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Seven questions to ask before creating a game trailer

Alconost's Natalia Shuhman offers practical advice on creating an essential marketing tool for any game developer

You have a great game ready for launch, and now you need a trailer to help with promotion. First off -- kudos on the accomplishment. After all that creative brainstorming, it's now decision time. At this juncture, there are a few questions you should consider and try to answer as early on as possible, before you get buried in the video production process.

Think of these seven questions like choosing between left and right at a junction in a maze, where retracing your steps or backtracking isn't really an option. Why? Because the way you answer these pivotal questions now will determine both how your video will turn out and how you will work on it going forward -- not to mention your video's future as a marketing tool.

Trailer or teaser?

We could talk at length on the difference between these two genres, but we'll spare you and give you our short take.

A trailer is a video that gives the viewer an idea about game mechanics and core features -- a distilled knowledge-base about a game, like an experienced player telling a newcomer exactly what to expect after installing or signing up

"Explore the game world map, fight monsters, upgrade your equipment -- and join other gamers in multiplayer to win prizes" -- This is the standard, bare-bones script of a trailer, which is adapted, of course, to the features and genre of a particular game. But you get the idea.

"Consider a teaser if you're planning to significantly improve or change the key visual elements of the game"

In a teaser, gameplay may make up just a tiny percentage of screen time, or even be entirely absent. The plot of a teaser video is not built around gameplay or game features, but rather focuses on the emotion that players should feel when they play -- it gives the viewer an "entry point" into your game's universe. A teaser "sells" the game to the viewer using intrigue rather than features, appealing to the viewer's curiosity and drawing them in with what you leave out as much as what you actually say.

It's not easy to choose between the two options, but here's a rule of thumb that may help: if you plan to put your video in the App Store, a trailer stands a better chance of passing moderator review. The App Store has a set of recommendations for videos, and a full trailer fits these better.

Consider a teaser if you're planning to significantly improve the gaming experience or change the key visual elements of the game, be it the UI or the main maps/levels. Even if some of the game's "guts" change, as long as the spirit and atmosphere remain the same you can continue to use the teaser -- for marketing purposes, say, or on a website or Google Play -- without confusing users with visual discrepancies between the video and the actual gameplay.

Of course, we wouldn't be being completely frank if we said the boundary between the two genres was a clear and fixed line. Combining elements of both trailers and teasers in a single preview can yield a pretty strong preview video. Take for example the video preview for Altar: War of Gods -- at its heart a trailer, but with an opening scene more reminiscent of a teaser, using a voice-over narrative of the game universe backstory accompanied by video with some motion graphics.

Settling on one of the two genres will influence at the outset how you conceive your final video.

Gameplay capture or rendered footage?

This question, albeit a more mundane and practical matter than the previous one, bears repeating to yourself as you work on your script. When you're coming up with specific actions and events for each scene of the video, ask yourself: would gameplay footage be able to tell the story the way you've imagined it? And if not, do you have enough resources to simulate the gameplay specifically for the video?

Fitting your script to the assets and resources that you have should be readily apparent as you read through this article, and it's a rather sobering consideration when you're trying to create about a blockbuster script for a standout video for your stellar game. The rush and thrill of the creative process, flights of fantasy, and your desire to make your story as attention-grabbing as possible might distract you from the hard reality of facing up to certain objective limitations -- menial, ever-present details such as deadline and budget constraints.

"Don't be afraid to part with script ideas if making them a reality turns out to be too time-consuming or expensive"

Let's say you want to start your video off with a dramatic cut-scene where two rival armies are clashing on a particular map or level. But after considering your actual gameplay, you realize the start of the battle doesn't convey the emotional impact or deliver the visceral punch of the action for those who've never played the game before. In order to get the impact across to viewers, you need to zoom in on certain units, then switch to first-person perspective and pan the camera up to capture a sky blotted out by enemies hurtling toward the viewer. If you can't do this directly in the game build, you will need to model these elements specifically for your video.

In certain cases you can create scenes directly in your game engine by building a location, objects, lighting and camera path. In other cases you may be able to create the setting and environment from graphic assets and animate the scenes directly in the source video file. Either way, it's going to take a lot more time than recording gameplay from the existing game build.

Don't be afraid to part with script ideas that look super on paper if making them a reality turns out to be too time-consuming or expensive. It would be far worse to completely rehash a fantastic script on the fly after production has already started due to objective time and budget limitations.

