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How Game Titles Work, Part 2: Trademarkability >

[Comments] (9) How Game Titles Work, Part 1: Skip to: part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.

My secret project stalled recently, and today I figured out why. I don't really understand how the names of video games work. For "Mallory" I made up a bunch of fake arcade game names, and they're pretty OK, but it took a long time to come up with them, and some of them (mainly "Mutant's Revenge") don't quite ring true to me.

Looking on the Internet, repository of all video game related-knowledge, I discovered that no one has really looked in-depth at the names of games. There are lists of best and worst[0] game names, but no one has tried to figure out a set of genres and rules for game names. Which is odd because when I started thinking about it I came up with a lot of patterns and even a rule of historical development. Which I now present in part 1 of an epic series.

A couple bits of logistics, as they say in college. First, when I mention a game, eg. Pong, I'm generally talking about the name of the game and not the actual game. Second, these are not ironclad rules because we're talking about the fruits of creativity here. I'm trying to ferret out the underlying rules of game names so that I can tweak them and apply them to my own purposes. Also, I'm not really clear on where to draw the line between synecdoche and metonymy.

Electronic games started out as representations of real-world activities, and they started out being named after those activities: Noughts and Crosses, Tennis for Two, Football, Pong, Tank, Gunfight, Watergate Caper. The most abstract names from this era are Gran Trak 10 (a racing game) and Simon, where the name has only a metaphorical relationship to the game. (Simon is a rare case of a game's name referencing a different game!)

The big exception is Spacewar!, which was way ahead of its time both in terms of gameplay and naming. Even if you consider Spacewar! a representation of a real-world activity that's not possible yet, that exclamation mark makes it clear the designers considered the name of a game to be the same kind of thing as the name of a movie or book. There are some more games for computer nerds in this category, like Hunt the Wumpus and Adventure. (Later I'll talk about "Computer Space", an attempt to market Spacewar! to non-nerds.)

Why this pattern? I can think of a couple reasons. People had to become acclimated to the idea that you could inhabit the virtual space of an electronic device and play a game there. It made sense to create games that simulated or could be tied to real-world activities. Also, because graphics were so primitive, the name of the game had to do a lot of the heavy lifting. All the 2600 sports games are basically Pong. If Spacewar! had had 2600-quality graphics, it would have been Combat.

Over time the graphics got better, and two things happened. First, you started seeing games that were not based on familiar everyday activities. Sometimes they had generic names anyway: Asteroids. Sometimes the names were more abstract: Space Invaders, Battlezone, Breakout, Defender, Pac-Man.

Second, games that were based on familiar everyday activities started using synecdoche. You can't have more than one game called "Sprint" so you got "Night Driver", which was a little more abstract, and then "Speed Freaks", "Turbo", and "Pole Position." A single aspect of racing is used as shorthand to inform you that this is a racing game.

At this point technological progress acts as a reset switch for the synecdoche. On a home system, the graphics suck compared to the arcade. Home systems go right back to games that are named directly after the real-world activities they replicate.

Here are some titles for the Magnavox Odyssey: Baseball, Basketball, Dogfight, Football, Handball, Hockey, Roulette, Shooting Gallery, Shootout, Ski, Soccer, Tennis, Volleyball. But there are some more abstract titles: Analogic, Cat and Mouse, Interplanetary Voyage, Percepts, Prehistoric Safari, Win (?). And even some synecdoche, with "Wipeout".

Here are some Channel F titles: Tennis/Hockey, Baseball, Slot Machine, Bowling, Backgammon. Some more abstract titles: Casino Royale (an early media tie-in?), Alien Invasion, Pac-Man, Cat and Mouse, Dodge'It, Pinball Challenge, Space War. A little synecdoche here too, with "Drag Strip" and "Torpedo Alley".

One more. Here are some Atari 2600 titles from the year the system launched: Air-Sea Battle, Basic Math, Blackjack, Combat, Flag Capture, Race. Some more abstract names from the same year: Canyon Bomber, Brain Games, Maze Craze: A Game of Cops and Robbers. Now there's significant synecdoche and metonomy with "Home Run", "Outer Space". "Indy 500", and "Video Olympics".

Here are some games from Nintendo's sports series for the NES: Golf, Ice Hockey, Tennis, Baseball, Volleyball, Pro Wrestling, Slalom, Soccer. Other notable early NES titles reproducing real-world activities: Pinball, Duck Hunt. But by this time, people are comfortable enough with video games that you can call a game based on a real-world activity Excitebike (alliteration, nonsense compound word), 10 Yard Fight (synecdoche), Mach Rider, Urban Champion, or Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (synecdoche, celebrity tie-in, gratuitous exclamation marks). Even if there wasn't previously a game called "Football" or "Boxing" on the system.

History progresses from this point and we start seeing franchises. We get RBI Baseball 1, 2, and 3 (synecdoche), Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl (synecdoche, corporate self-insertion, sequel naming by word association), up to today's tie-in-laden Madden, NBA Live, FIFA Soccer, MLB 2K, Tiger Woods PGA Tour, etc. etc. These are "canonical" game series based closely on the comings and goings of the real-world sports franchises.

