Kevin: Hey everyone welcome to Arcadology, a podcast focused on video game history, and design. My name is Kevin. Today we are speaking with video game trailer editor, M. Joshua Cauller who has edited trailers for games such as That Dragon, Cancer, and Darkest Dungeon. Before we get to that, some announcements first, my next history video will be on the history of StarCraft. I’m currently editing the script and we’ll be sending that into production soon. I’m also working on my first game design deep dive on RPG mechanics.
Finally, if you haven’t already, please make sure to subscribe to the podcast on the platform of your choice and leave a rating. It would mean so much to me. Clever five star reviews will be read aloud on the podcast. And now without further ado, let’s talk to Josh.
Tell me. How did you get into editing game trailers?
Joshua: All right. So, the most obvious starting point would probably be That Dragon, Cancer. That Dragon, Cancer was like the ballooning portfolio piece that I did as far as game trailers go. To really understand how I got into that, it comes back to faith, belief and how those aspects inform games. Which is to say, pretty rarely. It’s not usually a component that’s discussed or explored.
And so, I noticed back in 2012, Journey came out. I played that and of course, for everyone, it was like a transformative experience and so many things that that people say about journey. But there was this one element of the game and people talk about the pilgrimage and the people that they meet. All that I was like, wait, this game invites people to have a religious experience. That there’s your input as a spiritually oriented being was relevant. So I was like, all right, I’m going to see where this rabbit hole goes. Because I always wanted to make a game myself. But it took me a very long time to realize I didn’t actually want to make games, I just wanted to have made games.
Kevin: Yeah, I know what that’s like.
Joshua: As soon as I finished Uni, I was like, all right, I have to find out who else is exploring this avenue. Who else is really taking this seriously. It stopped being a pipe dream concept of way down there. And I was like, all right, let’s see what’s real. So, I started finding other people who were writing about games not in this really gross religious way, which a lot of people do, but in a thoughtful, engaged and honoring way that really engaged with game developers.
That’s when I found Gamechurch, which I’ve written with for and around for at least five years. I’ve since disconnected but the formation of that community and website was really what blossomed me into thinking about games on a larger and more diverse spectrum. So, that ultimately led me to … Sorry, I know this is a little-
Kevin: No problem.
Joshua: That’s what led me to writing, really, really being curious and just going out and finding everything that’s like these weird, wild, creative games. So, back in 2012 … No, it was 2013, I think, when That Dragon, Cancer went public as a concept of a game. I could be wrong, but they were just trying to get funding and make something to announce the game. And that’s when I found Ryan and Amy Green who were making this game. I just started talking to them, and finding other people who were doing that sort of thing.
So, fast forward to 2015. I’ve only been making game trailers for three years now. Officially for three years. And it’s just been so all consuming and exciting that its worked out well for me and my family that I’ve been able to make it my full-time gig. Which is to say is probably a bad idea to say, “Hey, I’m going to start a new business.” And just jump full-time into it.
Joshua: But all that to say that, it was game journalism, it was my 12, 13, 14, however many years I’ve been doing marketing, video production, websites, all those things. Similar to you, I also went to an art school. I went to what became an art institute school. But a school back in Central Pennsylvania called York … No, what was it called? Bradley Academy is what my college was called. What was it called? But yeah, Bradley Academy, I went there because I didn’t really see any other option when it came to school. I was just kind of, I need to create something. I don’t want to go to school for anything else.
All I like to do, the only things that I resonated with in high school were making really weird videos. So, I was like, all right, maybe I might as well try to see if I can make money doing this. Eventually, it led to that and a million different kinds of disappointments and pitfalls and small achievements, and back and forth. And then when I found myself unemployed again, I was like, all right, what I really want to do? And I was like, I really want to make trailers.
All the connections just came together of the relationships with other developers that I had formed over time, writing for Gamechurch, and here we are. I always say, the trend that I find throughout the whole thread, and somewhere in the middle of that, I met Jason Vandenberg from Ubisoft, the fore runner guy. He was lecturing in Harrisburg, and just talking to high school students about how to get into making video games. His talk was essentially about how to not and why you shouldn’t.
