have things that just aren't present in the trailer at all. Most of the trailers that just don't work, though, lack the ability to paint a cohesive picture of the game in the viewer's head.
Many of these use a large number of very short fragments of footage that disappear as soon as the viewer's eyes adjust to what they're looking at. Brain chaos ensues and the viewer never really gets a chance to grasp what's going on. Portrait orientation mobile games tend to fall into this trap a lot because they'll use the extra space on the screen for explanatory text and then not give the viewer enough time to look at the gameplay and read the text. They're far from being the only ones, though. Any game that's trying to show off too many different things in one trailer can make this mistake.
Other games' trailers sometimes just don't have enough. There's no advice I can really offer for this one. There have been times where I tell a developer their trailer is missing something, and when they come back asking me what's missing, I have no answer. The picture of their game in my head is fuzzy at best; I can't really imagine what it would be like to have this game in front of me.
5) Show what makes your game special
What makes your game something that someone should play instead of/in addition to other, similar games available? Does your game have an unusual movement mechanic? Is its strength in its atmosphere and story? Does it revolve around a string of puns that never end? Have you added elements of another genre that seems completely incompatible to create something that feels new? Show us that.
Keep in mind that "special" doesn't have to mean new or innovative or different. If your game is a new entry for diehard fans of a niche game genre with too few games, all you have to show is that you've made a game that fits that genre and will appeal to fans.
These aren't hard, fast rules. They're harder to follow for some types of games than they are for others, if nothing else. But after looking at hundreds of trailers, evaluating their usefulness as tools for articles, I've found that the best ones usually stick to these criteria. At the end of the day, though, you need to make your trailer decisions based on the needs of your game.