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Interview: Derek Lieu on What Makes a Great Game Trailer

It might just be 60 seconds, but a great video game trailer can make all the difference in getting your game sold. Editor Derek Lieu is teaching a Masterclass on making those seconds count. 

Derek chatted with GDC over video about his upcoming virtual GDC Masterclass—Making Game Trailers from Concept to Completion, which takes place on December 9 and 10 from 8:00am to 12:00pm PT (11:00am to 3:00pm ET). He shared some of his favorite game trailers, what developers have to include in their own trailers, and what attendees can expect to learn in his Masterclass.

Below is an edited, condensed version of our interview. 


GDC Staff: I'm really excited to see your Masterclass about video game trailers coming back for December! What are the building blocks of an excellent video game trailer? 

Derek Lieu: Oh, that's a mouthful. First, it needs to be very clear about what the game is and also what the game isn't. The clarity—it sounds like it's such a simple thing, “Oh it should be clear what it is.” But a lot of people have difficulty with that, because they're game developers so they're used to communicating through the game. Whereas a trailer is video, it's film, it's editing. And there's a different way of communicating with the other person through those means. 

GDC Staff: I'm curious what you feel is more important in a video game trailer: the mood or the mechanics? 

Derek: The important part is knowing how the player interacts with the game. How does the game advance through the player's agency? Otherwise it's a movie. For example, it's important for someone to know in Dear Esther that you walk from place to place and that's how you activate the story. Versus something like Gone Home, where you have to walk to this place, read this note, find this hidden map, uncover this wooden panel. That level of interactivity. Or like Firewatch, it's still very story-driven, but you can be talking to people through dialogue trees, and you're going to be having all these systems there so it matters in that way. People really need to know, “What am I actually doing?” Because that's the point of the game. 

GDC Staff: What is one of your favorite video game trailers from the past few years and why? 

Derek: Actually, I just saw today the launch trailer for Unpacking, which I quite liked. It gets a little bit subversive, which should intrigue you since Unpacking is just about unpacking. They put a little personality behind it in a way where I was like, “Oh someone over there has a sense of humor.”

I forget how many years it's been, but the E3 trailer for Tetris Effect is super amazing. It's so good! The one where they're explaining what the Tetris Effect is. They have this male voiceover saying "Oh, they did this test where people who had memory loss, they couldn't retain short-term memories. They had them play Tetris. And even though they had this memory problem, they still remembered seeing blocks falling.” 

They had this over the amazing music of Tetris Effect, and all these particles everywhere. And the music is amazing, which is a key part of trailers—If you really want to get down to brass tacks of what makes a good trailer, it really comes down to the art style being very striking and the music being very good. 

GDC Staff: If you know your video game is good and people are going to like playing it, why does it need a trailer?

Derek: It comes down to the attention thing. If I tell you, “Hey, there's this great game that's coming out, watch this 30-minute Let’s Play.” You'd probably be like, “Ummmm. I don't even have the time to watch the Netflix shows I want to watch, why would I do this?” So I say, “Okay, give me 60 seconds of your time.” You might do that. 

You need a trailer just to have that compressed pitch in there, because a lot of people won't pay attention unless they get a little bit of a hint there. And once they watch that they go, “Cool, now maybe I'll watch a 3 minute video.” Or if they're really sold, they might just buy it. 

GDC Staff: What kind of technical practice can people expect in the Masterclass? 

Derek: I designed it so you don't necessarily need video editing experience, because that's a whole other can of worms. It's not very technical. The things I think are more important are the exercises that I walk people through to find the creative direction of the trailer. 

Because I think a lot of game developers, when they start making a trailer, it's usually like, “I've got my game, what's the trailer got to be?" And then they start storyboarding right away. They're starting the trailer before they know where they're headed. The exercises help you look at your own game. I try to take out the subjectivity as much as possible. Let's look at what's in our game, which of these things are unique, which of these things overlap, what needs to be said for people to understand about the game for this particular trailer—because I also talk about different trailers for the campaigns. You have an announcement trailer, gameplay trailer, story trailer, developer commentary trailer, launch trailer. All of them have different needs. 

It's really getting to know your game in a totally different way. Because you're thinking about what this game looks like from the outside and what people can understand about it from the outside. When you're just looking at 60 seconds of footage, it's really important what you put in every one of those 60 seconds. 

GDC Staff: What drives you to share your knowledge and experience with others?

Derek: A big part of that is I enjoy doing it, both the making of the trailers and the explaining things. Part of that is probably insecurity (laughs)—big part of that. I'm like, “Well, if I'm the only one explaining it, maybe people will think I'm good at it!” And also I don't really see a lot of people doing it. Whenever I see a white space and something where I'm like, “I could do that,” and no one’s doing it, then I want to do it. Just because it's fun.


Be sure to head to GDC Masterclass to register for Derek's Making Game Trailers From Concept to Completion course, which runs December 9 and December 10, 2021 from 8:00 am to 12:00 pm PT (11:00 am to 3:00 pm ET). Keep in mind the course is happening virtually, not in person. 

GDC returns in-person to San Francisco, March 21-25, 2022—registration is now open! For more information on GDC 2022, be sure to visit our website and follow the #GDC22 hashtag on social media.

For more information on GDC 2022 visit the show’s official website, and be sure to subscribe to regular updates via FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and RSS.


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