But don't let that hold you back -- just make sure you don't lose sight of reality when you begin your creative search at the script-writing stage.

Long or short?

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Natalia Shuhman

Think of where you plan on featuring your finished video. For example, if your trailer is destined for the App Store, it needs to be between 15 and 30 seconds long; those are the rules of the platform. Advertising platforms may also have their own length restrictions.

But such restrictions don't prevent you from telling your audience a longer story. Your video preview can, after all, have several versions: for example, a long version for your website and Google Play, and a short version for the App Store and advertising platforms.

If you need several versions of your video, try to come up with a flexible starting-point script from which you can exclude a few scenes without undermining the logical flow and cohesion of your story-line. The same approach applies if you need, for example, a 30-second video for the App Store and a 15-second version for advertising platforms.

When figuring out the length of your scenes, use the length of your spoken voiceover text as a reference. For example, the natural tempo of speech in English is around 140 words per minute. If you need a six-second scene, you'll be able to throw in a maximum of 14 spoken words. Or better yet, go with less, and leave time for logical pauses and transitions between scenes. Ten words for six seconds should probably do the trick.

Keep in mind how much action you plan to have on-screen in each scene in order to stake out the timing of your video. For example, if you want to focus attention on five in-game inventory items, you'll need at least five seconds -- and when you factor in transitions between scenes, the total comes out to a full six seconds. If you need to make the scene a bit shorter, think about showcasing fewer elements or items. This way you give the viewer more time to focus on each item.

With or without voiceover?

"If your trailer is destined for the App Store, it needs to be between 15 and 30 seconds; those are the rules of the platform"

The length of the voiceover can be used to gauge the length of your video, but does that mean your video HAS to have spoken narration? Not having a voiceover is certainly an option worth considering.

Ideally, your trailer or teaser should be easy to understand and follow even without sound. Text boxes or captions, for example, can help the audience follow the story-line.

Still, some ideas are hard to convey fully using visuals alone. For example, if your script involves character flashbacks, dreams, and fears juxtaposed on-screen with snippets from his or her life "here and now" -- voiceover can significantly complement your story line, conveying not only facts, but also a character's inner feelings or attitude. Tone of voice speaks volumes, after all.

The voice narration in Metropolis: Lux Obscura is delivered in first person. The main character speaks to viewers about himself, illuminating certain events in his life. His intonation captures a wide range of emotions: a steely, tough edge which seems to crack a bit in some places; a sense of being doomed to a vicious circle; and appeals to the viewer's sympathy coupled with a certain bravado and slight boastfulness.

When taken as a whole, the effect is to give the story a certain depth and ambiguity, leaving room for the viewer to wonder or form their own interpretation. If the video had no voiceover, it could easily come across as a series of unrelated scenes and events, leaving the viewer with fewer cues to place themselves in the character's shoes.

On the other hand, if you want to grab attention with something other than storytelling -- say, illustrating and showcasing game content -- or if you plan to evoke a gut-level emotional effect using a musical score and sound effects, your video may be just fine without voice acting. Take the video preview for Taonga: The Island Farm for example: the action is fast-paced, and the major-key soundtrack echoes the energetic cinematic sequencing, while on-screen text recounts key gameplay features. Everything is communicated without any narration.

If you're okay going either way and you don't know whether to include a narrated voiceover, it's always a better idea to play safe and include one -- and then you can later turn the narration off -- than to change your mind the day before your video's big release. It's no easy task to add voiceover to a finished video, as the footage and voice timing may not align. It's much more practical to sync your video footage with the narration than to stretch and shrink voice audio to match the length of your animation.

"Native" in-game music or a stock track?

If you decide to use your's game music as the background track, you should consider whether the tempo and mood of the music matches the story you want to tell with your video. Ambient music from a particular map or stage can be unobtrusive, which works great for the game itself -- the music can run hours on end without driving the player nuts -- but it's not so great for a gripping, cinematic video.

"Ambient music which works great for the game itself is not so great for a gripping, cinematic video"

If your video has scene changes, chases, battles and victories, you'll need a music track that meshes with the flow of the on-screen action: a driving, gripping, rising tempo, with several bombastic moments, and then a triumphant final chord.

The best way to go is to have the composer who worked on the musical score for your game create the soundtrack for the video. Another option that works quite nicely is to pick out stock background music. If you're okay using royalty-free content, you'll have your pick of thousands of potential tracks that could be a great fit for your video.

