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Naming your game

Names are important. Besides art style, they are people's first point of contact with your game. Names set expectations, and used well can capture the imagination. This is my attempt at making some functional categories for a handful of names I found.

Names are important. Besides art style, they are people's first point of contact with your game. Names set expectations, and used well can capture the imagination. People will use it to answer "is this game for me?" Microsoft Flight Simulator is going to attract a different set of people than No Man's Sky, though groups may be equally excited about the prospect of their chosen game. A good name should be seamlessly integrated into the core fantasy/setting/story/experience your game offers (along with art, music, narrative style).

That's not to say you can't have fun or need to have corporate board meetings over it (I doubt the AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! designers were particularly meticulous, for example), choosing a name is not a design decision to be ignored. Also, it's hard to start publicizing a game before it has a name (and you should be publicizing it as soon as you have anything to show), which is exactly what I'm running up against for my neural circuit game.

So, one of my first steps in any design decision is to look at what's already out there. Here's a collection of games I've compiled (through other research or just pulled off the front page of Steam) and tried to organize into thematic and functional piles. This isn't meant to be a thorough and strict classification -- I only am trying to better understand different approaches and functions of naming games.

(full disclosure: the ones with links are from people I know)

Exactly What It Says On The Tin


Minecraft

Kerbal Space Program

Impossible Creatures

Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator

Species: Artificial Life, Real Evolution

Golf With Your Friends

Don’t Starve

Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes

Learn Japanese To Survive

American Truck Simulator

Goat Simulator

Space Engineers

Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake

Very straightforward, people know *exactly* what their experience will be. Almost all are (or at least started out as) indie games where there’s more leeway for more artistic names like these.

Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake isn’t an explicit instruction to the player like some of the others, but it is super efficient while being fun. It includes protagonists, items, and actions: you control monsters to obtain birthday cake.

 


A main thing in the game (that you do?)


Civilization

Offworld Trading Company

Stranded Deep

The Deadly Tower Of Monsters

Simlife

Ceres Tactical Space Combat

Rocket League

Ark: Survival Evolved

Team Fortress

Age Of Empires

Left 4 Dead

Banished

Hover Junkers

Game Dev Tycoon

Besiege

Starship Rubicon

Charge Shot

Laser Lasso Ball

The Last Leviathan

Warhammer Vermintide

Closely related to simple descriptions. Good at establishing the central theme of the game without too much fluff.

I almost put Vermintide in the made-up words category -- it’s a good example of being poetic but still delivering what’s in the game (i.e. fighting hordes of rats), especially with the Warhammer main title.

The name of my own game, Starship Rubicon, isn't amazing. It tells you that there's spaceships involved, but Rubicon doesn't do anything besides act as a kinda-unique word. The name implies some kind of irreversible decision, but the game has more of a series of small interesting decisions than one or two large dramatic ones.


Poetic/evocative


Spore

flOw

Thrive

Rust

Life Is Strange

Superhot

Mirror’s Edge

XO

Single or phrase that maybe doesn’t tell you exactly what’s in the game but establishes the aesthetic.

XO is cool because it also means "commanding officer", which is exactly the role you play in it. However, such a short name means they have a hard time with SEO and have had some trouble with sites not supporting two-letter projects.

Made-up word


Subnautica

Rodina

Balrum

Eitr

Gurgamoth

Eufloria

Evolva

Xenobloom

Disgaea

Momodora

Bioshock

Axiom Verge

Solus

Many sound like yogurt advertisements while conventionally beautiful women do yoga. Extra points if it ends with an A. Better if it tells you something about the game? For example, Xenobloom tells me that alien plants are going to be involved, while Balrum doesn't do anything on its own. It's debateable, though: Bioshock tells me nothing (and is actually kind of misleading?) but it’s more memorable than Eufloria (which involves new types of life). Though that example may just be due to the larger marketing budget.

Apparently EITR is from a substance from within the game, but I think it’s still unfamiliar enough a word to be in this category.


Setting


No Man’s Sky

Darwin Pond

Sunless Sea

Kentucky Route Zero

Rebel Galaxy

Stardew Valley

Darkest Dungeon

Firewatch

Mimic Arena

Crypt Of The Necrodancer

L.A. Noire

Homeworld: Deserts Of Kharak

Borderlands

My favorite set of names, I think. Tend to be incredibly poetic while still delivering a lot of information about the game. I can’t tell if I think the names are incredible or just most of the games here are fantastic in themselves.

This category is great especially when it implies action. No Man's Sky? Better fly around in it! Darkest Dungeon? I bet I’m gonna delve that. Sunless Sea is a place where you are scared while boating around. Kentucky Route Zero is a thing you’re gonna travel down.


"The Story Of”


Banner Saga

Chronicles Of Teddy

The Stanley Parable

Undertale

Valdis Story: Abyssal City

All memorable, work to tell me a little about the game. Best when the entry they choose out of the thesaurus entry for 'story' is thematically relevant: Banner Saga is literally a Viking saga but Valdis Story looks to be actually more of a fighting game (?).


The protagonist(s) // thing of importance


The Witcher

Company Of Heroes

The Elder Scrolls: <place>

Mass Effect

Halo

Dark Souls

Styx Master Of Shadows

Thea The Awakening

Ryse Son Of Rome

Tomb Raider

Creatures Exodus

Hyper Light Drifter

Baldur’s Gate

Children Of Morta

Mushroom 11

Broforce

Pillars Of Eternity

Shovel Knight

The Witness (?)

Transistor

Bastion

Child Of Light

The Technomancer

Mighty No 9

Scrap Mechanic

Almost all the triple-AAA franchises ended up here. I guess this category is general enough to allow for sequels in the same universe + characters.

Also has a number of one-off smaller games (Broforce, Bastion/Transistor, Children of Morta, Mushroom 11, Hyper Light Drifter). I recall that Shovel Knight actually ran into a hiccup when they wanted to release an expansion with a different main character. They ended up just adding a “plague of shadows” subtitle.


I hope this is helpful to some of you! My takeaway is that it's best to laser-focus in on the core experience your of your game and to try and convey or imply that. Easier said than done, of course.

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