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[Comments] (3) How Game Titles Work, Part 2: Trademarkability: I'm not gonna keep posting these huge entries one after another, but here's another big entry. First, a summary of the previous entry.

  1. It took a while for non-nerds to grasp the concept of electronic games. Naming games after real-world activities (whether or not there was actually a resemblance) created a bridge between the real world and the electronic world.
  2. If a game is based on a real-world activity, it's a good bet its name will be based on synecdoche or metonomy, assuming it's not just flat-out named after the activity. Random examples: Pong, Pole Position, Double Dribble, Pro Wrestling.
  3. All else being equal, a game that demonstrates some new technology--hardware, software, game mechanic--will have a more generic name than a game that doesn't. It's likely the game will just mention the new technology in its name. Hardware examples: Computer Space, Super Glove Ball, Sonic CD, Yoshi Touch and Go, Wii Sports. Software examples: Wolfenstein 3D, Virtua Fighter. Game mechanic examples: Portal, World of Goo.

Now I'll carve off another chunk of the space of possible game names. Game names can be constructed with techniques used to come up with other trademarkable words and phrases. Misspelling doesn't happen as much in game titles as in, say, cleaning supplies, but it's pretty common, especially the fake abbreviation. (Petz, Cruis'n, Mortal Kombat, Rush'n Attack, Toobin'). Alliteration and assonance happen pretty often. (Excitebike, Final Fight, Bubble Bobble). I'd like to give special notice to "Elevator Action", which really seems like there's alliteration there but it's actually just very easy to say.

Nonsense compound portmanteau words happen very often, possibly because this construction is common in Japanese (Excitebike again, Gradius, Gyruss, Pengo). But it happens even in non-Japanese games (Tetris, Myst, Skulljagger (see future entry), BioShock, Starcraft, Carmageddon, Populous[0], Gravitar, Q*Bert). Combine with metonymy and you can come up with many plausible-sounding game titles for a given game.

Metonymy, you say? Yes! Even games not based on a real-world activity usually have some connection to reality, and the title can use metonymy on those parts. Just as an example, consider (the game) Bubble Bobble. It's a pretty nonsensical game but there are two points of contact with reality: dinosaurs and bubbles. The main game mechanics are blowing bubbles, popping them, and jumping.

Metonymy on "dinosaur" yields lizard, reptile, dino-, -saurus. Metonymy on "bubble" yields blow, pop, and float. Bubble Bobble could be called "Float Fight", "Dino Pop", "Pop 'n Drop", or (with less cutesy graphics) "Reptile Rage". That's just names that are the same kind of name as "Bubble Bobble." They're not as good as "Bubble Bobble," though "Reptile Rage" has an interesting baby-Godzilla thing going on, but I bet similar names were considered during development. And this is a common pattern. "Dig Dug" is the same name as "Bubble Bobble", just for a different game.

[0]"Populous" happens to be a real word, but I think whoever named the game liked the Greek-myth-sounding "ous" suffix better than the dictionary meaning of the word.

[Comments] (3) Exemplary Cover Letter:

Dear Money Guy,

Sorry, I've had it out the arse with boring, yet professional, cover letters. And since the worst thing you can say is no, I figured what the hell. I hope you enjoy my 3500 word submission. But, if not, I look forward to hearing no from you soon. And feel free to be as brazen as you like. It's refreshing, I promise.

(I didn't buy the story, but I did publish the cover letter.)

[Comments] (1) How Game Titles Work, Part 3: Misc. Metonymy and Synecdoche: One thing I didn't mention earlier (because I didn't realize it earlier) is that war-themed games, like sports games, make heavier use of metonymy and synecdoche (America's Army, Counter-Strike, Medal of Honor, Delta Force, 1942) because they're based on real-world activities and even specific historical periods. This is reinforced by the fact that you don't want to give a war game a cutesy name. (Unless it's Rush'n Attack, which is a frightening game when you're a kid playing it in 1987.)

Kris commented on an earlier entry saying basically, why is this a mystery? When you name your game you pick a name that has something to do with the gameplay and that hasn't been chosen before. But even this high-level overview of game names is different from the way other things are named. You wouldn't name a book or movie or album or any other cultural artifact using the techniques normally associated with cleaning products. Books and movies are often named with synecdoche (name the book after something in the book), but full-blown metonymy (name the book after something thematically related) is less common and can seem pretentious, where it usually doesn't for games.

I haven't found any rules for metonymy, because there probably aren't any, but there are some interesting patterns. Fantasy games have epic names, as you might expect--specifically, they have names that sound like bad fantasy novels. This connection is strong enough that fantasy RPGs often have literary imagery in their names. ("Adventures of", "Legend of", "Tales of", "Book", "Scroll", "Odyssey")

Naturalistic imagery is also common. In fantasy RPGs the imagery is familiar ("Mountain", "Ocean", "Wind", "Rain", "Tree"). In science-fictional games of all kinds it's alienating ("Space", "Planet", "Galaxy", "Asteroid"). "Star" and "Moon", astronomical phenomena you can see from Earth, can be either comforting or alienating. Compare "Harvest Moon" to "Moon Patrol".

One unexpected thing I found was a vein of aspirational language in the names of fighting games. (Karate Champ, King of Fighters, Urban Champion)

Like I say, any rule about metonymy is shaky. But there are some pretty well-defined kinds of synecdoche that cover a lot of game-naming ground.

What's left in this series? There are two more interesting title patterns I'll cover next time, as well as rules for constructing sequel names. Then I'd like to analyze some of my favorite game names in detail. I tend to like game names for their complexity and literary value, attributes not traditionally associated with trademarky or synecdochal names. Finally, I need to figure out which of these patterns happened because of the nature of video games, and which are artifacts of the economic context in which most games were developed.

