‘It’s not advertising Heinz’: game trailer creatives share their marketing realities

Video game trailers whip up frenzied fan passion in a way the world of advertising can only jealously observe. But what can creatives learn from their distant colleagues in the land of the pixel?

The Drum talks to some of the biggest creatives who would in another life be delivering ads for fried chicken, German autos or beans, rather than the most exciting entertainment medium in the world.

The TrailerFarm, Fire Without Smoke and Maverick Media talk us through the realities of the trade – the ups and the downs, the demands and rewards, and the coming evolution of the space.

The TrailerFarm

Ben Lavery, studio head at creative video production house The TrailerFarm, has developed trailers for the Fall Guys and Clio-winning So Happy Together for Borderlands 3. His favorite trailer is a satirical, hyper-violent nine-minute preview of the carnage one could expect from Nazi-stomper Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus.

On his trade, he says: “This is advertising. We concept, we pitch, we deliver solutions. There are production complexities when advertising a game in development, but otherwise the process is the same.”

Much of the team worked in ad agencies prior. They use the same briefing formats and they study audiences, market positioning and points of difference “as they would with any product. It’s just video games are much more fun to advertise”.

The format of the campaigns differ, naturally. There’s a typical content action plan – from teaser trailer to announcement, to launch to gameplay trailer, then to accolades trailer. The order and volume will differ based on numerous variables. For example, is the title an anticipated next installment or a new IP? Is there an innovative gameplay feature to show off? Or next-gen graphics that you need to let breathe? Did fans react adversely to an earlier trailer or did they simply fail to generate the expected buzz? The plan can change in motion – if you have the budget.

Studios like Lavery’s have to be adaptable. Game assets and the scope of the project can change with the click of a finger. Maybe Epic secures distribution rights at the last minute, and you have to change all your materials to direct people to the right distribution point. Or maybe focus testing says people prefer the multiplayer element and the marketing has to up the buzz around that. Perhaps the studio has just been acquired mid-cycle and the launch date has been moved back – or more worryingly, forward.

And then there are the “truly eye-watering turnaround times”. It is fast-paced work. In the fragmented world of social media and global releases, automated systems could be cutting as many as 150 files per trailer to fit different formats and languages. Lavery’s relieved to have a good tool for that.

But there’s no room for error. “Our audience can be a passionate lot – they are huge fans of the content, and so will leap very vocally on anything they don’t like or feel is inauthentic. Our advertising must faithfully portray the true promise of the game.”

To do that, the firm works only using in-engine cinematics – if the game can render it faithfully, it makes the cut. Too many times gamers have been burned with misleading GFX showcases. That becomes particularly difficult when trying to render trailers for new games on yet-to-be-released consoles as they did for Godfall on the PS5.

Fire Without Smoke

Sam Passmore, creative director at creative studio Fire Without Smoke, has recently worked on Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed and Death Stranding. The studio “only works in games. We are proud of that fact”.

He believes game trailers are at their best “when they swing for the fences”. For its Watch Dogs: Legion push, it crammed in references to Nike’s famous ‘Nothing Beats a Londoner’ ad.

Where gaming releases vary from movie ones is the interactivity of the medium. The game demo, now easily distributed over digital stores, is another cog in the hype machine to consider. And every tool is needed.

Passmore believes audiences have matured (they have literally aged). They’re more sophisticated in their tastes. “They don’t get enough credit. You can’t sell a game on graphics or style alone. A good trailer now has to have heart.”

But for the advertising-minded, the passionate audience is a double-edged blade. Passion can drive your product to the top of the charts – or tear down one that isn’t quite up to scratch. “You have to get content right. Passionate players can pick up inconsistencies a mile off.”

Now games are mass media and a cornerstone of culture. There are wider considerations: “How do you make a video game feel like a lifestyle brand? We really needed to nail the style through the music, pacing and visuals.”

Maverick Media

Seamus Masterson, executive creative director of Maverick Media, has worked with clients including EA, Sega and Capcom. He’s had a hand in huge fantasy genre launches like Totar War: Warhammer and The Witcher 2.

He’s been in the industry for 25 years and he’s noticed things are getting faster. “It used to average about a year to market a game, with teasers, announcements, gameplay, character and story trailers as key beats. Now things seem to be much more compressed into six or even three months, with a growing trend for simultaneous announce/launch campaigns as well.

“That key feature you based the campaign on is no longer in the game, so we need a new campaign by Friday – which doesn’t happen when you’re advertising Heinz beans.”

Developers want their games out of the door faster, making money. Patches can, and often are, applied post-launch to iron out creases. Or at least some of them.

There’s been a shift in the purpose of these campaigns too. “The focus has very much turned towards defining the experience of the game as opposed to the promise of how it looks/plays.” If you do that well, audiences will find and share the content wherever you post it, he believes.

But the trade is cyclical – even if the tech doing the talking is advancing. “I saw a huge trailer last week that evoked some of the ideas that we worked on for the same client back in their early console days – took me right back, it did.”

Future gazing

  • Lavery: “With mobile gaming, instant-load playable game previews in a 30-second video ad placement are now very sophisticated and can be effective. I expect to see cloud-streamed games previewing more on consoles too. My favorite place to watch a badass game trailer is in a cinema pre-show ad roll, with big sound and a massive screen. That is the treatment games deserve.”

  • Passmore: “The future of game trailers is intrinsically linked to the future of game distribution. Instant streaming means you can start watching a trailer, think, ‘hey, that looks fun,’ and at the press of a button start playing where the trailer left off.”

  • Masterson: “AR will be huge to deliver in situ and contextual messaging – I also think that games and brands will increasingly find ways to insert themselves into the game experience in ways that feel less like advertising and more like valid contextual and experiential communications (in the same way that advertisers have moved from commercials towards branded content).”

For more on what the gaming sector’s pandemic-propelled popularity means for marketers, head to The Drum’s gaming hub.