So you are making a video clip to show off your new game. There is a ton of technical stuff out there on the topic already and I wanted to plug one more time Hendrik Kuecks excellent talk at 360iDev. He talks about using a camera vs. a screengrab software, explains the different setup options, software to use, encoding, etc. etc. A wealth of information for anybody making game/app videos.
For myself, I’m always trying to find out what makes a game video a great game video. So I wanted to share some thoughts on that topic. I’m not trying to be subtle in my approach and that is not because I hate all your clips or think I’m the ueber-expert (which I’m not), but I think it’s a helpful state of mind when planning a game video which will be seen by one of the most merciless audiences in the world, the notorious youtube crowd. So here we go. This is one of my last contributions to iDevBlogaDay before I go back into the waiting line, so if you want to keep following my blog make sure you subscribe.
There are two basic concepts out there: Trailers and Gameplay videos.
Frankly, I don’t really know why. Those who spend the effort often seem to think something along the lines of “I make a really cool trailer and then I make a gameplay video that those will watch who have more patience and are willing to learn something, so I have something for the masses (trailer) and something for the die-hard fans (gameplay)”. Makes sense. Some. What I really hear though is: “I make a short clip with loud music and lot’s of explosions and super exciting and that gives me an excuse for making something longer which goes into all the details I find important to tell the world about, but really will bore them to death”.
Let me say one thing first: Making two clips is a ton of work. And I think you should actually not have time for that. Did you write to the review sites already? Make your game better? Walk the dog?
There is no real reason to make a Trailer and a Gameplay video. The attention span for anybody watching a clip is scientifically proven to be basically below zero. Make a trailer that is loud, creative, has explosions and shows some gameplay and you combined the best of both worlds, kept your effort down to something reasonable and most important: You have a higher chance of doing one thing right versus ending up doing two things just mediocre. If your game is good enough, others will make the detailed clips.
And if your gameplay is too boring to show in an exciting clip? Let me just say you might have a problem that is not necessarily fixable with two video clips.
A promo video for a casual game should be between 30 seconds and 1.30 minutes. The less, the better. Why? Because if I sacrifice a precious minute of my life to watch your video, you better make it damn entertaining. With a shorter clip you have less of a chance to bore me. Substitute “me” with the average, spoiled youtube crowd and you know what I mean.
Music video clips introduced fast paced cutting. And trained the audience to expect them. Try to remember those movie trailers you saw when watching Tron. Now most are cut too fast for my taste these days, but that does NOT mean that you are allowed to torture me with a 10s or more continuous scene in a one minute clip.
4. Cut Types
When making a video, all those cool special effects of your video editing software are as great as sliced bread. Because as we all learnt the last few years, sliced bread is full of bad carbs and will kill you. And so will those special effects. For any type of professional video, you need exactly one effect. The hard cut. If you ever send me a link to a video where one scene blubbers into the next one, I will unfollow you on Twitter and try to sit as far away from you as I can at the next 360iDev or WWDC. Special scene transition effects are the Comic Sans Serif of video clips!
Exceptions: Some cut effects are rather subtle and help the storytelling. Ok to use those. Very very carefully.
5. Tell a story
This does not mean you always need to come up with an elaborate framework for your game. This means that your video should follow the basic rules of storytelling and show a basic dramatic structure. In other words: Create tension. Build up tension. Climax. And allow for a deep breath at the end! Of course, if the game has a story, this is a great place to tell it. Reminder: You still only have one minute. And you got to make it exciting.
Music is a low-hanging fruit that you should put to good use. The best clips out there carefully synch up with their music. Not beat by beat, but the dramatic structure of the video follows the dramatization a typical music piece introduces. You can absolutely use your game music, but make sure you use either the most dramatic or the most upbeat tune. You typically don’t want a sad trailer.
7. The iPhone simulator effect
Yes, you are showing your game in the context of an iDevice, so you use the iDevice framework (typically the simulator view). Meaning: A clip that shows an iPhone in which the game is running. I think this introduces an artificial barrier between your audience and what you really want to present: Your game! However, it’s a good context for a trailer and it’s kind of a common approach. So I won’t judge it, but personally I think I’m slowly starting to go away from that approach. See below for a way to potentially mitigate the effect.