It was the best talk that I think that I’d ever heard. Because I was like, yeah, I really don’t want to make video games, do I? No, I do, but I don’t. And coming to terms with that was actually what got me to the point where I was like, all right, I need to start small. I think that that’s the key for anybody who wants to create or make anything in this industry is that you think that your big ideas are going to be what gets you there, and they’re actually what’s holding you back. It’s when you are able to take these big massive things and distill them down to that one single little tiny mechanic with the ugly graphics or maybe you don’t even get there. Maybe you’re just where I was, and just writing stories in your spare time. They’re really crappy and terrible and meta, but not going anywhere. And then eventually, whoa, it makes sense. And suddenly you’re like, make it shorter and smaller and it resonates with one person and that’s enough to get you to your next step.
Kevin: That’s awesome and I feel like your story actually it’s very much in line with some of my previous guests. Adam Dolan, for example, who worked on God of War, it was just a long time of, he had his goals, but he wasn’t going to be able to get there. He wasn’t going to go straight to the top of the mountain.
Joshua: Oh, no.
Kevin: It was basically just keeping at it, and the proximity. Just being around the people that you want to work with in the future, is eventually what helped out. I hear that when you talk about your network connections were what allowed you to transition into doing what you are doing now. Now, you met some people. You were there, and that helps a lot. Just being there to talk to people.
Joshua: Mm-hmm (affirmative) That’s entirely what it is like. The thing that I hate and absolutely adore about the game industry is that it’s entirely about relationships and networking. I said it that the part that I hate is just the fact that I have to get out of my house. If you get me on the on the line like right now, and I come alive and full of energy. But as soon as I get off this call, I’m going to be like, mush. Because human interaction, I love it and it drains the crap out of me.
Kevin: You enjoy while you can do it. But it’s only for so long.
Joshua: Yeah, exactly. I don’t get energized by this … I get energized while it’s happening, but I lose all my energy as soon as it’s done.
Kevin: No, I totally understand. I’m very much the same way. So, getting into the nitty gritty of editing these games trailers, how much direction do you take from the game dev versus how much is your own input and creative juice?
Joshua: One of the first people that have made a trailer for was a guy named Thomas Henshell. He’s making a game called Archmage Rises, which is so ambitious, that we made a trailer for three years ago, and I don’t know when it’s going to be out. Fantastic, brilliant simulation of mageness that’s trying to be something like meta over what RPGs are.
Anyway, that’s … One of the things that he said was, whenever you … He was like my business mentor helping me to get this thing up started. His advice was, whenever you make a new business contact, walk into the room, pick up the felt tip pen or, sorry, the dry erase marker, and just start drawing on the board. if you can. Don’t be a dick. But just start … And don’t draw a dick. That’s a bad idea too. But draw whatever is relevant directing. Because a lot of the time, the ultimate thing that people need when it comes to business creativity and all those things, is they just need someone to be a soundboard.
Most of the time is entirely about being a sound board. So, I could be completely wrong, going in the wrong direction in every way. And then someone comes up to me and says, “Actually, that’s not what we’re looking for.” That’s actually a good thing because then we know in the grand scheme of things where we’re not going. We ruled something out. That helped us to gain orientation to what we’re going to be going towards.
To give an example, I was most recently working on The Darkest Dungeon trailer, which the original Darkest Dungeons trailers were something I really really looked up to you because they were done by Marlon Wiebe, who does amazing work. But Marlon has, I believe since been acquired by the Crypto and the Necromancer team. I’m forgetting their studio name at the moment. But he … Brace Yourself Games. He’s with Brace Yourself Games, and so that opened up a window for me to step in and pick up where he left off with their trailer.
Chris [inaudible 00:10:36] is this amazing Creative Director for Red Hook Games, for Darkest Dungeon. He knows exactly what he wants. When you give him something to sound board off of. That was what our relationship was. I’m like, all right, this is what we want to do with the trailer. He came back to me and said, “All right, well, actually how about we add some flashes here, some [inaudible 00:10:59] and actually this glow that we’re using on this particular element over here that looks a little bit JV. So, let me go back to the art table and elaborate on it.”
That’s kind of the working relationship that I’d say is a little bit more when you are working directly with a creative director who’s really established. More often than not, I’m coming in as the creative … A little bit more of the creative director, which is super weird when I don’t know the game as well as the developer does.
