A Year of Making Game Trailers - 2017 (In Progress)

I decided for 2017 I'm going to blog about each trailer I finish as they come out so that I can provide a better behind-the-scenes look at each one since they'll still be fresh in my mind. Here we go!

1. Pit People Early Access Launch Trailer

At this point I've already made a number of trailers for Pit People, but this was the first big launch of the game.

This was a somewhat difficult project because of some big creative decisions that were out of my control. Initially we were making this trailer using some old narration that Stamper found in his archives. It wasn't explicitly to describe the game, but it allowed for some tenuous visual connections that worked well enough simply because of Stamper's amazing execution.

For most of the process I was using the music track for the character Sofia, which is a Spanish guitar cue with a lot of energy, and a nice arc to it. My thinking was that by virtue of the Sofia track being so different, it would expand the breadth of the game. It was decided that track was too different from music used in previous trailers, so we changed it to something more quirky. Then late in the process we realized the narration was so old that Stamper's voice for the narrator had changed enough that it wouldn't match the game. This meant the narration I was cutting around had to be removed entirely. Without the narration I had to recut the entire trailer so that music and sound effects were front and center.

For the graphics I really wanted them to look like they fit into the universe more. In retrospect I wasn't happy with the scroll graphics I made for the previous trailer because of how flat they looked. This time Dan Paladin was able to hand letter the words. I added some bouncy animation, and combined them with hexes from the in-game UI. I think these titles have much more personality, and I'm pretty pleased with how they came out.

2. Thimbleweed Park - Ransome Trailer

Another Thimbleweed Park trailer! This one was another pretty quick turnaround. Ron had written the script, but otherwise had no direction for me. This one was fun because I got to use some different music, and really shape some discreet sections for the trailer.

While I did end up reusing a lot of music from previous trailers, I feel like the circus music, and montage sequence gave some nice energy. Fun fact: before I had the official *beeps* for Ransome's cursing I used the beeps from the swearing telekinetic character from the LucasArts game "Sam & Max Hit the Road." I knew almost no one would ever see that version, but it was just a little fun thing I did while I was working.

Another bonus to this trailer was that when the game composer saw my music edit, he said he thought it was good enough that he didn't have to do any work on it. Whoo!

3. Ooblets Teaser Trailer

I got this gig via Chris Dwyer with whom I worked on the console version of Gone Home, and A Boy and His Blob.

Ooblets is an indie game being made by Rebecca Cordingly and Benjamin Wasser. I already followed Becky on Twitter because I saw the ADORABLE gifs she frequently posts for Ooblets, and at some point she followed me back (or was it the other way around?). We talked in November 2016 about me possibly working on a trailer for the game, but for reasons out of their control, they weren't sure when they needed the trailer by until about... a week before they needed it. 

With a time frame like that we had to get the ball rolling right away! Good thing we were working with composer Calum Bowen who had some music ideas already. He quickly iterated on some ideas with Becky to hone in on the right sound. After he had a couple tracks, we did some back and forth where I would cut the music together according to how long I thought each section should be, then he would either change it to accommodate my edits, or let me know which edits would be too difficult to accommodate. Once we had the sections figured out, he went to work on fleshing out the instrumentation while I got to editing.

Plant growing timelapse gif!

Plant growing timelapse gif!

Because of the bountiful wealth of Ooblets gifs, I was able to use those in my sequence as an animatic to get my basic concept across so I could get the OK from Becky and Ben, and then do the high quality capture. Some very basic ideas like: when to show farming, when to show ooblets, how many ooblets, when to show NPCs etc. That went pretty quickly, and then it was time to capture!

This year I went to my first ever GDC, and I feel like I spent most of my time there gushing to other devs about the debug tools I had for Ooblets. Becky added in some great features that made the capture process smooth as butter. The best features by FAR were that I was able to offset the camera either by zooming, panning, rotating etc. but have it still be attached to the player! This meant I could do "steadicam" shots from any angle. Also there was an option to detach the camera from the player, so I could move her independently while the camera stayed static. There was also a toggle for camera speed, and lots of tools for managing ooblets. Becky quickly updated the build for me as I came up with new requests. All in all, it was the best capture experience I've had next to Quadrilateral Cowboy.

The in-game camera is never at this zoom/height, but with the offset camera it was dirt simple to do!

The in-game camera is never at this zoom/height, but with the offset camera it was dirt simple to do!

For the structure of the trailer it was important for me that we get the "cool" part as soon as possible. Kind of like how James Bond and Peter Jackson films have an action packed cold open. Same idea applied here, except for cute stuff! This meant showing Ooblets, and plants growing before showing the farming which is less visually interesting.

