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How to name a video game in 5 steps
What's in a name? This is an exposition of how and why indie video game studio Lunarch Studios came up with the name "Prismata," from trademark rigamarole to sound symbolism.
September 24, 2014
13 Min Read
What's in a name? The 5 steps that led to "Prismata"
Prismata is the gaming love of my life. My obsession with Prismata is so great that I literally dropped out of school to work on it. In this article, at long last, I'm going to address a question that I've received countless times, but have never spoken publicly about:
Why is the game called "Prismata?"
Honestly, there is no short answer. Naming Prismata was probably the hardest decision we ever had to make. I imagine that it might feel similar to naming a first child, except there are lawyers involved.
I'm pretty embarassed to post this; it was a doodle I made in MS Paint (mostly for comic relief purposes) during one of many stressful "name the game" meetings with other devs. I was really hoping something would just "feel right". Nothing did. That red one in the middle was close, though.
It took us almost 4 years to name our game. The process had me adding the US Patent and Trademark Search to my browser bar, and murmuring awful name ideas like “Savant Horizon” in my sleep. I don’t know the optimal way to name a video game, or how to decide which of the million options suck the least, but these are the steps that led us to choose the name “Prismata”:
Step 1. Admit that you have a problem
"Shit guys, we need a name!"
Back in 2010 when we used to play Prismata using slips of cardboard, long before we knew we would withdraw from the PhD program at MIT to pursue game development full-time, we weren't remotely concerned with branding our game. After all, we were the only ones playing it. We took to calling it “MCDS”, an acronym for Magic, Chess, Dominion and Starcraft—four of the games that most inspired us to design Prismata. By any standard, it was an awful name. As Alex pointed out, it reminded us a bit of McDonald’s.
Prismata, circa 2010, or "MCDS" as it was formerly known.
The first ever computer version of Prismata was coded by David Rhee in 2010. The software was named “Breach” in honour of the term used to describe the process of overrunning your opponent’s defenses—a key turning point in many games of Prismata. Originally, we thought that perhaps Breach could become the official name for the game, but the idea was quickly scrapped when we discovered an existing FPS game that had the same name.
The first version of David Rhee’s "Breach" client for Prismata, which he coded in GameMaker while spending hours procrastinating on his master’s thesis.
With no suitable substitute, the name MCDS stuck for a while—years, to be exact. To this day, it readily comes to mind when I'm thinking about Prismata. After making plans last year to quit school and work on the game full time, we set a deadline of September 2013 to think of a new name. It was well into March 2014 before we actually picked one. A major factor in why it took so long, even though we all knew that "MCDS" was a terrible name, was that familiarity bias made the existing name tolerable. Our neural pathways were so well-worn that we became complacent and indecisive.
Step 2. Grind bad ideas for months
Eventually, we reached a point where we became overwhelmingly aware that we needed an actual name. We wanted to eventually take our game to the masses, and there came a point where we simply wouldn't be able to proceed as a company without a product name. We set harder deadlines: on a certain day, we were supposed to have a hard list of candidate names, and a month later we’d have a shortlist. This went on for a while, with the list being constantly updated and the deadlines repeatedly being pushed back. Our consistent circling-back was unproductive, so we developed a plan to generate a final list of name ideas.
A key first step: we sorted all of our ideas into 4 main classes of names:
1. Actual words (e.g. Destiny, Bastion): Our only real contender in this category was “Breach.” There are at least three issues with these types of names:
It's hard to register a good domain name, since names like destiny.com are already taken.
It's hard to rank well in Google search results if you're a small company, as larger things with the same name will outrank you.
It's a trademark minefield. As with the name Breach, many of these names infringed upon trademarks, and would be impossible for us to trademark ourselves.
Our top ideas: Breach, Fringe, Zenith
2. Made up words (e.g. Metroid): Making up our own name, as we ultimately did, solved most of the issues associated with using actual words. However, made-up names lack rigid connotative meaning and are more open to intepretation, so we had to take efforts to shape our own new meanings and word associations.