Today these franchises have pretty much taken over the market for sports games. Their names are very predictable. On the other hand, games that don't simulate real-world activities have had their names get more and more unpredictable since the days of Breakout and Battlezone.

But when a new technology or console is introduced you get some generic-sounding names. A generic name or franchise name gets the name of the new technology stuck onto it: Sonic CD. Super Mario 64 or Advance. Virtual League Baseball. Wii Sports. There was a published game called "Golf" as late as the Virtual Boy.

Sometimes you get a game name that sounds like a tech demo: Super Glove Ball. Virtua Fighter. Computer Space is kind of in this category; the technology being pitched is the very act of playing a game on a computer.

It looks like the same pattern occured earlier, in the world of electromechanical games. Games based on sports were the first to show up in arcades in the 1930s. The first baseball-style pinball games (in 1932) were called "All-Star Baseball" and "All-American Baseball Game". Then you got the synecdotal "World Series 1934", "All Stars", "Box Score", and so on. Sega put out a submarine game called "Periscope" (synecdoche) in 1968, and then Midway ripped them off with the even more abstract Sea Raider, Sea Devil, and Sea Wolf.

I find it even more interesting that this did not happen for pinball in general. Pinball games have always had abstract names: the first four names I could find are "Bagatelle Table", "Baffle Ball", "Whiffle Board", and "Ballyhoo". Pinball games are usually skinned to remind the player of some non-pinball field of endeavor, but when that happens the games tend to have abstract or synecdochal names. 1972, the year Pong was released, also saw the release of pinball games with names like "Fireball", "Sky Kings", "Magic Carpet" and "Grand Slam". (In 1973, Williams released a Skylab-themed pinball game!) You could think of pinball as being less like a video game and more like a sport: the kind of real-world activity being simulated by video games up to the present day.

[0] Of course such lists are highly subjective. One of my favorite game names of all time is "No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!", which makes #11 in that "worst names" list.

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Posted by Jeremy Penner at Sun Feb 01 2009 03:14

Wow, I'd never heard of Watergate Caper before.

Posted by Evan at Sun Feb 01 2009 10:51

this is *wonderful*
but where does It's Fucking Checkers fit in the taxonomy?


Posted by Kris Straub at Sun Feb 01 2009 20:28

I think it's easy to smack one's head against this for no good reason. There's a lot of naming that goes on that has nothing to do with anything, like Half-Life and Fallout and Oblivion. There I just think the philosophy is "cool-sounding and hasn't been used yet."

Posted by Leonard at Sun Feb 01 2009 21:43

Actually, Half-Life and Fallout are examples of metonymy and synecdoche, respectively. Oblivion I'm pretty sure is in the "just sounds cool" category, but there are a lot of patterns.

Posted by Kris Straub at Mon Feb 02 2009 11:48

Well, YOU'RE an example of metonymy and synecdoche, respectively!!

Posted by Leonard at Mon Feb 02 2009 13:08

Are you secretly Sumana?

Posted by Kris Straub at Mon Feb 02 2009 17:41

No, but I did produce the CW's mid-season replacement Secretly Sumana, about a car that could transform into Sumana. Canonically, our Sumana already existed in that universe, so there was an episode where Sumana had to drive the car that could turn into (another) Sumana. Which led to hijinx.

Additionally, the car retained all the intelligence of a car when it transformed into Sumana. There was supposed to be this whole discussion of how a car could decide to transform into Sumana in season 2, but we never made it that far. Actually we never made it past "we wrote it down on a napkin."

Actually there was no "we," it was just me.

Well, there was also a tire.

It was attached to a car that I saw in the TGI Friday's parking lot. And I swear to God it transformed into a small bear.

But that tested poorly.

With Kurt.

Posted by kirkjerk at Tue Feb 03 2009 12:43

I like this series very much.
Do you ever extract entries as a single linkable essay? I'd love to link to that when it has wound up.

I find it challenging to firmly grasp "metonymy" as a concept. Actually, I think I share some Thurber's attitude about it as expressed in Here Lies Miss Groby -- google cache only alas.

I take a little umbrage with "All the 2600 sports games are basically Pong." -- Video Olympics is an orgy of variants on what you could get with the Pong machines of the previous era, but other games do better jobs of emulating their respective sports with varying degrees of fidelity.

"If Spacewar! had had 2600-quality graphics, it would have been Combat" -- hmm. For the record, there was a port of Space War. It is... actually much less impressive than Combat. (Heh, and a hack to make it look more like the PDP.

On that tangent, I did the Global Game Jam at the Boston location, the Signapore/Gambit lab at MIT. We wrestled with various game name ideas as well. Also, they had a beautiful bit of art there... not stained glass, but frosted glass with a lovely circular rendition of the PDP screen playing a round of Spacewar!


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