How to title your game

What’s in a name? As game writers, we are often called upon to title and name all sorts of things — quests, items, design docs ;).  When it comes to the game title, however, marketing and executives play a huge hand in finalizing the name, and sometimes you can tell.  I’ve uncovered a few trends in game titles that work and others… well, not so much.

Funny titles
The most memorable game titles have a bit of the funny in them.  How could you forget a game called Space Bunnies Must Die or Destroy All Humans?  Simple is better; Aqua Teen Hunger Force Zombie Ninja Pro-Am passes funny to reach “Enough already!”

Unfortunately, funny titles generally only work for funny games.  If they had named Halo ZOMG When Will They Stop Sending Me Into These Effed Up Situations? instead, something tells me it would not have sold quite so well.

Punny titles
Fortunately, games with a more serious tone can get away with a bit of humor when there’s a pun in the title.  King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human stands as a great example of a pun in an otherwise dramatic title.  Max Payne, a game with a dark and serious tone, offers a tip of the hat to the hardcore gamer with promises of, well, causing max pain.

Literal titles
Funny and punny titles often work if they have a bit of the literal in them.  Literal titles do the best job of telling the players exactly what they’re in for.  You will never find yourself asking what the game is about.  Great examples include Command & Conquer, SimCity, and the like.  Literal titles don’t have to be that on the nose: Warcraft underlines the point of the game without spelling it out too much.  World of Warcraft is similarly clear — it’s set in the virtual world of Warcraft, roger that!

The importance with literal titles is that they should, in fact, be literal.  Sims Carnival sounds like it should be a literal title, but no, it is neither Sims, nor a carnival.  Another literal title that had a bit too dull of a name?  Adventure.

Evocative titles
Evocative titles bring to mind the mood, spirit, or setting of the game.  Fallout, Defcon, and Eternal Darkness fall into this category and evoke the urgency and darkness of these games and sometimes quite literally the situation.  I personally like Burning Crusade which is both evocative and literal within the game’s fiction.

Unfortunately, attempts at evocative titles often yield the worst results.  Beyond the Beyond and Infinite Undiscovery are prime examples.  What exactly is infinite undiscovery?  Sounds like a quest for missing socks.  One game that never shipped was at one point called Dead Unity.  Take home message?  If you’re having trouble coming up with a name, avoid the evocative title!

Following genre conventions
Occasionally game titles hit the mark by following the conventions of their literary genre, such as science fiction, fantasy, etc.  Day of the Tentacle as well as Sins of the Solar Empire both bring to mind 50’s sci fi and horror movies.  Wrath of the Lich King hearkens back to Return of the Jedi or The Wrath of Khan.  Unfortunately, the sci fi genre conventions and sequel hell can lead to terribly long titles such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II The Sith Lords.

BA: aka the Best Acronyms
Unlike media such as television, games are usually developed with the hardcore fans in mind.  That means eventually every title will become an acronym to economize typing or speaking, and unfortunately not every title will benefit from the abbreviation.  Days of our Lives becomes DOOL, which makes it seem like a really cool demon.  A lot of DS games took advantage of this with titles such as Dawn of Sorrow and Deadly Silence. Sometimes acronyms get the benefits of a funny title: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed becomes STFU and Masters of Orion becomes MoO.

Try to shovel your title into a cool-sounding acronym, however, and it will just end up seeming lame.  The best acronym ever?  WoW for World of Warcraft, but note how the title is quite literal and grew organically from the game.

Next week I’ll post a top 10 list of best and worse game titles, so comment now with your favorite and least favorite game titles.  And, don’t be shy, share your own best and worst titles for games you’ve developed or conceived.

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Filed under Games, Writing

8 responses to “How to title your game

  1. One interesting thing you can do with titles is create a franchise; just look at all the Sim games. However, sometimes this can get silly…I think about “StarCraft” and I wince. On the one hand it’s a logical outgrowth of “WarCraft”, only, IN SPACE! On the other hand, what does “StarCraft” actually *mean*? A “star craft” is a craft that flies through space? But most of the gameplay revolves around units that run along the ground. “star craft” might refer to the craft of making spaceships, or making stars…but these don’t have anything to do with the game!