Our top ideas: Prismata, Kemta, Magnoia
3. Phrases (e.g. League of Legends): Our exploration of phrases was probably what ate up most of our time, because we often tinkered with incorporating our “actual word” ideas into them. Our list of phrases included some of the best and worst ideas (Will, for example, was obsessed with the name “Cosmic Harvest” for a while). Another problem with using phrases was that the number of words proportionally increased the difficulty of ensuring we wouldn’t be infringing on any trademarks. Many of our phrase ideas incorporated key game concepts. “Swarm Wielder,” for example, was a phrase we thought we might use to describe the commanders of armies in Prismata—our own variation of “Pokemon trainers.”
Our top ideas: Swarm Wielder, Tidal Key, Starlight Frontier
4. Portmanteaus (e.g. Skyrim): Protmanteaus are names created by mixing or combining two separate words and blending them together. These types of names are often very memorable, and we were drawn to many of them because they evoke familiar connotations, but in a new context. At the height of our indecision regarding names, Shalev suggested that we try coming up with “template” names that used the following structure: [a one syllable noun relating to space] followed by [a one syllable abstract noun]. The template was solid because it allowed us to rapidly iterate new ideas, and to experiment with endless combinations.
Our top ideas: Dawnshaper, Parallapse, Psynapse, Heliofringe
Step 3. Refine the list of names by doing actual work
There’s a famous company called Lexicon Branding that specializes in exactly what we were trying to do: creating a name that didn’t suck (except they call it “creating a name with strategic impact”). They’re the ones who thought up names like Swiffer and BlackBerry. Eventually, we gave up on naming Prismata, and decided to hire the naming experts.
Just kidding! Although it would have been cool to work with them, it probably would have cost us more than all of the art in Prismata, so it wasn't going to happen. Instead, we tried to replicate their naming process by using linguistics and sound symbolism to identify words (or word fragments) that users would associate positively with our brand and intended marketing message (a cool strategy game).
Below is just a small fraction of the 7-page word cloud we generated. Highlights include "ADD MORE" and "help me.":
We brainstormed words relating to mythology, mathematics and science fiction, but also generated some rather odd lists, like the list of “badass latin words” in the image above. Analyzing these words, we generated a bunch promising "morphemes"—prefixes, suffixes, and whole words that we could use in the construction of other names.
Lexicon says that they measure “the effects of sound and spelling patterns,” for both semantic meaning and aesthetic value. We obsessed over these types of details, and frequently had discussions on topics like trochee fixation and the Bouba/Kiki effect. Here is a real conversation that occurred on our message boards at the end of March:
> Shalev: I think “Starlight Frontier” is too long and hard to say. Actually, I think the reason people like "Prismata" has a lot to do with how easy it is to say. try saying the following sentences:
"Bob, do you want to play Starcraft?"
"Bob, do you want to play Starlight Frontier?"
"Bob, do you want to play Hearthstone?"
"Bob, do you want to play Swarmwielder?"
> Mike: I can picture a guy named "Bob" playing a game named "Starlight Frontier," beating a boss, and being instructed by his CRT monitor to switch from CD-ROM 2 of 5 to CD-ROM 4 of 5.
The name Prismata rolls off the tongue quite nicely, and has a crisp, angular sound association that goes well with concepts of aggression and outer space. As for its semantic value, the “prism-” morpheme has a lot of conscious and subconscious associations. It looks like “prize,” sounds a bit like “orgasm,” makes you think of interesting objects, and connotes concrete function mixed with elegance. Prismata is easy to say and relatively easy to spell, which were also important qualities. It passes the “Bob, do you want to play Prismata?” test.
But Prismata wasn't our only candidate name.
Step 4. Cry because all the good names are taken
After Step 3, we had a sizable list of name candidates. We just needed to pick one. Unfortunately, many of them were doomed never to work out.
If you’ve ever encountered this type of seemingly random string before, I’m guessing you’ve experienced the painstaking pressure of coming up with an awesome game title that doesn’t invite lawsuits. In case you’re wondering, these search terms will return all the gaming-related trademarks that involve the word "edge"—a word we didn't want to touch with a ten-foot pole in fear of some pretty serious trademark disputes.
For every name that drummed up any serious level of interest, I performed trademark and domain name searches online. Most people start these types of searches by typing potential domain names into domain name registrars like GoDaddy to check for availability. NEVER DO THIS. Many domain registrars engage in domain parking and will steal your domain name ideas and register them for themselves if they detect that the name is in demand.
