So, you’ve made a game! It’s time to put it out there, and what better way than a game trailer? Of course, like many things in the game industry, that’s easier said than done.
Trailers have been around for almost as long as video games themselves. It’s hard to find the first game trailer ever made, but it’s much easier to recognize their impact on today’s gaming landscape. In short, trailers are important because -in more ways than one- they are your game in under two minutes.
If you still need convincing, think of it this way: if you can’t sell your trailer for free, you can’t expect to sell your game for money! So, what makes a good game trailer? Let’s find out.
Game Trailers vs. Teasers vs. Video Ads
“They’re all marketing videos, right?” you might wonder. They are, technically, but they shouldn’t be treated the same. Let’s align on the definitions first.
A trailer is a short video that showcases a whole game or parts of it (usually) in under two minutes. Trailers are generally longer than teasers or ads, are more illustrative, and can also be released at various stages of development.
Trailers also have various types like announce trailers, gameplay trailers, release date trailers, story trailers, launch trailers, etc. Then there are separate DLC announce trailers, DLC story trailers, etc.
A teaser is a shorter video focused on creating excitement and anticipation for a game and it’s usually shorter than 1 minute. So, expect fast scenes and thrilling music. It’s in the name; it teases you!
A teaser is usually released in the beginning stages of game production or otherwise before the game release.
Like trailers, teasers can be classified by purpose. It’s common for game studios to release announcement teasers before any other kind of information. There are also gameplay and cinematic teasers meant to hype you up for the gameplay and story, respectively.
A video ad is usually the shortest of the three, typically under 30 seconds and focused on eliciting an immediate action from the audience. It’s like other video ads in many respects! It might have marketing-oriented narration and possibly extra buttons, which makes it very different from trailers or teasers.
Here’s a chart of the differences we just covered.
Game Trailer Principles
Before anything else, let’s review some basic rules or principles to be followed throughout any video game trailer production. (We could either allude to them all over the article or give them all to you here in a nice section!)
Like all principles, these might sound obvious to you. And like all principles, abiding by them is much harder than it seems! Being mindful of them would definitely have you aim for better trailers, but you could also jump to the game trailer creation process now if you like.
#1: Stick to Your Audience
Take preferences and expectations into account alongside factors like age and demographics. It helps to go back and ask yourself once more why you are making this game and for whom.
It’s also helpful to think about what your audience wouldn’t like. For example, if you’re building on an idea that has failed once before, think about why it failed and what it failed to deliver.
#2: Watch a Lot of Trailers
This is always good advice when you’re creating anything: consume what’s already out there before you start creating. In this case, you should watch a lot of trailers before you try to make one.
Looking at trailers of games in your genre is, of course, a given. Looking at great trailers from random or renowned games is also great for inspiration. Even bad trailers, those that have really failed and were generally disliked, can give you ideas about what not to do. You can take a look at IGN’s YouTube channel if you don’t know where to start.
What’s more, we’ve included six compelling trailers right here in the article to demonstrate each section’s key takeaways!
#3: Determine the Trailer’s Purpose
It’s quite common for a video game to have several trailers, mostly because each of these trailers serves a different purpose. So, ask “What do we want from this trailer?”.
Everyone wants their game noticed and played, but what else? Do you want to attract gamers from a specific console or nationality? Do you want to showcase your gameplay innovations? Or perhaps you would like to put your music out there?
Answering these questions will help guide later decisions.
#4: Focus on Your Selling Point
Once you have the trailer’s primary purpose, focus on it by all means. Still, remember that it’s important to play to your strengths regardless of the purpose.
What makes your game unique? What makes it sell?
How you focus on your selling points is totally up to your team and their creativity. Do you have stunning visuals? Show them! Immersive dialogues? Incorporate them into the trailer somehow.
#5: Match the Game
While you’re trying to make the best trailer you can, see that you don’t get carried away. A great trailer (and also a horrible one) sticks in the minds of your audience, so you need to make sure to promise exactly what you will deliver.
For example, even if you opt for scenes that aren’t taken from the game (more on this later), it’s important to keep them as close as possible to the in-game graphics and the game’s overall identity. The same goes for music, gameplay, etc.
#6: Be Concise & Engaging
We’ll discuss this more later in this article, but just know that you have quite a time limit. You’ll need to pick exactly what you need to show and say to keep your audience right where they are, looking at your trailer.
One way to go about making things concise is to be supremely long first and write down everything you can think of. Then you can whittle it down little by little so you have, say, one minute of material.
Now that you have all that in mind, let’s make a trailer!
Making a Game Trailer: Narrative Design
Every game has a special tale to tell. Your trailer’s an intro to your game. So, it should have a narrative of its own! Even “gameplay reveal” trailers that are purely about showcasing the gameplay have minimalistic narratives. For example, they might start with what viewers already know or guess from previous trailers and then plunge into the unknown.
Derek Lieu, a game trailer editor and expert in the field, argues that game trailers’ basic narrative design should look like this:
The peaks are there to remind you to keep it exciting with brief shots or sound effects, even when things aren’t too exciting yet. (You don’t want to be predictable and lose the audience’s attention.) Lieu goes on to explain the stages as such:
- Cold Open: The hook! It’s “cold” because it’s sudden and mostly visual. (A strong auditory opening might result in a negative reaction, especially if YouTube autoplay has brought you the viewer.)
