The Name Game: How important are video game names?

Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, developed by Psyonix, is an obscure game on the PS3 released in 2008. It’s a game in which cars play football.

Rocket League, developed by the same team, is a game released three years ago, first on PS4 and PC, then on Xbox One, followed by macOS and the Nintendo Switch. It’s still getting updated, has esports competitions every year, and has reportedly sold more than 10 million copies. It’s a game in which cars play football.

Can you see what I’m driving at?

The name of a video game is the first thing about it most people are ever going to see. It’s the first advertisement for a game and it’s what they will use to find your game on storefronts: there’s no doubt it has importance.

Now obviously, a lot more went into the success of Rocket League than just changing its name. The team at Psyonix were more experienced and made a better and more polished product. And the ecosystem in which games lived was vastly different too, with the emergence of esports and Twitch.

supersonic-acrobatic-battle-cars-vs-rocket-league

The question is, would Supersonic Acro – ah screw typing that again – SARPBC been a bigger success if it had the name Rocket League? And would Rocket League have struggled for exposure with a name like SARPBC?

Rocket league is just one example – a rather good one – of how influential the name of your game can be. Apart from not picking a name that’s incredibly hard to remember, to say, or to type into a storefront, what do developers need to keep in mind?

The naming process

The name of a game is going to be its single most referenced piece of marketing. Developers obviously don’t want it to be a turn off. They want it to be fun, interesting, catchy or simply cool. But they also want people to either get what kind of game it is right off the bat, or at least be intrigued enough to ask more questions about it.

When I spoke to developers about their own naming process, that seemed to be the major source of any heated exchanges in the ‘what do we call this thing’ debates. Developers are seeking to pick something that describes what their game is, but that’s still got an edge.

Titles like Farming Simulator and Train Simulator are literal names that have their place – but they are not going to work for everyone – most developers are aiming for the title of their game to evoke more. Adventure Simulator simply wouldn’t be as cool a name as Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

From a purely practical standpoint, it’s a lot harder for developers to talk to the outside world about their game if it doesn’t have a title. So in that sense, naming generally has to come pretty early in the process. It can be a headache inducing task, but the naming process can be a helpful exercise. It can help developers really understand what their own game is.

I spoke to Oli De-Vine of Ghost Town Games, creators of the local multiplayer cooking game, Overcooked, to learn about the process the studio took in naming the game. He told me why the game is called Overcooked (and not Local Multiplayer Cooking Game):  

Oli said:

“We came up with hundreds of names. We needed something short and that described at least the basic premise of the game. So to begin with you have to boil the game down to its most basic ideas, and accept you probably aren’t going to fully describe it, but just give a flavour.”

Boil the game down… a flavour… I see what you did there Oli…

Oli went on to say:

“[It’s a] cooking game in which things frequently go wrong. Originally we were trying to find a name that also got across that the game was local coop. Variations on “Recipes 4 Disaster” were one of our options, the other was “Too Many Cooks”.”

The title Overcooked does effectively evoke the right image. If you’ve ever played the game, you know things do tend to go very wrong very quickly, and that’s the fun. But the chaos largely comes from the difficulty of communicating effectively with your fellow chefs. From that perspective, I would argue Too Many Cooks is the better name. So why not that?

Well there’s simply a lot more to consider. In a vacuum, Too Many Cooks might be a better title, but not when you think about the practicalities of selling the game. Oli went on to explain:

“The main reason we didn’t go with those (Recipe 4 Disaster and Too Many Cooks) was googleability. One of the most important things in a name, really, when being brutally pragmatic, is that while you need people to remember it, that does no good unless they are able to write the name + “game” into google and find us as as close as possible to the top result.”

Too Many Cooks was actually the development name of the game Oli told me, but as I’m sure many you are aware, Adult Swim released the hugely popular viral video, Too Many Cooks back in 2014, two years before Overcooked. It’s not only other games your competing with for attention and discoverability, but the world at large. Too Many Cooks would have been far harder to compete for from an online SEO perspective. When people googled “Too Many Cooks”, there would have been a lot more competition.

too-many-cooks

Recipe 4 Disaster had similar discoverability issues, and personally, I would advise staying away from numbers in titles anyway. Unless it’s the ‘2’, ‘3’ or ‘4’ in a franchise’s sequel, it’s best avoided. Recipe 4 Disaster could see people search for ‘Recipe for Disaster’ or ‘Recipe four Disaster’. Numbers are a clunky way to go in this writer’s view.