Instead, it's possible to search potential domains on pureWhois, a safe domain searching program that can easily tell you which URLs are available. Quite often, domains we wanted were parked or for sale. Thankfully, we didn’t have to buy a domain. If we did, we would have followed standard domain-buying advice: impersonate someone trying to make a small blog, not a company trying to make their major website.
Prismata.com was unfortunately taken, but prismata.net was still available (we figured that if Hearthstone could do alright without a .com domain, then so could we). We also registered playprismata.com and prismatagame.com, but decided to use prismata.net for our main site to reduce URL lengths as much as possible. We might use playprismata.com in the future, but we're not sure yet.
Finding an appropriate domain name was only one of the two major hurdles required for a name to be suitable. The other one—trademarking—was much scarier. If we screwed it up, it could cost us a lot in legal fees. Or worse.
To do a search for US trademarks (which, like I said, I used to do compulsively), you can simply go here and search for live trademarks that contain relevant words, in the relevant industry. For example, I used the query (live)[LD] AND (prismata)[COMB] AND (game OR software) to search for all trademarks that are still valid, contain “prismata” in the name, and contain “game” or “software” somewhere somewhere in the paragraph description of the product or service.
Step 5. Cross off the crappiest names until one remains
Eventually, we produced a "shortlist" containing the best names that had decent URLs available and didn’t infringe on any trademarks. Prismata was actually a relatively late addition to the list. We held a vote to determine the best candidates using Google Drive spreadsheets. All the voting was done blind—we would highlight the voting columns in black so that it was impossible to see what other people voted easily. We then computed some averages and established a shorter list of names.
The first time we did this in September 2013, about a year ago. This was our list:
Affinity. Scores: 8 4 6 3 4, z=0.37, a=3/5
Beacon. Scores: 8 5 6 6 5, z=1.03, a=4/5
Bliss. Scores: 7 4 6 4 5, z=0.52, a=4/5
Breach. Scores: 7 10 5 6 6, z=1.51, a=5/5
Codex. Scores: 3 7 5 4 6, z=0.45, a=4/5
Emissary. Scores: 4 3 6 5 7, z=0.46, a=3/5
Flux. Scores: 6 4 4 4 6, z=0.15, a=4/5
Fringe. Scores: 6 3 6 3 7, z=0.38, a=3/5
Kismata. Scores: 4 7 7 3 8, z=1.02, a=3/5
Lapse. Scores: 6 4 4 4 8, z=0.38, a=4/5
Magnoia. Scores: 7 3 6 4 8, z=0.73, a=4/5
Swarm Wielder. Scores: 7 3 6 4 8, z=0.73, a=4/5
Synapse. Scores: 5 5 5 4 8, z=0.60, a=5/5
Prismata wasn’t on the list, and most of the names that were on there sucked. A close relative, Kismata, was doing decently.
The way that we thought up the name Prismata was a bit serendipitous. Namely, we combined unrelated existing names and ideas. “Prismatic Reactor” was an early unit in 2010-era Prismata, which converted resources into other types. The unit description was something like “Pay one green resource and get one of each of the other two resources”. We've long scrapped the unit (some variation of it will probably appear in an expansion a bit later), but the notion of something being "prismatic" struck a chord with me in our efforts to name the game.
The word “prismatic” came up again when we began designing the metagame, and thinking about the concept of ladder and leveling up. Alex thought to use the word prismatic to indicate the highest level of play—for example, we could have a bronze league, followed by silver, gold, platinum and prismatic. The “-mata” suffix arose from some other name ideas we had generated in step 3: “automata” and “automaton.” Originally, we thought that units in Prismata might be called something special like automata (or just “mata”), but we abandoned that idea because players found it too confusing.
Eventually by the end of April 2014, we had a final shortlist of 4 names:
Some toy logos of a few of our final name candidates.
We developed toy logos for all the names we were serious about, mostly just to gauge their visual appeal and believability as names for a top strategy game. Friends and family were consulted repeatedly for opinions and knee-jerk reactions, and eventually we had a near-unanimous decision. Our new strategy game would be called “Prismata.”
Step 6. "OK Guys, it's Prismata now!"
There was only one final step. We hired a lawyer to file the Prismata trademark for us. We figured that screwing up the trademark filing could be very costly, so we were perfectly happy to hire a lawyer to do it for us. The total cost of trademark in the US and Canada came to CAD $1,486.97. Money well spent.
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