Naming your game

Names are important. Besides art style, they are people’s first point of contact with your game. Names set expectations, and used well can capture the imagination. People will use it to answer “is this game for me?” Microsoft Flight Simulator is going to attract a different set of people than No Man’s Sky, though both groups may be equally excited about the prospect of their chosen game. A good name should be seamlessly integrated into the core fantasy/setting/story/experience your game offers (along with art, music, narrative style).

That’s not to say you can’t have fun or need to have corporate board meetings over it (I doubt the AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! designers were particularly meticulous, for example) — but choosing a name is not a design decision to be ignored. On the other hand, it’s hard to start publicizing a game before it has a name (and you should be publicizing it as soon as you have anything to show). Needing a name before I’ve 100% fleshed out the aesthetic design is the problem I’m running up against for my neural circuit game.

So, one of my first steps in any design decision is to look at what’s already out there. Here’s a collection of games I’ve compiled (through other research or just pulled off the front page of Steam) and tried to organize into thematic and functional piles. This isn’t meant to be a thorough and strict classification — I only am trying to better understand different approaches and functions of naming games.

(full disclosure: the ones with links are from people I know)

Exactly What It Says On The Tin

Minecraft

Kerbal Space Program

Impossible Creatures

Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator

Species: Artificial Life, Real Evolution

Golf With Your Friends

Don’t Starve

Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes

Learn Japanese To Survive

American Truck Simulator

Goat Simulator

Space Engineers

BoxFighter

Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake

Very straightforward, people know *exactly* what their experience will be. Almost all are (or at least started out as) indie games where there’s more leeway for more artistic names like these.

Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake isn’t an explicit instruction to the player like some of the others, but it is super efficient while being fun. It includes protagonists, items, and actions: you control monsters to obtain birthday cake.

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Bundle Stars Postmortem

The hustle never ends.

Over the last month, we’ve done a couple of experiments in publicity. Starship Rubicon was in the Bundle Stars Trinity 3 Bundle, we run a couple of Steam Visibility Rounds, started releasing Steam Coupons, participated in the Steam Exploration Sale, and put out a demo. My notes ended up being longer than I expected, so I’ve split things up a bit. Here’s my take on how the bundle went:

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Art Styles – Pixel Art

I know it’s still in technical prototyping phase, but I’m poking around for art styles with my unnamed collaborator for the unnamed wire game.

Pixel art was my first thought, as it seems to be the standard these days for low-budget indie games. The first thing I always do in situations like this is to do some homework to see what’s out there, so here we go:

Hyper Light Drifter

hyperlight_001hyperlight_003

Isometric. Action RPG.

Emphasizes square (albeit irregular) blocky shapes in the environment. Solid colors for objects give clarity (especially the sword swings). Lots of fancy non-pixelated lighting effects and gradients. Unlike in some other games, there aren’t lighting effects that focus on the main character; instead, the player is made distinctive by their red cape. The fact that the camera follows the main character keeps the focus on the player, but the player blends into their settings and appears to be part of the world.

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Wirehang Re-redux

Because I definitely already don’t have enough projects going, I’ve recently started poking around with a super super old demo of mine: WIREHANG RE-REDUX.wirehang

The core concept was: “I want a game where I can be spiderman.” The game that prompted me to actually start is an old (6+ years ago?) game called Wirehang Redux.

So in highschool I threw together a demo platformer (the first I’d ever programmed), but it got bogged down in physics and writing 002_blitzversionmy own custom level editor with triggers and graphics layers and all sorts of other homebrewed bells and whistles. I felt the core flow of gameplay had a lot of promise (especially the control scheme: one hook per mouse button), but when I left for college it lay abandoned.

So here we are! The idea has stuck with me for a long time and I’m working with a friend to revive it to get some practice in collaborative programming. This time we’re working in Monkey X and using Fantom Engine to tie together maps made in Tiled to the Box2D physics engine. I’ve never worked with non-homebrewed tech before so it’s going to be a learning experience. Also, one of my biggest regrets from the development of Rubicon is that I didn’t document the journey, so I’m going to try to get some regular posts out about this. Here’s a gif of the current build:001_physics:

Rubicon Influences

Spaceship shooting:asteroids
This whole thing started as an attempt to come up with a better control scheme for flying a spaceship around than in Asteroids; I liked its core economy of choice between moving and shooting, but it felt unwieldy. Rubicon is my response — I tried to preserve that core mostly-mutually-exclusive decision to steer versus aim, but make it easier to switch between the two.

I also looked at Geometry Wars and a couple of the other twin-stick shooters that it spawned. I didn’t learn a lot though, since it allows you to do both simultaneously.

Luftrausers showed me the Form of juicy 2D flying + shooting.geoluft

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I copied a lot of the weapon/ability/enemy designs from Bastion+Transistor. They do an *amazing* job making equipment “swingy” (no +5% incremental improvements) and allowing different loadouts to generate novel gameplay.

bastion

Ship modification:mech
I initially tried copying Mechwarrior/Gratuitous Space Battles with slots and whatnot, but it never felt right. The final version was cribbed almost directly from Megaman Battle Network, with my own addition of “addon” components and the bonus for symmetry (there are other shape bonuses too but they’re pretty trivial).

navicust

Mission design:
Space Pirates and Zombies did a pretty good job of filling the design space of “what sorts of objectives can you have in a fly-around-and-shoot-things-game”. I didn’t end up using most of it (base defense, hunt, assassinations…) but it was a good starting point. Also, progress past escort missions not depending on the survival of your escort was a good call (you just don’t get their bonuses).

I mostly ended up with two core mission types (and enemy types, for that matter): shooting challenges and movement challenges (cryopod rescue).

PCG mission nodes:ftl
FTL, obviously. Though I don’t like the lack of information in FTL, most of the time you’re just randomly choosing where to go. I pared it down and made things a little more straightforward. The creators of Spelunky put up a cool walkthrough of how their PCG engine works, which I based a lot off of.

I actually played around with making it a roguelike (contact enemies to zoom into battle mode) for a full month before scrapping it (KILL YOUR DARLINGS) as an uncontrollable too-complicated metastructure.

Character dialogue:base
Randomly-triggered banter? Sounds like Bioware.
Badly translated English? Sounds like Zero Wing.

dancer.

Unlockables:
Unlockable stuff from the main menu showing up playable ingame? Sounds like FTL and Crypt of the Necrodancer.

raddPhilosophy:
Ever since I read Kidd Radd (a semi-animated online webcomic epic from 2002 – 2004), I’ve been conscious of games about violence for the sake of violence… whiiich is basically what I just made. The muddled morality that pops up in the game stems from this.

Steam Postmortem

Unrelated.

Pictured: unrelated.

(Note: Valve has asked us to not share our exact sales numbers. I feel like that takes a bit of the teeth out of a postmortem, but there are still plenty of lessons to be shared)

I was going to write a standard postmortem for Starship Rubicon— explain what we tried, show some stats, and pull out some lessons. I’ll do some of that later, but I think I’m starting to realize that any specific tips I can share is less important than something else I learned.

Steam traffic is a gigantic morass — having my game on the front page that first morning felt like timidly standing in the empty floor of the stock exchange moments before it opens. Suddenly, before I can take a breath, the wave of humanity hits. One million (1,000,000) views on the front page, Steam promises. It only took a couple hours. Store page clicks were two orders of magnitude lower than that.

Final sales? Two orders of magnitude lower.

Not gonna lie, I was disappointed. I’d seen the ocean and only felt a drop. Continue reading