[Comments] (6) How Game Titles Work, Part 4: The Voyage Home: I thought I had come up with a hard-and-fast rule about games that mention celebrities' names: that they're limited to the category of sports games and other games based on real-world activities. My reasoning is that celebrities (as opposed to any characters they play) engage in real-world activities, so that's what the games would be about. Then I remembered "Shaq-Fu" and "Michael Jackson's Moonwalker". In defense of the rule, Shaq and Michael Jackson are kinda crazy, albeit in different ways.

I have three other naming techniques to talk about. Combined with the previous rules I think I've classified most of the interesting and a lot of the not-so-interesting English game names ever created. Of course this is mostly because "metonymy" is such a vague term.

All three of these naming techniques seem to take a cue from some other kind of media. It would be interesting to explore how these work in more detail, but not right now. Also I haven't come up with a lot of examples.

Sometimes the title gets in your face with some attitude. (You Don't Know Jack, No More Heroes, The World Ends With You, Devil May Cry, Doom) Most of these could also be the names of rock albums. These names have only a tenative connection to the game's subject matter; they're more oriented towards describing the mood or atmosphere of the game.

Some games have names based on cliches. Either you adopt the cliche wholesale or you modify it to make a pun. (A Boy and His Blob, Grand Theft Auto, Deus Ex, Devil May Cry again). Episodes of TV shows are also frequently named this way. I don't know why episodes of TV shows have these stupid punny titles, but if I ever figure that out I bet the reason will be similar for games. These tend to be games from Western developers, though presumably there are similar names in Japanese that don't translate. A lot of licensed and franchise games have subtitles based on cliches.

Some games are named the way you would name a book or short story. Well, lots of these rules also apply to story titles. I've mentioned before stories named after characters or settings. But here's what I think I mean in this instance.

When game titles have a tense or a person, it tends to be present tense and second person. All those job-title names have an implicit "You are the" prepended to them. "Hunt the Wumpus" is one game that makes this more explicit. Titles of stories are more commonly third person and past tense, so pretty much any game title you come up with that fits those criteria will have a literary, un-gamelike feel. This is why those seen-from-outside titles like "Leisure Suit Larry" are so interesting: they're implicitly third person.

A lot of Infocom's games fit this pattern. Sometimes they used the "job" type of synecdoche, which almost never appears in book titles, but the "jobs" were things like "Witness", "Suspect", and "Infidel": descriptions with a third-person, seen-from-outside quality rarely seen in video games. It's hard to say whether "Suspended" is second or third person, which is also true of the gameplay. "Leather Goddesses of Phobos" achieves a literary sensibility (albeit a lowbrow one) with a neat third-person trick. The singular, "Leather Goddess of Phobos" could conceivably be second person, but you can't use the second person plural in a single-player game. ("Mario Bros." is second person plural, as I'll mention later.)

Now let's move on to sequel rules. The obvious way to name a sequel is to tack a number onto the name of the original. This is surprisingly rare. I thought it was more common than it was because a lot of NES games had one or two numbered sequels, as did some computer games when I was growing up. All those Sierra adventure series used this technique, and the Mega Man, Final Fantasy, and Metal Slug series still do. (I like to imagine the Metal Slug series sticks to numbered sequels so it can be the video game equivalent of the Rambo series.)

The march of technology makes long-term sequel numbering (ie. more than two sequels) untenable. Those NES games were all on the same system. Someone who bought Zelda II wasn't left wondering where the original Zelda was. But I still don't know where Mega Man 8 is. The Playstation or something. When a series spans consoles, you need to name your games such that people don't feel like they're missing out.

So how are sequels named? Sometimes they get totally different names and you're just supposed to know it's a sequel. The problem with this is illustrated by the Riven box, where it says "THE SEQUEL TO MYST" in big letters. More often, subtitles are deployed.

A subtitle is just another game name stuck onto the name of the franchise. When people talk about the game they use the subtitle as shorthand. Applicable are a subset of the rules for naming games. The trademarkability rules don't really apply because you've already trademarked the francise name, and because "Sensible Phrase: Nonsenseword" looks stupid and "Nonsenseword: Anothernonsenseword" looks stupider. But the name-it-after-a-cliche rule is in full force. Maybe for the same reasons it works for episodes of TV shows but not so well for the TV shows themselves.

Metonymy and synecdoche also work well (the Castlevania series uses this). Even franchises that use a numbering system (Mega Man, Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto) need to also use subtitles when the family tree passes a complexity threshold.

Sometimes instead of a subtitle the original title gets mutated using one of the rules mentioned earlier. This is how you get tech-demo titles like "Super Mario 64". This avoids the Riven problem while keeping the game name down to a reasonable size. There are also a couple sequel-specific mutation rules that I don't want to discuss in detail. (Super [whatever], Ms. Pac-Man, N+)

Although movie sequels often have subtitles, the rules for movie subtitles are different from the rules for game subtitles. I don't have a good grasp of how they differ, but try this thought experiment. Take the most famous set of movie subtitles, for the Star Trek series, and apply them to The Legend of Zelda, the most famous video game series.

Though they're in different genres, both Zelda and Trek are fundamentally about exploration. There's no thematic reason why you couldn't have a Zelda game called "The Wrath Of Ganon" or "The Search For Link" or "The Voyage Home" or "The Undiscovered Country". They just don't feel like game subtitles (except for the single-word subtitles, "Insurrection" and "Nemesis", which might be a clue).

