How to Make an Indie Game Trailer Great

Indie Game trailer packing a punch

Just like games, there are a lot of good indie game trailers out there. With everything that indie games are already up against, standing out from the crowd with an awesome game trailer is one way to create some impact with your indie game marketing.  

The idea that a game trailer needs to stand out from the crowd isn’t really the point though.

No one is saying it’s wrong to think this way; the problem is too many people do. Creating awareness for your game is important, but simply trying to get the most exposure isn’t the best strategy. What your trailer needs to do is engage and resonate with people, grab them by the heart, leaving them longing for more. It may sound a little over dramatic, but the point is a strong game trailer needs to do all of those things and here’s why.

Good just doesn’t cut it.

Good game trailers can be seen anywhere. Just browse through Steam, YouTube or the PS network and you’ll see plenty of good game trailers. The problem is good just doesn’t sell as well as awesome. Games demand a lot from players, in particular time and money. With all of the crap and distractions that people have to deal with on a daily basis, time can often be more valuable than money. One thing that most people don’t want to do or have time to do is watch several trailers of games that they don’t want to buy. They just want to watch an awesome trailer that convinces them to buy a game. A strong trailer is going to help them make that decision, but if your trailer doesn’t grab them and is just good, you made the process easier for them to look for something better.

The message isn’t right.

A strong trailer also means that you need to get your messaging down pat. More often than not, devs will make a trailer that looks pretty kick ass but something just doesn’t add up right. Interested players may like what they see, but might not get the full picture and may leave them guessing what the game is about which is never good. Some easy examples of this can include a variety of screenshots slapped together for a montage, minimal game play or for Kickstarter videos, too much talking heads.

Where things can get tricky though is when a game trailer is targeting a particular audience that doesn’t completely line up with the inspiration behind the game. Sending the wrong message in your trailer can do some major harm because when this occurs most indie devs don’t realize that it’s happening right away. Having a clear idea of what the message is and knowing how others interpret your message can save a lot of frustration and time. There is nothing worse than trying to realign your game’s identity because how it was originally pitched to everyone was a little off.

Sorry, it’s just too damn long.

Less is more. That saying alone says so much in only three words. It can be applied in numerous ways to your game as well, but the point it makes is this; having too much trailer… is bad for your trailer. A long trailer doesn’t keep people’s attention. Long game play footage will bore your audience.  If it’s not quick and getting to the point, then your trailer will not succeed at its job. The trailer needs to convey a story, basic game mechanics and anything else the viewer needs to understand about the game while not revealing too much. What it boils down to is making something short, sweet but packs a pretty big punch. Mike Tyson style is preferred.

So…how do you make an awesome game trailer?

There are a lot ways to go about this. Each game requires a certain approach that needs to showcase its most powerful moments and core mechanics. These elements will help the game separate itself from other titles while also striking a core with its viewers. It needs to hook them within the first 15 seconds and keep them along for the ride on a mini roller coaster. At the end of the trailer, only one thing should be on their mind.

“When can I and how do I get this?”

If it sounds easy, the truth is it can be…and sometimes it may be a little daunting. It really shouldn’t be a process though. The biggest take away in making a strong game trailer is not to make it complicated. If you really think about it, the process isn’t very elaborate. You’re simply taking the best snippets of your game and combining them together to tell a mini story that people get excited about. That’s it. Oh, to make the process much easier it’s recommended to sub out the editing to an editor that knows what they’re doing. Be weary of friends. Sure, they’re your buds but being nice to someone who doesn’t have the skill set you need isn’t going to help anyone.

On a more detailed level though, there are a few styles and approaches that can be used to make that good trailer really shine and do everything that it needs to do.

It’s story time!

Telling your game’s story in about 90 seconds can be tough, but it doesn’t have to be. It might take some tweaking and refining, but it can be done. Take the Church in the Darkness’ trailer for example.

While I’m not a huge fan of narration, their use of it is works well as it’s all in game narration and is executed extremely well. Right from the get go, the viewer knows what the story is about. What happens from this point out is each snippet reveals a little bit more about the story. They got guns…they torture and likely kill people to “purify” their community. Yup, it’s Red State all over again on a jungle excursion.

Then about halfway through the trailer, the audience believes that the “good” guys are coming to take out the cult. At this point two cool things happen. First, people get to see how some of the game mechanics work. Right after that everyone learns about the biggest “ah snap” moment ever; no one is saving you.

With just a pile of sticks that say “HELP US”, the trailer provides a ton of info in a matter of seconds. Not only that, but it leaves people with a lot of questions too that gets them curious about the game.

