Every week I watch new game trailers; I don't finish watching most of them. There are myriad reasons, and a lot stem from the fact that most game trailers aren't made by trailer editors; if I sense I won't be entertained or learn something from the trailer, I stop watching.
Why aren't more game trailers made by trailer editors?
At the most basic level, a game needs programming, art and sound; there's no guarantee a person who specializes in film will be on the team, or the team will even be friends with someone who does. Whereas with a small indie film, there will always be an editor, but even that doesn't guarantee a good trailer. I know feature film editors who turn down requests for trailers because they know it's a different style of editing.
The video game industry is still quite young, and the game trailer industry is even younger. Major publishers didn't hire agencies to make their trailers until around the late 90s and early 2000s. As veteran game designer Ron Gilbert explained in my PAX West presentation about game trailers, there simply weren't ways to release a trailer in the early days of the industry. The first game trailers I ever watched were the ones release on LucasArts CD-ROM discs. With this history it's understandable why game trailers are very spotty in quality.
I watch game trailers to see what's coming out, and to look for new or inspiring ways to cut. If my instinct tells me the trailer wasn't made by someone with a good sense of story structure or even basic montage editing, I stop watching.
Of course, I can't write an article that says "My instinct says this isn't going to be good", so here are some red flags that make me want to stop watching a game trailer:
1. Visual confusion and excess
A lot of game trailers just show too much in a single shot, or in aggregate across the entire duration. When I see this, my eyes glaze over, and the next thing I know, I mouseover the YouTube video to check how much more of the trailer is left, or stop watching entirely.
I'm not looking to learn everything about the game from the trailer, I'm looking for 1 or 2 reasons the game is unique, and why I should learn more about it. Think of it this way: when you get excited about a game, and you want to tell a friend about it, do you give them a laundry list of features or do you start with the 1 or 2 things that excite you the most? I always do the latter, and if they're receptive maybe I'll go further in-depth.
If a trailer tries to show me everything, that tells me no one thing is interesting enough on its own. Consciously or not, viewers will sense this.
2. Too much text
"Show, don't tell" is the maxim of filmmaking because people remember images more than words. If the trailer is inundated with text, that tells me it's not using the language of film. The most egregious recent example I've seen is this trailer for Black Clover: Quartet Knights.
This is the first shot in the trailer; it has subtitled Japanese dialogue and three lines of text. Even if this was made for a Japanese audience with kanji and no subtitles, it would still be a terrible idea, because the dialogue is fighting the text for attention. The rest of the trailer continues to explain the abilities of the character with visuals and a lot of text.
This is what told me the trailer wouldn't teach me anything about how to present a game; it uses video as a vehicle for visuals and text instead of taking advantage of the medium. I only watched the rest of this trailer out of morbid curiosity.
There's nothing less convincing than a trailer with text or narration that tells you the game is amazing. Think of a person at a press conference trying to hype you up about their product by using superlative adjectives; has it ever worked from their words alone? Probably not.
3. Visible HUD (Heads up display)
I'm going to keep hammering on this until visible HUD becomes the exception to the rule. Most of the time, a trailer doesn't need to show the game's HUD, because it doesn't help communicate the idea behind the shot.
The most basic HUD example is a life meter. This is in the game to tell the player how much damage they received, and how close they are to being knocked out or killed. In a trailer for an action game, seeing a character hitting things or getting hit by enemies is enough to tell the audience what you do in the game; this can be shown without a life meter.
If the idea of the shot is: "This enemy's special attack does A LOT of damage" then a life meter is appropriate. Or, if getting high scores is integral to the game like in Tormentor X Punisher, then it makes sense to show in the trailer. There are also games where the HUD indicates the game's genre like for the turn-based tactical game Into the Breach. Without at least some of the HUD in this trailer, it might not be clear that the game is turn-based. The trailer does say "turn-based" in text, but again, visuals are stronger than words.
Everything in a shot either communicates an idea or distracts from it. The editor has to make sure the audience understands the idea behind the shot, and if it's in the editor's power to remove distractions, they should do it.
If the HUD isn't part of that idea, turn it off.
If a new shot doesn't move onto something new, or create something in combination with its previous shot, it will get boring very quickly. People like things in threes, so the fourth time an idea is repeated, I being to question a trailer's editing.