Next time: close readings of my favorite game names.

[Comments] (6) How Game Titles Work, Part 5: Selected Titles: Overall, I think game titles have gotten better over time. Not because we've gotten better at naming games, but because all the obvious names were taken in the 1970s and early 1980s. And then in the 1980s and 1990s, the trademarkable-word technique and basic metonymy were used to gobble up big chunks of the namespace. So if you're making a game in 2009, you have to be creative. It's like domain names. Everything that's not a little bit out there has already been taken.

Today I'm going to look in-depth at some titles I like. These titles don't break the rules I laid out earlier, but rather exploit the rules to create a sense of action. A game title is usually a single word or a short phrase: if something that short can do some character development or advance a conflict, it's probably a good title. So I don't like trademarky titles or most synecdoche. I also don't like the attitude-laden titles, but I think that's just personal taste.

Anyway, here are some of my favorite titles (never mind how I feel about the games), with explanations of how I think they work.

I've mentioned "Spacewar!" before, but that exclamation mark is great. It takes what's objectively a horrible concept and treats it with Dr. Strangelove-like comic fatalism. Given that "Spacewar!" was developed at a time when computers mainly did the bidding of the military and big business, this is also a title with attitude.

"Hunt the Wumpus" is not the best title, but it's probably the first one to exploit the second-person nature of games. For reference, it came out around the same time as "Pong".

"Grand Theft Auto" uses synecdoche to describe the lifestyle of the protagonist (a criminal) in the vocabulary of the antagonist (the police). It's also got a bit of attitude, in that this is also the vocabulary of those purple-lipped censors who blame violent video games such as GTA for society's ills.

"Leisure Suit Larry" is a great title for a similar reason: the protagonist is being described the way the player sees him, not according to his own self-image.

"Gauntlet" is a pun, describing both the gameplay and the fantasy setting. Again, not the best title, but a cut above most 80s arcade titles.

"Mario Bros." says "this game has two-player simultaneous play" in a subtle way.

"Harvest Moon" combines the mundane with the fantastic effectively. It's a bit of metonymy that implies a job, a setting, an activity, a time of year, and a mood, all in two words. Great title.

"Grim Fandango" uses metonymy to describe the mood, the subject matter, and the setting.

"Altered Beast" smashes the antiseptic, ass-covering passive voice of corporate mad science ("Altered") into the feral immediacy and Victorian judgementalism of "Beast". It's a case of a game that doesn't live up to its title.

"Startropics": Remember how I said that "Star" could be either familiar or alienating imagery? This title uses it both ways at once. At first the title gives the impression of being on a tropical island looking at the stars, away from the light pollution. This is the imagery used on the box cover and title screen. But why are the words jumbled together? How can "star" modify "tropics"? "Star Ocean" is clearly a metaphor, but "star tropics"?. Suddenly "star" in the title looks like an intruder. And indeed, that's what happens in the game. The stars have come down to the tropics for nefarious purposes. This is a one-word title with a plot.

"Barkley, Shut Up And Jam: Gaiden" is a great satirical title, taking another game's terrible title and appending a pretentious-sounding (at least in English) suffix. On the other hand, "I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: The Game" would be a stronger title if it lost the suffixes and became just "I Wanna Be The Guy". Its strength comes from its unusual use of the first person. Relatedly, BSUaJ is a terrible title because it's unclear whether it's supposed to be first, second, or third person.

"Mighty Jill Off" is not really satirical, per se, but it's another example of an effective title that parodies an earlier title.

I tenatively like game titles that adopt a person other than the second. "I Wanna Be The Guy" is great, as mentioned earlier, and "No One Can Stop Mr. Domino!" does a good job breaking the rule that a game named after the protagonist is implicitly in second person. But the more recent "I Fell In Love With The Majesty Of Colors" doesn't work for me. Possibly because it also uses the past tense, which doesn't exactly scream "gameplay".

"Nobunaga's Ambition" is a strong third-person title that does a lot of character development in two words, one of which is a person's name. Oda Nobunaga was so ambitious they made a game about it!

A lot of game titles are just boring (most media tie-in games fall into his category) so I haven't covered them. I would like to highlight another title I don't like, even though it's an interesting title from a good game: "Q*Bert". I always felt Q*Bert was trying too hard, the Bonk the Caveman to Pac-Man's Sonic. It's a short step from the trademarkable misspelling and random punctuation to nonsensical Japanese-style names on the one hand, and "extreme" comic-book-style names on the other. I wrote a little rant about Q*Bert here, but I think I'll save it and maybe use it for the secret project.

"Dactyl Nightmare" is so-bad-it's-good. Unlike "Nightmare on Elm Street", which is third-person and merely promises to recount someone else's nightmare, "Dactyl Nightmare" pledges that you will live the nightmare. But "Nightmare" takes the stage after "Dactyl", which although technically an English word, is a word that refers to poetic meter. Sure, it's an abbreviation for "Pterodactyl", but that kind of chatty informality isn't really appropriate for a nightmare. And even "Pterodactyl Nightmare" is kind of silly. So the two bits of incompatible imagery create a humorous instead of a terrifying effect.

I think it would be fun to go over other peoples' favorite game names with these newly-developed tools, so leave a comment.

[Comments] (2) How Game Titles Work, Part 6: Search For Meaning: It's been a long series, so long that it's even scared people away, but I now have a good idea of what where game titles come from and at least some guesses as to what makes them good or bad. For those who demanded an easy way to link to this series as a whole, here you go. It's still in reverse chronological order, though.