So, a lot of it is me just trying to learn on the field as quickly as possible. I’m the kind of person, I love asking way too many questions. People who will hang out with me usually get overwhelmed with the amount of … I would love to say that that’s from my game journalism background, but when I was a game journalist, I was mostly an introvert, who just played the game and wrote about it. So, I didn’t actually ask people all the questions. But the truth is, to get to know someone, you just got to ask a lot of questions. That’s what it really comes down to.
Kevin: It’s interesting because, I looked at The Darkest Dungeon trailer and obviously you had to play around with game assets on a different layer. Because I noticed you … I was just watching it before I talked to you. So, there’s some layers-
Joshua: The Color Of Madness trailer, yeah.
Kevin: How often is the game dev willing to just say, “Oh, yeah here’s these files to play with.”
Joshua: Here’s all of my assets. Have a great time. Honestly, it’s weird because I’ve worked with some really obscure developers, and some really famous ones. I don’t think that people have ever been like, “No, you can’t have these art assets.” But I’d say that those who are far more established are like, “Yeah, sure, whatever you want. Here’s everything.”
That’s actually really fun to play with. But I’d say that with The Color of Madness, The Darkest Dungeon trailer, the main thing that I came down to was, all right, I’m going to throw all these art assets that you’ve provided because there was at least 10 times what you saw on the trailer. And here’s what I think is going to go here. Here’s what will go here. That’s really what the editors, what I’m doing most of the time, is saying, here’s 10 times the amount of what we’re ultimately going to be seeing at least. And how do we turn that down to the bare bare bare minimum?
The weirdest thing about being a trailer editor is that it causes me to be very cut happy. What I mean by that is, I just want to cut everything. I just want to delete everything, all the buts, ums, subconsciously speaking. Anything that gives you a chance to breathe, I want to have control over those moments. That gets really didactic when you’re dealing with a 30 plus hour RPG. But that’s the fun of it, is trying to figure out the shorthand shortcuts to really get down to, how do we … All right, how do we take this 30 hour RPG and turn it into 43 seconds?
Kevin: Right, how do you boil it down into the essence of what the game is really going for?
Joshua: Yeah. So, I would encourage anybody who’s listening to this, who’s a writer, or a remotely creative person in any way, shape, or form, get really comfortable with shitty first drafts. Because everything that comes down to what you are thinking in your mind things are going to be at the end, which is the perfect. The absolute astounding, beautiful, masterpiece. You got to get through that shitty draft first. You just got to make things really, really, really terrible, and it’s going to be dumb and stupid and your client you would think would not like it at all. But that’s how you start the conversation.
It’s only after you get all these really crappy, rough ideas down on paper, throw it out there that you can start pairing everything back. And that you can start honing things in. Because if you’re trying to get everything perfect the first time, you’re going to be paralyzed, right. I get paralyzed when I have a million things, and I’m like [inaudible 00:15:05] I get overwhelmed too.
Kevin: No, totally.
Joshua: It’s just, try to get out of that overwhelmed state and just getting anything down on paper.
Kevin: Yeah. And there’s actually … You’ve probably heard, there’s that really good Ira Glass quote.
Joshua: Yeah, that was what I was implying.
Kevin: He talks about the gap between your own talent, and your taste. You want to be creative because you have taste, but you don’t necessarily have the talent to start with. You got to get used to closing the gap.
Joshua: By just making a lot of work.
Kevin: When I would do a lot of screenwriting back in Grad School, one of the things that I always talked about the first draft, I used to refer to the first draft as a vomit draft. Basically, it’s just everything it’s on paper, and it’s not very pretty to look at. But it’s all the thoughts I have for this particular story are now on paper. Now, I can refine them.
Joshua: Absolutely. Exactly right. That’s entirely … The biggest enemy of creativity is your own desire to be a perfectionist. What I mean by that is simply just getting anything out there at all in any way is progress.
Kevin: Yeah. So, you mentioned The Darkest Dungeon, original Darkest Dungeon trailer as being a bit of an inspiration. Are there any other trailers out there that really inspire your work or motivate you to keep going?
Joshua: Actually, I’d say that most trailers just zap me of creative energy.
