Planning a Trailer Campaign Part 4 of 5 - Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution's trailer campaign was to put it mildly: robust. AAA games typically have a lot of trailers just to cover their vast number of features and systems. I could write this post about a lot of other AAA games, but I picked Deus Ex because I like the art and music.

The Deus Ex trailers stick out in my mind, but until writing this post I don't even know if I ever watched them all. I certainly never sat down to watch them all in one go; it'll be interesting to see what the progression feels like.

Here's the massive schedule of trailers for Deus Ex: Human Revolution:

March 2010 - Reveal Trailer
June 2010 - E3 Trailer
August 2010 - Gameplay Trailer
September 2010 - TGS Trailer
November 2010 - Gameplay Trailer 2
December 2010 - Extended Cut CGI Trailer
February 2011 - Become Adam Jensen Trailer
March 2011 - Freedom of Choice Trailer
June 2011 - This Ends Now Trailer
July 2011 - Purity First Trailer
August 3rd 2011 - 101 Trailer
August 22nd, 2011 - Launch Trailer
August 23rd, 2011 - Game Launch

Deus Ex revealed with a short CG trailer that nicely introduces the game, its protagonist, and the world it's set in. Pretty visuals are rarely in short order in AAA games, but the gold color palette, high quality CG, and Gladiator-esque music make this trailer like candy for the senses.

This trailer's imagery unsubtly indicates it's a Renaissance for human augmentation, and humanity is flying too close to the sun a la Icarus, literally. A classic "They were so preoccupied on whether or not they could, they never stopped to think if they should" scenario. 

We see Adam Jensen's augments, from embedded sunglasses to X-ray vision and arm blades, but otherwise don't learn that much; it's the perfect amount for an early trailer. The line: "If you want to make enemies, try to change something." is a good grandiose snippet of dialogue to tease the premise of the game. 

Three months later came E3. Revealing the game months before E3 gave ample time to set up press appointments at the show. When to release a trailer is an oft discussed question; releasing one before a large show will hopefully garner press interest, appointments, and articles written during and after the show.

The E3 trailer was another CG cinematic trailer. At three minutes long it covers quite a bit of ground, and gives a nice meaty look guaranteed to hype up the audience with its pretty visuals and music. The trailer recaps and expands on the ideas from the reveal; there are enormous corporations, unrest in society, and of course lots of fighting and guns. It ends with a release window of "Early 2011." 

This is a fun trailer to watch, again because of pretty high production value visuals and very pretty music. Everything in it trades on very broad cyberpunk imagery and ideas, so there aren't many story specifics. The big question of: "What is it like to play the game?" remains after finishing the trailer.

If a AAA game only releases a CG trailer at a big show like E3, it's there to establish tone, story, and potential gameplay ideas. Then during E3 the press typically get to see a behind-closed-doors demo of the game; the game might not be ready to be picked apart by the unforgiving public at this stage. CG trailer production also doesn't rely on a functioning game, so it's possible to make them even when the game isn't ready to be played or even seen.

Two months later they released the first gameplay trailer. At this point in the campaign, anyone interested in the game is still getting new content with each new trailer. This trailer is light on story because it covers one specific mission, but it shows a variety of gameplay systems. 

We see the beginning of a mission, talking to a character, sneaking around, walking through air ducts, dragging bodies, stabbing guys with arm blades, and a boss battle tease. The story construction of this trailer feels like a lot of "and then, and then, and then" which makes it rather dry. This trailer would be a lot less interesting if not for the novelty of seeing gameplay for the first time. 

Just a month later another trailer came out for Tokyo Game Show. This is another CG cinematic trailer with some new story scenes, but is largely a recut of the E3 trailer. At this point I would start wondering why they're releasing so many trailers knowing the game isn't out until early 2011. That said, the music and visuals still make this fun to watch; it cannot be understated how much more watchable a trailer with good music and art is.

Two months later, there's another gameplay trailer! This trailer shows game menus, and game UI which makes it feel much more"game-y." In AAA trailer campaigns, they generally hide game UI for as long as possible. When gameplay trailers feature no UI, I think the audience is never 100% sure what they're watching is something they'll do in the game, or if it's just a representation of it. 

"Game-y" trailers with all the on screen buttons and information allow the audience to see/imagine what playing the game is like. This trailer is even more specific than the first gameplay trailer which jumped around in the continuity of the mission. The first gameplay trailer felt like a montage, this feels like a raw mission with some boring bits cut out. One thing to note, up until this point they've showed very little stealth gameplay; they've focused on aggressive, punching and shooting gameplay which might make veterans of the series wonder if their play style will be possible. 

Again, this trailer is kind of dry, but seeing the game's UI and in-game mission moments provides new content. It's good to think about the "layers" of the game you want to gradually reveal in trailers. Five trailers in, there's still more to show of the game, and it's still fairly interesting despite some overlap. Specificity helps make late trailers more interesting, but it cannot be overstated how much aesthetic helps make these trailers fun to watch.