One technique I haven't covered is to combine words without regard for their meaning. ("Melty Blood", "Radiant Silvergun") A technique favored in Japan and one I don't know whether or not I like, but one I found I'd been using in the absence of information about how game titles worked. Relatedly, and more common in America, the technique of making up totally new words with high-scoring Scrabble letters. (Zaxxon, Qix, Sqoon, Zzyzzyxx) Which I'd also used, but intentionally, to create a game name that wasn't very good.

And really, that's it. I wrote down a bunch more interesting game names that I wanted to look at, but they were all classifiable under these millions of rules without much further complication.

So, why these rules and not some other rules? The big reason, I think, is that games are experienced in the second person and the present tense. This is most obvious in text adventures, but every game ever made tells you what is happening to "you", and then you complete the feedback loop with the controls. The title of a game is a promise of what that experience will be like.

This models the early no-frills game titles like "Soccer", and all synecdochal games, but especially the ones named after the protagonist or the protagonist's job. Such titles explain what role you adopt when you complete the feedback loop. Games named after the antagonist, the goal, or a weapon or tool, make a promise of what the overall gameplay experience will be like for you, as do a lot of metonymal game names.

The societal context is also relevant. Nearly all the games I've talked about are commercial products developed in capitalist societies and sold separately in individual boxes. They were made as works for hire and the copyrights are owned by corporations rather than individuals. They run on hardware that's soon to be obsolete, so they'll either make people happy (or not) and sink into obscurity, or they'll be brought back again and again in different guises. It's a lot like the context for film.

What effects does this have on naming? Well, games get named like cleaning products. It used to happen for all kinds of games. Now it mostly happens for casual and child-friendly games (Bejeweled, Peggle, Boom Blox, Petz). Steven Spielberg wouldn't name a film like a cleaning product, but he presumably had some say in the naming of "Boom Blox" and it seemed okay to him, because a game gets used. It's picked up in the hands (via the controller) and manipulated and eventually used up.

One alternative is the world glimpsed briefly in the time before video games were a commercial concern. In that 10-year period you got, yes, "Baseball" and "Star Trek", but also "Hunt the Wumpus" and "Spacewar!", which--look at it!--is named like a musical. And maybe I'm sentimental but I think the amateur spirit is the surest route to a good game name.

90s shareware was full of unmemorable names that tried to copy the big-name names. The only two that come to mind right now are "Mission: Mainframe", which I should have analyzed yesterday[0], and "Reaping Jupiter", which isn't that good a name but I just love that game. But today the big buzz is around the indie games and, whatever you think of the games, they've got great titles, whether or not they're commercial endeavors. (In addition to the titles I mentioned earlier: Everyday Shooter, Meat Boy, Everybody Dies, Crayon Physics, Karoshi Suicide Salaryman, Cave Story) They've even brought new life to the cheap name-design tricks I denigrate in this series (Spelunky, Dwarf Fortress, Castle Crashers, Desktop Tower Defense--spot the cheap tricks!)

The secret to better titles is not to name games like films, as happens with today's big-name titles. They're not films--films are third person. Just to pick another divergence, you never see a flashback in a game outside a cut scene (ie. movie).[1] But if you really understand the gameplay and you put the same respect into naming your game as you would your movie, you'll get a title that says something. Indie game titles are much better than big-name titles, which is interesting because I don't think the same is true for movies.

As I write this I'm discovering I could go on and on, but think about "Citizen Kane". Not the movie, the title. Kind of a sarcastic title. In fact, it works much the same way as "Leisure Suit Larry." It wouldn't make a good game title, and "Leisure Suit Larry" wouldn't make a very good movie title. But there's some subtle work in fixing on that one of all possible titles for the movie--a title with some sarcasm and some sympathy--and that's the same kind of work you need to do to come up with a good game title.

[0] Lightning round. Alliteration, cliche-kitbashing (would make a great TV episode), comic register shift achieved by using an everyday concrete noun as the predicate of "Mission:". Whew!

[1] Actually, just after I wrote this, I saw what looked like a playable flashback in The Spoony Experiment's video review of Final Fantasy VIII. But it's very rare, right?

[Comments] (6) Don't Love Actually: It's February, a little late for New Years resolutions, but I've decided on one: to stop using the word "actually" so much. I will try very hard to use it only when disentangling a falsehood or counterfactual from the truth. Which actually happens pretty often on this weblog, but I'll try to use substitutes like "in sooth", the nicotine patch of "actually". Not that one! Use-mention distinction!

[Comments] (2) Restaurant Heuristic: If you order orange juice and it's served over ice, that orange juice came out of a metal can.

[Comments] (5) Here At Euphemism Farms: We're working hard to come up with new euphemisms for vomiting. The latest is "declaring food bankruptcy."

[Comments] (2) Game Roundup: Windoze Edition: Yes, it's been so long since I used Windows that I still think that 3.1-vintage nickname is funny. (Remember "WinDOS"? How about "Window$"? Well, I'm pretty sure someone said "Window$" at one point.) Anyway, a bunch of cool-looking Windows games have been accumulating over the past year that I haven't been playing. But I remembered them all while doing the game name entries, and a couple days ago Sumana asked me to set up the Windows computer so she could do some Miro testing. Yeah, we have a Windows computer, obtained for Miro testing, and it's just been gathering dust. So why not? I downloaded a couple games I'd been wanting to play and tried them out.

More later, I gotta work on secret project. Do let me know what Windows games I should look at. Note that any future GR:WE editions will be similar to this one in only reviewing games I hear about from other people.

PS: Even though I'm now mellow about it, Windows is still slow and aggravating. Take that!

