Game Trailer Varieties, and When to Make Them

Here I’ve broken down the typical varieties of trailers in a video game ad campaign.

While big budget movie ad campaigns generally consist of a teaser, trailer, and number of TV and social media spots directed towards very specific target audiences. Video games' complexity mean a LOT of trailers get made (for better or for worse).

I'll start with the basics of a game trailer campaign since AAA games make so many more trailers than a typical indie game would ever think to make or could even afford:

  1. Announce Trailer

  2. Gameplay Trailer

  3. Release Date Trailer

  4. Launch Trailer

  5. Cinematic, Animated or Live-Action Trailer

  6. Story Trailer

  7. Gameplay Feature Trailer

  8. 101 Trailer

  9. Accolades Trailer

Announce Trailer

Sable's E3 Announce trailer

The first thing to announce: "Hey, this game is a thing!" Typically light on story, but heavy on imagery and tone. This teaser approach is especially good for games, because this early in development it's likely there's very little of the game to show. So the minimalist approach is not only a good stylistic choice, but highly practical. 

Announce trailers can come out at any time, but most frequently coincide with a major event like E3, GDC, Gamescom, TGS, PAX, or many other game shows. When released the week before the event, these trailers function like a signal flare to press outlets to pay attention and set up appointments. Supergiant Games is very good at this; they announced both their games Transistor and Pyre before a PAX event, and then had it playable there for the first time ever, which meant a MASSIVE amount of press both before, during, and after the show.

Another important thing to note: announce trailers typically receive the most views, so you really want to make sure it's good; first impressions are everything! Don't be surprised if this trailer ends up being used in all articles about your game despite making newer and shinier ones; I've seen it happen all the time.

Gameplay Trailer

Gameplay Trailer for Ori and the Will of the Wisps

These show the meat of the game, its feel, and breadth. It's important the audience come away from this trailer with a basic understanding of the game loop, what you do in the game. Sometimes this overlaps with the launch trailer, because the entire campaign consisted only of two trailers. 

This trailer can also function as the "official" trailer for the game displayed on digital storefronts. If that's the case, it's especially important for the audience understand as much about the game as possible from this trailer, while still remaining curious enough to purchase it. 

Indie games' second trailers frequently have to do double duty showing both the story and gameplay in one.

Release Date Trailer

One of the release date trailers I made for Firewatch

Another trailer that not everyone makes, but can be used to generate late minute pre-release hype coinciding with news articles or early access given to YouTubers and streamers.

For example, Firewatch posted its release date trailers a week before the game's launch, and sent a limited demo to streamers to tease audiences so by the time the game launched they'd all be curious to see how the story continued. 

These trailers don't have to be very long, in fact it's a good idea to keep it short when you consider the audience only cares to see the release date; dragging it out could frustrate them. I'm a fan of vignettes that show a short and sweet part of the game and then announce the date. These are very social media friendly, and respect the audience's time. 

Launch Trailer

Journey's launch trailer

The grand hurrah, the final announcement, the last chance to sell the audience on what the game is, say how great it is, and why they should buy it. This is frequently but not always the digital storefront trailer. Launch trailers frequently have review and press quotes in them. If you're going to do that, it's important to send out codes in advance, and get approval from the press outlets. 

The good thing about making launch trailers is the game is about as finished as it will ever be, which means more of the game can be shown. If the audience still has questions about the game preventing them from buying it, this is your last chance to clear those up; it's extremely unlikely they'll seek out additional trailers past this point unless it's for something new in the game.

Cinematic, Animated or Live-Action Trailer

Announce Trailer for Mass Effect 3

Here's where we dive into AAA game territory. Cinematic trailers are often the announce trailer for big budget games. Typically, a separate CG production company works with the developers to make a very shiny and exciting short film trailer to fulfill the imagery, tone and story requirements of an announcement. 

These are frequently made for AAA games both because they're cool as heck, but also because it can take a very very long time for big budget games to look presentable to the public; this is a way to present the game without actually showing it. 

2D animation isn't as expensive as 3D CG animation, but still very expensive to make. Some indie games like Enter the Dungeon, Dead Cells and Broforce produced animated trailers for announcements or launch trailers.

Live-Action trailers can also be rather expensive to produce depending on their scope. They can be very low budget like those for Hotline Miami or high budget like for Deus Ex: Human Revolution. These trailers are heavy on tone and ideas and can be good to get the attention of press outlets in the middle of a campaign because these sorts of trailers are so few and far between. 

Story Trailer

Spider-Man Story Trailer

The fact that "story trailers" are even a thing shows the difference between game and movie trailers. Gameplay trailers might include some incidental story flavor, but largely get by showing how the player navigates the environment, and the verbs available to them.

Not to say people who love gameplay don't care about story at all, but this trailer is heavy on in-game cutscenes and dialogue; you're likely to learn very little about how the game plays from this trailer.

Gameplay Feature Trailer

Shadow of the Tomb Raider "A Stunning World" Trailer

These are trailers for very specific gameplay systems or features. For example: a specific level, a play style, weapons, weather systems, or any of the vast number of features an enormous game might have. 

For example, the new Shadow of the Tomb Raider game at the time of this post has seven trailers dedicated to different parts of the game

101 Trailer

Shadow of War 101 Trailer

This is as close to a literal video tutorial as trailers get. Rockstar Games is notorious for their trailers explaining the systems and gameplay point by point. This is the most point blank way to say: "This is what you do in the game", but it does make for rather dry viewing unless you're feening for every morsel of information about the game.

A lot of open world games and games heavily driven by systems have 101 trailers like those for: HitmanDeus Ex: Mankind Divided, and Sleeping Dogs.

Accolades Trailer

God of War Accolades Trailer

When a game receives overwhelmingly positive press, a trailer is frequently made to shower the audience with 10/10s, Five-Star reviews and Game of the Year quotes. These trailers care only about the words, and the gameplay there is frequently reused footage. This is THE final last ditch effort to tell people: "HEY, THIS GAME IS REALLY GOOD, YOU SHOULD PLAY IT!"

Every game is different; how many trailers to release is dependent on a number of factors. For example: opportunities like being on an E3 stage will at the same time give you a great opportunity, but also force your hand to produce a trailer that you then have to plan your other trailers around.

Also, sometimes development time goes much longer than you originally expect it to like for BattleBlock Theater or Below by Capy Games. In those cases you just have to roll with the punches and plan as best as possible.