Over the holiday season we’ll be republishing a series of Nintendo Life articles, interviews and other features from the previous twelve months that we consider to be our Best of 2020. Hopefully, this will give you a chance to catch up on pieces you missed, or simply enjoy looking back on a year which did have some highlights — honest!
This feature was originally published in October 2020.
There was a time when naming your company’s latest video game was simple. Just programmed the first golf game for your 8-bit system? Great! Slap Golf on the cover and print 200,000. Likewise Tennis, Baseball and so on. They were simpler times, and the following 16-bit console generation wasn’t much more complicated. Anyone for Super Tennis?
Things are significantly more complex in the 21st century. Picture the scene: you’re in a bar (substitute for a Zoom call if that’s more appropriate for your current situation) enjoying a drink with a pal who dabbles in video games every now and then. You decide to strike up a conversation on the topic…
“You played Battlefront?”
“I think I played some Bad Company a few years back.”
“No, no, BattleFRONT. Star Wars.”
“Oh, sorry! Yes, on PS2, I think?”
“No, no, the new one. Battlefront II”
“They made a sequel to Battlefront?!?”
“Well, it’s a sequel to… oh nevermind.” *drinks*
Comic exaggeration aside, the fact remains that video game titles are, for the most part, a repetitive mess of near-meaningless nouns strung together with dashes, colons and numerals. With so many games releasing at breakneck pace these days, you’d imagine that having a short, snappy title that grabs attention would be a primary concern — preferably accompanied by a catchy, foot-tappin’ theme tune if the budget permits.
Browse the shelves of your local games shop or online portal, however, and you’ll find the same long-winded, vapid vocabulary cropping up time and again: ‘Origins’, ‘Vengeance’, ‘Retribution’ and the rest. We’d like to think that the ‘Re-Reckoning’ subtitle of the recently remastered Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was THQ Nordic having some fun with a name that’s otherwise humourless and generic — it’s a good game and arguably deserved better.
Even at their most unimaginative, big Hollywood movie names rarely sound as crass as video game titles, which seem to have more in common these days with airport bargain bin crime novel names or Steven Seagal’s straight-to-video back catalogue.
What makes a good game name, though? Why do so many games — often really good ones — have such dreary, awful titles? A dearth of imagination, or careful calculation?
“This is all dumb…”
Finding a strong name for your game can be a huge challenge. “With a title like [ours] you’d think it was pretty easy,” Mike Ducarme of Berzerk Games tells us, “but how wrong, so very wrong, you’d be. It took weeks of debating between the three of us, but nothing would just click for everyone. At some point Lachhh went rogue and said ‘This is all dumb, it’s just shapes and beats, so it’s going to be named Just Shapes & Beats.’ We had a good laugh and that was it.”
Thus, Berzerk’s descriptively-titled musical bullet hell gem Just Shapes & Beats arose. “Now that I think about it it was basically the “B Sharp” scene from the Simpsons,” Ducarme continues. “[I] can’t believe that show is that ingrained in our personalities that it’s even influencing our business decisions.” There’s something to be said for a game which simply does what it says on the tin. After all, the world’s best-selling video game conveys succinctly in its title a focus on mining and crafting, and that seemed to work out well.
Finding the perfect name apparently isn’t the be-all-and-end-all anyway. “It’s good, but not necessary to have a ‘perfect’ name,” says Olle Håkansson, director at Image & Form Games. “If you are consistent and make great products, the name becomes a symbol in the minds of your fans. For example, the name ‘Nintendo’ doesn’t really have any inherent qualities for most gamers in the West, but many of us still have fond associations to the name.”
Håkansson directed the SteamWorld series, a collection of genre-hopping, critically acclaimed titles that began a decade ago with SteamWorld: Tower Defence on DSiWare. “It took a while before we made our second game, SteamWorld Dig, but we wanted to make more games in the same world.”
Arguably, ‘SteamWorld: Tower Defence’ isn’t a million miles away from the word-jumbles that clog mobile App Stores, yet the brand blossomed into an entire universe of top-quality games. “Naming things is always hard. We wanted to do a steampunk/Western tower defence game, and the name seemed fitting. As for naming the game series ‘SteamWorld’, I think we just settled on that one for lack of better ideas.”
While finding a suitable name can cause no-end of headaches, sometimes they just pop in there.
The title ‘Shovel Knight’ sounded a little silly, especially using the word ‘Knight’ as a noun name, like Mega Man’s robot masters (Bomb Man, Ice Man, etc.)… It was weird and immediately evocative of the product
“It was pretty much settled after our very first brainstorming session,” says Sean Velasco, director and founder of Yacht Club Games, about the studio’s breakout hit Shovel Knight.