    Here’s a fun bit of trivia: There was a Star Wars game entitled “Star Wars: Dark Forces”. Then it spawned a sequel, “Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II”. Then that sequel spawned sequels: “Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast” and, oddly, “Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy”. I think it’s interesting that LucasArts just stuck with what title seemed right and didn’t feel the need to shoehorn the entire game lineage into the title. And I think it was a good decision, too; who would really want to title a game “Star Wars Dark Forces IV: Jedi Knight III: Jedi Academy”?

    I have mixed feelings about “Halo”. If you play the game, you quickly learn that “Halo” refers to a very important plot element. However, for an FPS, I’m not sure it makes sense. It seems to call to mind angels, but Halo is a gritty sci-fi war story. Bungie’s earlier game, “Marathon”, is even worse in this regard. (But their even-earlier game, “Pathways Into Darkness”, has a fairly straightforward title…)

    My favorite game of all time is “Master of Magic”, and I think it has a pretty good title. Basically it’s like Civilization (also a good title) but with magic. When you win the game you see a little cutscene with your wizard saying “Having conquered the worlds of both Arcanus and Myrror I am truly the one and only Master of Magic!”. So that’s neat. 😉 (Master of Orion has a similar ending narration.)

    I play a lot of Japanese strategy games…a lot of those titles seem kind of bizarre by Western standards, and the translators often clean them up a little. Some examplex: “La Pucelle” became “La Pucelle Tactics”…more descriptive, I guess. “Makai Senki Disgaea”, a literal translation of which might be “Netherworld Battle Chronicle: Disgaea”, became “Disgaea: Hour of Darkness”. But everyone just calls it “Disgaea”, and “Hour of Darkness” really doesn’t mean anything, so I think that’s a bit of a stumble. Recently I’ve been playing “Soul Nomad & the World Eaters”, but a more literal translation of the Japanese title would be “Soul Cradle & the World Eaters”. I’m not sure “Nomad” is much of an improvement, but I’m not sure what else I would choose, either…

  2. Hi John!

    That’s so true about Starcraft. They tried to grow the title/franchise organically and lost the literalness that made Warcraft a good choice. That’s the second vote I’ve gotten for Master of Magic, so it must really hit the mark. I agree that Halo is one of those evocative titles that just doesn’t quite cut it unless you know the fiction.

    Japanese titles are tough. Infinite Undiscovery is a Japanese game as well. I have a sinking suspicion that these enigmatic titles follow some sort of cultural convention of which we Westerners are ignorant. Do you think the problems with Americanized Japanese games has to do with the translation, or the original Japanese title itself?


  3. NOMBZ: Night of the Million Billion Zombies is pretty funny zombie game title

  4. A lot of Japanese games have bizarre titles, of course Infinite Discovery is one of them. From 2008 on wikipedia, we have “Argus no Senshi: Muscle Impact” (the English title being the not much better “Rygar: The Battle of Argus”), “Dragon Ball Z: Burst Limit” (ouch), “Song Summoner: The Unsung Heroes” (huh?), “Captain★Rainbow” (we can only hope they keep this title for the worldwide release), “One Piece: Unlimited Cruise” (Engrish…) and “Blue Dragon Plus” (huh?!)

    There’s more Japanese-only released where the literal English translation is odd (“Tales of Hearts” sounds like some surgery game for instance).

    I think the translators just can’t do a very good job with the original Japanese. Some games get translated awesomely well though, I personally despite having not played the games think “Resident Evil” (ooh, horror!) is better then “Biohazard” (um, are we cleaning up nuclear waste or something?).

  5. I like how Crytek did Far Cry… Crysis… heh, trends.

  6. Pingback: Top 10 best and 5 worst titles for games « Writers Cabal Blog

  7. A Norwegian (correct me if I’m wrong) MMOG has the title “There”. And the tagline is “See you There”. I find the idea nice, but the problem with the word “There” is that it sounds a bit dull, just like “Adventure” does.

  8. “There” might have been a good name for Starbucks. Maybe they were trying to make it the “third place” like Starbucks was. There’s home, work, and there. It’s true, though, it certainly lacks pizazz!


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