Joshua: What I mean by that is not … I absolutely love trailers. I would just spend all my time watching trailers if you just put them in front of me. But my absolute favorite part of going to movies and stuff like that, or E3 or whatever, I don’t care for cinematic versus gameplay trailers. But my attitude with trailers is when it comes to what’s the most inspiring to me, my personal flavor or voice, whatever when it comes to trailers, is actually bridging the gap between player and developer. The developer tends to … Because of the way that games are made, they have to be focused on features and this layer and that layer, and these pieces all coming together. Whereas they’re not thinking about, all right so what does my mom think about this when she has it in her hands and can actually play the game? No one necessarily thinks about the lowest common denominator of player in the process of what the experience is actually like. Because usually that’s really unhelpful when it comes to getting the experience across.
But what I personally I’m under the assumption of and my assumption going into making game trailers was that, the game trailers need to be as close to the player as possible. When I started, it was still kind of like in the beginning of the boom of Twitch streamers and people who are really testimonially playing through game experiences. I had my assumptions about how that worked and why it didn’t work or whatever. I’m constantly being proven wrong in everything. So, that’s my assumption in everything that I do is, I’m probably wrong. But my main takeaway was realizing that there are connections the closer that we get to what the player experience is actually like, that if you can somehow bridge that literacy gap whether you have really complicated and convoluted mechanics, or whatever is the emotional layer underlying motivating the player. What is people really feel on the inside of their chest cavity that makes them respond to things.
That’s been kind of what inspires me more is the connection with people not as much just the finished outputs. Because if all I do is sit around and watch trailers, all I’m doing is sitting and watching polished masterful pieces. When I don’t actually see what blood, sweat and tears are going into things. That’s actually more motivating and inspiring to me is when I see complete garbage that leads to the crystalline diamonds, that’s what’s really inspiring to me.
Joshua: Sidebar. Playing off of that, so the new No Man’s Sky trailer just went up today. It’s all about the multiplayer blah blah blah. The thing that psyched me up beyond no belief about this trailer, is that they have some shoddy camera work in there. What I mean by that is, there’s a couple points where the ship takes off and as it’s flying through the woods, you can tell that the player’s leaning a little too closely to the trees, and isn’t doing a great job piloting, and there’s a point where the player character is turning just a little bit, and the camera looks a little tiny bit shaky. Those are the moments to me that are saying humbly, transparently this is actual …. Not only is this actual players, this is actual gameplay. We’re not trying to be super polished, you’re not trying to super amazing, we’re just trying to convey what things are actually like.
Kevin: That’s super important for them in their particular instance because-
Joshua: Their early trailers were so super polished.
Kevin: They early trailers were very polished, they were very staged and scripted, and even if it was in gameplay footage, they had triggers that were scripting certain events to happen as they played through. It’s very important for them at this point if they want to keep basically, drawing people slowly back in-
Joshua: Bring people back, yeah.
Kevin: To bring people back after the … It was a disaster. Their launch was a disaster [crosstalk 00:20:55] I had certain sympathy for them, but at the same time is like, yeah this did not go well for you guys.
Joshua: I looked and I played the game for the first time last month. So, I felt like that was the right way to go about to get a $15 used. But now I’m getting a brand new free update.
Kevin: Yeah, why not.
Joshua: It’s a regular in the game, come on.
Kevin: Yeah, it’s regular in the game. It’s not whatever was, a $60-
Joshua: A $60 retail copy, yeah.
Kevin: Yeah, exactly. As we close it out, I was wondering, five years from now, what are your goals and ambitions with trailers? Where do you see yourself going with them?
Joshua: For me, like I said, I always got into this because I’ve really really wanted to make video games. Initially, that’s what I thought that I wanted to do. To be completely transparent, I don’t know that that’s gone away entirely. The more that I work and the more that I network, the more that I’m going to just accidentally have a back pocket full of trailer or game making skills and relationships where if suddenly someone said hey, let’s collaborate on this. And we made a Game Jam style prototype on something it would just snowball from there.
I know that that’s only the first 90% of game development is 10%, and then the last 10% is less 90. Meaning, you think you’re done, almost done, and then it’s actually the second half. And far more than that, just finishing the product. But the games … I have some really ridiculous game concepts that are really really really exciting to me, and I would love to share because no one is ever going to copy these ideas. I don’t even care. Honestly, the one thing that really really excites me.
We just found that we’re pregnant with our second baby.