“The title ‘Shovel Knight’ sounded a little silly, especially using the word ‘Knight’ as a noun name, like Mega Man’s robot masters (Bomb Man, Ice Man, etc.). But we also liked the title Shovel Knight! It was weird and immediately evocative of the product, and when you saw the character, you’d say to yourself ‘yup, that’s Shovel Knight’! Importantly, it was also the name of our character, as was the case with many giant ’80s and ’90s brands. We sought to emulate the unique recognizability of names like Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, or Sonic the Hedgehog”.
The name came quickly to the Yacht Club team and stuck (“Plummet Knight was the only other suggestion, but it was only entertained momentarily!”). Shovel Knight was a worldwide hit, and his clan of knightly competitors soon became popular, too. “Plague Knight used to be named “Dyna Knight” (like Dynamite, get it?),” Velasco reveals, “but this was abandoned once his plague doctor visuals became more apparent. Most of the Knights retain their English names in all localizations of Shovel Knight, but in Japan some were changed because they didn’t translate well. Polar Knight became Frost Knight, and Tinker Knight became Machine Knight.”
In just six short years, Shovel Knight has built up an enviable list of cameos in other games.
Characters with regional name variants aren’t uncommon, although having found themselves custodians of a valuable brand, Yacht Club ran into issues when it came to naming updates and expansions to the base game, something which was concerned the team.
“Naming confusion has sometimes been an issue for both us and our fans. For that, we are sorry! The problem started after the release of Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows, an expansion game added as a free update to Shovel Knight. Some players didn’t realize that this content was essentially a sequel to Shovel Knight, and didn’t pay too much attention. We were worried that our next games (all free expansions planned as additions to Shovel Knight because of Kickstarter stretch goals) would not be seen by players, so we underwent a branding change and decided to sell the titles separately too. Shovel Knight became Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, illustrating how it contained many games in one. All owners of the original Shovel Knight would get all of the updates for free. The original Shovel Knight standalone title was renamed Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope.”
“With the later additions of the games Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, Shovel Knight: King of Cards, and Shovel Knight Showdown, all contained under the Treasure Trove banner, some confusion was certainly sown! We tried to make it simple by assuring players that if they had Treasure Trove, they had all the games. In the future, maybe it would be smarter to plan it out a little more…”
brand (nº) + (adj.) ger/n. = game
Once your franchise is up and running, it’s all about the established name — anything you tack on the end doesn’t much matter. Looking at the evidence, it would seem best (certainly easiest) to stick to the same old formula: throw a number on the end, with a bland subtitle if you must, and — boom! — you’re good to go. The brand name at the start does the heavy lifting.
Numbers going up to eleventy-stupid might lack imagination, but at least they’re clear. The mainline Final Fantasy series will soon be up to XVI, and that Roman numeral communicates more than just its place in the pantheon; with so many spin-offs and side games in this most misleadingly titled of franchises, the number says “PAY ATTENTION: this is a full-fat Final Fantasy product!”. Capcom’s upcoming Resident Evil VIII began life as a spin-off, but bestowing numbered status on ‘VIIlage’ (or whatever we’re calling it) sets certain expectations. Capcom must be confident in the game if its willing to fashion its identity around a piece of logo-friendly wordplay.
That’s not to say that numbers can’t get you into trouble, though, whether you’re naming a game or a platform. The answer to “Do you own an ‘Xbox One?”, for example, isn’t as simple as it could or should be. Many casual onlookers confused the Wii U as an new accessory for Wii, and Nintendo could have sidestepped that confusion by calling it ‘Wii 2’ instead.
Of the big three console companies, Sony is the only one with a spotless record when it comes to designating its hardware. A lack of imagination? Perhaps, but there’s comfort and clarity in the ability to confidently predict the name of the fifth or sixth PlayStation. Creativity involves risk, and companies — platform holders and publishers — are reluctant to gamble when there’s a safe and obvious pick staring them in the face.
The WTF factor
Branding gets more confusing in the mobile space where quick cash-grab clones are far more common. Legends of Lordfall: Dominions; War Quest: Dawn of Champions; KnightBattle Royale: Blood Shadow… No, none of those are real, but it took some real effort and multiple Google searches to come up with those; we kept on stumbling on real properties while summoning the most generic titles we could muster. It’s tempting to think generic, similar-sounding names are a deliberate play to confuse people, something that generally happens less on console, although trudging through the Switch eShop reveals dozens of uninspiring titles.
Certain companies adopt deliberately obtuse, punctuationally questionable names that require some knowledge of the property or lore to decode. The Kingdom Hearts series, for example — already a spaghetti-like lump of narrative threads, sequels, prequels, interquels, prologues and epilogues — purposefully complicates matters with some frankly ludicrous titles. Kingdom Hearts HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue wasn’t (apparently) produced by name generator software.
