Trailer Trash: What Do Gamers Actually Want From Games Trailers?

In the wake of E3 2019, in this article we use audience intelligence to discover more about gamers expectations for future releases and role game trailers play in building audience expectations.

It seemed at this year’s E3 that the games industry is in a winding down period, bracing itself for a new console generation and the prospect of game streaming going mainstream. When one of the main talking points of E3 2019 was a representative that wasn’t even there - the current console king, Sony – one could easily ascertain that wasn’t much on show elsewhere to fill the void.

Indeed, “absence” was something of a theme at the expo. Microsoft announced its next-generation console – Xbox Scarlet - but did not actually show it or demonstrate its capabilities. Also, a majority of the major games titles shown were already well-worn into the audience’s psyche - such as Cyberpunk 2077 and Square Enix’s long-gestating Final Fantasy VII remake. One could even go as far to suggest that excitement itself was E3 2019’s biggest absence, and as a result, scrutiny seemed to fall not so much on what games were being presented, but rather how they were being presented.

As pointed out in this article on Gamesrevolution.com, there was a pervading sense of vagueness around the games shown at E3, with beat-by-beat gameplay replaced with flashy CGI sequences attempting to sell the concept of the title without giving many indications of what gamers will actually be doing in it. This can also be tied to another absence within the Triple-A games market: trust with its audience.

Double-cross the Universe

2019 did not get off to a good start for triple-A games looking to cement the on-trend “games as a live-service” genre. With the genre still suffering from the hangover of Bethesda’s hugely problematic release of Fallout 76 at the tail-end of 2018, Electronic Arts finally released the much-hyped Anthem to a blistering audience backlash in February.

However, what was most remarkable about the troubled looter-shooter’s palpable disappointment was that it came without a sense of shock. It could be said that games underwhelming on release has become expected this generation, and that could be thanks to one of the most prominent games that launched it: No Man’s Sky.

Announced at E3 2014 during Sony’s conference as it laid out the roadmap for the then-new PlayStation 4, Hello Games’ space exploration game promised much to gamers enraptured by its eye-popping trailer and seemingly infinite gameplay possibilities.

Over the course of the game’s release cycle, we can see below that No Man’s Sky made its most positive impacts in the months when it dropped its latest trailers on YouTube – most notably the trailers released in June 2014, December 2014 and its release trailers in July 2016, a month before the title’s August debut.

Dt1

In August 2016, No Man’s Sky was released to middling reviews but its audience was not so kind, with the above sentiment chart showing a visible increase in the negativity of the conversation in the proceeding three months of the game’s release. By analysing the semantics of the negative conversation in August 2016, we can see the sense of betrayal is clear with the phrases “broken promises” and “new disappointment” being particularly visible.

Dt2

Perhaps most damning is the word “hype” being used in the pejorative here, suggesting the audience felt mislead by the game’s promotional campaign - of which, as we have already established, the trailers played a major part.

It is worth noting, however, that all of No Man’s Sky pre-release trailers were gameplay-based, suggesting that gamers are now not just wary of the cinematic format - if No Man’s Sky is to be taken as the harbinger of modern major game releases failing to deliver on release. In fact, as we look more closely at games trailers from this year’s E3 and as a whole, we are seeing signs that the cinematic vs gameplay trailers debate is not as cut and dry as is being proffered.

First, though, we must examine why game trailers potentially misleading their audience can be such an issue to gamers.

Trust Funds

Through analysis of the demographics of a gaming trailer audiences, two aspects were notable in how games trailers could form a part of their purchasing choices: age and income.

Firstly, we can see below that nearly a majority of this audience fall into the middle-income bracket:

Dt3

This particular segment has purchasing power, but it is limited, suggesting that the purchase of a Triple-A game – that could RRP at anywhere between $60 to $100 plus on release – would have to be carefully considered. If this large part of the audience felt disappointed that a game on release failed to live up to the hype manufactured by its trailers, it could cause blowback on the title’s studio/publisher for future purchases produced by them.