Kevin: Oh, congratulations.
Joshua: I’m really, really excited about that. For both times that we’ve gone through this parental process, we went to a midwife. I’ve learned that these midwives are these amazing, powerfully smart and capable women who are way more brave than probably most professions out there. So, I would adore the opportunity to make a game about midwifery.
Kevin: All right. Why not?
Joshua: They would require a lot of very uncomfortable research in more ways than one. But the reason why I knew that games aren’t that far away from this concept is because I was recently playing a game called Pillars of The Earth, Ken Follett’s Pillars of The Earth. I thought that it was going to be a narrative like a visual novel style game. But it’s a lot more elaborate than that. Much more of a point and click adventure. Within the first half hour of the game, I was explaining the concept of awe through cathedral architecture to my characters children. And also, in the midst of that process delivering his character’s third child in a really really messy circumstance.
You didn’t get into the mechanics of childbirth and that sort of thing, but the thing about games is that they’re so oriented around the topic of life and death. But they very rarely actually get into the … Very few of … Any resources out there actually get into the, for lack of a better term, mechanics of new life.
Joshua: It’s very uncomfortable of a subject, and there’s a lot of reasons why people are uncomfortable with all those things. Anyway, all that said-
Kevin: I totally understand. There’s … And it’s done both in the spectrum, because there’s certain, I know there’s people out there … It’s called Death Positive, where you’re trying to like, we can’t just have death as this thing that people fear. We have to acknowledge that as a natural part of life and all that. And they’re trying to de stigmatize the idea of death. And I believe-
Joshua: That’s something that you can’t talk about, or that you can’t engage with, the subject of … Right, exactly.
Kevin: So, I can imagine that on both ends of the spectrum, that the mechanics of early development and the mechanics of death, they’re both out there and untapped conversations to be had.
Joshua: Yeah. So, what’s more … There’s actually something fascinating that I found through one of my nurse friends. She said that within her medical profession, they would rather fight … Every nurse, every medical practitioner she knows would rather spend 10 minutes trying to bring back a dead person than trying to be there for a birth. The reason why is there’s far more on the line of what is or is not. It seems like at least within the medical profession when it comes to birth. So anyway, this is a weird and foreign concept. But these are the sorts of things that are really exciting to me.
Kevin: Yeah, you want to explore them.
Joshua: Yeah, and the subject of faith and belief. I feel like there’s nothing that’s quite more despairing and unpleasant of an idea than a Bible video game. Honestly, yeah. I played a ton of them and I love the idea, but they so often forget to get into the tensions of like, what are the actual tensions of the characters in the story? Or what are the actual questions that the heroes, for lack of a better term are actually going through?
Anyway, these are all the kinds of game mechanics and subjects and themes that I’d love to explore far more. There’s a lot of people who are out there, who are … There’s a few developers out there who I think that are really doing some clever and amazing things on that thread. One of my favorite, I’m just going to give a shout because one of my favorite game developers out there is Jay Tholen, and what he did with Dropsy The Clown, which seems like it’s a game about a creepy clown, but it’s actually about what it’s like to try to love people in a sincere way.
Anyway, so those are the possibilities. But ultimately, I don’t know that I’m ever going to be to stop making trailers. To fully answer your question, I don’t know that I’m going to be able to, because I love making trailers, I love short timeframes, I love … It typically takes me like four weeks to make a trailer. So, about a month to make a trailer. And that’s probably a long time for what people would think it would cost or take in terms of time. But that’s not a lot of time in the grand scheme of things.
When it comes to actually making a game, a game typically takes at least two years and a lot more resources.
Kevin: Right, exactly.
Joshua: So, I would love to … I probably am going to be making trailers for a good while, but I would love to be able to make some really, really weird stuff that makes people uncomfortable.
Kevin: That awesome. So, Josh, where can we find you on the internet?
Joshua: Just find me @MJoshua on Twitter, or mjoshua.com.
Kevin: Cool. All right, Josh, thank you so much for being on the show.
Joshua: Yeah. Awesome. Thanks so much, Kevin. I really appreciate it.
Kevin: Thanks again for tuning in everyone. Your patronage means the world to me. I’ll be back in two weeks with a brand new episode. And until then, follow me on twitter @theArcadologist. Take care everyone.