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Undead Labs
RPG | Setting:Fantasy | Status:Cancelled  (est.rel 2015)  | Pub:Kabam
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Naming the Creatures of Moonrise (Or, “How to Name Other People’s Pets”)

By Andy Collins on December 03, 2014 | Developer Journals | Comments

Naming the Creatures of Moonrise (Or, “How to Name Other People’s Pets”)

Hello again, and welcome to this week’s developer diary on the story of Moonrise, the new creature-collection battle RPG from Undead Labs and Kabam.

Today Andy is joined by Moonrise designer Brian Giaime, and together they’ll discuss the process used to name the many unusual creatures (collectively known as Solari) inhabiting the game world.

BRIAN: Hello! I am, as stated, Brian Giaime, designer on Moonrise, and responsible for combat design, the game’s economy, and character progression.

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ANDY: And I’m still Andy, lead writer...which includes the subtitle “Chief of Naming Stuff.”

BRIAN: While most of my day is spent playing the game or staring at a spreadsheet and tuning various numbers, one of the most exciting challenges I face is the creation of new Solari. Assigning a name to these creatures helps crystallize their design by providing directional guidance on their stats, skills, and overall game feel.

ANDY: Naming is a crucial part of world-building. That’s why my early world-building proposals included names for the people and creatures, even though I knew the chance of any of those names surviving to publication was extremely slim.

BRIAN: The name is often the first thing the player learns about an element of our game world, be it a Solari, a skill, or a place. Setting the proper tone, and establishing an understanding of that element, begins the moment the player reads that name.

ANDY: The right names also help your players set their expectations for the world around their characters. Imagine how differently you’d see a world inhabited by Death Toads and Killbugs, rather than one where you might encounter a Wiggleby or Frogaroo!

The friendly Frogaroo.

BRIAN: Names do a lot more heavy lifting than they’re often given credit for. Especially for Solari, the name must endeavor to tell you what this thing is capable of, how it works, and what it’s good at.

ANDY: We like Solari names that communicate the creature’s affinity (the elemental “allegiance” it has). Solari that wield fire have names like Emberjaw and Kindlehoof, while those with the Stone affinity have names like Blockhead and Rockhound.

Can you tell an Emberjaw from a Blockhead?

We also use names to communicate the relative power levels between Solari: big Solari should have big-sounding names. You’d expect a Geonormous to be bigger than a Rockhound, for example.

BRIAN: You also might expect them to be slow, and ponderous. You’d be right! These Solari tend to wield big, slow stone skills with long cooldowns and huge effects when they land. When you see one in the wild, its name and its appearance are, for a fleeting moment, all the information available as you learn how to best do battle with them.

ANDY: Since our Solari exist in an evolutionary continuum, with many being “related” to one or more others, I like using common elements across a group of related Solari. This helps players more intuitively associate Solari with their “relatives.” It’s not hard to guess that Snaptrap evolves into Snapcoil which evolves into Snapdragon.

One big happy (and potentially carnivorous) family.

ANDY: You can’t use all of these tools in every name, nor should you. First of all, you’d go insane trying...and on top of that, slavishly adhering to the same naming formula can result in some very formulaic names.

BRIAN: Ideally, the wide variety of names across our Solari reflect the genuinely wide variety we strive for in terms of character design and gameplay. Each of these critters ought to bring something new and different to the table, and formulaic naming practices would fight pretty powerfully against that.

ANDY: As it turns out, there’s a surprising amount of science when inventing new words (which is basically what naming is about). There’s real power in creating names whose sounds are inherently pleasing or displeasing (the study of which is called phonaesthetics), or whose sounds carry meaning in and of themselves (phonesthesia).

For example, consider the Squizzle. That “squi-” sound is common to words like squish, squiggle, squirm, and squid...all words that suggest something soft and undulating. Since the Squizzle is a small squid-like creature, that’s pretty accurate. Also, Q and Z are unusual letters, suggesting that this is an unusual, perhaps even alien creature. Since it’s the first tier of a decidedly alien-looking beast that eventually evolves into the mighty Squithulhu, the name does a good job of letting you intuit something about the creature even before you’ve seen it!

Can something be cute and gross at the same time?