From their titles alone, games like Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] and void tRrLM(); //Void Terrarium confound new players, but impenetrable titles are a trademark part of their charm and inevitably become talking points. How do you say VVVVVV? Speaking to The AV Club a decade ago, developer Terry Cavanagh had this to say when quizzed on pronunciation:
“I think the reason it came up so often is it’s so much fun to try and pronounce it. I call it “V.” I called it “V” during development, but I encourage any sort of funny pronunciation so V-V-V-V-V-V is fine, as is vuh-vuh-vuh or trying to guess how many V’s are in it. Some people call it “Six V’s,” which is probably easiest.”
That momentary confusion gives readers pause and certainly attracts attention. Not knowing how to pronounce a name rarely prevents you enjoying a game, anyway. It’s shameful to admit, but in our youth we’d occasionally read entire novels and not take the time to work out how to pronounce certain characters’ names. Lazy? Definitely, but nobody knew we were calling Colonel Aureliano Buendía ‘Arrh Bendier’ every time he was mentioned in the text because we never spoke it out loud. Likewise, who’s to say we’re pronouncing Theatrhythm wrong if we never say the word? We’ve looked before at the pronunciation of video gaming vocabulary and, regardless of authorial intent or conventional wisdom, it’s safe to say that in the real world anything goes.
Still, asking people to look up how to pronounce your game is a risky strategy. Doubt leads to embarrassment, and gamers can, on occasion, be overly sensitive. It’s a brave developer that courts confusion.
Super Mario… Something
Bland naming conventions are far from a new phenomenon and it’s something Nintendo is as guilty of as anyone in the industry. Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer Featuring The Legend of Zelda is a recent tongue twister, but most people didn’t bother with anything after the colon. New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe was unwieldy, too, but the company’s habit in the post-8-bit era of welding a ‘Super’ or ’64’ onto an existing title must count as some of the most mindless branding in video game history.
Still, dull as those 16 and 64-bit tags were, they were functional; they clearly differentiated the game from its predecessors. Nouns like ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Galaxy’ also feel far less self-serious than the foreboding ‘Rising’s and ‘Retribution’s appended to generic-looking team shooters, high fantasy MOBAs and gachas.
Take Ubisoft’s upcoming Immortals Fenyx Rising, for example. Previously known as Gods & Monsters, it emerged that caffeine-filled beverage purveyor Monster Energy was a factor in the game’s rebranding. The original name was hardly ground-breaking, but it was at least evocative. The replacement, though, is plain dull, with the SEO-friendly spelling of ‘phoenix’ surely a tacit acknowledgement that the name is utterly forgettable.
It’s Terminator Genisys all over again. Or the other one, what was it? Dark Fate? My word!
Standing out from the crowd just enough
As Ubisoft’s questionable spelling demonstrates, giving words a quirky spin is one way of Search-Engine-Optimising your product. The Touryst on Switch is another example, although that one has a deeper meaning.
“The ‘Y’ is because we wanted to have something odd in our game title, because that was also our games theme,” says Manfred Linzner from Shin’en. “A central source of inspiration came from my wife. She told me about ‘Oumuamua’, an interstellar object that passed through our Solar System in 2017. The name ‘Oumuamua’ is from the Hawaiian language and translates to ‘first distant messenger’. We joked that this asteroid is like a tourist visiting our solar system. This incident then became the source for the ‘The Touryst’.”
the ‘Y’ inspired a lot of things in the production. This game is like a parallel world to our reality…. the word ‘Touryst’ plays a central role as the story evolves, and reveals its real meaning to the player later in the game.
For Shin’en’s game, the title is a reflection of the otherworldly-ness of the content. “It’s about a normal vacation that gets strange. ‘The Touryst’ sounded stupid, cool and fresh at the same time. So we chose that name!” We wondered if the ‘Y’ had something to do with separating it from the 2010 Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp film or helping with general SEO. “No movie connection,” Linzner told us, “but SEO is certainly quite important. Also the ‘Y’ inspired a lot of things in the production. This game is like a parallel world to our reality, but with places like Ybiza or Fijy. And also the word ‘Touryst’ plays a central role as the story evolves, and reveals its real meaning to the player later in the game.” The development team didn’t really consider any alternatives; to a certain extent the title shaped the game itself.
Other games evolve with temporary or working titles and finding the right honorific in the later stages of development — one that really nails its identity — often involves disappointment on discovering that your top pick isn’t available.
“We had a good dozen of potential names of varying quality,” says Mike from Bezerk, “ranging from made up words, portmanteaus and puns, not to mention all the names we thought were cool but ended up being too close to other games. We just didn’t get that ‘yes, this.’ moment until the very end, that gut feeling when you just know.”
