How to make engaging game trailers
Your new game rocks and it’s time for the world to know about it. You need a catchy trailer, but you're not entirely sure where to start.
What should the trailer say? How much animation vs. gameplay?
What cinematographic techniques to use to make it more engaging? Should you make the trailer yourself or have a pro do it?
Here are a nine actionable tips to get a great trailer, without paying expensive production-studio fees. Also check out the profiles of leading video editors, and animators who can help you with your game trailer.
1. Pick the right format
Are you trying to hype up a launch, get people to try the game, sell downloadable content (DLC) to existing users? Different objectives lead to different formats:
Infinity Blade II announcement trailer
Objective: get people excited without revealing too much.
Format: super short (~30s), no intro, more cutscenes than gameplay, little text (launch date), minimal call to action (follow)
Infinity Blade II launch trailer
Objective: persuade viewers that they need to try the game ‘right now’.
Format: longer (~60s), short intro, more of the gameplay, positive reviews, strong call to action (buy/download)
DLC release trailer
Black Ops 2 DLC release trailer
Objective: tell the fan base about new features that they can upgrade to.
Format: long (>1min), focus on gameplay and DLC features, dev interviews of interest to fans
Announcement trailer: super short (~30s), more cutscenes than gameplay, little text (launch date), minimal call to action (follow). Aims to get people excited without revealing too much.
Launch trailer: short (~60s), more of the gameplay, positive reviews, strong call to action (buy/download). Aims to persuade viewers that they need to try the game ‘right now'.
DLC release trailer: long (>1min), focus on gameplay and the new features, content of interest to fans (eg. dev interviews). Aims to tell the fan base about new features that they can upgrade to.
2. Aim for content variety
You want your trailer to be visually varied. For that, make sure to tap into all the content types at your disposal: gameplay, cutscenes, animations, live-action, interviews, text:
This trailer relies primarily on live-action footage.
Live-action is rare in game trailers but shouldn't be overlooked as it can make your video stand out.
There is staged live-action, such as this Minecraft trailer. And there is more candid live-action, like team interviews.
This trailer is one long animated sequence.
Of course, you can make a custom animation just for the trailer. In this case, the trailer is pretty much one big animated sequence announcing the plot.
This trailer uses mostly cutscenes from the game.
Cutscenes make for very interesting content, after they've been remixed and edited down into a short peefy sequence.
This trailer primarily uses gameplay.
The gameplay usually needs a fair amount of editing to fit the trailer format (see below)
Let's not forget that not all content is visual. A voice-actor recorded soundtrack, is a tested & proven way to tie everything together.
This trailer uses a fair amount of stylized text.
"Text" is indeed quite helpful to re-inforce certain points. Pay attention to how the text is styled, as you don't want the text to ruin the aesthetics of the game.
Live-action: live-action footage is rare in game trailers. Mainly because it's often not the medium that game developers are most comfortable with. But done well, live action will make your trailer stand out, and engage beyond the traditional gamer fanbase.
Animated sequence: Of course, you can make a custom animation just for the trailer. In this case, the trailer is pretty much one big animated sequence announcing the plot.
Cutscenes: Cutscenes make for very interesting content, after they've been remixed and edited down into a short peefy sequence.
Gameplay: The gameplay usually needs a fair amount of editing to fit the trailer format (see below)
Voiceover: Let's not forget that not all content is visual. A voice-actor recorded soundtrack, is a tested & proven way to tie everything together.
Text: "Text" is indeed quite helpful to re-inforce certain points. Make sure to stylize the text - you don't want your game to look like a word document.
3. Nail the intro
You don’t have much time to make an impression and set the tone for the rest of the clip. You want to start with the message that clearly sets your game apart.
Straight-into the gameplay
Straight-into the gameplay
The "Black Ops 2 Revolution" trailer starts directly with some gameplay from the new DLC package. Exactly the kind of content that black ops fans want.
In the GoNinja trailer, the intro is a short animated sequence that sets-up the plot. The intro succeeds in communicating that the game is a fresh take on the ninja theme with cool art.
For "contre-jour", the long titles intro works well. The cute music and the poetic motion graphics keep it interesting, and it sets the mood for the rest of the clip.
Long plot description
Long plot description
For "angry birds", most people already know the game, and it makes sense to focus most of the trailer on the characters and the plot.
Straight-into the gameplay: jump right in! This is best for situations where users already know about the game, and you want to emphasize new aspects of the gameplay (eg. DLC releases)
Brief set-up: Start with a short animated sequence, usually made of remixed cutscenes, to set the stage and quickly establish why the game is great.
Long titles: You can delay things a few seconds with titles. Combined with the right soundtrack it can help build anticipation and give a cinematographic feel.
Long plot description: In this case, the intro takes up almost the entire length of the trailer. Great if you have an animated sequence of fantastic quality that tells an interesting story, and if viewers are already familiar with the gameplay.