- Introduction: An explanation of what’s happening in the game.
- Escalation: Things get complicated. Again, this is often treated like an intro to the game’s story.
- Climax: The most exciting point in the trailer. It could be in the story, gameplay, or even voiceover.
So, sit down with your team and think about everything you want to incorporate into your trailer. You don’t need to have the material yet; just the ideas will do. Then, try to move these ideas around to follow the narrative structure above. If you lack a step, find it! If you don’t have peaks, brainstorm what they could be.
Look for the narrative design we just discussed. You can also easily find the small peaks, like at 0:20!
Making a Game Trailer: Visuals
The visuals make up most of a trailer, both in terms of the energy you spend on it and final file size. So, it makes sense to start the creation with them. Let’s go to the first question that might pop into your head.
Read More: Game Trailer Visuals: An In-Depth Guide
Is In-Game Footage Necessary?
It heavily depends on the type of trailer you’re going for.
If it’s a reveal trailer like the one we just saw, chances are you’re still in game production and don’t have many in-game assets yet. So, it makes sense to go for all-new cinematics. Don’t forget to stick to the game at all times. Keep the scenes extremely relevant.
Games with several trailers usually start with out-of-the-game cinematics for the first trailer and use in-game material later on. For example, an announce trailer could easily include in-game cinematics alongside scenes created specifically for the trailer. On the other hand, it’s probably best to feature in-game scenes and gameplay as much as possible in a launch trailer.
Pro tip: Don’t showcase your gameplay until you have everything worked out and ready. Trust us, trailers for anticipated games are prone to a lot of criticism!
In-Game Cutscenes vs. Animations
As experts, we should tell you that there’s a difference between in-game cutscenes and in-game animations. Confused? Read on!
In-game animations are those sequences that are pre-rendered and preloaded in the game when you install it. Like the video going on in the main menu background or conventional credits, the videos that are played and the gamer can usually skip.
In-game cutscenes, on the other hand, are those that are rendered in-game. For example, suppose your character reaches level 17 and they hover off the ground to do a little dance. Maybe they find a special sword that, with a little maneuver, opens a secret passage. That’s an in-game cutscene; it’s rendered in real-time using the device’s resources.
The two are both animated sequences, need storyboarding, and could be created using motion capture, CGI, etc. (Pro tip: animations created using a game engine can definitely be more gamelike and efficient. We use the Unreal Engine ourselves!)
But they’re different in terms of when they’re rendered (which we mentioned) and also volume. Today, in-game cutscenes have become increasingly more popular. (In fact, these cutscenes are one of the reasons many studios are figuring out remote motion capture so they can augment their pipeline with no quality compromise.)
The point is that you already have the files for in-game animations, so you can use them in your trailer with no problem. But you should record in-game cutscenes off a device!
How to Record Material
So, we’ve established that if you need to showcase gameplay, you need to record yourself playing. Here are some points to make it quicker.
- Consider recorder software. Some consoles like PlayStation 4 or Android offer native recording, but if they lag or aren’t as customizable as you want, you can always use external software.
- Be as high-quality as you can. You’ll need to edit and optimize the trailer for different platforms later on, but it’s best to go for the highest quality you can process.
- You don’t have to go native. You’re the developer! It might make your life easier if you can simulate your game on another operating system without losing quality. For example, it might be easier to record an Android game on Windows.
- You don’t have to play to get there. As the developer, you can create saves right before the levels you want. You could even rig the game or create alternate versions to play those levels instantly. Plus, definitely move the camera around to capture in-game feels!
A nice blend of in-game shots and actual gameplay! Also, the camera moves for the trailer in those first scenes, which it’s not possible in-game.
Making a Game Trailer: Music, Voiceover, & Sounds
Now that you have a viewer’s eyes, you should amaze their ears. There are basically three items you will need: music, voiceover, and sounds.
Choosing Background Music for a Trailer
If the soundtrack is one of your game’s selling points, by all means, use it! A prime example of this approach is Journey (2012), which won the year’s BAFTA for Best Original Music.
On the other hand, it’s also very common to go for non-soundtrack pieces. In fact, “trailer music” is very much a genre that includes:
- Pieces from other productions (like from Requiem for a Dream),
- Classical music (like Carmina Burana),
- Pieces made for movie & game trailers of all kinds (like Two Steps From Hell’s music), or
- Pieces made specially for a game trailer production. (Like “Why We Run” by Daniel James, made for Mirror’s Edge Catalyst’s launch trailer.)
Keep in mind that there are tons of royalty-free pieces out there, too! So, you don’t have to pay for licensing if you can’t afford it. You’ll just need to invest some time and look through sources like StreamBeats, Free Music Archive, or others and edit the pieces to your needs. (If you need more sources, simply search “royalty-free music”.)
Choosing Voices for a Trailer
Here, you basically have three choices. All three are popular, but choose according to the trailer you’re going for.
