How to Create a Gameplay Trailer
How to make a video game trailer that doesn’t suck!
So you’re making a video game. You’ve got three amazing screenshots on your Steam listing, and even a super cool 20 minute gameplay walkthrough, but you know that you’ll have to do more to get potential consumers, and hopefully, press, to notice you.
YOU MUST CREATE A GAMEPLAY TRAILER!
That’s right, you need a super exciting, memorable trailer that everyone will love, and you’ll get nothing but positive YouTube comments and social media likes and it’ll go viral and you’ll captivate everyone’s imagination with one perfectly polished .mp4 file.
Well, that’s the dream anyway.
While game studios with massive budgets can hire top-notch creative agencies with incredible resources to pull off a blockbusting mega-hit of a trailer, in the indie game world, we need to be more scrappy. The good news is that indie game audiences aren’t necessarily expecting state-of-the-art CGI; in fact, serious gamers want to see gameplay, story, and a “reason to believe” that your game should be on their wishlists. Your job is to deliver all of that in a powerful video that leaves them with goosebumps.
And the DIY process for doing so is more achievable than you may think!
Below are some of our top tips for how to make a trailer that’s awesome and will capture the imagination of your burgeoning fan base.
Take a Step Back
Before you start slappin’ clips together, take a moment to think deeply about what you envision the end product to be, and how feasible it will be, given what tools you have at your disposal. Going through this process, you’ll likely begin to sacrifice some of your original, maybe slightly too ambitious ideas, due to resource and time constraints. For example, say your dream was for the trailer to be a “one-shot” action sequence with speed ramping, VFX, and a Rolling Stones soundtrack. This is shaping up to be a $1,000,000 trailer. So now it’s time to begin to focus your concept, and marry it with reality…or to start planning a crowdfunding campaign.
Once you’ve established a scope for your trailer, start to familiarize yourself with all of the materials that are available to you, such as the gameplay itself, any cutscenes and dialogue, concept art, key art, logos, fonts, in-game music, in-game sound effects, and anything else! Make note of anything that you WISH you had (a new cutscene animation, for example), and consider whether it would be worth creating for the trailer. You’ll need to absorb all of this, and sort of “sleep on it” to come up with an idea that you can execute like a straight-up badass.
It’s a good idea to create a folder structure template, and try to fill each of the blank folders with the necessary items. It’s like a checklist, and a great way to keep everything in one place.
It’s also helpful to write a creative brief even if it’s just for yourself to reference. The creative brief is where you’ll write down a blueprint of what you’re trying to accomplish. Things to incorporate in this brief include:
- What type of trailer is it? Is it a Hollywood-style 90 second thrill ride? Or a more didactic, informational piece?
- Technical specs such as frame rate, resolution, and length
- Any marketing tools that can be implemented (toggle HUD, free-moving camera, etc.)
- A focused message that you want to communicate to the viewer
- A strict production timeline to keep yourself to a deadline
- Any other pertinent information like key features, reference videos, and so forth
Write a Script
Alright, Aaron Sorkin, you can put your screenwriting software away for this. Unless you’re creating a cinematic CGI trailer, a trailer script is going to be a lot simpler – more like an outline than a true screenplay.
Essentially, the goal here is to map out each moment of the trailer, beat by beat, in the general order you want to show things. For example, an outline for a cinematic, high-energy Hollywood movie-style trailer would look like:
- Start on cutscene with specific dialogue
- Smash cut to game logo
- Show gameplay footage
- TITLE CARD (you’ll need to figure out what to say here)
- Show more gameplay footage that supports the title card
- TITLE CARD (and here)
- Cut back to the end of the intro cutscene
- TITLE CARD (and here!)
- Music builds and crescendos as we show quick cuts of gameplay
- Smash cut to game logo again
- Endslate showing the product, release date, and what platforms your game’s coming to
In some cases, if you’re making a trailer with narrated voiceover, you may need to write the actual narration script, in which case your script will be much longer than the above. In that case, write it the way you’d like to hear it, and then you can build the visuals around that!
Now that you have your idea, and you’ve mapped out your video with a creative brief and a script, it’s time to start recording footage. Keep your script in mind, and dive in.
- First, you’ll need a way to play the game and record footage at a high resolution, and a smooth framerate. For game trailers, I recommend at least 1920×1080 at 30FPS. Bonus points if you can somehow record at 3840×2160 at 60FPS.
- It’s a good idea to turn off the music in your game if possible, so that you can have sound effects from the game isolated and synced with your footage. If you record footage with the music on, it’ll clash with your musical soundtrack once you start editing.
- Also, make sure you don’t have any random watermarks or HUD elements that you think will be distracting on screen as you record. You want people to focus on how cool your game is, not on the main character’s health bar.
- Finally, hit record and start playing! Try to emphasize the coolest parts of the game as you play. If your game has a 3D camera, attempt to frame your shots in an aesthetically pleasing way. If your game is a 2D platformer, consider zooming in on certain moments just to make it more dynamic. Do your best to record cool footage that makes sense with the story you’re trying to tell. Be creative!
Select Some Music
Music is an extremely important element in a trailer. The track you choose will be the backbone of your video, as well as the emotional core of the story you’re trying to tell. If you’re making a video game, chances are that you already have some music that you’re using in the background, and in many cases, one of those tracks may work perfectly!