Bumper or no bumper? A bumper is a short branded animation at the beginning of your video (and sometimes at the end of your video as well). Done well it gives “gravitas” and “polish” to your trailer, done wrong... it can bore and drive viewers to drop off.
A bumper is probably more useful for out-of-context situations (eg.: someone stumbles on the video on YouTube), but less useful if they are already on your app page in an app store. Maybe make two versions of the video?
No matter what, don’t make them too long - imagine some really impatient kid watching your trailer and wanting to get to the real stuff. Keep them short.
4. Supe up your gameplay
Don’t hesitate to add zooms, freeze-frame, slow-mo, lens-effects to your gameplay. Adding those cinematographic effects will help a lot. Especially if your game doesn't have a lot of camera movement.
Imagine how much better the Dragon Flight trailer would have been with just a few zooms on the action. Some screen shakes, and some slo-mos would have helped too. If the point was to make us see how crazy the game gets, then adding a few cinematographic effects would make the crescendo more tangible.
The use of slow-mo, zooms and the careful synching with the dubstep soundtrack, add a lot of movement and variety to the original gameplay.
In some cases, it may help to animate around the gameplay. This makes sense to do if the gameplay is monotonous, can't be improved with just editing tricks. It's not animation for the sake of animation, it needs to be adding to the story told in the trailer.
This is your chance to add all those cinematographic effects that you dreamed of (but couldn't get done with the game engine) while staying true to the actual game. Just don't over edit.
This is also where professional editors shine. They choreograph the visuals around a catchy soundtrack and vice-et-versa. It builds intensity, pace and rhythm.
5. Synch the action with a great soundtrack
Feel free to use a new soundtrack if the game's soundtrack doesn't lend itself to the short form of the trailer. Use royalty free music, or music you own the rights to, to avoid copyright issues.
It's ok not to have any soundtrack if you are going for a "blairwitch effect" effect. The absence of soundtrack re-inforces the utltra realistic creepy feel.
In this trailer, the soundtrack is only loosely coupled with the action. This is a fine technique for visually intense pieces. But probably not a good idea if the footage is monotonous.
If you pay close attention, you'll hear that in this trailer, every visual change is synchronized with variations in the music soundtrack.
No soundtrack: suitable for utltra realistic cutscenes, to transport the user in the universe of the game, which is supposed to be reality like
Running soundtrack: That's when the soundtrack is only loosely coupled with the action. Fine for visually intense games, not so much for monotonous footage.
Synched soundtrack: Talented editors have a knack for artfully synching the soundtrack with the action. It just makes the trailer that much more engaging.
6. Add a second serving of yummy Sound FX
In addition to the gameplay's soundFX, sprinkle some more to jack up the intensity of the trailer. Remember those "inception"-like base low rumbles, it just makes things more dramatic.
7. Plan for small screens
Many of your soon-to-be-users will watch the trailer on a small screen, so:
Avoid small fonts: use big fonts instead, that take up more of the screen
Avoid static camera angle: trailers that are filmed from just one angle tend to be boring to watch (eg. long wide shot in ). Instead add close-ups and panning even if it means loosing a bit of pixelization
8. Get your assets in order
Record your gameplay:
For PS3 and Xbox, you'll need a video capture card (good article here). For iPhones, you can invest in a video capture card or use Display Recorder or other hacks (more here). For PC games, Fraps has been the standard for a long time. You want something that won't slow down the game and drop frames while recording.
The gameplay should be:
high resolution (720p minimum)
16:9 aspect ratio (otherwise you won’t get the cinematographic look without unwanted pixelization)
high bitrate (as high as possible, but certainly >2Mbps)
standard "codec + format" (eg. h264 + mp4 works well with most modern editing software)
Gather your assets:
Sprites (for 2D animations)
3D models (for 3D animations)
Layered files (.psd)
Game sound FX
9. Get it done well
So you have answered the questions above, prepared the assets, now is time to get the trailer made. You have a couple of options:
Edit/Animate yourself: it’s not a bad place to start if you have the time and have done it before, it helps you answer some of the questions above, and can lead to a good first pass. But realistically you probably won’t get the best output unless you are an experienced pro at after effects / final cut pro, have a taste for music mixing, can tell a good story, and are ready to spend a good chunk of time.
Post to craigslist to find an editor: it’s a slow process, you have to sift through tons of emails, choose based on reels only, and reels are misleading and hard to compare. Utlimately, you take a risk, since you have to see what the editor makes with your own footage to gauge the fit.
Use a video production company: they are expensive, but if your footage is particularly interesting, you may get a good deal from someone talented who wants to build their portfolio.
Use Videopixie - a marketplace of editors and animators: you upload the assets, then editors submit multiple cuts, and you pick the style you like best. It's the easiest way to get lots of creative videos for your game without breaking the bank, and without spending your nights editing yourself.