Planning a Trailer Campaign Part 5 of 5: BattleBlock Theater

Welcome to the fifth and final part of my analysis of game trailer campaigns. BattleBlock Theater's is special to me because for the first half I was just a fan, and for the second half I was making the trailers!

BBT's development spanned about five years:

March 2009 - Game 3 Announce Trailer
February 2010 - BattleBlock Theater Trailer
March 2011 - BBT Intro Video
July 20, 2011 - BBT Prologue Video
June 3rd, 2011 through December 22, 2011 - Prisoner Videos
2012 - Development videos and convention recap videos
February 26, 2013 - Release Window Trailer
February 14, 2013 - Beta Teaser
March 12, 2013 - Beta Community Trailer
March 19, 2013 - Release Date Trailer
April 3, 2013 - Launch Trailer
April 21, 2013 - Story Trailer
March 2014 - Steam Announce Trailer
May 2014 - Steam Launch Trailer

For better or for worse, the Behemoth likes to show off their games as early as possible; they have a history of showing their games at conventions for multiple years before release. BBT didn't even have a name when it was announced; it was referred to only as "Game 3."

I was ecstatic the first time I saw this trailer. I didn't understand what the game was; there seemed to be both multiplayer and single player elements. The music, cute characters, co-op platforming, and Tony Hawk style coloring hooked me in. The game was set to release in 2010.

In my case study about Ooblet's E3 2018 trailer I mentioned it's good practice to make a game look as different as possible in each new trailer, especially if they're released very far apart. One of The Behemoth's strengths is its art style by co-founder and art director Dan Paladin.

He might disagree with this, but to my eyes, a lot of art in this trailer looks "done." It's great he can make something that looks "finished" so quickly, but this is a double edged sword for marketing. The finished game does have more art and polish than this first trailer, but the core of it looks about the same. This meant it was much harder for the game to make visual "leaps" between trailers. Signs of progress between trailers are satisfying because they imply momentum and promise for an even better finished product.

A new trailer came a year later with a title for the game, but no release date.

This trailer hints at the story, there are new mechanics, and characters like the block shaped horses and Raccoon/Antelope. Despite these new mechanics, the game still looks about the same. If not for the new characters, a year feels like a long time to wait for a trailer that to the untrained eye doesn't look very different. It's still hard to grasp what the game is, so this still feels very teaser-like. Not the end of the world, but this feels like a lateral move instead of a step up.

After this, an entire year passed without new BBT videos. Then they released this intro cutscene for the game (in the final game the intro was rewritten and re-animated)

This is the first reveal of the game's quirky narrator. I absolutely loved this; it gave me a big jolt of excitement because it was a totally different slice of the game (even if it didn't have gameplay). 

A few months later they released the "Prologue Video." This starts outside the theater with a big title: "Prologue: The Betrayal" which implied story chapters. While I did love this, it was more of the same, and I wanted to see story bits in context. Same-y trailers or videos can feel like a drip feed of the game slowly informing you of every minute detail.

This might sound like a marketing strategy, but in practice it can feel as exciting as watching a literal spout of water dripping. Audiences frequently say they want to know everything, when in actuality I think they want to know the experience. Reading a complete list of features is about as exciting as a point-by-point summary of an action film.

Speaking of drip feed, for most of 2011 The Behemoth released "Prisoner videos" like this one:

As far as I know from talking to members of The Behemoth, these videos were to keep their audience satisfied with little bits of weekly content. These videos showed a new "prisoner" and also some new block types in the game. They released 16 of these total!

I recall these feeling kind of torturous to watched because they were just small snippets, not packaged up in any particularly exciting way, and gave no sense of the game progressing towards being finished. The changes were so incremental, it felt like the game was standing still. I feel like information presented in a non-exciting way reflects how the developers feel about it, so why should I get excited?

2012 had no new BattleBlock Theater trailers, and then in February 2013 came an announcement of the beta!

After the trailer campaign dragged to a halt in 2011/2012, this announcement made from user testing footage injected new energy into the community because not only were there visible signs the game was moving forward, but some people were lucky enough to play it! At this time I'd already worked at The Behemoth animating the cutscenes for several months. From this point on all the trailers were made by me. 