Retro Game Master: That's me. That is to say, someone who just beat"Retro Game Challenge." This was the first commercially-sold game I've played right after the release date, such that there was no online help when I got stuck. Definitely worth the money, especially since the sequel is supposed to be even better, and no one will translate it unless the first translation makes money.

I was bewildered by the fictional game title "Haggle Man", which sounds like the most boring Mega Man villain ever, until random commenter asserted that the Japanese name of the game is "Haguruman", "haguruma" being Japanese for "cog-wheel". So it's a deliberately bad translation.

Which brings me to a kind of gutsy game design decision made by "Retro Game Challenge": to reproduce the aggravating aspects of 8-bit games along with the pleasurable aspects. Today's 8-bit-style games try to improve on the classics. RGC does this, both in terms of adding depth of story and great new game mechanics, and in terms of not doing stupid things like restricting when you can save in an RPG.

But a big chunk of your time is doing things that are basically unpleasant: level grinding, playing a lame racing game[0], playing a rebranded version of the same racing game, etc. It's the other half of the gaming-as-sadomasochism argument started by "Mighty Jill Off". And this, more than anything to do with the archaic game technologies or the cultural differences, is what probably makes the game not speak to people who weren't gamers in the 80s.

All in all, it's a great piece of verisimilitude, with enough improvements over the thing being verisimiluated that it's not an empty exercise in form. Guadia Quest is more fun than Dragon Warrior, and Cosmic Gate is more fun than Galaga, although the latter mostly takes the form of me realizing that Galaga's not as fun as I remember. The Mega Man-like power-up system in Haggle Man 3 deserves especial praise.

Deserving of antipraise is the voice acting, most glaring of the game's anachronisms, which kept me from getting immersed in the retrosity. In an interview, one of the localizers says "we’re confident that we made the right choice" in re the voice acting. I'm not privy to the inputs into that decision, but hopefully they involve child actors being impossible to work with, because the frat-boy-sounding voice actor they got for Arino does not work. It's true that kids are hitting puberty earlier and earlier, and Arino in the game is trapped between childhood and adulthood, but at this point you're just making excuses.

[0] Although unlike racing games from the 80s, "Rally King" has Mario Kart-style drift boosts, which is cool.

[Comments] (4) Thoughtcrime Experiments Lab Report #1: OK, Thoughtcrime Experiments is closed to submissions, and it's time to buy some stories. As an appendix to the anthology I'm going to publish an essay about the process. This has been a really good and interesting experience for Sumana and me. And although it's been extremely time-consuming, so far it's not been difficult.

When you're a writer, even a writer in a writing group, you only have a small picture of the market. Editing this anthology is giving me a much wider view, and it's also making me a better writer. So basically, if you have the time, I think you should liberate some stories and put out your own anthology.

On the TE website I say that TE is an experiment "to see how difficult it is to find five stories I like enough to buy." This is true enough, but it's only part of the story. As in any experiment involving human beings, the subjects (you) were not told the full purpose of the experiment. The goal of Thoughtcrime Experiments is to test the truth of certain things I've been told about the market for short science fiction. I don't yet have the data to talk about this in more detail, but I do have some raw numbers and some initial impressions, which I'll share with you.

This graph shows submissions per day.

We got our first submission on December 30th, 2008. Between then and the end of yesterday ("the end of yesterday" interpreted rather liberally), we got 240 submissions from 202 authors. The mean number of submissions per day was 5.0 in January and 6.7 in February. 24 people submitted two stories, five people submitted three, and one person submitted four. (Persistence paid off: story #4 is under strong consideration.)

There were three peaks in submissions. The first happened just after we were listed in ralan.com on January 1st. The second happened just after I posted to the specficmarkets community on Livejournal. Our busiest day was, as you'd expect, the last day we were open, when we got 16 submissions. This isn't Strange Horizons territory; they get over 500 submissions in a month. But it's more than I expected.

Was it enough? Enough to get five really good stories? We don't have all the data on subjectively determined story quality--we still have to evaluate 25 stories starting from the 14th--so I can't put up a graph right now, but the answer is yes. About twenty of the 215 submissions we've evaluated are stories Sumana and I have a positive desire to publish--not "someone else might like this", not "could be great with some work", not "could go in if we don't get anything better." Damn good stories that need some minor edits or a thousand words cut, if anything.

In one sense, that's a very small number--about ten percent. But it's much higher than what editors' horror stories had led me to believe. I was expecting a deluge of random crap from crazy people written in HTML crayon, hilariously bad Eye of Argon type stories, stories that had been sitting in the author's desk drawer for twenty years. In actual fact we got one crazy person, one Argon-class story, and near as I can tell one desk-drawer story (and it was pretty good!).

In maybe a week, once we've got all the stories evaluated, I'll put up more objective data on our impressions of the stories (which are of course, subjective; I mean "objective" in the sense that there will be graphs).

Oh, another thing I didn't tell you. The anthology will have art! We went to some of our favorite artists and told them, basically, "draw something awesome." It's still in flux so I don't know how many pieces there will be, but we're hoping for at least five, and we've already bought finished pieces from Internet faves Patrick Farley and Erin Ptah. Unfortunately a number of my other Internet faves were too busy or didn't respond. (Josh Lesnick, if you read this, there's still time!) But the stuff we've commissioned already will BLOW YOU AWAY. Or, more accurately, will DEPICT YOU BEING BLOWN AWAY.

PS: Props to the friend of ours who sent us a story in LaTeX format.