Camera shows a wild coastline. On a far away rock you see the small silhouette of the Chinese Kung-Fu Master. Dramatic fanfare and the camera zooms in a flash all the way to his determined face.
Early asian martial arts movies are infamous for this use of dramatic zoom. And it is perfectly fine to use. If you are shooting a retro asian martial arts movie, that is. For all other cases, zoom belongs into the same drawer as special cut effects (the one with the “noob” sign).
Now, I have to say, I’m a bit torn on that one. I have seen a very slow zoom effect used in what I found a very successful way to mitigate the iPhone simulator effect. In fact I stole that idea from @appy‘s Face Fighter clip, for my own Space Master video, as I really liked it. Furthermore, I really like old asian martial arts movies. And chances are your (geek) audience will, so riding that might be an interesting experiment. But generally, if you want to show a detail of the screen, you would NOT use zoom, you would show the whole screen, make a hard cut and then show the detail scene. You will be amazed how natural that looks in the clip.
Text is your friend if you want to avoid voice over. But even with voice over, text is used a lot in trailers. There is a whole going on with text, how to time it, make it look interesting but not corny, etc. And yes, text in trailers is typically (carefully) animated to make it look good. Generally know that it’s perfectly fine to use text in a trailer, but also it’s a topic worth studying.
10. Have mercy
Don’t use the creepy finger. Use the simfinger tool or anything to show a round cursor where the finger touches, but please don’t use the creepy finger, because, it’s creepy. I found my Twitter community generally pushing back on it whenever someone brought up the question if this is a good idea for a demo.
Don’t use a fancy animated company logo or anything else in length until you are majicdave and really know how to make it look cool. Or at least keep it super short.
Don’t sneak in tutorial elements. My biggest mistake that I fight hard to avoid is the urge to explain some essential gameplay mechanics in the clip. And then I want to assume that those playing the game saw the trailer. Wrong.
As I said, I’m not an expert, but I tried some of this in my Space Master trailer, mainly music synching, hard cuts, slow zoom. I played a bit with effects in my 360iDev Game Jam walkthrough, like the zoom onto a static picture at 0:04 that suddenly shows an animated sky, the burning text effect at 0.39 and my very own “Lost” effect at 8.05. The best source to learn such things are video tutorials on youtube, there are plenty for every major video cut software.
The best most recent trailer I saw was for Clandestiny on the Mac. Note how the text is shown: In the beginning, every text is visible for almost a full second, the text itself is very subtly coming towards you. The cut effect between text screens and game screens is not a hard cut, but a very subtle quick blending. However, the longer the clip goes, the faster the text is shown, the faster the text animation is and the cut effect is a quick hard cut. This all supports the dramatic curve the clip takes, it’s all a tension buildup which climaxes to the game name.
Edit: Miguel (@mysterycoconut) pointed out on Twitter that this video was made using a new iMovie template (“Blockbuster”). Obviously the principles mentioned here apply fully for choosing wether to go with templates (which more often than not fall into the “horrible” category) or not, this iMovie template is certainly a great choice for the reasons described.
Finally, I highly recommend watching Appy Entertainment’s youtube clips. If you find those highly professional, now you know some of the principles they followed. On all those clips, note the length. Professional = short!
Most of this is inspired by an old article I read years ago in a German computer magazine. The eye opening part for me was that most of this is really just common sense. And you are the best judge that is out there. Which trailers do you like and which ones not? If you understand these basic mechanisms you can go a step further and very easily analyze what you like and dislike. How fast was a trailer cut? What was the dramatic structure? Did it build up tension, and if so: how? How long was it? How did the music support it? How did they use text?
Making a great trailer is not magic. But it is a fascinating, creative challenge. It’s about understanding some basic concepts and how they are perceived by your audience and then go wild within that framework.
So if you come across a well made game trailer that you like, let me know in the comments. And if you find a game trailer that excessively uses dramatic chinese warrior zoom, definitely let me know in the comments, I’ll instantly rate it five stars for creative rule breaking!