In general, a product name is one of the most important aspects of a brand. In effect, a name is a brand's banner, or headline, and it needs to quickly convey a compelling, meaningful message about the product itself -- the Die Hard Battery is one of the all-time best names in this regard. And given the high importance of product names, it's somewhat surprising that they are so often botched, blundered and bankrupt. Especially in the game industry. A bad name can weigh a game down like a two-ton anchor, or it can act like a booster rocket that helps propels the brand to stardom. There's a lot of psychology at play with product names, and it's smart to use every trick in the book to help your game reach its full potential. A name is most often your potential customer's first contact with your game, and forms that always critical first impression.
Since the early 90's, my partner, George Broussard, and I have researched the qualities that help make for a successful game name. Over time we've created a list of guidelines:
o Short names are better than long names. All other things being equal, if you can come up with a great short name for your game, do it. Doom, Diablo, Quake, Zelda, Halo, Mafia, The Sims, Fable, etc. The problem with longer names is that they are too often reduced to a short-hand version, or reduced to initials (GTA:VC and FFX for example). Both of these work against the brand building process. Names begin to get to unwieldy when they're longer than two or three words -- this should be avoided if at all possible, and in most cases it is possible. (BTW, the full name for Halo is Halo: Combat Evolved, but generally players haven't used the meaningless "Combat Evolved" portion, so the de facto name, and the one the marketing people should have stuck with, is just "Halo." Very short and simple. In this case, even the marketing people couldn't ruin a good name, as players have fixed their error.)
o Avoid punctuation in the game title. If your title has a colon, a dash, periods (Contract J.A.C.K.), or other punctuation, you're just asking for trouble. One of my favorite out-of-control game titles is Descent: Freespace 2 - The Great War. A more recent bad title is True Crime: Streets of LA. Why not just "True Crime"? What does "Streets of LA" add that will increase sales? Absolutely nothing of value. The addition of that colon and the subtitle just screws up a good short name. The same marketing person would have likely named Id's famous shooter something along the lines of, Doom: Hell Breaks Loose on Mars. In short, stay away from punctuation, and the cumbersome titles that usually results from this mistake.
o Avoid sequel numbers. This is the one I expect to hear the most controversy over. People who name their games just love to use sequel numbers, possibly thinking that their customer base is too stupid to figure out if the game is, in fact, a sequel. The problem is that sequel numbers, like Final Fantasy 2 through 10, make each succeeding game look more and more ridiculous, and more and more like a rehash rather than an original experience. Even though, let's say, Half-Life 2 doesn't sound that bad, when does it cross the line into clear absurdity? Half-Life 5? Half-Life 10? Why even start if you know at some point you'll cross that line?
With the Duke Nukem games, we mistakenly named the second one Duke Nukem 2, released in 1993 before we knew any better, but since then we've not used a sequel number, at least not a blatant one. Sure, the next game was Duke Nukem 3D, but that's a slightly more clever way of using "3" in the games title. The coming Duke Nukem Forever follows this same half-stealth tactic, as "Forever" implies the fourth episode.
And that's the key for us: we look at each succeeding game as a new episode, not a sequel. The episode model is the one we see used by television networks and comic books. Take Star Trek, for example: Is each new episode named something like "Star Trek 31: City on the Edge of Forever"? Nope. What about movies? Many movie series wisely avoid sequel numbers, such as the Alien series (except Alien 3), the Indiana Jones series, the Batman series, and the best example of all, the James Bond series. How completely and utterly silly would it be to have those 007 movies named, "James Bond 22: Die Another Day"?! Luckily, this series never got off on the wrong foot by using sequel numbers. It's really only been in Hollywood's recent history that they've fallen into the dark pit of using sequel numbers with exuberant glee. For example, all of those early Frankenstein and Dracula sequels avoided them, and same with the perfectly named Planet of the Ape series, and Bob Hope's many Road to Wherever movies. Does anyone ever have trouble knowing what the name of the current Bond film is? Of course not. Sequel numbers are not only unnecessary, they cheapen the brand in the long term. Get smart, stop using them.
Two more examples of out-of-control names: Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings, Star Wars: Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast.
Oh, and before people ask me, the original name for the Max Payne sequel was going to be simply, The Fall of Max Payne. But, after we sold the brand to Rockstar, they decided to change the name to Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. A silly mistake, IMO. But hey, they paid us the big bucks to name the game whatever they thought worked best. But, I see this akin to changing the well named "The Mummy Returns" to the unnecessarily burdened "The Mummy 2: The Mummy Returns." See how titles can so quickly go from cool to crap!
o Have a meaningful title. Avoid titles that have practically no meaning, like Zone of the Enders, Allegiance, Far Cry, Syphon Filter and XIII. As one developer friend recently remarked, "I thought a 'syphon filter' might be something used to change a car's oil." Sure, these titles might mean something to players of the game, but they mean nothing to potential buyers, and those are the people you should care about most -- assuming you care about your game being a success.
This is one of the reasons I think Doom is a great name, while Quake is merely average. Yes, they're both short, which is good, but Doom communicates the frightful, nightmarish nature of the game, while Quake is quite meaningless as a name. Even after playing all of the Quake games, I'm still not sure what connection this name has to the games.
o Avoid generic titles. Examples include: Universal Combat, Brute Force, Dungeon Siege, and Eternal Darkness. In short, these names are banal and forgettable. They do practically no work in selling the game within the box. Their generic quality makes them more difficult to standout from the pack, and more difficult to remember. These names also show a lack of creativity. With permission from developer friend Rich Carlson, I'm including his recently updated list of generic words, all of which should be avoided if at all possible. He breaks them down into three categories of avoidance (and quite honestly, I'd group them ALL under the "Felony" heading, as I have no mercy for generic game titles):
-- Felony: Alien, Dark, Darkness, Extreme, Quest, Shadow.
-- Misdemeanor: Awakening, Brood, Chosen, Dawn, Death, Destiny, Doom, Evil, Fallen, Legacy, Legend, Mandate, Prophecy, Prophet, Rebirth, Redemption, Resurrection, Revelation, Rising, Vendetta.
-- Light Slap on the Wrist: Age, Arena, Black, Blood, Chaos, City, Command, Commander, Commando, Commandos, Conquest, Dragon, Elite, Empire, Empires, Encounter, Faction, Force, Forces, Forever, Forgotten, Gate, Imperium, Key, Knight, Knights, Last, Legion, Legions, Lord, Lords, Magic, Master, Metal, Myth, Ops, Power, Return, Revenge, Silent, Soul, Space, Star, Steel, Storm, Strike, Total, Vengeance, War, Warlord, Warlords, Warrior, Warriors, Wars.
Just this morning I happened to read about a coming game from Activision, Tenchu: Return from Darkness. Hmmm, about as generic as a subtitle can get. BTW, check out Rich's Feb. 4th blog entry, "Steel Dawn: Forgotten Rebirth II Gold Edition," for another take on generic words.
Bottom-line, do not use these words! To do so positions your game as ordinary right from the start. And is that what you want for your pride and joy? I didn't think so.
o Beware of names that leave you open for easy criticism. In the February 2004 issue of PC Gamer, I saw this headline for a review of Ubisoft's FPS, XIII: "It's called XIII because there are XII better shooters." You have to laugh! And even though you cannot protect against this sort of wordplay attack in all cases, it's still something to consider when you're formulating a game name. For example, I wouldn't use a game title like The Bad and the Beastly, as I can just see people twisting those words against you if they don't like your game.
And there you have it. Remember, none of these are hardened, immutable rules. However, I try to use all of them in my favor for each and every game, because in today's competitive environment, every little thing you do right only helps.