One month later came the Extended Cut CGI Trailer which doesn't have much of anything new. The style of music for this trailer is epic, but since its structure of the music is more flowy and less melody driven, it's easier to cut to, because it won't feel dissonant if shots aren't on the beat. This is the point in the campaign where I'd start to really feel antsy since this trailer is retreading ground. 

I feel audience attention might start waning at this point. The comments on YouTube are still quite positive. I think because it's hard to argue with such polished CG and action. The music is why there are still several comments about getting chills when watching the trailer. 

Two months later is the "Become Adam Jensen" trailer which is a gameplay trailer focused on the character. This is mostly comprised of early game moments. This also shows more of the in-game story moments, instead of just using dialogue as voiceover. Despite the focus on Jensen, I feel these trailers are definitely getting diminishing returns. 

Interesting to note that the end slate of this one just says "2011", indicating the release date is getting pushed back. 

Just another month later was the one year anniversary of Deus Ex's reveal, and the release of the "Freedom of Choice" trailer which shows multiple solutions for one mission. For a game about player choice, it's surprising it took this long to get here. 

This gets points for going even more specific in its gameplay focus, but these "how you play the game" trailers are typically more about conveying information than exciting the audience through music and editing, and thus it's more dry to watch. This trailer ends with a new release date of August 26, 2011. 

Three months later is the "This Ends Now" trailer which is the first trailer in a while that feels like it's edited like one. A lot of the previous ones felt like information vessels or recuts of old trailers. This one is a story trailer with an overview of the game's plot. The focus, and its editing injects some energy into the campaign; this trailer has more views than the previous two combined; execution is everything.

One month later came the "Purity first" trailer, just one month before launch. This is a high concept live-action video made to look like a video from the world of Deus Ex warning people about human augmentation. The novelty of this trailer pushed the interest in this trailer way up; it currently stands at 800k views which is second only to the E3 trailer. 

Like I mentioned in last week's post about Hotline Miami. Live-action trailers like this are good for establishing mood and tone. There are bare snippets of graphics from the game, but they're not the focus. Releasing another gameplay trailer so close to launchwould be kind of a waste, but this feels like a good way to show a different side of the game, ironically, by not showing much of the game at all.

Two weeks later is this "101 trailer" which is another way of saying: "This video is going to explain the game to you" aka "If you're not interested in playing the game, this will probably be kind of boring to watch." Rockstar Games releases a lot of trailers like this to explain their massive games.

These are the epitome of "Tell, not show" which is why I find them very dull to watch. The reason a game might release a 101 trailer is summed up by this quote from film director Robert Zemeckis:

“We know from studying the marketing of movies, people really want to know exactly every thing that they are going to see before they go see the movie... What I relate it to is McDonald’s. The reason McDonald’s is a tremendous success is that you don’t have any surprises. You know exactly what it is going to taste like. Everybody knows the menu.” 

101 trailers are there to say beyond the shadow of a doubt: "This is exactly what you're going to get." 

A few weeks later came the launch trailer, four days before the game came out. It's interesting to note that of all the trailers, this one has the least number of views, a mere 80k. The other trailers in this campaign that were on the low side of views ranged in the 90-100k. 

The light amount of story here revolves around Adam Jensen musing about whether or not his humanity is affected by his augments. Mostly this trailer makes a hard sell via press quotes saying no less than: "BUY THIS GAME."

This trailer is the most "cutty" of the campaign; there are a lot of cuts to black, and lots of "flutter cuts." If not for the other trailers in this campaign I might think this trailer was trying to hide the gameplay.

After this trailer, the game came out!

12 trailers spread across a little over a year and a half is a LOT of trailers. Looking at the entire campaign, 4-5 felt redundant and could've been trimmed out. This campaign at times certainly strained my attention, but I'm rather surprised how some trailers I thought would feel boring still managed to be fresh. 

The launch trailer probably could've just been Jensen playing with his skull sunglasses ^_^

The launch trailer probably could've just been Jensen playing with his skull sunglasses ^_^

I can't think of another AAA game with this many trailers, and looking at the view counts of some of the late campaign trailers, I'm not sure how much they helped (especially considering these view counts include numbers from the 7 years after their release!) 

The lessons I see coming out of this massive campaign are still very similar to before: tease for attention, reward that attention, then show specifics with as little overlap as possible to retain the attention. The "specifics" of these trailers included:

  1. World building

  2. Theme

  3. Gameplay mechanics

  4. Player agency

  5. Character backstory

  6. Plot

My favorite trailers of this campaign were the E3 trailer and "This Ends Now" trailer which is understandable since they have the most interesting editing. The others might've been necessary, but they feel more like vehicles for information rather than spectacles of information.

For the last part of this series I take a look back at BattleBlock Theater, which I made a handful of trailers for towards its release.