The Problem With Game Trailers

Ever thought a trailer was better than the game itself? You're not alone.

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The disconnect between video games and video game trailers has long been a subject of debate in the games industry. The last few years have seen game publishers place an increasing amount of importance on the quality of video game marketing and advertising, resulting in a wave of visually arresting game trailers that more often than not attempt to engage the same emotional and technical trickery successfully demonstrated by Hollywood.

But film trailers have to work a lot harder to deceive audiences than game trailers do. Even when composed entirely of separately shot scenes, film trailers generally succeed in reflecting at least a semblance of the tone and aesthetic of the final product, however vague. By contrast, the most common criticism of current game trailers is that they do not accurately represent a game, be it in technological capability, emotional tone, or narrative pacing. This applies to CGI trailers (like the recent "Take Back the Earth" trailer for Mass Effect 3) as well as to the rebirth of live-action trailers (recently exemplified by Activision's Modern Warfare 3 "The Vet & The n00b" trailer and Square Enix's trailer for Sleeping Dogs). Gamers have become acutely aware of the idea that a game trailer can, in many cases, be better than the game itself, leading to a growing distrust of video game marketing and advertising that favours big-budget production values over simple gameplay.

One of the most infamous examples of this disconnect is the universally praised CGI trailer for the Techland-developed zombie survival horror game Dead Island. Created by the Glasgow-based animation studio Axis and depicting the grisly deaths of a young family at the hands of zombies in a slow-motion reverse sequence, the trailer touched a nerve. In the five days after its release, the trailer jumped from 750 YouTube views to a staggering 1 million, aided by a strong word of mouth on social networks from both within and outside the games industry. Some praised the trailer's technical achievements, its masterful pacing, its beauty, and its horror; others found the images of a dying child too violent. But despite the difference in reactions, one question continued to go unanswered: while undoubtedly an admirable piece of filmmaking, what did the Dead Island trailer actually say about the game itself?

As it turns out, not a lot.

Publishers and marketing teams are not ignorant of this disconnect. Through its startlingly brilliant execution, the Dead Island trailer successfully achieved Deep Silver's intention of building interest for the game ahead of its public showing at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in July last year. This was accomplished regardless of Deep Silver's original intentions for the game itself, be it that it always intended to deceive its audience, or simply that Techland failed to produce a game as emotionally arresting as three minutes' worth of CGI footage.

"It was a great, different kind of trailer--it hit people emotionally, not just with gameplay," Deep Silver chief operating officer Geoff Mulligan told VentureBeat in September last year, ahead of the game's launch. "We decided to adjust everything on the fly, we got that kind of traction off the trailer and we started instantly modifying everything we were doing--the gameplay, a little bit of the story, the marketing campaign. I've been in the games business for almost 30 years, I would be less than honest if I said [Dead Island] would be exactly as successful today without that trailer as it seems to be with it. You can't buy that kind of hype."

Despite the game's generally tepid critical reception, the hype continued well after its release: Axis won gold in the Internet Film category at the 2011 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for the Dead Island trailer, stirring the interest of Lionsgate, which later optioned the rights from Deep Silver to create a film based on the game. (The studio admitted its interest in the Dead Island IP was sparked by the Axis trailer, which left Lionsgate co-COO Joe Drake "awestruck.")

Yet this disconnect does not spring purely from technological factors. Despite being predominantly created in the Unreal Engine 3 by developer Epic Games, some of the Gears of War franchise trailers have also come under fire for tricking the audience into investing in a set of emotions that are, by all accounts, absent in the games themselves. In this example, the detachment comes more from how the trailers are edited and scored rather than from how good they look.

