Chi-Coder: Are Game Trailers A Good Thing?

We’re sitting smack dab in the eye of the E3 2015 storm and I’m loving it.  We’re getting trailers and demos and gameplay footage and announcements.  As usual, my head is spinning with all the cool information that’s getting thrown about.  As I tend to skew toward the cynical though, I couldn’t help but be struck by how little use video game trailers actually have.

Movie trailers make sense to me because they’re the exact same type of media as the film itself.  They don’t necessarily tell you whether you’ll like the film, but they give you a pretty good indication of what to expect.  With video game trailers, there’s only so much that can be done to express a form of interactive media with a non-interactive trailer.  That is to say; even if game trailers showed nothing but raw in-game footage from the exact same perspective as the player would see (HUD and all) there would still be a pretty wide gap between what a game is like and what a game trailer is like.  We all know that game trailers are not like that at all though, and that presents a far larger problem.

I know that I’m not the first to say this, but game trailers are incredibly misleading.  They’re misleading to such a degree that I believe they’re probably harmful in some ways.  A week or so ago Bethesda put up a trailer for Fallout 4.  At the same time they posted the game on Steam so that it could be pre-ordered.  Within hours Fallout 4 was on the top-sellers list.  That’s very distressing to me, especially when the trailer showed no actual gameplay.  Now you could argue that the Fallout franchise has some pedigree and that some of the pre-orders came from that.  You’d be right.  The fact that Fallout 4 is a big name sequel in a franchise known for being pretty awesome can’t just be ignored.  That said, the trailer certainly played a major role in the pre-order process.

This isn’t a blog about Fallout 4.  I think that game looks great, and I can’t wait to play it.  What bothers me is how many people pre-ordered it based on a non-gameplay trailer.  In an era where virtually every new title is downloadable and reviews are available on the day of release, there is no reason I can think of to plunk down $60 on an unknown product, no matter the pedigree.  But that’s what trailers do.  That’s what they’re meant to do.

Let’s be clear here, I don’t blame Bethesda for making a trailer.  I don’t begrudge any developer a marketing tactic that works.  After all, they’ve poured millions into the development of their game and they want to make some profit.  If a game trailer helps move units, more power to them.  These trailers aren’t good for gamers though because they’re deceptive in the worst possible way.  They only showcase the non-interactive parts of the game.  At their most misleading, like the Fallout 4 trailer, game trailers only set up some broad story strokes.

Answer yourself this question; when was the last time that you finished a game you hated just because you enjoyed the story?  Imagine a game with abysmal controls, awful AI, and shallow gameplay.  Then layer some pretty graphics and a nice story on it and tell me if that’s a game you’d want to play.  I can site many an example of these types of games, and none of them are very good.  That’s not because story and graphics don’t matter, they simply matter less than the elements that make interactive media interactive.  Dead Space 3 is a good example of a game that looks pretty and has a pretty cool story hook but got universally mediocre reviews because the gameplay wasn’t interesting.  What that says to me is that Dead Space 3 would have made a better movie than a game.  And that’s just it, the Dead Space 3 trailer is pretty awesome.  I’d watch that movie.  That trailer tells you nothing about what the game plays like.  It doesn’t even try.  Instead it sells you on all the factors of the game that aren’t unique to games.

It’s a double-edged sword though, I’ll admit that.  Without trailers how else do we find out about games?  Demos make a lot of sense but those are hard to create.  They require that the game be in a finished enough state to produce.  So if your game is coming out in a year and it’s nowhere near ready but you want to start that hype train you have to make a trailer.  Even if you’re not out to make a $100 million on your game you still have to get the word out so it’s not like trailers are reserved for those evil marketing demons who live only to shove garbage down our throats.  Indie developers rely on them too.

A lot of times on this blog I rant about stuff and at the end I don’t present an answer.  That’s fine sometimes, issues awareness is important.  Solutions are also important, so here is mine.  Trailers aren’t going away so there is no sense in creating some type of stupid petition to do that.  Instead we should vote with our wallets by not pre-ordering games based on trailers.  In addition, we should reward developers who do more than just show trailers.  Blizzard has been releasing a series of videos showcasing the different gameplay styles of the heroes featured in their upcoming Overwatch.  In the videos you see actual gameplay, complete with HUD, taking place in a real match.  The character uses the abilities available to them in the exact ways that you as the player will be able to.  We need more of that.  Those types of videos, while not as good as demos, are way more helpful. We should be pushing for more content that shows us exactly what the game is about instead of just the cinematic bits.

A lot of developers are moving towards doing this type of stuff, and I think that’s great.  I remember that when Guild Wars 2 launched there was a plethora of videos on their site explaining all types of different aspects of the game.  Again, that’s really commendable.  In fact, when a developer doesn’t post those types of videos you should be wary.  If a dev isn’t willing to tell you what their game is actually like, they’re afraid of your response.  Notice that above I never told you not to pre-order a game, simply not to pre-order a game based on a trailer.  Watch the trailer and then watch some actual gameplay videos.  If you’re interested after that then pre-order the game.  If a developer wants you to plunk down your hard earned dollars because they showed you some pre-rendered story bits though just tell them this:

I’ll admit that I feel a bit odd writing this post.  I actually like game trailers.  I like all trailers honestly.  I love seeing the next new shiny thing get unveiled.  So after having said all I have regarding my problems with game trailers it feels weird to admit my enjoyment of them.  What I’ve come to is this; it’s perfectly fine to enjoy watching game trailers.  It’s normal to get excited about what’s new or upcoming.  We as gaming consumers need to show the industry that those trailers can’t be all they show us though.  We need to see the goods before we make the transaction.