Cinematic trailers can be a powerful tool. Properly used, they can establish the tone of your game long before you have a working engine or any real gameplay footage. It’s an opportunity to give potential players a look into how you view the game, the kind of experience you’re hoping to capture. It’s the developer equivalent of what you saw in your head while playing with action figures as a kid.
On the other hand, cinematic trailers can also be a colossal waste of money and time. Sometimes they end up as little more than very expensive examples of how impressive your CGI team is, which is awesome…if you’re making an animated film.
The Elder Scrolls Online is not an animated film. If it was, I’d totally go see it. The facial animations in this trailer are downright stunning, so much so that when I first saw a still of it, I could’ve sworn Bethesda had jumped the shark and made a live-action trailer. It’s that good. But is it a good trailer for a MMORPG?
I want you to try an experiment. Watch the above trailer and then, right as it fades out, pause the video and ask yourself: What game did I just see a trailer for?
If you answered Lord of the Rings, you wouldn’t be alone. If you said something about Forgotten Realms, then good for you, but it could use more Tarrasque.
This is the problem with the TESO trailer: it’s horribly generic. Nothing in the entire 5 minutes suggests that it’s anything more than your regular fantasy romp, which isn’t enough to stand out in a world where games like Kingdoms of Amalur can’t even get a foothold. Where are all the things that the Elder Scrolls franchise are known for? Where are the giant bugs and Dwemer ruins, the massive dragons and majestic cities, the Oblivion gates and Daedric princes? Where’s the character?
Instead, based on this trailer, we’ve got something that looks like somebody watched The Two Towers and said: “Give me that, but without any Dwarves.”
MMOs live and die on the worlds they create. In the case of games like TESO or Star Wars: The Old Republic, it’s less about creating a world than reminding us of one we’re already familiar with. Look no further than the ‘Hope’ trailer for SWTOR to see a great example of how to do a cinematic trailer. It includes everything that people love about Star Wars – Sith shooting around lightning, guys in clone trooper armor, and slow-mo massacres of helpless fools who underestimated the power of the Dark Side. There’s even a double bladed lightsaber tossed in for good measure. Watching this gets you excited to play a fucking Star Wars game, even if you know that there’s no way it’ll actually be this cool (it wasn’t.)
Watching the TESO trailer evokes none of the wonder that the games do. The enjoyment that comes from spending hours deep underground, emerging burdened with the treasure of the ages, is completely missing. Instead, there’s some sort of giant rat thing that I’m pretty sure was in none of the previous games. There’s a brief moment where you spot somebody who might be wearing the Iron Helmet from Skyrim, but that’s about it.
Give us characters, story, and setting Bethesda. We don’t love The Elder Scrolls because it’s a heavily generic fantasy setting. We love it because of it’s sweeping vistas, awe-inspiring cities, and verdant fields. We love The Dark Brotherhood and Sheogorath. Give us those.
If you don’t know why you’re making this game, then perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Generic fantasy isn’t enough to cut it these days, just ask Rift.