- No voiceover: These trailers are best for games that are rather easy to play or those especially focused on art. A small, relaxing game like Pocket Love would be an example of the first type, and a game like Ori and the Blind Forest is an example of the second.
- In-game voices: If you have a gameplay trailer to produce, in-game NPC voices could easily do. (See Unrecord’s early gameplay trailer, for example.) On the other hand, you can always use in-game dialogue for effect. (For instance, see the trailer for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice below.)
- Trailer-specific voiceover: This usually appears on announce trailers, but it’s widely used in games of all sizes. The trailer for Mass Effect 3 you saw above is a prime example.
Choosing Sounds & Sound Effects for a Trailer
Once you decide on the music and your general approach, the sounds and sound effects should be rather simple. This section is just here to draw your attention to the fact that you might need sound effects!
Sometimes in-game sounds will do nicely, like in gameplay trailers or those of many mobile games. And sometimes not, like when you’d like nothing to disturb the music. Watch your final draft of the trailer. Do you feel like any sound effects are lacking? Or are there too many sounds?
Don’t forget that like music, there are tons of royalty-free sounds and sound effects available online.
The voice you hear is taken entirely from the game. The same is true of background music and sounds.
Editing a Game Trailer: Length & Resolution
Now that you’re editing the video, let’s get to the two factors that affect your file size the most.
The Ideal Length for a Game Trailer
So, how long should a trailer be? One general rule of thumb would be “as long as you can keep the audience’s attention”. Otherwise, it depends!
In our experience, the average length for a game trailer is 90 to 120 seconds. Shorter durations are also very popular, especially if you don’t want to risk 90 seconds or don’t have enough material! (It’s good to note that teasers are usually below 60 seconds, while trailers are usually above.)
Keep in mind that viewers expect longer durations if you’re making a gameplay trailer, behind-the-scenes trailer, or another informative trailer. Your audience probably has all kinds of questions!
On the other hand, your marketing team will probably tell you there are all kinds of length limitations across social media. So if you’re planning to syndicate the same trailer, be ready for serious cuts just for those platforms.
The Best Resolution for a Game Trailer
At the time of this article’s publication, YouTube supports videos up to 4K (3840 x 2160 pixels), and Vimeo goes even higher to DCI 4K (4096 x 2048 pixels). So, you could go all the way if you feel like it! We suggest going no lower than 1080p.
Plus, different social media have different ideal qualities. You may need to adjust the resolution or size (in addition to length) for different platforms. Think, for example, of Instagram Reels.
Another consideration in terms of size could be along the lines of “match the game”. Namely, if you’re a mobile game and you’re making a gameplay trailer, don’t blow up the resolution to 4K to later disappoint viewers.
A famous gameplay reveal, featuring the story, gameplay mechanics, player mistakes, etc. in 12 minutes.
Editing a Game Trailer: Additional & Overlay Text
Think of a whole scene dedicated to a glowing review of your game or text that goes over your visuals to, say, tell people to click. We encourage you to keep overlay texts to a minimum or add them in specific ad campaigns and not for a trailer on, say, YouTube.
Many text scenes, though, have a specific time and place to be used.
- ESRB Alerts: If you’re in the US and Canada, you’ll be encouraged to include your game’s ESRB rating at the very beginning of your trailer. Such an alert will especially be appreciated if you feature age-restricted material like violence or nudity.
- Spoiler Alerts: Please, if you have spoilers, tell us that in huge bold letters at the beginning of the trailer!
- Glowing Reviews: If you’ve got the chance to give credible sources early access to your game, your trailer might be a good place to boast of those reviews! Possibly include these in the beginning.
- Release Dates, “Coming Soon”, “Available Now”, etc.: The audience will have two main questions at the end of a good trailer: “Can I play this on my console?” and “When can I play it?” They would appreciate answers to both at the end of the trailer. If you don’t have a date, you can use “coming soon” alongside the platforms you’re releasing for.
- Platforms & Partners: You can easily include a collage of platforms you’re releasing for and your partners at the very end of the trailer.
You can see numbers 1, 3, 4, and 5 in this trailer. See how the reviews build anticipation for the actual trailer?
Editing a Game Trailer: Other & In Between Scenes
Should you add the studio logo? How about your partner’s? Should you tell the audience about that other game you developed?
Well, it depends. If you’re a well-known studio, sure, feel free to brag! (You risk losing the audience’s attention if you’re not.) Many famous studios opt to include their logos for effect, building excitement. The same goes for any famous previous games. Don’t overdo it though, be very quick!
Another important editing consideration is the transitions from scene to scene. You need to make everything as smooth as possible for the audience’s eyes, so incorporate subtle transition animations. Fade-to-black transitions are rather popular with many games!
Both Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix are famous, so they can show off. Plus, notice how smooth the transitions are?
Does it sound hard, making a trailer? It is! It’s a meticulous, important step in your game’s marketing. And we’ve mostly been dealing with trailers in this article; teasers and marketing ads aside!
Still, now you’re a little more prepared. Plus, if at any step you require consultation or want to outsource the production altogether, shoot us a message! We’ll be glad to lend our expertise.