Finally, Oli said:

“In the end we settled on calling the game Overcooked and put lots of chefs running around in the logo art itself in order to get the local coop aspect of the game across.”

Overcooked-logo

Not everywhere will the name of your game get to be displayed in its logo format, but it certainly adds to its impact when it happens. Nevertheless, the title needs to be able to stand alone.

Likewise, developer John Common, from one-man team CSR Studios, told me about the process for naming his game and subsequent upcoming game, Dead Pixels and Dead Pixels II. Like Ghost Town Games, a title that summed up the basics of the game was important. At one point John was leaning towards a very literal title for his zombie side-scrolling shooter fest.

He said:

“Originally it was called 8-bit Zombie Sim. This got some negative feedback on a forum from people that didn’t like the game claiming to be 8-bit when it wasn’t. It had also moved to being more arcadey than sim.”

Interestingly, forums helped John rule out names, but also helped find the perfect one for him. On a different forum, when John tried out the name Dead Pixels it was a hit. He said:

“People seemed to really like it so I went with Dead Pixels…  A dead pixel being a common fault with an LCD monitor and the game having pixel art undead.”


For the sequel, John has gone with Dead Pixels II, but again it is a demonstration of sometimes having to sacrifice artistry for practicality. See John was keen to go with the title Dead Pixels Part II. The ‘part II’ would have fit into the aesthetic of the game (80’s horror flicks) beautifully. But John had concerns it would give the impression you had to play the first Dead Pixels game to appreciate this new game, which wasn’t the case.

Function over art

This function versus art debate seems to be the central struggle developers battle when picking a name. Just how literal do you go? A literal name might best describe quickly what your game does, but it could also easily be flat and frankly boring.

Publishers might push for names they feel best sell the game, while developers, who have worked on something for years and years might be keen to ensure their game gets a name worthy of their hard work. They want some uniqueness. It’s a delicate balance.

There are some literal names out there that I think are very good, both for indies and major titles. Call of Duty is simple, you know it’s a military game straight away, and it literally invites you back to play every time you say it. God of War is another good example.

It can also work for smaller indie games to take this approach. MineCraft might now be the biggest game of the last ten years, but as an indie its name clearly resonated. The title is literally the two most common actions you do in the game smashed together.

Most indies are not quite so on the nose with their titles. Take my favourite game of the year, Pyre, for example. Really, it doesn’t tell you anything about the game, it only makes sense once you start playing. You would have no idea it’s a narrative-driven, fantasy-sport, freedom-fighting game (okay I can see why they struggled for a literal approach).

What sells that game is not really the title, it’s the name of the studio. The guys at SuperGiant have earned their fan base, and maybe their right to name a game whatever the hell they want. They don’t have to worry too much about discoverability – people are actively looking for what’s next from them.

figment-name

Figment is another good example of an indie not taking a too literal approach. I was able to talk to Emilie Mavel of Bedtime Digital who told me why the team settled on that name for what is a fairly story-driven, action adventure game, that happens to be set within the mind.

She said:

“The game was originally called Dream Factory – the setting had a slightly different angle back then. We had a lot of names in play at one point. I think the reason why Figment ended up winning was that it was simple and yet playful. It didn’t reference directly, but more indirectly and in a more playful way, the game’s concept – since the only place you actually use the word is in the phrase ‘figment of your imagination’.”

The name Figment gives you an idea about the setting and the feel of the game – but doesn’t take the approach of describing the actions you will be undertaking. It’s not too literal title, but fun and quirky, fitting the game’s aesthetics. When you google ‘Figment game’, it’s the first thing that pops up too. And search ‘Figment’ alone, it does just about appear on the first page. So no issue there really.

Figment’s title gives you an idea about the setting of the game, but now let’s talk about a game that is literally just named after its setting: The Sexy Brutale.

Until you play the game, the name is a real mystery. The Sexy Brutale is the name of the casino in which this fun little time-bending murder mystery game takes place. It’s a game with very unique gameplay, and as you can see, a very unique name.

the-sexy-brutale-banner

I personally have no problem with games taking on adult themes or aiming for an adult audience – I welcome it in fact. But I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the discussions between developer Cavalier Games Studios and publisher Tequila Works.

Surely such a name could turn off plenty of would be buyers, rejecting the game right out of hand. Perhaps some younger players who would have enjoyed it were prevented from playing by their parents based on the name alone.