In film, there's the idea of a "line of rising action", but for trailers I think it's good to have a line that starts high, then comes back down, and then rises from there. Especially in this day and age, we can't afford to not grab attention as soon as possible! So the trailer goes from a quick intro, to plants growing, ooblets, and then back to the "how" part of the trailer which eventually ends in a TON of Ooblets. Then of course dancing for the grand finale, because the dancing in the game is some of the best/cutest I've seen in any game. I also really like the denoument, because it's a nice way to bookend the trailer. It wasn't my intention, but the trailer functions rather like an example of what might happen in one day of playing Ooblets.

Overall, one of my favorite game trailer making experiences so far, and the reaction to it made it all the better!

4. The Occupation - Announce Trailer

I got this gig through via a referral from some developer friends of White Paper Games (I forgot to ask who it was). I got excited when I received this email because I was familiar with their previous game Ether One, and I'm a fan of first person narrative games in general.

This was their newest unannounced game. They sent me a trailer draft they were 80% satisfied with, and wanted to see what I could do to improve upon it. I took a look at what they had, and immediately saw some issues that need to be addressed by essentially throwing almost all of it away, and coming up with a totally new structure.

The first draft leaned more heavily on this argument, but it was trimmed to make the story clearer

The first draft leaned more heavily on this argument, but it was trimmed to make the story clearer

In the game you're a journalist who is in a government building right after an act has been passed which is very similar to The Patriot Act in the United States. There's also been a terrorist attack recently on the building, and it's up to you to investigate and report the story. If that wasn't unique enough already, the game is realtime over the course of four hours. The only other game I can think of that does this is Jordan Mechner's The Last Express. That setup means that there are certain events and actions NPCs take in the game that happen at specific times, so if you're not there to see them then you don't see them at all.

The first draft of the trailer was centered around an argument between the characters Scarlet and Charles. The problems were that many parts of the conversation were meaningless without greater context, so they muddied up the narrative. I rewrote the trailer using a mix of existing dialogue, scratch voiceover bits, and some background about the game's story. The simpler narrative boiled down to: Terrorist attack, Scarlet is being accused, immigrants are being blamed for bad things in the country, the government might be untrustworthy, player needs to investigate, and Charles is going do something, but what??

An early shot to emphasize the realtime nature of the gameplay by highlighting a clock and your watch

An early shot to emphasize the realtime nature of the gameplay by highlighting a clock and your watch

From this structure we concentrated on what gameplay moments to highlight. Some key things were: sneaking/investigating, the player's realtime watch, hacking into computers, pneumatic tubes, NPCs using sign language, and more investigating. I made some rough cuts using capture from an early build of the game. The last thing I sent off was an edit with text overlays to indicate the shot types that should appear in those moments. For logistical reasons I couldn't do the final capture or edit, because it very much came down to the wire before the debut. Also an 8 hour time zone difference made turnarounds more difficult.

All that said, I still feel a sense of ownership over the trailer, and I'm pleased with how it turned out!

5. Thimbleweed Park - Launch Trailer

Finally it's out!

For this trailer I had the least amount of direction, but Ron really wanted the trailer to pose questions that left the audience wanting to play the game to find out the answers. Since all the voice over was recorded, I knew it was my opportunity to do my take-a-ton-of-dialogue-and-make-a-trailer approach. Ron sent me a text document with all the dialogue in the game. It was A LOT. According to Microsoft Word, it was over 10,000 lines of dialogue. Some of it was redundant, but it was still A LOT. 

First thing I did was skim through looking for broad stroke plot points, and exposition about the town, the story, and characters. In a trailer it's usually better to focus on the big picture, and a lot of dialogue was for very specific moments that require more context. But for example, an NPC saying something like "This is a small town..." is perfect for trailers. It took me a few days, but I whittled it down and separated the dialogue into text documents where I sorted by different categories. For example one had sections like: Exposition - Thimbleweed Park, Exposition - The Body, Generic phrases etc. 

Look at the file sizes to get an idea of how much work it took to distill the dialogue down.

Look at the file sizes to get an idea of how much work it took to distill the dialogue down.

From this sorted dialogue I did a paper edit that covered the broad strokes of the story that went from a cold open to get attention, to exposition about the town, exposition about each character, and then some grand sounding statements from each to sum the whole thing up. I sent that draft to Ron, and he worked on some additions with the rest of the team to flesh out some story bits, and insert some gags and in-jokes. He also wanted to have title cards for each character. Title cards are nice for trailer editing because they give you things to cut to/with. For example, a simple way to get attention or add "flair" is to cut title cards on the hard beats of the music.

This was also my first opportunity to do some design work after taking School of Motion's Design Bootcamp class. The title cards ended up being rather simple, but It felt good to have a process to go through in order to get to those final designs. I started by making a Pinterest board of inspiration. I definitely wanted a noir look, it was just a matter of which look to go with. I did some sketches based on the board, and ended up with a character, text next to them and a diagonal highlight emphasized by the rotation of the text and some fake venetian blind highlights on the characters. I also added some grain for texture. My original plan was to make multiple versions to present, but what ended up happening instead was by the time I reached the final version, I thought all my previous ones were utter crap so I just threw them away.