A small hint: when sorting through stock music libraries, look for tracks that are pegged to specific dramatic elements, like intro, rising action, climax, falling action. When your animation is ready, add your purchased track so that scenes with different emotional loading line up with the right soundtrack snippets.

But whatever track you use -- custom-made or stock -- select it before you begin editing and sequencing footage, so you can arrange your motion graphics and animation to match the track's BPM. Music is, after all, part of the internal structure of your video, so to make your scenes 'dance to the music,' use a metronome when sequencing and assembling your animation.

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For example, bring in key elements and change scenes on a stressed beat. Imagine that the "Play Now" button isn't just hanging in the video frame, but zooming toward the screen right on the stressed beat, and then recedes away from the viewer on an unstressed beat. This makes your game video look like an organic and streamlined production where the action, story-line and music all are telling the same story in their own varied ways.

In-house or outsource?

Making a video is a creative and wildly absorbing process. If your team isn't too busy and can devote the time to your video, making a trailer or teaser in-house could be your most engrossing and memorable task for the quarter -- or maybe even the year. Besides that, your copywriter, game designer, illustrator and animator can try their hand in some new roles, and while creating a video isn't standard fare for a game development studio, the break from the ordinary could give a new burst of creative inspiration.

On the other hand, the fact that video production is such an atypical undertaking for a game studio means that it could all just as well go the other way, becoming a burden that you can't quite bring yourself to abandon but still aren't sure how to finish. Creating a trailer video is a project, and completing any project requires knowledge and skill -- but also the ability to see the details without losing sight of the big picture.

"After full localisation, a game trailer or teaser will look as if it was originally created in the target language"

If you don't have a strict deadline and your team would be onboard for the idea of expanding their skills, you might be okay tackling the video yourself. Whatever you end up with when all's said done will have been a positive experience -- your studio will have gained experience which it can leverage the next time around.

If you're thinking about creating your video in-house in order to save money or time, however, think again. Try to come up with a rough estimate of how many work hours your team will put into the video, calculate the salary costs for those hours, and compare that number to how much you'd need to pay to outsource the video production. You may be surprised to learn which option would save you more money.

Just English or localise?

If your game has multiple localisations, the decision to make a video in each language seems pretty logical. This is particularly the case for games that are on Steam, because Steam allows you to display a specific language version of the video depending on user settings.

When it comes down to it, "localising a video" and "making the video understandable to an audience from another country" are not actually synonyms. Full localisation of a video is much more than translating all the text captions. It also means re-shooting gameplay footage to capture the UI in a different language, and then re-recording the voiceover with a native speaker of that language.

Even badges like "Get it" on Google Play, which are often displayed at the end of mobile games videos, have official versions in different languages, and it makes sense to adapt them to different language versions. After full localisation, a game trailer or teaser will look as if it was originally created in the target language.

If you're still not sure whether you need to localise your video -- and if yes, in what languages -- leave yourself some wiggle room. In other words, make the original video in a way that makes it easier to localise later. For example, turn off the UI when capturing gameplay footage, and if necessary do the same thing with character names or pop-up text messages. Don't "hard-stitch" text in your video that will be difficult to edit: use font sets instead of custom drawing captions and boxed text.

And if your video has a narrated voiceover, consider pauses between lines and avoid having your voice actor read too quickly in the original version. This way you have a better chance that the voice audio for the translated text will fit the timing of the original video sequence.

The good news is that there are no wrong turns or dead ends in this maze. We hope that we've helped shed some light on what you'll find down each path, and illustrated how decisions made early on in the process will affect the end result.

The article was written by Natalia Shuhman from Alconost, which localizes games in more than 70 languages and creates game videos in any genre and in any language. Find out more at alconost.com/video

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Latest comments (1)

Dave Cullinane Account Director, RealtimeUK11 days ago
Nice article about the fine art of making a games trailer - Arguably the most important marketing asset a developer or publisher can ever have when trying to grab a gamer's attention.
Another important thing worth mentioning is the consideration you might need to give depending on where the game is at in terms of its product development. If you're looking to make an 'announce trailer' at a point when very few assets have been created, then a CG approach might be best as long as you use a studio that specialises in this. For a game that is much further down the raod in terms of development , an 'in-engine' approach might be appropriate depending on eth message you want to conver.
In either case, you'll want to work with a creative studio like www.realtimeuk.com
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