I mean, it’s certainly a title that gives absolutely no hint of what the gameplay is like – yet – here I am discussing it having played it – and what made me try the game out in the first place? I saw the name in Steam and went ‘What the hell is that?’

You don’t have to look hard to find discussion and debate on the name on the social media accounts and forums related to the game. It undoubtedly become a discussion point that raised awareness of the game. From that perspective, job done really.

I wouldn’t advise it for every game, but once you play it, the name does fit the dark humour and themes. We’ll just call it a strategy for the bold.

Competition everywhere

Of course, with a name like The Sexy Brutale, you probably don’t have to worry too much about your name already being taken. But that’s another simple and practical thing developers have to consider. Is the name taken? Does it sound similar to anything else coming out? Is it trademarked already? Is it going to give my game unwanted associations when people google it? You don’t want your game to sound like a car or kitchen appliance. And perhaps most important of all these days: can you can get the social media accounts and URLs for it easily?

Theses are all things you will want to consider, and I would be surprised if the developers at Puny Astronaut didn’t do that for their game Skye. The developers at Puny Astronaut however have been faced with a major naming headache for their game that they had no way of anticipating.

skye-vs-sky

You see Skye is a relaxed, exploration game aimed at kids. It’s a game inspired by the likes of Journey and Flower by That Game Company, mixed with more traditional game elements, like quests and characters. The issue Skye has is that one of the very companies that inspired the thinking at Puny Astronaut, went and announced its own project called, yep, Sky.

When the much bigger, more established, That Game Company, announced its similar sounding game in the same year Puny Astronaut was trying to get exposure for the its first big project, the marketing alarm bells were ringing.  Especially as Skye had already gone through one name change in May of 2017- it was originally going to be called Glaze.

I spoke to to the developers at an event last year just as the news of the competing game had hit, and the debate about maybe changing the name of their game was in full flow. They were worried their game would suffer to get attention, and miss out on traffic to the competitor. But changing the name obviously comes with major costs. It’s a headache, especially when you’ve just spent god knows how much time designing and creating the marketing material. On top of that, you’ve spent time building the brand in the minds of journalist and gamers. It’s not easy to throw all that work away.

At the time the company seemed resigned to a name change and they actually put the ideas for new names to a Twitter poll.

I wondered if the similar sounding names would actually be a disadvantage. Arguably it could help people find their game who might never have done so before. When people are looking for That Game Company’s game, they might stumble upon Puny Astronaut’s. That’s a bit of a gamble to take though and not really the way you want to achieve success. You don’t want to be those knock off DVD’s at the bottom of the basket – and Skye is a game with lots of potential to be great in its own right.

It won’t be until next year that Puny Astronaut releases its game, so there is still time for a name change if the studio decides that is best. Additionally, the game has had new investment from 4j Studios since, and the new publisher is likely to want to have its own say on the matter too.

At the moment, the game is still called Skye. I think as more news has come to light on That Game Company’s Sky, the concerns have begun to fade a bit. Sky is also only announced on iOS at the moment whereas Skye will be aiming for the console market – so the two don’t seem as if they will actually be in direct competition.

Will a bad name kill your game?

So how much does any of this really matter? Will a bad name stop your game from being a success. I would argue in the case of Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, yes, it is possible to get it so wrong that it stunts the potential of your game. In Danny O’Dwyers fantastic No Clip documentary on Rocket League, one developer, Corey Davis, described the decision as collective insanity. The name was so long, that some storefronts had to have custom code put in place for the game, just to fit the whole title in.

Whereas Rocket League, a major overnight success, has a good name. It’s a name that sounds like it’s going to be an exciting game, and the league part conveys the sports aspect of the game nicely. Combined with the logo, you’ve got a name worthy of the quality of the game.

However, let’s take two of the biggest surprise hits in the last year: Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.

fortnite-and-battle-royale

I think they are both pretty terrible names.

Fortnite is the better of the two. It’s shorter and catchy. The fort part of the name somewhat conveys the gameplay. However, Fortnite’s main gameplay focus has shifted massively from what it originally was, so it’s easy to understand why the name now maybe doesn’t perfectly match the game. In fact, you now hear the developers refer to the game as Fortnite Battle Royale in much of its marketing.

I particularly dislike the intentional misspelling, but maybe that just makes it easier to find with the game’s target younger audience. Overall, I think it’s a just about passable name. The reason it didn’t kill the game, is it’s developed by Epic games, no small fish in the industry. It would have had to been a spectacularly bad name to stop the game from getting the requisite attention to succeed. And while not a great name in my opinion, it’s okay.