At worst, the audience will think:
"Huh, they keep showing the exact same thing over and over; maybe this is all they have to show of the game. Or maybe there isn't anything more to the game."
This trailer for Memories of Mars is a good example of this monotony. The first three sequences are running up to a player, and a static shot of them getting killed. Thirteen seconds into this trailer all I know is that you shoot people. By the end we find out there are teams and some sort of game ending event, but that's it.
Based on the first 10-20 seconds of this trailer, my gut instinct was: "The editing of this trailer's last minute is going to be about the same." Monotony is not only boring in the moment, but it sets expectation that the rest will also be boring.
5. No context for what's happening
The stories of Jackie Chan's films aren't typically very intricate, but he knows that a fight scene isn't interesting to watch without context or character motivation. In this scene from Rush Hour, he fights two guys while trying to protect priceless artifacts; this gives the scene stakes and suspense.
Now watch this trailer for Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor -- Martyr.
I'm not familiar with the Warhammer 40k games, but I can understand the basic story of soldiers fighting aliens. I don't know why they're fighting, I don't know what their end goal is and why the aliens are obstacles to that. There are also frequent cutaways to an old man. We don't know who he is or why he's important.
This trailer is ostensibly one long scene, but if I re-ordered the shot, I doubt you'd be able to discern any meaningful difference. This is because there's no context, no motivations, no arc, and no beginning, middle and end. If the music didn't swell at the end, you might not be able to know the trailer is finishing up. It's just fighting, which on its own is boring unless maybe there's exceptional choreography.
For gameplay trailers, I talked a lot about setting up context in this series of posts about treating a game trailer like a tutorial. Context for gameplay trailers is important so the audience can connect the dots. If the audience can't be an active participant, they'll lose interest.
6. Disconnected story
In a previous post about the trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2's third trailer I explained how disconnected story moments can cause the audience to tune out. Just like poorly directed/edited action scenes disorient the viewer's eye, disconnected scenes will disorient their story comprehension. Try to watch a little bit of this very long release date trailer for Code Vein:
I did my best to keep track of what's going on in this trailer, but it became too difficult, because nothing flows together. This tells me the editor cherry picked the scenes, but didn't put them into an order that made sense or would help the audience retain the information. The first 40 seconds of voiceover ostensibly says it's the end of the world, humanity is dying, and there are bad guys; it doesn't take 40 seconds to do this, especially with voiceover.
Then it jumps into minutiae of "Remember to keep your hearts covered, there's no coming back if you get hit there." I'm guessing this isn't a big plot point, so it's just a distraction. Then the dialogue starts competing with the story text on screen. What should we focus on? If we choose to focus on one, will we even remember what the other one said?
I'm pretty lost one minute into this trailer, and there's still more than THREE MINUTES to go! If I'm this lost one minute in, I know there's no hope for me at 4.5 minutes. Without a vested interest in the game, I stop watching.
7. Long story prelude
A good story will always make a trailer more engaging, but there's a limit to how much story a trailer should start with. In general, about 30 seconds is the maximum a trailer should spend on story before showing gameplay, but even that is still very long.
A trailer that is narrative driven should of course focus on the story, but a gameplay driven game needs to make its story moments as quick as possible. At worst, a gameplay trailer told via a story device will feel like the game is being obfuscated. If the story device doesn't grab me, I'll really want to stop watching, especially if I can sense that the story isn't the primary reason the game is being made.
A trailer that dedicates 30 seconds to story needs to either have a loyal audience or a very engaging story. I'm biased, but in my portfolio I do have a number of trailers that have long story introductions: Pode, Octogeddon, Guacamelee 2, and Absolver. The key to all of these are the strength of their art and filmmaking. Octogeddon and Guacamelee 2 have the further advantage of built-in audiences. Trailers that don't have these advantages better get to the point quick or cut out the story framing entirely, otherwise they'll lose the audience quickly.
Ultimately, how a trailer is edited gives me a peek into the mind of the editor, and if what I see isn't interesting to me, I stop watching. These 7 things are indicators of an editor who needs to rethink their approach. Trailer editing is hard. I wish I could write just one article to help everyone make them, but hopefully drawing attention to some of the visible pitfalls helps people make them better!