From the timing of the images shown with the narration to the slow ambient track playing in the background, the trailer was able to create an eerie unsettling feeling. Most likely, it’s the same feeling that the player will feel when they play the game. As the trailer progresses, it builds suspense right up to the climax and final reveal of what the game is about. Survival horror just got jungle fever and it decided to go to church.

Seriously though, what the Church in the Darkness’ trailer did was tell a story in 90 seconds. It had three main parts (acts if you will), built suspense, climaxed and ended. It was a complete story put together creatively using all in game assets.

Let’s keep it moving folks.

Alright, so some games are going to have an easier time telling a story than others. Regardless though, a trailer has to tell a story no matter what. Just because the story might be a little difficult to convey, it can still be shown. All you gotta do is keep things moving.

Pacing can be a very powerful technique as it keeps people pumped and engaged. Throw down a killer soundtrack that syncs up to your edits then anything is possible. Take a simple platformer for example. It’s got shapes that overcome all sorts of obstacles through a simple yet intriguing neon landscape.  Probably not much of a story to tell there, but it does have potential.

The game I just described was 140, and its trailer is freaking awesome. Yes, it also told a story by only using images. It wasn’t an elaborate story, but still…a story none the less.

Where the game naturally lacked in story, it made up for it by using brilliant pacing. There wasn’t anything super clever or remarkable about it either. They just kept things simple and moving.

Let’s break things down a little further and see how they did this exactly. Right from the beginning, the viewer is introduced to the character and not much seems to be going on. Pacing wise, everything is relatively slow which helps build suspense. Once the shape meets a colorful flying orb, stuff really starts getting crazy.  At 15 seconds the landscape and music transforms and the little shape embarks on an amazing journey. That’s not all that happens though. Watch carefully. Each cut of game play footage happens approximately every 4 seconds. What’s really cool is that they deliberately splice the shots together so it looks like its continuous game play too. On top of this, the trailer shows what type of obstacles the player will face, giving them a taste of things to come. The pacing also syncs to the beat of the music, making the trailer very engaging, giving the audience a clear idea of what the player will experience.

As if this wasn’t enough, the trailer even goes a step further. Right about 45 seconds, things slow down again for a few seconds and then BAM! A throttled-up boss battle. After that, a final slide reveals the title.

All things considered, the trailer for 140  was pretty kick-ass. It told a story and kept things very engaging for the entire 60 second clip. The music clearly helped as well, but if it wasn’t for the well-executed pacing, the music alone wouldn’t have created the same impact.

That’s what makes a strong game trailer.

Between The Church in Darkness and 140, you should now have some great examples as to what makes a strong game trailer. While there are other elements or techniques that weren’t discussed, the main take away is that both trailers told a story and revealed things about the game. Oh, and one last thing…

Please show and don’t tell.

If there is one last thing to emphasize that the above examples do, it’s that they show and don’t tell. The idea behind “show don’t tell” can get a little confusing, but overall you just want reveal things to people instead of dumping details on them. In essence, that’s what show, don’t tell is about. That’s why I don’t typically like narration because when done poorly, it just tells the audience about story. With Church in the Darkness, if you were to remove the images and just listen to the narration, chances are you still wouldn’t know much about the story, other than it was about a cult. Add in the images and the story and severity of the situation changes dramatically. 140 is a little different, in the respect that it heavily uses imagery to tell a story, as simple as it may be. At the end of the day, you need your trailer to show and reveal things about your game that is engaging, captivating and influences people to take action to play it.

So…that’s really all there is to it?

Yup, that’s all that there is to it. OK, some of this might have come off as too easy where for some people, it’s everything but that. Don’t fret! It just means you need to build your confidence up a little. There are ton of resources on the web that can help but if anything the best thing to do is to watch more game trailers. Not just awesome game trailers, but good ones and crappy ones too. Make notes on what you like, don’t like, anything that had an impact on you.

Once you get that done, then really focus on trailers that relate to your game. Take all of those notes and find a way to attribute them to really showcase your trailer all while being different. Different is key, no one likes normal. Then…set a certain time frame to get people’s opinion that you trust (The time frame is so you don’t go into “never launch” mode). Not just friends, but anyone you respect and will give you their honest feedback. Being nice gets you nothing. If one person tells you it sucks, find out why and then go with your gut instinct. If multiple people tell you it sucks…there might be something you need to change…but still, go with your gut. The point is this is your trailer. If you honestly feel passionate about something then do it. If it fails, you learned a valuable lesson. If you win, well….you didn’t have to fail to get a step closer to your goal!

That is all that there is to it. Learn as much as you can about other trailers and then make your trailer! You know the game more than anyone else, so be creative in your approach, go with your gut and make your game trailer awesome. PLEASE don’t settle for good. ALWAYS strive for awesome. It may be more work, but it will always pay off when it comes to marketing your game.

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