[Comments] (1) Wandernonlust: Every few months I go for a long walk around the neighborhood looking for cool new things. There wasn't much new, but I did notice some bizarre things:

: There are certain weblogs I subscribe to that I don't expect many of my readers to be interested in. One of them is Earthbound Central, a weblog which deals pretty much entirely with one old Super NES game that I find very interesting. In a "most photographed barn" type twist, one of the most interesting things about it is the depths of seemingly normal peoples' interest in it. For instance, today I learned that there was a Japanese baseball chant that filked one of the songs from the game.

[Comments] (4) Thoughtcrime Experiments Lab Report #2: What The Slush Pile Looks Like: There are three rails, you say? Let's take a look at this one!

As a writer, I used to feel like I didn't have a good picture of the short genre fiction market as a whole. You send stories in, they come back. You can get together with other writers in a writing group and commiserate, but there's no way that's a representative sample. One reason I started this anthology was to take a good look at a real slush pile and get some sense of what it really takes to have a story worth publishing.

This is a taboo subject, judging from how little editors talk about it. I've been told superficially encouraging things like (not a direct quote) "If you can write grammatical English and tell a story, you're above average." Okay, but that's just saying that baseline competence is relatively rare. How big is "above average" and what does it look like? Magazines don't publish above-average stories, they publish the best. How many people are the best?

It's a truism that the slush pile is huge, that there's a vast oversupply of terrible science fiction. I started Thoughtcrime Experiments partly to test the hypothesis that this oversupply masks a similar oversupply of high-quality science fiction, endlessly circulating from editor to author to editor like some action-packed Sargasso. With no prior fiction-editing experience, can I take a core sample of the slush pile and grab a bunch of good stories that no one else wanted to publish? All for rates that, while decent by industry standards, are penurous compared to the effort it takes to write a story? Is the problem with the slush pile that too much of it is bad, or that too much of it is good?

There were 241 total submissions to Thoughtcrime Experiments. A couple more might come in, from people of whom we asked another story, but they won't affect this general analysis. There were so many stories we've forgotten about most of them by this point, but we have recorded information about our opinions at the time, which I put into a database. My goal for this entry is to try to draw some conclusions about stories in the aggregate.

Here's our review process. A story comes in. Sumana reads it and sticks it into one of five tiers, A through E. A story goes into one tier or another based on how well it satisfies the following fitness function: Would we regret passing up the opportunity to publish this story? From A to E the tiers are "absolutely not", "no", "eh", "yes", and "yes!" In retrospect, we probably only needed three tiers ("no", "yes", "yes!"), but having five does make the graphs you're about to see more interesting. And at the beginning we didn't know we would get any "yes!" stories. We thought we might have to publish "yes" stories with some "eh" for filler.

In terms of the world-famous Context of Rejection, I'd say tier A corresponds to 1 through 5, tier B is 6 through 8, tier C is 9 through 11, tier D is 12 and 13, tier E is 14. There's some overlap and it's not a perfect match, since the CoR is for novels, but you get the picture. The inflection point is between 11 and 12, the difference between "I could see someone publishing this" and "We should publish this".

Getting back to the process: Sumana flags certain stories in tier C for my attention, and I also read all D and E stories. Sumana and I have many differences of opinion but we've never differed by more than one tier. We talk about the stories. The fruits of our discussion get turned into feedback for the authors. Sumana makes occasional passes over the pending stories and sends out rejection letters.

Currently we've sent out rejection notices for tiers A through C, and for most of D. We've bought one story and we're left with about 25 that we really want to publish. Now is a good time to mention that we're going to publish more stories than the originally-planned five, but not too many more. Certainly not 25. So we need to cull that herd. We're trying to decide on a good mix of stories, which might mean sacrificing an E story for a D--and we're not going to be able to publish all the E stories anyway, as you'll see if you look at the graph below.

The fitness function works well for focusing quickly on the relatively small number of stories that really stand out to us. But it's not so good for scientific purposes because it conflates a lot of variables: technical skill, inventiveness of plot, vividness of character, adjacence to our personal tastes in spec-fic, etc.

For instance, all the terribly-written stories ended up in tier A, but so did most of the horror stories we got, regardless of quality. I said in the submission guidelines that I was open to horror if it was clever, but it turns out I wouldn't know clever horror if it rose from the grave and bit me in the ass with decaying teeth held together only by metal-amalgam fillings. Some especially well-written horror got into tier B, and one really funny zombie story clawed its way into tier C. Long story short, there'll be no horror (the genre, not the emotion) in TE. It turns out that's not what we want to publish.

Another example: we got an extraordinarily well-written story that had no fantastic element in it at all. It went into tier D, not because we wanted to publish it, but because it seemed like a wasted opportunity not to publish something by this person. We made inquiries and got a less mainstream flash story from this person, which we're considering offering to buy for half price. So really, that should have been a tier A story, but we used tier D as a shorthand for "do something about this."

So here it is, the graph you've all been waiting for. How many stories went into each tier? What does the slush pile look like?

This is going to get really unscientific, because what we start out with is our subjective opinions of the stories. But I think there's some interesting stuff in this graph.

This has more than a passing resemblance to a normal curve. Of course, if it were a normal curve, there's a missing tier to the left. It would look more like a normal curve if we split tier A into two tiers, one for terribly-written stories and one for stories that were just extraordinarily incongruent with our tastes. I'm glad we didn't do this, because the correct response in both cases is prompt rejection, but it's an interesting observation.

It's a category error to try to do statistics on the tiers, but what the hell. Let's assign a tier A story 0 points and a tier E story 4 points. Then the mean tier is about 1.54, halfway between tier B ("at least it's grammatical...") and tier C ("might be publishable, but not by us"). So, yes, indeed, if you write a story that is grammatical and tells a coherent story, your story is above average.

