The Problem With Game Trailers

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


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.

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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.")

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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."

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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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Avatar image for Aentikraist

i axtually kinda careless abou the trailers and the ones iv eloved was the ons with gameplay on it nto cgi`s as RE 4 or MGR and actually this game got me by curiosity never even saw the trailer but i did see the gameplay video first!! so nah untrascendant the trailers for me ;)

Avatar image for TongLong

The Kane and Lynch trailer got a friend of mine, even after I told him about all of the negative feedback the game was getting from players!... HAHAHA!

Avatar image for xdrmonkeyfishx

Absolutely right. I for one was not fooled by the trailer for Homefront but a lot of my friends were suckered into buying it. I have a rule to not buy a game until reviewers have seen it, or unless I know the series well

Avatar image for oldschool12790

this is why i look up every game i think looks good I look it up on here first, because I absolutely hate when I see a sick trailer and then I shell out $60 for the game and it sucks. I also hate the trailers that dont show any gameplay footage at all. I think thats kind of a hint that it the game may not be too good.

Avatar image for kenkashijd

the only time u should get hype on a game trailer is during E3 other then that be looking at game plays instead.

Avatar image for jjmonster2006

you could say the same for nes/sega genesis games and the art on the box covers

Avatar image for IndestrucubleR

Gears of War 3 had an emotional storyline, who are u kidding, the ending was a perect blend of accomplishment and satisfaction and sorrow over what uve lost

Avatar image for bill2510

Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2!! dont get me wrong I loved that game but they made it look ****ing amazing in the trailer which it wasnt...

Avatar image for Dark_Orchyd

I think the recurring idiotic comment that I read as a reply is 'Bah if you're smart you won't be fooled, it takes an idiot to be fooled'. Ads are known to be deceptive in general, but in the gaming industry, if you look back, the more you advance in time, the less accurately does it convey the feelings. At least there are still blunt honest studios like Naughty Dog. Love 'em. This here is true: With a non deceptive trailer, you can watch it after playing the game and say 'damn yeah..I remember how much fun I had.' It can become one of those awesome nostalgy flashback videos. If you know someone who hasn't played the game, you can pass it on and say 'Yeah see that video, THAT is the felt like that!' (Uncharted 2). With deceptive yet cool trailers, you pass it onto people who haven't played and go 'Yeah..see that trailer, it's real cool but it's nothing like the game. The cake is a lie!!!'.

Avatar image for Dark_Orchyd

There is no denying that the trailers are misleading. There's nothing wrong in contrasting elements, but it would be nice to pay up eventually. I have the game on my shelf and I haven't touched it yet. Knowing that it's not what the trailer shows, I know it's fast and a carnage. Even knowing that I would expect the game to at least provide me with a solid story, or something to fill in the 'emotional' slots created by their fantastic trailer. If the game doesn't do this, I will be disappointed. Yes, even if I know what to expect of the gameplay. There is still something that isn't complete. It's like a broken sidequest. Fail! For now, in the theme of the 'zombie' and a slow paced impression, the closest I can think of is Siren, since you can't go running around like a maniac in there.

Avatar image for immortality20

I'm never really "fooled" by the trailer, I think it's pretty easy to tell what will be in the final game (ie nothing will look like KZ2 trailer). But I mean most big budget titles you have your mind set up before you see a trailer anyways.

Avatar image for Justinps2hero

Been fooled many a time, & frankly its just rude. Good article highlighting a lot of good examples.

Avatar image for FireboltDS

Excellent article. Don't believe the trailers, people. If just Dead Island was as good game as the trailer was

Avatar image for KenTWOu

"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..." Because it's easy to capture the essence of such game. While other game developers make usual games and don't limit player agency, Naughty Dog makes excellent interactive movies with strong story and high production values.

Avatar image for jayd02

that dead island trailer was just so....touching. If only the game was somewhat like that.

Avatar image for TheoAlmighty

building up hype is one thing.. living up to it is another

Avatar image for ClayMeow

I love watching CGI trailers, but I'm smart and experienced enough to realize that the actual game won't look like that or even have the same feel. I'll never judge a game by a CGI trailer, I'll always seek out actual gameplay. That being said, it is a bit deception, especially to children or parents that don't know any better. They need to start having disclaimers appear on the screen that say something like "Not actual gameplay footage" similar to what you see in car commercials.

Avatar image for MrLockthorne

Well written article, Laura. I have to say it's absolutely true that sometimes CGI trailers can over-hype a game. Although, I'm a sucker for the GoW "Madworld" trailer. I swear that made me buy the game. But I'm glad it did.

Avatar image for wonder_lump

I've actually gotten to the point where I don't pay attention to the CGI or cinematic trailers so much. I still watch them to see the cool effects and gawk at how cool the trailer looks, but before I go spend any money on a game, I always look up some game-play footage of some sort so as to get an idea of what I will be seeing on screen when I insert the disk.

Avatar image for McAndrew_basic

Not to sound old school, but daggerfall's original trailer was epic. Don't get me wrong daggerfall was an amazing game. But that trailer... it still gives me goose bumps every time i see it.

Avatar image for ReaverGod666

The sad thing is, even though we all hate fake trailers and false promises, were still going to keep buying these games. Developers know this and thats why fake trailers are probably never going to stop.

Avatar image for theshonen8899

I really, REALLY hate trailers like Dead Island or Gears of War. I don't hate the trailers themselves per se (they're really well-done), but they completely lie to people about what the game is about. Both Dead Island and Gears of War had such emotional trailers, and yet they're both just crazy, hectic shooters with no emotion whatsoever (unless you actually felt something with Dom's wife...somehow).