Sometimes, however, the actual in-game music might not be impactful enough to drive the story of the video, or be tantalizing enough to keep viewers’ attention. In this situation, I recommend licensing some cinematic trailer music to pair with your incredible visuals.
Licensing music can be really tricky, because it’s not affordable (on an indie budget, at least) to license the Beastie Boys or whomever the youngsters are listening to on the record player these days (we’re talkin’ six figures plus). Luckily, there are some awesome music libraries that offer licensable, royalty-free music, at affordable rates:
- Audiojungle.net. Let me start by saying that this one is less of a “gold mine” and more of an “expansive rough with diamonds hidden throughout.” There’s going to be a lot of generic, weird-sounding tracks on here, and you have to be very selective. Use the search features to narrow the field, and try to find tracks that match your story. Once you find the right track, it’ll usually be less than $50 to license it for web use.
- Soundstripe, Artlist.io, and others. There are a ton of sites like these that offer music on a subscription basis, usually with a full year costing less than $500. Just like with Audio Jungle, there’s a lot of chaff to sift through, but lots of amazing tracks waiting for you as well.
- Musicbed.com and Marmosetmusic.com. These sites will be a little pricier for advertising, but the quality of music is extremely high. The challenge with these sites is that a lot of the music sounds like it belongs in an arthouse film or a documentary. With that said, I personally have found and used several awesome tracks for videos on these sites.
There are plenty of other music libraries that aren’t listed here, and some basic Googling can help you to find more. You should be investing a decent amount of time agonizing over which track to pick, but don’t let it drive you into a nervous breakdown. At some point, you’ll just have to pick one and stick with it.
Now that you’ve captured a bunch of footage, it’s time to bring everything that you’ve captured into whatever editing software you can get your hands on. Here are 3 different recommended non-linear editing (NLE) softwares:
- Da Vinci Resolve (Free). This surprisingly free NLE is extremely powerful. It undoubtedly includes more tools than you’ll ever need for a game trailer (such as color grading tools), but it’s a great option.
- Final Cut Pro X ($300 for Mac). This is the most intuitive software for someone who hasn’t been trained as a video editor, and it works really well. The only potential problem is that you’ll need to transfer any PC footage to a Mac to use it.
- Premiere Pro CC (A more expensive, subscription-based software suite). This is what we use in-house, along with Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, Illustrator, and Audition.
You’ll also want to import whatever music you intend to use as the sound bed. Usually, I start by cutting the music to the target length of your trailer. There are tutorials on how to do this, and it can be somewhat challenging to make it sound right, especially if you don’t have any experience in music. Maybe ask a musical friend to help you with this! Then, add in any “storytelling” elements. Using the sound bed as your guide, start crafting these elements in a way that make sense:
- Title Cards. Usually you would want these to be relatively high impact, so it makes sense to put these on the strong beats in the music.
- In-game dialogue. This is a bit more challenging, but you would basically be taking different sound bites from the dialogue of a game, and weaving them together to tell a cohesive story, even if the different sound bites jump around from different points in the story.
- This is pretty straightforward: just lay the narration on top of the music and make sure it fits in your sound bed.
Now that you have your sound bed and storytelling laid out, treat the whole thing like a map for what visuals you should add in at any given part of the timeline. For example, if the title card says something like, “Play Online Co-Op with Your Buddies,” it would make sense to follow that with co-op gameplay footage.
One final editing tip: put the best-looking footage with the highest impact at the beginning of the video, but leave a few high impact clips for the end as well. I’m not saying the middle should just be filler content, but generally, it’s a good idea to HOOK your audience with something really striking from the get-go.
As creatives, we often fall into the trap of egotistically thinking that the thing we poured our heart and soul into is already perfect, but that’s rarely the case.
Once you have your rough cut finished, you’re in a really good position to use it as a foundation, which can serve as the raw clay for your final sculpture. Don’t just show it to people who are going to be nice – you want real feedback! And don’t be offended if they feel like the flow is off. Take them at their word, and address the issues. You won’t always be able to make everyone happy, but the exercise of assembling the trailer, then cutting the crap out of it through multiple revision rounds, usually results in the best possible trailer.
Finally, POLISH that sucker!
Many common mistakes I see in “finished” videos could easily have been fixed by someone with an eye and ear for detail (and a little bit of know-how).
- Audio Errors. Listen to the audio by itself, without looking at the video. Ask yourself if the music edits you made flow correctly. Or if there are any random “popping” sounds that occur when a certain audio clip starts or ends with a “sharp attack or release.” Or if there are any visuals that are in need of a high impact sound effect.
- Video Errors. Make sure you’re taking a close look at the footage and see if there are any technical errors in the content itself, which are pretty common when you’re working with an unfinished game! Comb through the trailer to see if there are any random stray frames that pop up throughout the video.
- Typos. Need I say more? Editing software suites don’t ordinarily include built-in spell checking, so that’ll be your responsibility.
This is undoubtedly a lot of information to take in, but hopefully, there’s some helpful advice in here that you can use to get started on building your own high quality video content. Creating quality gameplay trailers takes quite a bit of work and expertise, and if you’d rather focus on creating your game, rather than its marketing content, a publisher’s experience and resources could also be helpful.
Mauricio is a videographer, editor, and cinematographer and has been at Modus/Maximum Games for over 4 years, as the Senior Video Production Manager.