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Jess Lebow's MMO Story Hour: What’s in a Name?

Every Wednesday, this novelist and former writer for Wizards of the Coast, Magic the Gathering, Guild Wars, Pirates of the Burning Sea and more will check in with his look at stories in MMOs.

I remember, as a young man, my grandmother telling me that there are two things you never want to see being made: sausages and laws. At the time, I was too young to understand what she meant. I didn’t yet know how government worked, and sausages, well, let’s just say eventually I was enlightened.

I have tried to explain to my grandmother what it is I do for a living, and each time she smiles and nods, as if she’s had an epiphany and now clearly and truly knows the details of my profession. I’m certain that she really does not know, nor will she ever really understand the creation process of an MMO. And perhaps that’s good. Because grandma, if you’re reading this, there are a few other things you need to add to your list.

Let me tell you a story:

When I started working on Guild Wars, all we really had was a central lobby and one and a half complete missions. Basically there was enough there to prove that the game was fun to play, but on a very, very small scale. As the game started to grow and more of the pieces fell into place, the more the world took on a life of its own. There began to be choices you could make, different characters to play, and new locations to explore.

It was fun, watching the world grow and expand. And at the very beginning, I was able to completely scour every square inch of the game on a daily basis.

When our first fully arted town showed up, I decided it was time to give it a name, place it firmly in the world and begin the process of developing lore around it and the people who lived there. So I started tinkering with different names and doing a little research, just trying to get the creative juices moving.

While poking around online I came across a cool little website about model trains. In one article, the guy was ranting about how people who build replica towns for their train sets often name them after family members. He was just furious that the realism wasn’t being preserved, because, come on, model trains are a very serious business, and finding out that the next stop on the line is Peggy Sueville just ruins the fun for everyone.

The author launched into a dissertation about how real towns came to be called what they are. He pointed out that the physical features of a particular piece of land often influenced the naming of towns founded in that area. He talked about immigrants and different languages, pointed out real-life examples of how town names were constructed. He even included a couple of columns, one of translated words from a host of different languages and one of appropriate suffixes. He then included a formula for how one might put words from the respective columns together to create simple, respectable town names based on who lived there and its physical features.

I decided to try out his system, so I took another stroll through the town. There were quaint little houses and a windmill. There were short, rolling hills and a couple of fields. There were all sort of things that might set this town apart from any other we would be making, but by far the dominant feature was that this particular village was located beside a very nice little lake.

That was it. I had my name. It was the City by the Lake. All I had to do now was plug it into the formula, and voila, I would have it.

I referenced and cross referenced. I took one word from column A and a suffix from column B, and I was so pleased with myself. I typed the name into the spreadsheet, checked it into Perforce, and with the next build it was in the game.

The nightly play test started on time, and this is what everyone in the company saw flashed across their entire screen in big bold letters as they crossed the zone boundary line and stepped into the town the first time:

LAGBOUROUGH.

That’s right. I named a town in an MMO Lagbourough.

The programmers all thought I was making fun of them for how the game was performing. And as you can imagine, I was not the most popular person in the company at that particular point in time. Fortunately, making a change was as simple as opening the spreadsheet and replacing the offending name with something more appropriate. In the end, that particular town was renamed a total of five times—not because each successive name was a bad as its first, but because the game world changed significantly around it. And with each makeover, the town outgrew its previous name. Eventually, we shipped the game with that town being called Lion’s Arch.

What can be learned from this?

Well, first off, the details are important, especially names. Players are smart. In addition to being early adopters and generally on the cutting edge of technology, MMO players like a challenge. Oftentimes, they play games because static media doesn’t, obviously, provide the same level of interactivity and therefore isn’t as challenging. Players actually pay attention to the details, and as such, they aren’t going to miss subtle innuendo (or what amounts here, in my example, to simple stupidity). If you make a mistake or try to drop a reference that you think is going to get past your audience, it will get caught.

Additionally, names should be easy to pronounce and recognize. Nobody wants to have to sound out something that they can’t read. Names with too many X’s or Z’s, or that go on without any vowels, or anything with apostrophizes in it—these should be revised. Names can greatly impact the emotional attachment and overall feeling for a character or town. They should be considered and evaluated long and hard before they are put into print or in a game.

And finally, the biggest thing here to keep in mind is that when you are making a multi-million dollar game with a staff of a hundred or more people, there are going to be some mistakes made, and not everything works smoothly. Sometimes these mistakes make it into the live environment. Someday I suspect there will be enough of these sorts of stories that we’ll be able to put together an entire book. Maybe we can release it as a premium feature in the next collector’s edition box.

We’ll call it, “Inside the Sausage Casing: The Making of an MMO.”

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Jess Lebow's MMO Story Hour
Jess Lebow is a veteran story teller, game writer, and novelist. He’s been in the game industry for over 10 years, working on titles ranging from Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons to Guild Wars and Pirates of the Burning Sea. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
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