Gameplay Preview vs Trailer

Why bother making an announce trailer when you can just make a 10 min gameplay preview? Tom Francis, the creator of Gunpoint and Heat Signature prefers to announce his games with gameplay previews where he talks the audience through how the game works. Most recently he revealed Tactical Breach Wizards with a 10 min walkthrough of the game which accrued an impressive 437,000+ views in 2 months. He also announced Heat Signature with a 15 minute preview and Gunpoint with a 6 minute video.

  1. What is the thinking behind this announcement style?

  2. What games would benefit from it?

  3. Who is the audience for this style of video?

  4. What are the advantages & disadvantages?

What is the thinking behind this announcement style?

Tom Francis did a short GDC talk titled: How to Explain Your Game to an Asshole which nicely sums up where his preference for gameplay previews stems from. His main thesis is: players reading an article or watching a video about a game want to know first and foremost what the game mechanics are, and the nitty gritty of the gameplay interactions. 

My understanding of his argument is: talking about feelings, experience and story are secondary because games are an interactive medium, so of course that should be discussed first. Story comes second to add flavor to the gameplay experience. (I think this isn’t a one-size-fits-all philosophy, but it has its place)

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What games benefit from gameplay previews?

Games with mechanics which provide a broad spectrum of solutions, and/or truly unique ideas benefit the most from gameplay walkthroughs and previews.

For example, a gameplay preview for a puzzle game where each puzzle has only one solution would simply be a video spoiling precisely how to finish the game; this would rob the audience of the joy of discovery. But a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution where there are four or five ways of simply getting into a locked room could potentially spark the imagination of the audience as they consider how they want to play the game.

Imagine two different play rooms for kids:

The first has a museum style display with a big red button which turns on a 5 sec jet of air which levitates a ball. There's only one possible interaction.. 

The second play room has a sandbox with shovels and buckets; there are near infinite possibilities for the child to find ways to play.

This is ostensibly the difference between games with very little interaction, and games with near infinite variations on how to play. The closer the game is to the sandbox, the more it would benefit from a point-by-point video explaining the ways you can play. 

Some games just benefit more from seeing the infinite possibilities.

Some games just benefit more from seeing the infinite possibilities.

The sorts of games Tom Francis designs fit into this category, because his games have mechanics which give a lot of room for creative expression and experimentation, and can lead to amusing or harrowing situations. There are also a lot of game mechanics which are about calculation of damage numbers, and other non-visual design elements. The graphics of Gunpoint and Heat Signature are also relatively difficult to decipher at a glance because there isn't a lot of animation, and the characters appear very small on screen. This is another reason an explanation style video makes sense.

A very narrative focused game which is designed for low difficulty and accessibility would not benefit because there's little explanation needed for how the players interact with the game and/or the mechanics aren't novel enough to require educating the audience to such a degree. 

Who is the audience for this style of video?

The audience for this sort of video are people who want the video game sandbox to play in so they can discover their own fun using whatever the game gives to them. For this player, the story might be completely inconsequential to their fun. This audience wants to know every single tool at their disposal so they can get in and starting banging them together. Since Tom Francis makes this sort of game, this is naturally the audience he has attracted, therefore this style of announcement video makes perfect sense for him. This video will entice them, and keep them following to find out about more of the toys in his game has he reveals them.

Of course, if story is what you're seeking out in the game and the mechanics are incidental to the fun, this sort of video will not appeal to you. Maybe you only have one play style, or mastery of a video game isn't a goal you aspire to. This would be like giving a tub of LEGOs to someone who just wants to make a Millennium Falcon, and have it look perfect the first time.

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What are the advantages & disadvantages?

The main advantage of an explanation video like this is, the target audience will get really excited if they see it! A longer video also provides a lot of footage for people to use to make YouTube analysis videos where people can speculate, and build up excitement. It also provides footage for press to use in their coverage, and answers some basic questions the developer will then not have to spend the time answering.

The disadvantage is, there's less mass appeal for this sort of video. People generally will be less inclined to watch something if it's 10-15 minutes long than if it's 60-90 seconds, and maybe they'll only share it if they're certain it will appeal to their followers. And of course, it couldn't be played at something like a big press show reveal or livestream event unless it was given a very large demonstration slot, which are typically reserved for the most epic, and technically impressive games. 

But does that "disadvantage" even really matter? 437,000+ views is certainly nothing to sneeze at. There are PLENTY of tightly edited game trailers which never reach those sorts of numbers! Even a small fraction of people who play games can still translate into tremendous numbers, and the more someone thinks: "THIS IS EXACTLY MY THING" the more enthusiastically they'll enjoy and share it. This doesn't mean it's a one-size-fits-all answer, but this style of video for this style of game has an audience who will watch and share it. I'm curious what the audience retention rate is for a video of this style. 

Just like the answer was never to find the perfect spaghetti sauce, the answer might not be to make the perfect trailer. It might make sense to release BOTH a tightly edited trailer along with a gameplay overview video for those who need to see the buttons being pushed and the exact nitty gritty of a game.

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Conclusions?

Another thing to consider is Tom Francis is a successful indie game developer with a dedicated following of people who are very interested in the sorts of games he likes to design. This plays no small part in the success of this video, and the number of eyeballs which immediately gravitated towards it. Anyone who has fans who are interested in buying anything they make, is going to have an easier time getting attention. Tom Francis found a system which works great for himself, but your mileage may vary based on a number of factors like the size of your audience, the audience you target, the design of the game, and how well the video is made. 

The hump of getting someone to watch a 10-15 minute explanation about a game is quite large. The game mechanics will need to be deep, interesting and novel enough to justify all the explanation. Novelty is an especially important thing because there are a lot of games which are mostly the same as a lot of their peers, but with differences in execution. Untitled Goose Game's Pre-Alpha Gameplay trailer is an unheard of 3+ minutes long, but it went viral because of how unique, charming and funny it was.

Once again, the unsatisfying answer to whether or not this approach is right for you is: "It depends." But if you have a game with a tremendously unique idea which is hard to communicate with visuals, and allows for a lot of player expression, an amusing explanation video instead of a 90 second trailer might be something you should consider making.

I still think the vast majority of games aren't unique enough in their play style to benefit from this style of announcement, which is why I still encourage people to make trailers which do their best to both give a sense of the gameplay, and mix it together with the less concrete sense of atmosphere, feeling and experience. 

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