Pre-Production: Finding the Unique Selling Points

In this post I wrote about the first step in game trailer pre-production: taking inventory of a game's components. The next step is to figure out which of those parts the trailer will be structured around. To be honest, I don’t use a step-by-step way of doing this part of the process; I simply make decisions based on a mix of my intuition and the client's desires. But of course, I’m the only one who has my intuition, so unless you’re working with me, you’ll need a way to get inside my head. One of my big goals with these posts is to deconstruct the mental math I use to determine what goes into a trailer.

When looking at the game's inventory I decide what should and shouldn't go into the game based on a few factors which I score in my head based on:

  1. Uniqueness

  2. Visual Comprehension

  3. Pillars

  4. Personal slant

Uniqueness is just what it sounds like: how unique is this thing? This can be applied to level design, a game mechanic, art style, story beat, power-up item, setting, or anything in the game. Uniqueness is first and foremost what I'm looking for when analyzing the different components of a game. It helps to have someone who knows a lot about games in order to determine whether or not something is unique.

A combination of elements can also be given a uniqueness score because oftentimes that is what a game's hook is. For example, in the original Max Payne, shooting guns would score very low for uniqueness, but shooting guns while in slow motion would score high.

Cat jumping + slow motion

Cat jumping + slow motion

Visual comprehension is how easy it is to understand something at a glance. Can the audience see what the player is doing in that moment? The less visual something is, the more explanation is required to communicate. Therefore, when making trailers I prioritize the parts which are the most visual.

For example, Mario shooting fireballs out of his hands is an easy visual to comprehend. Mario dying because the player ran out of time is not, because when time runs out, Mario simply dies through no apparent external forces.

Someone pointing at a cat and it play-dying has strong visual comprehension. Without the finger, it would be more confusing (though still adorable :3)

Someone pointing at a cat and it play-dying has strong visual comprehension. Without the finger, it would be more confusing (though still adorable :3)

Pillars are the parts of a game without which a game would cease to be itself. It's conceivable there might be something in a game which is not very unique or visual, but still defines the very identity of the game. 

For example, dialogue boxes in visual novel games are not unique or interesting to look at, but you simply cannot separate them from the core of those games. 

Every trailer needs a solid foundation

Every trailer needs a solid foundation

Personal slant is just there because I can foresee a situation where two things score very similarly, but one needs a nudge because it is more important than the other thing. Some things are simply a feeling which cannot be quantified.

These four criteria are roughly the factors upon which I make my decisions for what goes into a trailer, and what gets priority. Let's use the recent game Heaven's Vault for how this might work, because it has a nice mix of unique and familiar components (and I already made a trailer for it)

Here's a selection of the game's components, and how I would personally score them from 1-10:

Language translation game UI
Uniqueness: 10
Visual Comprehension: 5
Pillars: 10
Personal Slant: 10
Total: 35

Archaeologist protagonist
Uniqueness: 8
Visual Comprehension: 6
Pillars: 10
Personal Slant: 10
Total: 34

Space sailing
Uniqueness: 8
Visual Comprehension: 10
Pillars: 4
Personal Slant: 7
Total: 29

Open world to explore
Uniqueness: 3
Visual Comprehension: 4
Pillars: 7
Personal Slant: 3
Total: 17

Your choices are remembered
Uniqueness: 5
Visual Comprehension: 1
Pillars: 10
Personal Slant: 8
Total: 23

Walking around environments
Uniqueness: 1
Visual Comprehension: 10
Pillars: 7
Personal Slant: 8
Total: 26

Talking to other characters
Uniqueness: 1
Visual Comprehension: 10
Pillars: 10
Personal Slant: 8
Total: 29

Using items to open some boxes
Uniqueness: 1
Visual Comprehension: 4
Pillars: 1
Personal Slant: 1
Total: 7

Here are the rankings:

35 - Language translation game UI
34 - Archaeologist protagonist
29 - Space sailing
29 - Talking to other characters
26 - Walking around environments
24 - Your choices are remembered
17 - Open world to explore
07 - Using items to open some boxes

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This is pretty much how my priorities turned out. Though, since I already made a trailer for Heaven's Vault, these numbers might simply be the result of me working with a result in mind, and skewing numbers to favor that result. I did my best to be honest about how I felt about each item's individual qualities. If I were to use this exercise on a real project, I would do it together with a client so we could use this system as a means to discuss. 

Let me briefly explain how I decided to score each component as I did.

The language translation is the core of the game, and it’s like nothing I've seen before, so it scored on top for that. It scored lower on visual comprehension because from looking at the user interface it's not immediately clear what the player is doing.

The archaeologist protagonist scores high because there are only a handful of archaeologist characters in video games (especially non-violent ones), but Aliya's character design doesn't necessarily scream archaeologist from a glance, so she scored lower on visual comprehension. But the game would not be the game without an archaeologist character, and I knew it was an essential element.

Space sailing scored high for being a unique visual which is easy to comprehend, but I scored it lower on the pillar scale because in my opinion if that part of the game were reduced, the core of the game would not suffer much. I gave it a good, but not great personal slant because of how pretty it is.

Talking to other characters is an essential part of the game, but the existence of dialogue doesn't make the game notable, so I scored it low for uniqueness (though the system which the dialogue is built with would score high). It was ultimately important enough simply to show the existence of text dialogue.

Walking around environments is something which you do in most games which have characters, so it scores low for uniqueness, but high for visual comprehension, and it is a big part of the game, but it's rather a means to an end.

Your choices being remembered is a very big part of the game, but the idea of it is in a lot of other games, and it's also very very hard to communicate visually. I scored it a bit higher for my slant because I knew how much it matters to the game and the variety of outcomes in the game depending on who is playing.

The open world to explore scored pretty low on all counts because the idea of an open world is in many many games. Also, the particular type of open world in Heaven's Vault doesn't look like the traditional game definition of an open world a la Skyrim or a massive open field. The open world loses points on visual comprehension, and it is important to the game, but to me it doesn't feel essential.

Using items to open some boxes. I pretty much put this in just to show something to use as an example of something which is in the game, but really not very important to the core experience of Heaven's Vault. If however I was scoring for the mystery box game The Room, this would score VERY high because that's the whole game.

This cat GIF isn’t relevant to anything I’m saying.

This cat GIF isn’t relevant to anything I’m saying.

This whole process is something I'm still experimenting with; this post is the first time I wrote it out, so I'm sure I will find some ways to iterate and improve it. 

To recap, here's what we just did:

  1. Took inventory of a game's components

  2. Scored each one from 1-10 based on uniqueness, visual comprehension, importance, and personal slant

  3. Prioritized top scoring components

If you ever find yourself stuck on what the heck to show in your trailer, I hope this framework can give you a starting off point to set priorities. If you found this exercise valuable, and use it on your own projects, please let me know!

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