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Want to make a great game trailer? 3 is the magic number

Top image: Dead Cells by Motion Twin. Why? Great game and great trailer!

How many times do you need to show a hooky idea or game mechanic in a trailer for people to understand it? My general rule is at least twice, but no more than three.

The reason it’s good to show something 2-3 times is firstly because if you only show it once, the person watching might miss it entirely and if you never show it again they could be missing out on a key game mechanic. Also, when watching a game trailer I think people first look for how the game works, and then CONFIRMATION they were correct. 

Using a key or a gun

This is because sometimes shots in trailers can look like a game mechanic, but it might just be a story moment which isn’t controlled by the player at all, or maybe it’s something the player only does once. There’s a big difference between a game where you use a key to open a door once like in say, an adventure game like Myst, and a game where finding keys to open doors is part of the core game loop like in The Legend of Zelda.

By the same token, there’s a big difference between finding and using a gun in a Call of Duty game where you’re constantly using guns and finding new ones, and a game like Hades where there’s only one gun in the entire game.

3 really is the magic number

People generally like things in threes so it’s good to satisfy that desire, but not go any further:

  • The first time you see something it’s new
  • The second time it confirms an idea
  • The third time it creates a pattern
  • The fourth time it becomes predictable

The most important things to repeat are the hooks of the game. For example, starting at 20 seconds into this trailer I made for Katana ZERO I start a montage showing how retrying encounters is a core part of the game.

I also did the same thing for this launch trailer I made for Dead Cells. I used the animation of the player resurrecting three times, but moved on after that. Similarly, in the intro to the trailer for The Last Clockwinder we showed the player performing actions three times in VR which then get repeated by robots.

Robot clones

You’ll notice there are game mechanics in these trailers which I DON’T show three times. So how do I decide which ones to repeat? One example is in the trailer for The Last Clockwinder I only show the seed bag mechanic once. This is because this is not a core game mechanic which the player NEEDS to know in order to understand the game’s hook. I needed people to watch the trailer and understand you create assembly lines of robot clones of yourself. If no one remembered you store seeds in a pouch, I wouldn’t lose any sleep.

For Katana ZERO it made sense to show the slow motion mechanic a bunch of times because it’s a central mechanic, but I didn’t need people to show multiple shots of the player riding in a mine cart because it’s a small one-off part of the game.

Repetition not only helps an idea sink in, it gives the idea more weight and significance. For example, in the trailer for Super Mario Odyssey, they spend a lot of time showing Mario using his cap to possess objects, but very little time showing Mario playing guitar as a mariachi singer.

Core hooky mechanics

For better and for worse, trailers can be seen as a mini-version of the whole game or movie. So the amount of focus on each thing is very important. If I wanted to, I could make a trailer for Firewatch which shows every set of brambles you cut down and every door you pry open. That would make it look like a game where you cut a lot of plants and pry open a lot of doors. But instead I only showed those things sparingly in favor of dialogue and story.

So when editing your trailer, make sure you show the CORE HOOKY MECHANICS 2-3 times but no more and no less. Back once again to my ice cream analogy. Sell your ice cream by repeating its hook (like being made with liquid nitrogen) NOT by repeating is anchor (like the fact that it’s a cold dessert)

Derek Lieu is a master at making game trailers. If you are interested in creating your own game trailers, you might want to consider taking his course. Check here for more details.  

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