Dos and Don'ts of Naming a Video Game
Titles are necessary for any type of media, including a video game. Good ones can stay in a consumer's brain even after years of playing the game, while bad ones will be forgotten almost instantly. A good title can make consumers extremely excited for a game. From a developer's perspective, it may be impossible to see why a title is so important.
Examples would be a good way to explain why titles are a good thing. Let's look at two first-person puzzle games: Portal, by Valve, and Quantum Conundrum, by _. Portal is a bland, boring title. It could be about travelling through wormholes between alternate dimensions or it could be about ways to access all your social media sites at once. This title informs me that there are portals in the game, but doesn't make me curious. A name like Quantum Conundrum raises questions. "Quantum" sounds like a science fiction term, even for people with no experience in physics. The two words "Quantum Conundrum" raise questions like "What kind of problem is happening?" and "Do I get to be in charge of high-tech equipment?" It's exciting for the potential consumer to try to answer these questions.
When naming your game, you want to have something interesting and attention-grabbing, especially if they're indie devs. This list of dos and don'ts can help make any game stand out from the crowd.
Do: Be Original
When titling a game, one of the first things you should do is make sure your title hasn't been used by somebody else. "Red Clash" sounds like an wonderful name for a game, possibly one about the Cold War. There's just one problem: there is already a game with that title. It was made by Kaneko in 1982. Even though it's an arcade game, potential consumers might think you ripped off the existing game. They could become confused about what content belongs to your game.
Duty Calls Trailer
Don't: Mimic Another Title (Unless It's a Parody)
Say you're making a First Person Shooter. You know the Call of Duty series is popular, and you want to indicate your game is like Call of Duty. You want to name your game something similar so people think your game is like call of duty. Maybe you could go with a name like Cry of Duty?
This isn't as good of an idea as you may think. While some people may take interest in the game because of the name, others may avoid it entirely, thinking it's just a ripoff of Activision's famous shooter series. You might even be sued if Activision decides your game is too close to theirs.
I am aware of the game Duty Calls - The Storm Before The Calm [sic], which is a First Person Shooter released by Epic Games. This game highlights the one exception to the "no mimicking" rule. If a game is a parody of another game, it is okay to name the game something similar. In this case, Duty Calls is a parody of Call of Duty.
Do: Be Creative
Quick, go to your local game store or online marketplace. How many game titles contain one or more of the following words:
I'm guessing there were plenty. Here's my search results for each word on three PC game stores.
Number of Times Each Word Was Found by Site Search Engines
Good Old Games
*I was not able to restrict the Desura search to just games, so there are repeats on the search because DLC and other content are also included.
Don't: Be Obtuse
Video games can deal with some difficult concepts. However, the name itself should not be difficult. A mix of letters and numbers can be helpful, but your players might not understand what w0rd0nth3str33t means. (For the record, it means "word on the street".) These are meant to be names, not passwords.
The obtuseness does not stop at mixing letters and numbers. Referencing obscure things can also be confusing to potential players. Bangai-O won't mean anything to a player unless they know Japanese. Its full name translates to "Explosive, Invincible Bangai-O", meaning that even if players know Japanese, it still might not make sense.
Do: Make Your Title Searchable
A Reckless Disregard for Gravity is a very interesting title that raises questions for the player. Unfortunately, that is not the full title. Debojaan Games called their skydiving stunt simulator AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! – A Reckless Disregard for Gravity. How would anybody remember how to spell that? There is a simple pattern, but most people won't remember if they're just casually looking at the game. Worse yet, the game title can be shortened, but there is no consistent way to shorten the game's name. This can make it very difficult for people to find a game or write a review of it if they do not know what the game is supposed to be called.
Don't: Mess with Spelling
Spelling is a tool that helps people understand what people mean. When spelling is changed, that can make people confused. Games like Ryse: Son of Rome and Rydemkapsel are not intuitive to spell. In the internet age, this can cause Google to "correct" the spelling whenever people search for it. It can also cause reporters to write down the intuitive, incorrect spelling when talking to you. If you do choose to misspell words in your title, you better have business cards and posters handy.
Puns can also be confusing. Octodad: Dadliest Catch sounds strange at first. Not only that, the play on words may not be logical. What is an Octodad? Answer: The creature on the right. No, you're not getting context for that image, mostly because the game doesn't give any.
Do: Polish Your Title
Many games go through working titles when they are being developed. Halo: Combat Evolved was known as Blam when it was in development. However, the first name you come up with shouldn't be the final name you use. Ideally, your title should capture the essence of what the game is about. If Bungee Entertainment had left the game's name as Blam, players might have ignored it.
Don't: Use Character Names Alone
Alan Wake, Catherine, and Klonoa are all games that use the name of a main character as the name of the game. These names all suffer from the same problem. These games can not sell themselves based on a name alone. This is an old naming trend, dating back to the days of Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, but back in those days titles didn't matter as much. There are certainly exceptions to the main-character-title rule, like Max Payne and Bayonetta, but those titles wouldn't sound like character names to someone who had not heard of the game before. To someone who has not heard of a game, The Legend of Zelda sounds like the traditional, mythical tale of F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife.
Keep Taking and Nobody Explodes Trailer
Playing Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes (Cursing)
Do: Show Off Your Uniqueness
Does your game involve a fascinating power, an intriguing plot, or an unusual setting? If it does, you should show that off in your title. Spoiler Alert, a game based on platforming from the end of a game to the beginning, uses its main mechanic in its title. The Flash game High Tea makes a pun based on its premise: the player is an opium trader during the Opium Wars. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is about trying to disarm a bomb without having all the required information. Tell players, "this thing is great, and if you want to see this thing, then you have to buy our game."
Don't: Just Rely on Your Title
Remember how in the beginning of this article there was a comparison between Quantum Conundrum and Portal? Let's go back to those two. Quantum Conundrum is a more interesting title, but ask any gamer that's played both games and they would say Portal is the better game. It has more reliable platforming, funnier dialogue, and more interesting puzzles.
What does this mean? It means that a title alone can not sell a game, at least not for very long. Poor game mechanics cannot hide behind quirky naming conventions. Names are important to a game, but you should not obsess over them. After all, the best selling game of January 2015 has a name that poets use when they want to describe the effect of turning off a lightbulb.