What's the interpretation of this graph? Is the "slush pile" really an endless flood of terrible stories? Well, that's a writer's way of phrasing the question. Writers try to write "good" stories and think that "good" stories should be published. But the editor's fitness function is a lot more complex than "good". A lot of stories published in big-name mags in the 70s and 80s couldn't get published today.[0] Did they become "bad" over time, or did the fitness function change? I think a lot of boring stuff gets published, but clearly the relevant slush readers and editors found those same stories "good".

But however you slice it, most of the 241 stories we were sent did very poorly on our fitness function. Only 39 made us think "it would be cool to publish this" for any extended period. So I would say that going through the slush pile is indeed a chore, just as editors say. For Sumana it was a demanding full-time job. But it's not an unrewarding chore. It's not some post-apocalyptic wasteland where you scrounge for a precious tin of canned meat. There's a lot of really good stuff in the slush pile.

Let's take a look at the good stuff. Here's a graph of the 39 stories in D and E, after our first round of culling. After this point, the boundaries between D and E grow fuzzy. Objectively speaking, we have a resistance to rejecting any more of these stories, because we've been dithering over it for a while now.

This is saying nothing more than "we've rejected about half of the tier D stories", but it's nice to have a visual. Sumana and I really liked all these stories, but a lot of them haven't even made it this far, and the vast majority of the remainder will ultimately be collecting another rejection note. By the principle of reversion to the mean, the next editor they're sent to probably won't like them as much as we did. It's possible that some of these stories will never be published. So I think my hypothesis is confirmed: not only is there too much science fiction, there's too much good science fiction.

Maybe we're softies. Maybe these stories aren't really that good. Well, we can do cross-checks. The Context of Rejection says 60-75% of the submissions will be in CoR levels 1-7. We're not an established print market like Tor, we're not in those big "writer's guide" books, so we didn't get as many crazies as Tor does. Maybe that's why only 50% of our stories are in tiers A and B. But maybe we were too lenient and a lot of tier C stories correspond to CoR 6 and 7.

CoR says 95-99% of the submissions are at 10 or below. Well, only 84% of our submissions were in tier C or below, so again, maybe we were too lenient. Maybe we should only be considering the stories in tier E. That's the top 5% of the stories. So maybe we're softies, maybe the rules are different for stories vs. novels, maybe the incredible technical sophistication required to use the Internet filtered out all but the most forward-looking writers. In any event, we're not off by orders of magnitude. We're about 10 percentage points off from the guidelines given in the Context of Rejection. And since we started having difficulties after rejecting 90% of the stories, we're in compliance with Sturgeon's Law.

5% of 241 stories is 11 stories. That's twice as many as we originally planned to publish, and more than we're going to publish even now that we've expanded the anthology. There are way too many stories we don't want to publish, but also too many stories that we do want to publish. Or to look at it another way, there are not enough well-paying markets, and not enough editors with different tastes.

This is why I specifically asked for stories that had been rejected multiple times. I wanted to see whether there were stories that I would really like, but that get consistently overlooked. This is also (one reason) why I ignored people who said my choice of Creative Commons license, or some other aspect of the way I was doing things, would scare away all the talented writers. Honestly, I think the Creative Commons thing scared off more untalented writers than talented ones.

I can see how editors might not want to go this deep into the analysis with aspiring writers. I don't want to do anything that would discourage people from submitting stories. But it seems quite possible to write a great story, send it to twenty editors who all love it, and get twenty rejections, because there's too much good stuff. A great story will get nicer rejections than if you'd sent in a scrap of paper on which you'd written in pencil "MAN HAVE SPACEGUN. explode!! NOW IS SAVE"[1] But from a monetary and publication-credit standpoint, it's the same.

Next time: what to do about this. Assuming I can figure out what to do about this. Anyway, back to work. Editors with more experience can tell me if I'm out of line.

PS: I will not tell you which tier we put your story in. Seriously. It can only cause pain for everyone to act like two peoples' sorting mechanism is some reductive measure of your story's worth. If we have specific critiques, we offer them when we reject the story. Use the feedback or ignore it, and try to sell the story to someone else with different opinions. Tier data is only interesting in the aggregate, as a measure of how we responded to the slush pile as a whole.

Example of how subjective this is: someone sent us a tier A story. I don't remember what story or what we didn't like about it. Rejected. They sent us another story. Again, I don't remember anything about the story--I just saw this pattern when running random queries on the submission database. Tier B. Better than the first, but still not what we want. Rejected. Then they sent another story. Man, how long is this person going to torment us with stories we don't want? Tier E. It's an awesome story and we're very likely to buy it. So what right do we have to imply that their first story was "bad"? Because I can put in all the caveats I want, but that's the message that will come through. More pragmatically, would we have gotten the third story if we had implied that?

[0] Sumana would frequently say of a story, "This would be a great story for Asimov's in 1981." That is, someone else (in another time) might publish it, but not us. Tier C.

[1] I figured I might as well publish this online, since Analog wouldn't take it.

: Quick TE update. We've winnowed down the list a bit, and have by now sent out offer letters for three stories (funny light fantasy, dark fantasy, space opera). We're pretty close to accepting two more (mundane SF, funny dark fantasy). Interestingly enough, it's easier for us to choose fantasy stories than SF, so those offer letters are going out earlier. I guess that's the flip side of the fact that fewer fantasy stories really stood out for us.

