Find a Name that players will understand.
Updated: Jun 1
Look, my opinion is not "the Bible" but hear me out and maybe you will start to see why naming your game right can do so much for your game's future!
I've been analyzing Indie Games for a while now and I have come to find that many Indie DEVs that I meet are naming their game "wrong" (yes, I said it... don't get mad at me just yet! :P). One thing is, we are all very protective of our creative vision and when someone tells you that your NAME SUCKS, you may feel defensive and immediately close yourself out to the reasons WHY. So let me show you two games that benefit from the "right" name:
A while back, I watched the GDC talk (YouTube Link) from Adam Robinson-Yu who is the creator of "A Short Hike".
Here is a Link to his game: https://store.steampowered.com/app/1055540/A_Short_Hike/
I applaud small indie projects because it is far too risky for newly formed indie teams to go and dedicate the next 2 years to a project which they (or anyone else for that matter) can not begin to project the success of. But this would be a BLOG post for another time :P Adam made a small game and was "honest" with his name. He curbed the expectations of players who bought his game and finished in less than 2 hours by naming the game "Short". One of the key reasons why players didn't refund it, despite Steam's 2 hour return policy, is that players want to support honest indie development. We all love a David and Goliath story, one where the single independent DEV sits in his room for 6 months and crafts something passionate and thoughtful. So if you are honest, then players will not call you out in the reviews. Just imagine if he called the game "An EPIC Adventure in Islandville". I'm willing to bet that there would be players who would refund saying that there was nothing EPIC about a game that lasts less than 2 hours.
Now lets dive deeper into his name: "A Short Hike"
One of the first things I craft as a "thought experiment" when designing good names is this:
Imagine you write your game's name on a blank piece of paper and you go outside and you ask a 100 people on the street to describe the game that this name represents. How many would somewhat accurately describe the game you are making?
With a game like "A Short Hike" you can imagine that quite a few people (dare I say more than 50%?) might actually say that there is a mountain, maybe a creek, with a forest and so on... Maybe these test subjects might even say there would be animals and vistas to engage with. The point here is that the name itself is going to give players expectations and these expectations are actually met in the game design and marketing materials. This is crucial because happy customers don't refund a game. In fact, they leave positive reviews! (This enhances the way Steam "learns" about your game! More on this later)
The first thing a shopper will do (after you catch their attention with an attractive capsule) is read your game name. Now you can imagine, if you are very "creative" with your name, this may lead to issues. While there are certainly many exceptions like "Celeste" (a platforming game that has had a commercial success on Steam despite its name not really giving players a clue that this is a platformer), you can imagine that 0% of players you ask to define the gameplay of this game just based on a name like "Celeste". I always look at these two and try to explain to DEVs I meet with that this small detail makes my life harder. Just imagine having a product with a name that does not match what it does... its a marketing nightmare!!!
What else is a problem?
Another weird side effect of a bad name is how the Steam Algorithm is effected by bad names. Steam is optimized to make the most amount of money. Whether we like to admit this or not, Steam is always "learning" about your game to recommend it to the millions of gamers that shop there.
So what effects can a bad name have?
It is safe to say that Steam knows and tracks conversion ratios like Wishlist and Purchases. I recall talking to a DEV who was making a VR title and in his game name, he made no mention of "VR". The problem here is that inevitably some players will "like" his game name and Capsule, they will click, and upon seeing the trailer/screenshots, they will leave because they are not VR players.
If we follow this example, we can see that this actually hurts your game as now the conversion ratio is lowered and Steam "thinks" your game quality is "worse". In this case, its actually better to scare off non-VR players with a "VR" in the name than try to get as many clicks to your store page as possible. Now the players who engage with your name and capsule will be VR shoppers so they will be more likely to purchase when they visit your store page.
Lets look at my Second Example: "Coffee Talk"
Here is a link: https://store.steampowered.com/app/914800/Coffee_Talk/
Again, I can imagine if I wrote this name on a piece of paper, asked 100 people on the street to describe the gameplay, then 50% or more would be able to tell me quite accurately what this game is about. This is HUGE!!! Each player who is shopping on Steam and reads this game from a list of recommended titles is going to engage with it only if they are open to a game about making coffee. It helps that when they land on the store page, they will see a great pixel style, nice trailer, and clear screenshots. My guess is that the conversion on this store page is high and Steam "thinks" this is a quality game.
Keep in mind that opposite scenario:
What if an FPS (First Person Shooter) fan is browsing Steam and comes across the game name: "Coffee Talk", they are more likely not to engage with the game and therefore will not hurt your conversion ratio. All of this adds up to Steam understanding that you are a niche game with a narrow appeal, but for everyone that actually engages with you game, they have a high chance to convert into a buyer. In reality, this is where Indie Devs should strive to be.
I firmly believe that games like "A Short Hike" and "Coffee Talk" did so well because their names explain exactly what the game is about. If you ever wanted to see more examples of greatly named games then you can expand to recent success like: "Teardown" or "PowerWash Simulator", the list goes on. But for every success here there are examples of games with creative names that still manage to do well. My argument is that as an Indie Dev, you really don't have much of a budget so focus on removing pain points in your marketing. You should know that a "vague" name will now come with the added issue of having to explain to players what that even means. By now, you will inevitably have lost a sizable amount of players.
My argument is that as an Indie Dev, you really don't have much of a budget so focus on removing pain points in your marketing.
Let's sum it up.
Be careful with naming your game. Make it functional. Make it feel stylistic. Don't be afraid to add "subtitles" that explain the gameplay if you must have a Vague Name. You are an Indie Dev, so if you don't have a marketing team then you need to make it as "easy" as possible for you to market your game and a GREAT NAME will go a long way in your success. Consider all of the time you will save from having to explain to players what your gameplay is all about.
If you ever need advice on better names then connect with me via a quick call: https://calendly.com/tiltgames/ekolimits
Erik "ekolimits" Kovac