It’s commonly accepted that when you make something, it’s yours, but the opposite is true in game development. Your game isn’t for you — it’s for the players. There’s a magical transition the moment the controller hits a player’s hands: the game becomes theirs.
This is also true the moment a player sees your trailer. Hopefully.
You may have lost touch with the player’s ignorance of your game. After all, you spent thousands of hours building your world’s complexity. You have to dumb it down for your trailer. You only have about a minute to make players to want to visit your world, teach them how to speak your world’s language, show the "limitless possibilities," and why they need to be there right now. That's a tall order.
Sometimes it’s almost easy to bridge the player gap. Just show people in a living room playing your couch multiplayer game, or show the really impressive action segments in your combat-heavy game. Maybe record players’ “Ah-ha” moments when playing a puzzle game with a friend. But there’s not exactly a roadmap if you’re making a kind of game that nobody’s done before.
You’ve got to think less about what you like — and more about how players engage with your game. We’re so used to saying, “I like it,” but the your likes don't matter. Does it make players curious enough to want to try your game? If you’re a small team in alpha or beta, you might not actually know this. You need to find out what makes players want to play your game.
I playtest games with kids who don’t care about your game and are very vocal about what they don’t like. They’re probably the kind of kids you avoided in high school, but they’re extremely useful in figuring out what's remotely likeable about your game.
When their sneers go away, I take notice.
I realize this is super weird, but it’s one of the benefits of volunteering at youth centers for over a decade. You meet a lot of kids who are willing to try the weird videogames you like, and react honestly. Often this leads to super-valuable input for game trailers. I eventually find the answer to that ever-elusive question.
I’ve tried to develop a sixth sense for this exact question as a games journalist, and now a trailer producer. This is why I employ judgy teens as a shorthand. The answer isn’t ever easy, but once you can figure out the basic player motivations within the game, you can start to build towards that goal.
Take a look at the trailer for Galak-Z.
Catch those neon space battles! Zero-gravity missile barrages! Battle space-mechs with laser swords! But if you play Galak-Z, you find yourself mostly sneaking past enemy lines undetected — and generally being careful.
Being careful doesn’t sell a game. Taking risks does. That fierce space-action sold me on Galak-Z even though it wasn’t accurate to my experience with the game. I’m all for capturing a game’s full and true experience, but nobody’s interested in watching somebody hide for a whole minute. You’d rather see what happens when the crap hits the fan. Fan-crap-spray sells games.
That’s it. Simple, right? Obviously the production of the trailer is a much bigger topic for another time. And I’d love to talk about how trailer production and marketing is every bit as much game development as coding your control systems. But we’ll save that for another day. For right now, just figure out how to showcase the one best thing that people don’t hate about about your game. Then we’ll talk.
M. Joshua Cauller makes game trailers and harbors a legion of teenagers who speak their minds. He offers free consultations if you’re thinking about your game’s next trailer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out more of his work at http://mjoshua.com.