The age of this particular audience could also play a part in its perceptions of the pre-release expectations by a game title. We can see below that a majority of this audience is formed by those under 34, with 16-24 forming the largest segment of the audience overall:

Dt5

It is reasonable to suggest that with this audience skewing so much towards a youth who have grown up experiencing games in an era of ultra-fidelity and advanced physics mechanics for the medium, they could be expecting the flashy cinematics of a pre-rendered trailer to be represented within the gameplay and game world itself.

Selling a game by concept alone has been a staple of the games industry since its inception with the now primitive Pong being marketed as “computerised tennis” back in the 70s, despite it literally being two blocks batting a dot across the screen. One could argue that modern games - with their lush 4k, near-photorealistic graphics - need to do more than just sell the dream, they now need to be the dream to sate audience expectations.

But perhaps there is something more basic that the gaming audience requires from a title’s promotional video…

The Information Age

We analysed three titles that featured prominently at this year’s E3: Watchdogs: Legion, Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2, and new IP The Outer Worlds. Both Watchdogs: Legion and The Outer Worlds were treated to extensive gameplay trailers, whereas Nintendo’s newly announced Zelda sequel was presented as a short cinematic.

Based on sentiment alone, we can see the two gameplay trailers generated a far greater positive response within their conversations compared to the Zelda sequel’s short reveal:

Dt6

This does support the hypothesis that the gaming audience responds more favourably to gameplay in a trailer than an exclusively cinematic trailer which demonstrates none of the actual game itself. This is further reinforced when we look at actual engagement in the online conversation.

By taking the idea that authoring original posts and replying to them rather than merely retweeting a post constitutes a higher level of engagement with content, we see once again that the two gameplay trailers experienced a higher level of engagement compared to the cinematic reveal:

Dt7

This higher level of engagement was particularly prescient with The Outer Worlds, which was given a 20-minute mini-documentary style trailer, featuring the developers at Obsidian Studios themselves explaining their vision for the game and what gamers can experience in their new sci-fi RPG. Whereas Nintendo’s reveal - ironically - revealed very little of what Breath of the Wild 2 would constitute, beyond it sticking with the familiar art-style of its predecessor. With such a low level of engagement, one could argue that a verbal confirmation from Nintendo that a new Zelda game was in development would have been just as meaningful for its audience.

But by using the same metric to look at the release cycle for last year’s most successful and highly anticipated title, Red Dead Redemption 2, we have noticed that something more universal emerges in what the gaming audience prioritises from trailers.

Dt8

Rockstar Studios released two trailers in 2018 in the build-up towards the release of its western open-world magnum opus. Interestingly, it was the final cinematic trailer – showing for the first time the game’s characters and story beats - released in May that registered a higher level engagement compared to gamers’ first glimpse of actual gameplay in August’s gameplay trailer. This is perhaps reflective of Rockstar’s audience prioritises the studio’s reputation for using cinematic storytelling and vivid characterisation, rather than what they will be doing within the game itself.

Furthermore, perhaps the main takeaway from this analysis should be that the gaming audience craves information above all else - whether that relates to the primary gameplay loop or the overall concept and package.

The reality is that of course gamers would like to see promotional materials for games that are illustrative as possible of the final product, but that is not always possible for developers to deliver at the early stages of development. It could well be when a publisher wants to get the hype train started for its latest multi-million dollar release, demonstrating it in a pre-alpha form could be as misleading as an overly hyperbolic pre-rendered trailer.

What appears to be clear is that a time where a schism of trust between the video games industry and its audience is arguably as wide as it has ever been, games trailers need to inform just as much as they need to excite.

If you're interested in learning more about the Audience Intelligence solutions we offer here at EntSight then take a look at our website to find out more or drop us a message.



David Murphy

David Murphy

EntSight Researcher