That gut feeling was the primary guide for the Just Shapes & Beats team. “For us there’s no method or metrics, we don’t start the selection process with a pie chart that estimates the potential virality and expected engagement rate according to market research; it’s more like when you are at the bar with your buds making up a story about how you’d all go about to build your evil empire with a nuclear sub subterranean volcano base and someone decides you’d have a shih tzu named Harold and somehow that’s the most ridiculous thing about the whole ordeal, but everyone agrees and builds up upon it. We go where the story wants to go, and sometimes its a dumb joke that downplays the game in it’s own title, and that’s ok.”
Keeping things short and sweet
“Hades was the title we really wanted for our latest game,” says Greg Kasavin, Creative Director at Supergiant, another developer that follows its heart when it comes to naming. “The idea for that title came part-and-parcel with the concept. I consider it our first ‘high-concept’ title, meaning just from the name alone you get an immediate sense of what the game is about… provided you’re familiar with the infamous god of the dead, and we figured many people out there are!”
Setting your heart on a particular name can be dangerous, though. “As a game developer you always need to consider alternative titles, just in case. After all, just because you think you have the perfect title for something doesn’t always mean you can use it — namely, if it’s already taken! There were some OK alternatives we had in our back pocket, but for me, none of the alternatives were anywhere close to Hades.”
To me [our naming conventions] provides a sense of underlying spiritual connection between our otherwise very different games
“Our first game, Bastion, was similar. It was always Bastion to us from the very beginning, and although we had to consider alternatives, we really didn’t like any of them as much. Transistor and Pyre were ultimately much the same, though unlike Bastion and Hades, those titles came later in development once the game concepts themselves became clearer to us.”
Looking at Supergiant’s back catalogue, those snappy single-word titles really stand out in the crowd. We wondered if the team had ever worried about SEO or other factors when it came to naming their games. “We have prioritized having strong, evocative titles for our games. If there are any downsides to our approach, we’re OK with it. Today, if you search for Bastion, Transistor, Pyre, or Hades, our games are among the top results for those terms, so SEO stuff has never really been a concern. While I don’t know that we will always stick to our current naming convention, I’ve appreciated that we’ve been able to thus far. To me it provides a sense of underlying spiritual connection between our otherwise very different games.”
The bottom line
Ultimately, if you’ve got a top-quality, fresh-feeling game that sparks players’ interest, a poor name is unlikely to totally tank its potential. Still, with games releasing at an ever-alarming rate — really good ones, too — it’s never been easier to miss a genuine gem. Publishers and developers need any edge they can get in a crowded market, so regardless of how incredible your game is, the name ideally needs to convey something of its sweet scent.
“I do think it’s important to have names that are easy to pronounce and get right.” says Olle Håkansson when quizzed on the most important factor to consider when labelling your game.
“You want something simple yet memorable,” says Mike Ducarme, “something that you can come up to anyone and tell ‘Sup I’m working on GAMENAME’ and it makes them ask you about it out of actual curiosity rather than pleasantry. If you have to think about it for too long, if you have to explain the real deep lore behind your choices of words/misspelling, you are probably on the wrong track.”
I think the most important factor in naming our games is the implication of the title, and even just the sound of it. It needs to have a richness to it that’s evocative of the atmosphere and experience of the game
Sean Velasco suggests that an SEO-friendly term has the potential to make almost any name viable. “As long as you can search for it on the internet, it seems like any name can become popular given the correct circumstances. Personally, I like it when a name is simple and descriptive. And in some cases, bonus points if it’s a pun too!”
Simplicity is a running theme, it appears; something we noted in Supergiant’s growing library. “I think the most important factor in naming our games is the implication of the title, and even just the sound of it,” says Greg Kasavin. “It needs to have a richness to it that’s evocative of the atmosphere and experience of the game we’re making. It needs to be pleasurable to say out loud and to spell out. These are subjective qualities, though on some level, so is everything else about the games we make. We have to feel like our titles just fit, serving as a game’s unique signature.”
Hearing these developers’ thoughts on naming their digital babies, it’s clear that there’s no surefire formula or way to strike upon the perfect name, and even the cleverest pun or neatest piece of wordplay means little if the game doesn’t live up to the title. In a sea of sameyness, though, it’s a shame that the biggest companies aren’t a tad more adventurous.
“Don’t be boring,” Manfred Linzner concludes. “This is the entertainment industry!”
Many thanks to the developers who contributed to this article.
Looking forward to DawnFall Origins: Horizonfield [cr;E-VIII] – Epilogue Edition 2-p01nt-OH Remastered? Can’t wait! Feel free to let us know the worst game names you’ve come across below.