Update: Oh yeah, something I forgot to mention earlier. I have not done a statistical analysis of the prior publication credits of the people who submitted stories to us, because that would be insane. But in general it looks like there is no correlation. We liked and antiliked stories by people who've sold to any given pro or semi-pro market, and by people with no previous sales. But! I did notice two positive correlations. I was more likely than average to enjoy a story by someone who'd previously sold a story to Futurismic or to Adbusters (?!). So there's my taste in science fiction right there.

[Comments] (3) Ultimate Generic Joke:

"Why did the light bulb cross the road?"
"Who's there?"

But Thou Must!: This entry contains spoilers for Mother 3. If you're not Kirk, this might annoy you.

A lot of time in the middle of Mother 3 is spent going around pulling big needles out of the ground. After a while you discover that pulling out all the needles will destroy the world, remaking it into an unknown form. At the end of the game, you're faced with the final needle. Only a Chosen One (tm) can pull the needles, and the only other Chosen One is dead. Do you pull out the last needle?

> Yes

Often in these games I choose the "wrong" (non-plot-advancing) answer to these fake questions just to see how I'll get railroaded back into the plot. This time, though, I selected "No" sincerely. Call me old-fashioned, but destroying the world seems like a bad idea. Supposedly the new world will be superior to the old, but nobody knows for sure, and dialogue like "Let's make the Dark Dragon sealed underground our new friend" doesn't inspire confidence. So why take the chance?

Big spoiler: despite selecting "No", I ended up pulling the needle anyway.

: Sent out a few more rejections and one acceptance letter (SF mystery). At this point I think we're just going to send out the acceptance letters and reject whoever's left. It's too painful otherwise.

Check out this context-free grammar for generating maps, which I think I got from Adam P.

A Survey Of James Rolfe's Non-Nerd Films: The past few days have brought little to report. We bought another story for Thoughtcrime Experiments, bringing the total up to five. We're going to buy four more. We should have all the acceptance and rejection letters out by the end of Saturday.

I thought I'd do something different tonight so as not to bore you with talk of anthologies and secret projects and other stuff that takes up my time that you can't see yet. I've mentioned a couple times in the past that I'm a fan of James Rolfe's Angry Video Game Nerd show. To my mind it's a perfect example of post-television entertainment, and one that predates Dr. Horrible or anything else that came out of the Hollywood writers' strike.

Lately Rolfe has been putting up reedited versions of the films he made before the Nerd character took over his life. Some of his fans are unhappy about this, and demand more Nerd instead. But if I may generalize grossly, that's an attitude generally seen among people who don't create a lot of cultural artifacts themselves. (Here it is again.) Instead of bitching, I've taken the opportunity to go through Rolfe's online filmography and check out his other films. In this entry, I point out the ones I enjoyed.

[Comments] (5) Scrabble Rule: I was thinking about the point at which Scrabble stops being fun for me: the point at which I reach the edges of my vocabulary and start gambling on things I think are words, because I can't play anything else. Why don't I trade in some tiles? Because that costs a turn, which is BORING.

So here's an idea for an additional rule that should keep Scrabble play in the realm of actual words. On your turn, you can trade in n tiles and then play up to 7-n tiles. If you play, your play has to incorporate at least one of the new tiles. (That's so you can't trade in tiles and then play the small word you were going to play anyway.) It's worth a test run.

: Last week, a group of people who do such things gathered together online to play "Guess the Verb!", my 2000 work of interactive fiction. In retrospect I'm not really happy with the game, but it's not bad. I don't think I ever did the post-mortem I promised I'd do, so I'll talk a bit about it.

The main problem with GTV! is the wheel mechanic, which does a good job of randomizing the scenarios, but also prevents you from seeing at least one scenario per game, and might prevent you from seeing any scenarios at all. Instead of having you literally guess the verb, the carnival game should have just been a wheel you spin to get a scenario. Or you should have gotten the scenario on the wheel, regardless of your guess.

The other thing that sucks is you have to grab an item in each scenario to give to Lalrry for the next scenario, or you're screwed. That's just bad design, and I wouldn't blame people who run into it for quitting the game before seeing all the cool stuff.

The puzzle in the main scenario is fun, and I have no complaints about it. The Colossal Cave (FASTEN) and Enchanter (UNDO) parody scenarios are excellent. The mad scientist scenario (SCRUTINIZE) isn't a parody of any other game in particular, but a parody of ham-fisted video game copy protection techniques. And the writing is excellent. I'm pretty sure that's the first scenario I wrote.

The college scenario (RECONFIGURE) is, as far as I know, the only extant description of the UCLA CSUA in that time period. So it's historically interesting if nothing else. It was largely a parody of "Save Princeton", which I loved playing when I was in high school because you were in college!

DISEMBARK, the Planetfall parody (which unlike the others doesn't wear the thing it's parodying on its sleeve) was, I believe, panned as phoned in or tacked on. It's not a terribly big scenario but I never intended it to be longer. I should have made it more detailed, though.

I feel like I wrote some of this before, but there you go. My eight-years-in-the-making opinion of "Guess The Verb!"

[Comments] (2) : I've been digitizing Sumana's collection of old videotapes, a somewhat tedious process that has required me to remaster obsolete technologies such as VCRs and Microsoft Windows. There's some really good stuff in here:

But mostly, it's the commercials. Yes, time has worked its mysterious alchemy on these tapes, and the commercials are now more difficult to find, and often more interesting, than the programs they sell. That's what I tell myself when I set a tape full of first-season Star Trek: The Next Generation to record, anyway. Some observations:

Enough lists. I gotta go to Montreal tomorrow for work, a sprint in preparation for the open sourcing of Launchpad. I suffered severe poutine disappointment last time but maybe this time will be better. Or, it seems, I can just get poutine in Manhattan.

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