Welcome to the latest post in our weekly design series, wherein I talk about the design of one of our upcoming games. The goal of these posts is to have a frank discussion on game design, both what works and what doesn't.
This post, however, takes a step back from game mechanics and instead focuses on what, I guess, could be called marketing. In particular, I want to take a look at things you might consider when naming a game and in conveying the game's core concept.
Admittedly, this post is also somewhat self-serving, because I am struggling with naming and conveying the core focus in my latest fantasy roleplaying game, which for now I'm still calling Shattered Dominion. (Edited Feb. 4: The game name has the name, Age of Ambition.)
It's my belief that when first describing a game, you've got two - maybe three - sentences to pique the reader's interest before people begin to tune out or stop reading. This means you need to distill your basic pitch down to something of about that size, otherwise you're going to lose people that might otherwise be interested.
This sort of statement is often called an elevator pitch, and is useful not only to concisely convey the concept of your game, but can also be slapped onto the back cover or used during the design phase as a barometer to determine if your game is straying too far from its original concept.
Unfortunately, these sort of blurbs can also be a lot harder to write than is immediately apparent. For example, here is the original elevator pitch I wrote for Age of Ambition:
Age of Ambition is a fantasy roleplaying game set in a world that is rapidly leaving the traditional fantasy milieu behind. That is, a few generations ago it was your typical fantasy world, but time has since moved on and society is changing.
I thought this was a pretty good elevator pitch. But now, based on a number of conversations I've had about the game where I presented the pitch, I'm not so sure. The fact is that every time I give this pitch, people seem to have different assumptions about the game that I don't intend to convey. That's a red flag that the pitch isn't doing its job well.
I think part of the problem is that my pitch focuses on social change, which is a rather abstract and somewhat high concept. It's interesting, but it doesn't really tell you what you're going to be doing in the game.
And this brings me to another point I want to make, which is that it's harder to concisely convey the premise of a high concept game than it is to convey the premise of a low concept game. (And by the way, there's nothing derogatory meant to be implyed by "low concept.")
For example, if your premise is to "explore a slice of life in a society where everyone is functionally immortal and where money is meaningless" (high concept), it's a lot harder to convey what the game is actually going to be like in play, than if your concept is "pirates with a submarine raid corrupt Imperial colonies" (low concept).
High concepts are interesting, but they also present a barrier to entry. The more assumptions you challenge, the less easily accessible tropes there are to draw upon. Maybe my pitch would be improved by focusing instead on what player characters actually do. For example:
Imagine a fantasy heartbreaker put on fast-forward for a century or three. The heroes are bringing social and technological progress to a world where adventurers are antiquated and where the fantasy tropes have all been played out to their (sometimes bizarre) logical conclusions. Meanwhile, the feudal system is falling apart and the huddled masses are beginning to throw off the yoke of kings.
In my opinion, naming a game is like writing an elevator pitch, only more so. That is, instead of distilling your game down into a few sentences, you're distilling it down to a few words.
And I want to assert the opinion that a good name conveys some sort of information about the game, whether tone or theme or something of that nature. Otherwise, it's a missed opportunity.
For example, Dragonlance is a pretty solid name for a game line. From it we can gather that the game involves dragons and lances (both pretty core elements of that game world). From the word dragon we can pretty safely assume that the game is fantasy, and since lances are traditionally an aristocratic, knightly weapon, it's probably a pretty safe guess that this is some of high or romantic fantasy.
On the other hand, I am unhappy with our working title of Shattered Dominion. What I want to convey is that this is a fantasy world that's in a state of flux, both socially and technologically. The social institutions of the past are falling apart, both for the better and for the worse. And the heroes are looking to the future with a mixture of hope and trepidation. If they're successful, they might change society and make the world a better place. But they could just as well end up with a botched revolution, chained up and awaiting their turn with the guillotine.
What do you think? Do you have any suggestions for a better name? (Seriously, I'm looking for feedback!)
One final aspect to consider when naming a game in the twenty-first century is search engine optimization (SEO). Basically, you want people to be able to find your game when they search for it online. Towards this end, it helps if you're not competing for search results with something else that has the same name.
Along those lines, single-word names using common nouns usually result in poor SEO, because you're competing with every other page on the internet which has that word in it. For that reason I prefer a name with at least two words, although a unique compound word - like in the aforementioned Dragonlance example - would also suffice.
That's it for the examination of why elevator pitches and naming are hard! I hope it's been useful to anyone interested in game design or who might be interested in the games we have in the works. Tune in next week for the next post in the design series!