Prompted by this post by Dragonchaser Pete calling for RSS feed friendly blogging, and recent discussions at work about naming projects we’re working on, I mean to muse a bit about the public perception of our products, in this case, games and articles. More specifically, I’m interested in the nature of first impressions, especially in text and context.
I deeply appreciate precision in language. Wordsmithing is a hobby of mine, and I have a particular (or peculiar) fondness for experts in the craft. I also inherited the proofreading gene from my mother. Every abused apostrophe and textspeak truncation that I stumble across is akin to fingernails on my mental chalkboard. Browsing the internet, even at the speedreading pace that I usually adopt, can be a bit frustrating. (Why do people keep putting two “o”s in “lose”? Is it karmic compensation for dropping them in all of the “ur mom” jokes?)
I do occasionally appreciate portmanteaus like Ysharros’ Guildultery, or my “keeplayability“. Creativity in linguistics is one thing, but laziness is another entirely. Creativity expands the linguistic expressive space, while laziness degrades communication and cheapens intellect. *coughEbonicscough*
So what of games, then? Do we see linguistic creativity in game titles? And, perhaps more importantly, do we remember them as a result?
Alien Hominid. Castlevania. Disgaea. Katamari Damacy. (Actually, that one means “clump spirit” in Japanese, but still, even that’s interesting, and “disgaea” can be broken down into Latin fragments to mean roughly “evil world”.) Perhaps the most interesting of those is Castlevania, which communicates pretty instantly what it’s all about; a castle and Transylvania. Dracula. The cultural mythology and etymology of the title make for instantly interesting concepts.
There are also the “cool” one word titles:
This isn’t constrained to games, of course. Homer and Dante are still famous authors. Michelangelo actually did have a last name, and Rodin had a first. Music artists have indulged as well: Selena. Sting. Prince (at times just that whizzimajigget).
Humans seem to like bite sized data, probably because it’s easy to remember. That’s the whole purpose of savvy advertising; to get people to remember your product. Having your products in a top tier of a person’s memory cache can translate to more sales. (True, Daikatana is reviled more than remembered, but still, it’s talked about more than some other failures, as it has a unique mononymous appellation. Infamy and fame are kin, after all; just ask Ponzi.)
That’s the dual-edged power of a trademark. Nearly everyone knows Band-Aids are for booboos. Frisbees are for throwing. Ziplocs have plastic zippers. Kleenex is for cleaning… stuff. Some of these products are so strongly identified with their product that the companies have to fight to maintain their legal claim to intellectual property, lest their name be appropriated into the common lexicon via near-univeral use to describe a whole category of products, even those of competitors. (The legalese term is “genericized trademark“, apparently.)
Sometimes this is useful, as in Coca-Cola’s case, as most people in the Southern U.S. call pretty much any carbonated drink a “coke”. The legal repercussions of losing IP rights can be very costly, though, since names can be used by competitors who produce inferior products but try to sell on the strength of the name. Finding the balance is almost a brinksmanship game of trying to amass a sufficient market share to dominate upstart competitors without undermining your ability to prove that you’re not a monopoly. (Yes, this is a function of the weirdness of commercial law. You can almost be a monopoly, and wield terrible power, but if you cross over the line, watch out!)
At the other end of the spectrum, we have books like this: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
That’s an unwieldy title, but all the more striking for it. Why is it curious? What do we mean by “incident” rather than “event”? Does the truncated (iambic rather than triambic) rhythm of “Night-Time” and its curious hyphen mean anything? These longer titles can almost invite poetic analysis, with all the potential and baggage thereof. Again, people are thinking about your product, rather than consigning it to the trash heap.
To be fair, a book titled “Ten Things I Learned About Snail Teeth and the Women Who Love Them” or a stream of consciousness line of gibberish doesn’t quite have the same effect. Longer titles mean more to remember, but if they are memorable in and of themselves, it can be worth it. (Though, admittedly, I originally wrote that book title without the “and the Women Who Love Them”, which adds a touch of the surreal, or merely stupid, that makes it more memorable, despite being even dumber for a book concept. We’re weird that way, in that we remember strange stuff more than normal, mundane boring stuff.)
At the same time, these can turn into acronyms. If I were to mention FFVII, do I really have to type out “Final Fantasy” for most gamers to know what I’m talking about? Do I need to spell out what KOTOR means? FFTA2:GotR is the latest game that I’ve wound up spending a fair chunk of time with, but who wants to bother typing out the full name? (Notably, not even the website designers.) Why even type all of that acronym? Length alone does not mean that a title is interesting.
Somewhere in the middle are Mass Effect, Chrono Trigger, Master of Orion, Shadow of the Colossus and other short, evocative titles. (Even Master of Orion turns into MOO most of the time, though.) A few syllables are short enough to be easy to remember, they are enough to establish a rhythm, and enough to give room for expression of ideas and hint at deeper meaning. “Mass Effect”, for example, can mean a few different things, depending on context. It could hint at gravity, a staple of astrophysics and sci-fi stories, or it could describe the psychology of large numbers of people, or several other things. Whether or not those are actually explored in gameplay is important to the holistic view of the game, but just looking at the initial impression, the title gives people a lot to think about if they so choose, and that’s without any other information on the game.
I shouldn’t have to explain titillation to anyone who has enough web experience to find my little corner of cyberspace. Let it simply be said that the old “sex sells” maxim has endured for as long as it has for good reason. I certainly have nothing positive to say for such prurient marketing techniques, but they do grab attention and sear memories.
Perhaps as a principle, though, we can think of teasing as a way to drum up interest. Giving people just enough tantalizing information to get them thinking about your product and what it could be is a great way to let the customer do a share of the advertising work. Certainly Blizzard drummed up interest in their announcement of Diablo 3 when they posted progressively revealing visuals with deliberately mysterious clues on their website prior to the announcement. The viral marketing of Cloverfield was more about what wasn’t seen than what was actually there. Getting people invested in your marketing is a sneaky multiplier to your efforts.
This is especially useful for gamers. At some level, most games are about pattern recognition and teasing out solutions. Gamers, perhaps more than other entertainment devotees, love to feel that they “got it” when they figure something out. If you can make the advertising in and of itself a game, it can involve people in the fun from the very beginning, and start the all-important reward cycle that keeps people playing your game.
In conclusion, then, titles and advertising are much more than just a word or ten. They are your first, and perhaps only time to get people interested in your product. Careful wordsmithing and application of psychology can go much further toward drumming up sales than having a stunning endgame, or even midgame. It’s much like the idea that gamers should be hooked within ten minutes; they have to be interested within ten seconds.
I know, I rail on the sound bite world and bullet point marketing. That’s not what I’m talking about when I talk of distilling ideas into words. I’m talking about evoking a sense of something greater, not pretending to be a shorthand secretary. There is power in words, power that the best storytellers have harnessed over millennia. After all, just look at the power of a little “Rosebud“, and the ability that simple ideas have to communicate in shorthand, hinting at great depth. It’s the power behind poetry, one of the densest modes of linguistic communication. It’s the power of magic words that are whispered with reverence. That’s what you want to harness, not summarize for businesscritters who live in a world of numbers.
You’re building games, telling stories, creating magic. Use your tools well, and put your best foot forward.