Turning to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds… well it conveys slightly better what kind of game you are getting into with the battlegrounds reference. But it’s such a mouthful and is not catchy in the slightest. I still stumble over the words when I say it out loud. That it’s becoming affectionately known as PUBG – which is much easier and catchier to say – is both a plus and minus in marketing terms.

Unlike Fortnite, PlayerUnknown’s Battleground was originally developed by a small South Korean developer, Bluehole, led by Brendan Greene. It’s a fascinating story how the game grew in popularity that I don’t have time to tell here. But successful use of early access, a small but strong reputation for Greene’s work, excellent use of platforms such as twitch, and amazing word of mouth allowed PUBG to come from nowhere and take the industry by storm. Add in the publishing power houses that have got involved since, and the game has not struggled for exposure.

So they are both pretty bad names, but as we all know, neither have been held back by them too much. Rest assured developers, there is a lot more than the choice of name that goes into making your game a success. It seems like a bad name can be overcome if your game is good enough, gets some social media traction or catches the zeitgeist in a big way.  

So what? It doesn’t matter?

No, the name of your game still matters massively because a bad name can throw up barriers you don’t need. Unfortunately though, I would argue it mostly matters for smaller and first time developers. Take something like Horizon Zero Dawn, not a good name in my book. But it’s a playstation exclusive from Guerilla, it was never going to suffer for attention.  

If you’ve got a lot of other things already going for you, I don’t think the name of the game is too important, with the caveat that it has to be at least passable. It can’t be so complex, long, clumsy, vulgar or confusing that it kills your game before it ever gets off the ground. All the bigger developers have to do is pick something passable.

The upside is that a really good name can help both the big and especially the small developers. A good name can help give a launch a bit of an extra boost with journos, Google, gamers and on storefronts. But the effect is limited. As one of my favourite comedians and author of many a good rant, David Mitchell, says when talking about naming the hit channel 4 sitcom, Peep Show:

“Titles are difficult but I think, basically, they don’t matter. Once a show is up and running, the title loses any significance… Usually, after a while, the title just refers to the show and carries with it the feelings or associations of that. You stop wondering if it’s a good title in the same way that you never stop to think whether ‘carrot’ is a good name for a carrot. No one would ever say: ‘Carrot, ooh I’m not sure – doesn’t seem very carroty somehow. Doesn’t say carrot to me. Wouldn’t “splandeb” conjure up something orange and pointed more effectively?’”

So in that way, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds might be a terrible name the first time you hear it – but now when someone says, “fancy a game of PUBG?”, My mind thinks of exciting and tense battles as I struggle to be the last man standing, and not what the fuck does PlayerUnknown’s mean?

Still, naming your creative works is no easy task. Get it terribly wrong and your project might not get off the ground in the first place, it might not live long enough to get to the point where what it is called no longer matters.

I had the dilemma myself just naming this piece. Do I go with a title that I think will catch people’s attention, make them laugh, or intrigue them?

I could reference the great wordsmiths of history:

“What’s in a name?” – William Shakespeare – too obvious

“What’s the name of the game?” – Abba – oooo that’s good (and got me singing)

Or I could go with a title that has nothing but google and search-ability in mind:

“How to pick your video game name” – Exciting stuff I’m sure you will agree!

And of course, if I want this to be shared on social media:

“You’ll never believe what these crazy cats called their game”

The point is: there’s lots to consider when naming something creative you’ve worked on. You don’t want to get it wrong, whether you’ve been working on it for just a day, a week or especially if it has been years in development.

I can only imagine the stress naming a game must bring on developers. And what’s the reward if you get it right at the end? Huge critical success and massive sales?

No.

Once you’re up and running – it doesn’t really matter anymore. No game has ever reached the top of the charts because its name was cool… the name might give it a head start, but that is where the edge ends.

The name game is cruel. There are no winners, only losers. In the name game, it only matters when you get it wrong. The right name just gives you the platform to build a successful project. Really, the name game is level 1, it’s the easy bit.

It’s the stuff that comes after, you know, designing a good game. That’s still the bit that really matters. For example, if you got to the end of this piece, I hope it was because of the content, not my title.

Published by

Matthew Taylor

I'm a man. More specifically, a man who hates writing 'about me' sections.

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