After the beta came this special announcement:

A release window! The video ends in a very self-aware fashion with: "For real this time." I feel like the Prisoner videos could've been avoided entirely in favor of making a big splash later. That's the other danger of a drip feed of information; it's not interesting to watch, which means it's also not interesting to write about. Trailers help create stories for the press, but only when their impact is felt either by new announcements, new and interesting features or significant period enough times between them. 

In March, this trailer came out featuring levels created by the community during the beta:

This is the first significant amount of gameplay shown in quite some time, and since it's community made, this is something novel for the audience to see. In trailer campaigns, variety is king, and monotony is death. Towards the end of March came a big announcement:

Release DATE trailer! We pretty much let Stamper the narrator go wild on this one, but this was our way of saying "Yeah... we know."
Not long after came the launch!

Finally, the game was out! It was time to show everything in the game from the single player to the multiplayer modes and level editor. I cut this together to music and Stamper ended up making a dang song out of it. At this point the game looked completely different; the levels are more intricate, the modes have names and it looks jam packed with features. After such a protracted campaign this was us trying to make a big splash again.

You'd think that was the end but a few weeks later we released a Story Trailer.

This was made because we got the impression people didn't realize BBT has a story. The earlier trailers skewed multiplayer heavy, and a lot of the demos at PAX were multiplayer focused. I think this was a similar problem that Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood ran into because their early marketing focused on multiplayer

Story is one thing the launch trailer didn't cover in its gameplay heavy approach. I'm not sure how much this story trailer helped since it was after release and typically view counts drop off, but surprisingly this still has a high view count relative to the other trailers.

In general, trying to make up for past shortcomings feels like a dicey thing to do because a game's launch is typically the most exciting part, so how do you get people to pay attention? Also, this trailer released so soon after launch, press outlets were probably less inclined to give any more coverage (if any). While this trailer offers different content from the previous ones, it can be less interesting to watch a trailer for a game that's already out. 

About a year later came the most successful BBT trailer.

This is one of the best trailers I've ever made, if not the best. This trailer announced the game for Steam, and made fun of PC gamers' priorities while also recapping the game's basic features. I was worried we would piss people off, but everyone seemed to love it. The trailer received several comments by people who bought the game because of the trailer alone. It just goes to show you that if you make a trailer for a game that gives people reason to share it, they will.

Less than a week later the game came out on Steam with this trailer:

I didn't think it would be possible to repeat the notoriety of the first trailer, but I thought it would be funny to make a "sequel" trailer to the first one. I don't think this one was as successful, but the game was out on Steam at this point so it didn't really matter that much. 

What are the takeaways from BattleBlock Theater's campaign? Like the game, this was a case where there was no set strategy, so until the release window, it was all improvisation. This is one reason the game took so long to develop as they iterated, received feedback, and iterated some more. They had to roll with the punches when they found out they wouldn't hit their release date, and with an indefinite future it was near impossible to come up with a marketing strategy. 

Ultimately, I think it's better to go silent than to give long and drawn out content. Showing anything from the game provides a modicum of hope that something is happening, but it's tiring, boring, and/or frustrating to watch when the game feels like it's standing still. And it wasn't as if BBT was gone from the world; the entire time they were still showing at every PAX, and Comic-Con. 

This trailer campaign was all over the place, but The Behemoth has very loyal fans, so the game was still very successful. I'm not sure how the game would've performed if not for bedrock of fans and good will. Community building is increasingly the advice I see recommended by game publishers and PR workers. For further information I highly recommend this GDC Talk by No More Robots' Mike Rose

I hope this five part series about different game trailer campaigns was interesting and useful. It's confirmed some of my beliefs, and also challenged others. There's no one way to do a trailer campaign, but here are some best practices that sum up some of my points:

  1. Content in trailers should overlap as little as possible

  2. Make the trailers complementary

  3. Show gamedev progression, especially when released far apart.

  4. Make your trailer worthy of a written article

  5. Trailers that announce dates don't need to do much else

  6. The storefront trailer doesn't have to be the launch trailer

  7. Launch is an opportunity to show the game at its best, but it will typically have the least views

  8. A well executed trailer can compensate for otherwise uninteresting format

  9. Novel trailers get shared!