Cyberpunk 2077: Cinematic Trailers Are a Bad Idea

A trailer for CD Projekt RED’s new game, Cyberpunk 2077, was released last week. I ran into it in several places and eventually decided to watch the damn thing. It’s a new IP based on a series of pen and paper games. From its wikipedia, I found out that it’s going to be an action RPG; although, this fact is not at all present in the trailer. Also, at this point, it is unclear what platforms this game will be released on. Since it’s done by the same people who did The Witcher series, PC is a given and Xbox is likely. It is possible that the game may come to the PS3 now that the studio has some hits under its belt, but it’s far too early to tell. To say that it’s a little early for a trailer is an understatement, as the game isn’t set to be released until 2015. It’s trailer is very impressive, but it’s a cinematic trailer and involves absolutely no gameplay. Therefore, I’m going to use it as a reason to talk about why cinematic trailers are really bad ideas. Firstly, I present to you the trailer:

The trailer is impressive for what it is. The Blade Runner-style backdrop looks great and few games have actually properly explored this aesthetic; although, many have tried. There is some mystery in the female cyborg/android in the trailer. We don’t know if she’s the heroine and the game will be her struggle, or if she’s the enemy and our character will be hunting machines like her. Maybe she’s neither hero nor enemy, but the setup, her rampage leading to our character’s investigation into some sort of conspiracy. At this point, the game doesn’t really give anything away, which is good for a teaser, as more questions are good. This gets people talking and generates great buzz. Seriously, the rest of this post is going to be about how much of a bad idea this trailer was, but it certainly got me excited about the game, which was its purpose, so it was a success in this regard. I want to point this out, because, if this were a movie teaser, I would consider it a triumph. However, things work differently in the game industry.

Let this be the protagonist and you have a day 1 purchase from me.
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Okay, what’s the problem with such an exciting trailer? The problem is the lack of gameplay. From this trailer, I have no idea what the game will play like and this is a major problem. It could be a Dynasty Warriors-style hack and slash. It could be a Deus Ex-style stealth game. It could be a Mass Effect-style RPG. Hell, it could be a puzzle game for all we know from the trailer. As I said, I found out it’s supposed to be an action RPG from the wikipedia, but there is no indication of that from the trailer. The problem with this is that a great many people don’t play games for the aesthetic or ideas, they play them for the gameplay. For example: some people cannot play JRPGs and even the most inspired JRPG isn’t going to change that. This can apply to every genre, which means, if this turned out to be a sports simulator, there would be some serious backlash. Also, aesthetic and style can change drastically during the process of actually making the game. By building a cinematic trailer, you set everyone up to expect something that you actually haven’t promised, but they expect nonetheless. For my next example, I bring you the first Dead Island trailer:

This trailer was awesome, right? So what did you learn to expect from the game when you watched it? It looks like, you’re going to get a deep emotional experience, akin to the recent Walking Dead game. At the time, this was huge. No zombie game was more than simply “die zombie die,” but Dead Island looked like it was going to elevate the genre. That’s what to expect from simply watching the trailer. What did we get? What we got was an over the top, co-op first person melee game, with incredibly bad dialogue, no story worth talking about and barely a trace of character in the four playable characters. The gameplay was fun, but not a single part of Dead Island could be gleaned from that trailer except that there was going to be dead people on an island. This led to a lot of disappointment among people who had gotten so excited by the trailer.

Add in tea bagging and horrible dialogue and this is the height of drama in this game.
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I have a fundamental problem with cinematic trailers, even ones that are well done and representative of the game. This issue is that games aren’t movies. You don’t watch a game and even games labeled ‘interactive movies’ have a central gameplay focus. The issue is the interactivity. I love story-based games, but games are for gameplay first and foremost and terrible gameplay can ruin a masterpiece. Without showing gameplay, you aren’t showing anything. What we see could be the best cutscene of all time, but it would be meaningless if it belonged in Superman 64. Some games thrive on their impressive visuals and cinematics, but no gameplay, no game. So a cinematic trailer can be used for hype, but even then, you aren’t hyping the game, you are hyping a concept. That is all the trailer for Cyberpunk 2077 is. It’s a concept and a style that the developers think will be appealing enough to hold interest. This is fine and good, but it still isn’t a game. Also, a trailer that is released purely for hype is a dangerous thing, which brings me to my next problem: do not post a teaser trailer so far before you’re ready to release the game. As an example, here is the first trailer for Final Fantasy Versus XIII:

This game was revealed in 2006, and is infamously one of the most absent games of all time along with Duke Nukem Forever. I’m not saying that Cyberpunk 2077 is going to never be released, or will ever be hyped to the level of a Final Fantasy game, but there is a lesson to learn here. Versus XIII was a very long way off when Square showed it off. After the initial reveal, precious little information was given to the fanbase. This was exceptionally upsetting as the trailer was hugely popular, even more so than the Final Fantasy XIII trailer. With such a long development period, things happen and games lose priority. This happened with Versus XIII, and it could happen to Cyberpunk 2077, especially if it’s as ambitious as the trailer leads people to believe. By teasing a game a minimum of two years before you can deliver, you are setting yourself up for some major criticism if you fail to deliver. This brings me to the trailer for Final Fantasy XIII.

Do you know what this is? This is pure hype generation. There is “gameplay” here, but not gameplay that even begins to resemble Final Fantasy XIII. The reason I highlighted this trailer, is to point out how easy it is for hype to backfire. By the time XIII was released, it was being marketed as the second coming of Christ. What we got was a fairly middling game, but the hype had made it a crushing disappointment to many. This led to a massive backlash against the entire Final Fantasy series by a host of disgruntled gamers. What I’m trying to say is that the internet is incredibly fickle, and it lets it’s collective imagination run wild most of the time. By releasing a cinematic trailer, you are encouraging the internet to dream about what the game ‘could be’ instead of what the game is. If you don’t make the game people think you are making, you could be in trouble.

What about the trailer didn’t make you think that this game would be endless linear corridors?
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So am I trying to say that Cyberpunk 2077 is going to be a bad game? No, of course not. My issue lies only with the choice to release a cinematic trailer. What purpose could a cinematic trailer have if not to generate hype? The issue is what kind of hype are you generating and how misleading is your trailer going to be by the time your final product is released? No gameplay is inherently confusing and can lead to disappointment later on. I put forward that a game trailer without gameplay is meaningless, but I at least concede the nature of a teaser. The biggest problem inherent with this particular trailer is how incomplete the game is and the fact that pretty much nothing has been revealed. This means that the internet will dream what the game is, while the developers themselves try to figure it out. This can put you in a very dangerous position. I have faith in this developer, but I don’t think the trailer was a good idea.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer

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