Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Perils and Profits of the Video Game Trailer


At the 2005 Electronic Entertainment Expo, developer Guerilla Games showed a trailer unveiling their sequel to first-person shooter Killzone, Killzone 2. The game was one of Sony's premier first-person shooters, not to mention a console exclusive that battled Microsoft Xbox-exclusive juggernaut Halo, and the trailer was purported to be an example of what could be done on Sony's upcoming PlayStation 3 console. There was just one problem.

The trailer was a lie.

The game looked good, that was certain--soldiers trapped in a war-torn urban setting, replete with explosions, particles, smoke and destruction. But the problem was that the footage was marketed as rendered in real-time off a PlayStation 3. As it turned out, Sony revealed the footage to be video off the then-current PlayStation 3 hardware specifications. Even years later, Guerilla had to defend its use of what it termed a "target render" to represent the actual game (1).

Game trailers have become as important as movie trailers in selling products, but the technical and fanboy-infested realm of video gaming takes the importance and contention of these trailers one step further. Fans analyze trailers frame-by-frame looking for spoilers or glitches that might indicate software issues. Video that looks "too good to be true" can damage the game's reputation, as fans will think that they are overselling the product. The interest that Killzone 2 generated with its E3 video turned to derision when the truth came out (2).

Xbox developer Bungie--creator of Halo--faced similar pressures in unveiling Halo 3 in 2006. They unveiled a rendered trailer that played exactly as it would off the Xbox 360 hardware; demonstrations after the trailer showed the game camera zoom through the environment to prove the footage's authenticity.

The problem with these trailers is that they are intensive. Bungie faced enormous time constraints in preparing the trailer, drawing staff away from actually completing the game. For sequel followups Halo 3: ODST (2009) and Halo: Reach (2010), Bungie took different approaches with their trailers; the announcement trailer for ODST consisted of prerendered graphics created by another company (3). With Reach, Bungie modified an existing cinematic from the game rather than create a completely new scenario as they had with previous installments.

Between Guerilla's and Bungie's shared trials can be seen the perils of the video game trailer. Not only are expectations higher for these works than movie trailers, but they can also be much more difficult to create--rendering out gameplay segments or cinematics as opposed to recutting existing footage, in the case of a feature film. But some of the problems with traditional trailers are also endemic to video games. There is the danger that a trailer may promise too much, or represent the final product in a way not indicative of the whole work.

Bungie faced this problem head-on with the trailers to Halo 2 (2004). The videos showed the heroic soldier Master Chief blasting away alien Covenant across a futuristic Earth city. The TV spots made it appear that humanity was making its final stand on Earth. And then, in the game, players were zipped away to an alien ring after just three missions defending the planet. While the plot change wasn't bad, players had expected they would stay on earth based on the footage they had previously seen--Bungie later admitted this was a mistake, and one they tried to rectify with Halo 3. Blizzard's trailers for StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010) promised that players would make the hegemonic Dominion pay and raise hell, but the actual storyline veered in another direction entirely, leaving some fans upset that seemingly promised plot points never arose (see "The Unfinished Video Game Story" for more).

The other approach to sidestepping the technical issues is the use of live-action footage for trailers. The Halo series are again at the forefront of this approach, with Microsoft commissioning splashy (and expensive) real-world recreations of Halo's battles for Halo 3 and later games. The downside of this is once again that expectations can be unnaturally raised in a way no video game can yet sate. As Gamecritic's Dan Weissenberger wrote, "The ads promise an epic tale of tragedy, sacrifice, and heroism that Halo 3 really had no hope in hell of ever delivering. More troubling, however, is the fact that after playing the game, I can suggest with some certainty that they promised a game that Bungie didn't even bother trying to produce" (4). More dangerous for the developer is that a move such as live-action or, in the case of Gears of War, an "emo" song might turn off a segment of the audience entirely (5).

As a gamer, I enjoy the Halo commercials, but I also realize they are selling me a mood--one that the games may not convey--rather than the merits of the actual product. Since the game is a Halo game, it's pretty clear what to expect and the marketing can get away with it. But with lesser-known games it becomes more likely that the chance to be misled occurs. The way forward is a give-and-take from both sides. Developers and over-eager marketing firms publishers hire to promote the games need to be upfront and honest about what promotional materials represent. Gamers, too, need to keep an open mind and realize that sometimes their own expectations can get them carried away, and that sometimes its not the developer's fault a game disappoints them.


* (1) Robert Purchese (February 28, 2008). "Killzone 2 E3 2005 Trailer Not False". Eurogamer. Retrieved May 23, 2011.

* (2) Staff (July 17, 2007). "Game Trailers Prompt Pixel Wars". BBC. Retrieved May 21, 2011.

* (3) Brian Jarrard, Luke Smith, Chad Armstrong (2008-10-31). "The Bungie Podcast: 10/31/08; with Joseph Staten, Martin O'Donnell, and Jim McQuillan". Bungie.net.

* (4) Daniel Weissenberger (October 1, 2007). "Halo 3 Review". GameCritics. Retrieved May 22, 2011.

* (5) Will Payne (November 16, 2006). "Payneful Truths". The Crimson. Retrieved May 23, 2011.

Other video gaming stories by David Fuchs: "Great Overshadowed Video Games" / "The Next Great Console War" / "The Future of Mac Gaming" / "Video Game History: Halo 2" / "The Worst Video Game Adaptations" / "Losing With Grace: Multiplayer in 'StarCraft 2'"

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