Some of the iterations I went through before arriving at the final design of the titles. At one point I thought of giving each character a "title." 

Some of the iterations I went through before arriving at the final design of the titles. At one point I thought of giving each character a "title." 

The difficult part for the editing was figuring out the music. I didn't mind reusing music from old trailers, but this trailer was shaping up to be at least 2 minutes long which is already long by game trailer standards. What I ended up doing was using a very slow and moody track for the beginning so by contrast the middle section would have more energy, and then the end montage is where it really kicks in. Once the character cards start, I'm using the music from the Town area of the game which had several iterations that worked nicely to demarcate each section.

I also inserted small action moments here and there to break up the dialogue. This extended the length to just over 2.5 minutes. Hopefully the audience is engrossed enough in the story that they keep watching. I also finished the end off with some film noir trailer-style inspired graphics. 

I'm very pleased with how this trailer came out, and also all the work I got to do on the previous trailers!

6. The Wild Eternal - Launch Trailer

The Wild Eternal is a first person exploration game where you play an old woman who is exploring a foggy land in her quest to escape the cycle of rebirth/reincarnation. You interact with a demi-god fox, and as you play the game you learn more about your own story and the fox's. I got this gig via referral from Josh Cauller!

The game was primarily developed by brothers Scott Goodrow and Casey Goodrow over the course of several years. When I started the project they had a lot of questions about the direction for the trailer. Atypical of games in the narrative exploration genre, The Wild Eternal has a "skill tree" where the player gains new abilities like: more stamina, the ability to jump further, ability to slide down cliffs etc. A lot of early conversations were about whether or not to highlight these mechanics, but after playing a bit of the game I decided it wouldn't be the correct approach. The reason for this is that the audience looking for a good story aren't likely to be playing for unique game mechanics, and people looking for unique game mechanics won't feel challenged by what mechanics are there. tl;dr is to know your audience.

The first person exploration genre is something a lot of people are experimenting with, but past successes have shown that there are people interested in these games despite a vocal minority decrying them as not being "real games." That said, it's still important to find what is unique about the game in order for it to stand out from the crowd. The Wild Eternal's art style first and foremost is beautiful and striking, but the story is what the audience is going to be looking for.

This shot was to show off not just the beautiful design, but show variety!

This shot was to show off not just the beautiful design, but show variety!

After playing through a lot of the game to see the unique environments, items and mechanics, I went through a text document that contained all the dialogue in the game. There's a lot of dialogue that contains stories about the player, the fox, the world of the game and more. But most of the dialogue was focused on too small a part of the game for the trailer, so I looked for dialogue that focused on grand themes, the player's overarching story, the player's perspective on their life, and some big philosophical ideas the fox talks to the player about. 

The script from these selected dialogues became the backbone of the trailer, and the rest of the focus was on good capture, and showing the variety in the games. Just because the mechanics weren't the primary focus didn't mean we didn't use them at all, so they became the "action" bits between the dialogues to keep the pacing interesting.

While I said story was most important, variety is still very important! That's why I cut to the interior shot after only two shots in the foggy area. That's my way of showing the audience that there's variety in the game. Had the 3rd or 4th shots looked very similar to the first two, they might conclude there's very little scope to the environments (yes, I worry about the audience getting bored after just four shots!) 

While mechanics aren't the focus of the trailer, they add a bit of action and interest to the trailer

While mechanics aren't the focus of the trailer, they add a bit of action and interest to the trailer

The rest of the trailer I tried to build up the "intensity" of game mechanics while the music builds and crescendos. For example, the Fox appearing is very simple, walking with the compass is more mechanical, animals show variety and scope, compass activating something is very "game-y", and same with the tears opening the gate.

At 1:18 is one of my favorite parts as the music crescendos and the candles light up. I captured a version early on which had fewer candles, but they liked it so much that Scott went in to add more candles, and made a custom build that let me set the proximity at which the candles would turn on. This let me get the perfect shot with candles activating at precisely the right moment.

One final behind the scenes thing is the randomly generated dialogue. The game uses a system to procedurally generate spoken gibberish dialogue based on samples from the voice actors. For the trailer I captured as much of this random dialogue as I could so that I could "match" the emotion and intonation of each line so that they fit the text on the screen. 

Pace is a very subjective thing, but this project let me explore how to keep it up for what is essentially a very slow and meditative trailer/game. Hopefully I succeeded in keeping the audience's attention, and people check out the game!

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I'll be updating this post throughout the year. Follow me on Twitter for updates!

To be continued...