Avatar image for Scorpion1813

Game trailers should represent what the game will be like in tone, emotion and other things. Think of them as an overture for a concert - it sets the mood for the rest of the experience. If the game itself doesn't match up with that then it's going to distract from the game itself, no matter how great the game is. Showing only in-game footage (or cutscene footage) similar to a movie trailer can help with this - but it's not the only way and it runs the risk of possible spoilers or again distracting players when they spot a part from the trailer (or are actively looking for them).

Avatar image for SgtStrungOut

That is why I will always hate marketing. THIS IS GAMING, NOT A MOVIE! I don't want no Michael Bay dumbed down crap that only appeals to sheeple!

Avatar image for FredWallace18

@Dudeinator Maybe from a business standpoint, I guess. But from a gamer's standpoint, trailers like the ones for SC2 are incredibly misleading. Those resources would be better used making demos, which give a much better idea of what games are like. (I'm loving the demo availability on my Vita, and hope the 3DS picks up more too. Saved me from buying Lumines.)

Avatar image for dr_jashugan

Never take a game trailer seriously. Always look for the in-game videos to know the game. :cool:

Avatar image for Rimsa_Laded

the people writing these articles are the most boring stupidest people ever.

Avatar image for Shawcross

Gamespot is putting out wonderful articles lately. Not saying they were bad before but they are great this past week.

Avatar image for deactivated-57bcc1891a93a

what the hell, people really felt duped after watching live-action Jonah Hill on a MW3 commercial, or slow music on a Gears of War commercial? so I guess they were expecting a Tropic Thunder type comedy from MW3, and a sad war movie like The Pianist from Gears of War, idiots. they really scraped the bottom of the barrel of examples for this article, or think most gamers are severely brain damaged. even better that the fact they're action shooters with aliens and zombies wouldn't raise any eyebrows before purchase lol

Avatar image for Skadoosh_69

The Immortals(movie) Pulled this kind of crap

Avatar image for Barjavel

Does it not say something to games developers that trailers which have emotional clout (such as the Dead Island trailer) get gamers so excited? We're crying out for games that have emotional resonance here! Why can't they spend the time giving the games themselves that emotion rather than just the trailers?

Avatar image for LessThanMike

Great article, thanks for puttin it all out there.

Avatar image for julianozuca

Asura's Wrath, anyone?

Avatar image for TripSe7en

Best example: Dead Island. That game had what could have been the best trailer made for any media. The downside to that trailer was that it set the most unobtainable expectations and then failed to deliver an experience remotely close to the trailer. I played through that game and give it a 6/10 at best.

Avatar image for huyckb04

Trailers be damned. I'll just continue waiting until after the games' releases and reading the reviews.

Avatar image for mopar_tech

trailers are awsome

Avatar image for The_Gaming_Baby

I don't trust trailers and anyone that does needs to rethink the hype they have for upcoming games

Avatar image for syler4815162342

The most Trailers that i really enjoy are Blizzard Games like Starcraft or Warcraft..they are amazing and longer than other games, makes you play the game to see the rest ...

Avatar image for franzito

The same can be said about movie trailers. They just copy and paste the best scenes mixed with editing effects and then you might think the movie is good...

Avatar image for mohna16

They should create three trailers separated: one for the story one for gameplay one for the real graghics otherwise don't trust those marketers

Avatar image for mohna16

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Avatar image for mohna16

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Avatar image for Jinroh_basic

the problem with game trailers is unsavvy consumers taking them seriously. end of story.

Avatar image for Nemrah

Just do it like Blizzard, amazing trailers and amazing games. =)

Avatar image for Dade_1981

If you have been so fool to think that a game was great because the trailer looked awesome, and after you bought the game you discovered it was actually s**t , just admit your mistake... Next time don't let those marketing guys fool you.

Avatar image for PouyaDH

I believe the problem is: that these (CGIs) or short well rendered cinematic trailers have only Bcome an advertisement piece ( which i appreciate, they look fantastic and are a good 1st step for a debut trailer ), but-----> today you barely ( not any that i can recall :-/ ) can find a game with these scenes implanted in a game to play a part as story, ( like old time sakes, RE1.2.3.Code Veronika, Final Fantasy series and so many which i can't remember :D ) this way we can say any of there trailers can relate to the game Bcuz they are inside scenes ( well of course not any well minded gamer would judge the whole game from these scenes, just as we didn't on FF series and so on...) IN BRIEFED WORDS : there is this huge difference between what they used to do with these scenes B4 and what purpose they use them for NOW.

Avatar image for masterdude192

Another good example is The Witcher opening cinematic. Clean, epic and totally CGI. But nothing like the actual game. Honestly, while it is a bit of a letdown, I really don't care because the trailer was so epic that it made me me want to play the game which made me discover its other great qualities. Though at the same time it is so sad when they dont make a CGI movie from the awesomness they just created.

Avatar image for deathmerchant36

You can't blame developers for coming out with amazing trailers that don't have much to do with the game. All they're trying to do is promote a title and get money. Thats their objective. Also anyone who buys their games based on the trailer is not so smart. Sure you make look at it and think "hey that's a good game" but you don't go and buy it, you look into it to see if it's good. It makes more sense to do that than thunk it's gonna be like the trailer. One last thing is that the gears of war trailers that depict a very emotional game are just showing the sadness and hell that war is, which is shown through some of the games.

Avatar image for Hector_01

Yeah they dont make trailers like these anymore -

Avatar image for Dudeinator

I agree with the general premise of this article. However, I don't feel the problem is that clear cut. 'Cinematic' games like Uncharted 3 are easier to render into a trailer with in-game assets because the style of the gameplay itself is very complimentary for a hollywood style action film trailer. However, for genres such as RTS for example, it's difficult to create a gripping 30 sec trailer using a traditional RTS top-down gameplay camera. Sometimes, it is better to allocate those resources in creating a CGI trailer.