The "Mad World" trailer is often cited as the best example of this: the trailer, released to promote the first Gears of War game, features series hero Marcus Fenix in a moment of quiet reflection before being pursued by a group of locusts. Set to a rerecording of the Tears for Fears classic "Mad World" by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews, the trailer was initially praised for its atmosphere and sense of foreboding, but was later criticised for presenting a deeply contrasting tone to the game itself. The trend continued with the Gears of War 2 "Rendezvous" trailer, set to American poet Alan Seeger's World War I poem "I Have a Rendezvous with Death"; the "Last Day" trailer, also for Gears of War 2, featuring some of the series' protagonists caught in yet another candid moment of quiet reflection amid sunsets, in-focus flowers in bloom, faded photos of loved ones, and set to Colorado four-piece ensemble DeVotchKa's "How it Ends"; and finally, the "Ashes to Ashes" and "Dust to Dust" trailers for Gears of War 3, both featuring atmospheric, haunting soundtracks set over images of brutal warfare. This pattern of contrasting the loud machismo of the Gears of War games with quiet, subdued music radiating with an altogether different kind of power proved an unbeatable combination in creating an effective marketing campaign for Epic. (More recently, the same juxtaposition was used in BioWare's "Take Back the Earth" trailer for Mass Effect 3.)

"The use of music is a powerful component of great trailers. I imagine a lot of folks will overthink our reasoning a bit [in regards to the Gears of War 3 trailers], but that is what makes it fun to create and see the reactions as well as conversations that result from the creative decisions made," Kendall Boyd, director of marketing at Epic, says. "From a kick-off point, a teaser or reveal trailer is going to be that key asset that helps you cut through the noise of everyone else's marketing and advertising. [At Epic] we try to avoid any smoke and mirrors with the final assets. As a gamer, I get frustrated when I see advertising that is taken from an amazing cutscene, but then I play the game later and think, 'This looks nothing like that ad.'

"I've known marketers who've used console footage to sell their handheld versions of games, so to me, yes I'd define that as cheating as you're misleading the consumer. You have to have some level of ethics when you're trying to get fans excited about your games so they don't come home and feel deceived. Again, that is why we create our assets in-engine. Overall, we want our trailers to be kickass so they make you know what it's like to play one of our games and really get that feeling of tone and expression."

But it's exactly this juxtaposition that the Gears of War trailers have been criticised for. Should a trailer be more affecting than the game itself? Or do developers have a responsibility to match the tone of one to the tone of the other?

According to Boyd, the "Dust to Dust" trailer contrasts the frantic pace of all three Gears of War stories, shown over an accelerated period of time, with music that strives to help viewers "process everything that's happening." Boyd differentiates between gameplay trailers and more theatrical trailers, saying both styles serve a purpose in the marketing campaign of a game.

"As a marketer, I think you need to be up front with what you're showing. If it's a gameplay trailer then it needs to show HUD and all the elements you'd expect to experience as a gamer firsthand. However, if you're going for that big television or theatrical-style trailer, then it needs to be clean but still utilize in-game assets that represent the overall thematic end experience without being misleading."

Some developers have already proven that a well-edited, aptly scored trailer that relies solely on in-game assets can be just as successful as one that relies on theatrics. The trailers created by Naughty Dog for the Uncharted trilogy have a reputation for perfectly capturing the games' essence: funny, fast-paced, and good-looking. Created entirely from in-game assets and almost always featuring gameplay sequences, the trailers employ cinematic edits and theme-appropriate music to re-create the thrill of playing the game.

"If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a trailer is worth a thousand screenshots," Taylor Kurosaki, cinematic production lead at Naughty Dog, says. "Every Naughty Dog trailer ever made--other than slates or titles--comprises completely of in-engine assets. Straight gameplay shots are recorded real-time out of the PlayStation, and cutscenes are rendered directly from the game. We don't use any CGI whatsoever."

"We only get a handful of opportunities during development to show the world that we're making and we want to take full advantage of each and every one." Kurosaki believes a game trailer's job is to give the audience an idea of what it's going to be like to experience the game. While he recognises that a prerendered CGI trailer can be a good way to accomplish this if not enough in-game assets are available to communicate this point, he says his studio always strives to get things done early enough in the development process to be able to show audiences the real deal.

"Music and sound design are the most important tools to convey tone in a trailer, and we want to always use those tools to their utmost impact. The Uncharted single-player experience is cinematic and grandiose, and the music we use in those trailers helps communicate that. Conversely, the Uncharted multiplayer is brash and loud--ditto for the music we use in those trailers."

The ever-increasing push for more graphically advanced games that strive to offer more subtle, cinematic experiences that mirror the real world renders the need for marketing trickery increasingly futile. At a point where the technological capabilities of video games mean publishers and marketers can confidently show their final product to audiences, does the industry need to rely on game trailers that misrepresent the end-user experience?

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