On the other hand, the Whiffle sounds like something airy and non-threatening. In fact, “whiffle” is a somewhat archaic word referring to a slight movement of air, or the sound thereof...and also a term in ornithology to describe a specific odd flight pattern, though I knew neither of these when I came up with the name. (Of course, Lewis Carroll fans may also recognize this word from the classic poem, “The Jabberwocky,” in which the eponymous creature is described as “whiffling through the tulgey wood,” which was probably in the back of my mind.) All in all, perfect for a small, fluttery, owl-like Solari.

The wondrous Whiffle.

BRIAN: All of this, of course, is an overview of our philosophy and goals for names. We haven’t gotten around to the process for naming, which is, shall we say, organic. It all starts with a piece of concept art, dreamt up and rendered by one of our impossibly talented artists:

ANDY: I love seeing new concept art show up. It’s always exciting to find out what crazy new chimerical beast our artists have delivered. But this step shows one of the pitfalls of naming that can bedevil a studio: the bane of the placeholder name.

You have to have placeholder names. I mean, you need to call this poor creature SOMETHING before you finalize its name, and only a heartless designer would name a lovingly crafted piece of art something like “Fire07_Tier02.”

BRIAN: There is literally a Solari with an (internal) ID of Fire.7.1.2.

Brian calls you “Fire.7.1.2” but we know you as Blastropod.

ANDY: The drawback of a placeholder name that sounds even remotely plausible is that the longer people use it, the more attached they get. This is true even if it is a demonstrably terrible or inappropriate name. It can be extremely difficult to wean a studio away from a placeholder name once it’s really sunk into the collective consciousness.

BRIAN: It’s easy for folks to get attached to a creature they’ve helped to build, but at the end of the day, what matters is the end user’s experience, and the degree to which they can understand and appreciate the creatures we’re bringing into existence.

ANDY: And then there’s Porpoisely, a placeholder name that didn’t quite work for me. But when I tried to change it, a certain programmer who shall remain nameless made it QUITE CLEAR during a lunch outing that any alteration to his beloved Porpoisely’s name was UNACCEPTABLE. He was quite calm about it, but I sensed the steely emotion hiding just beneath the surface.

Okay, maybe that’s overstated just slightly...but it was clear that not only was this Solari his favorite of all the creatures in the game, he was completely invested in its goofy name. I realized that I was underestimating the value of this goofy name to a certain subset of players...potentially the very players who might love this bizarre creature. And so it remains Porpoisely.

BRIAN: While the name and character design started as sort of a joke, it evolved into a phenomenon all its own, with the then-placeholder name influencing his tuning, his in-game skillset, and his animations, creating a shockingly cohesive character. A terrifying, terrifying character.

Jamie, this one’s for you.

ANDY: It’s important to remember that no name will appeal to everyone. That’s actually a plus for our game, because it means that different players will gravitate toward different Solari based in part on their names. If they all used the same naming shtick, or appealed to the same player psychographic, you might lose that benefit.

Another critical step in the naming process is to get the right stakeholders in on the decision-making process at the right time. That means identifying who has the standing to push back on your naming proposals, but it can also include folks who have a strong emotional or professional link to the critters being named. Including these stakeholders in your naming process increases the likelihood of your names being accepted, which makes your life easier.

BRIAN: Unless you have a small team, not everybody can be in the loop—that just ensures no decisions get made.

ANDY: So how do you choose who to include? Well, I knew I needed Brian in that loop. After all, he’s the one responsible for turning the pictures into fully playable creatures. My vision of what each Solari is like had to fit his vision of how they worked in the game.

BRIAN: Sometimes, combat development gets moving before we’ve picked a name - oftentimes, the “unique skill” for a Solari winds up meaningfully influencing their names. Since unique skills are often contrived based on concept art or animation goals, this tends to create creature designs that are cohesive - named and animated for character elements that are reflected in the combat experience to be had using this character.

Take for example, the Vulcature, a winged stone Solari that uses lots of Fire techniques, including a Fire-affinity attack unique to this creature. These elements were known before we had a name.

The critter in question.

ANDY: This was a tough name because of the Solari’s blend of affinities. Tying its name too closely to Fire or Stone risks the player missing out on its core coolness. So what’s a blend of Fire and Stone?

BRIAN: VOLCANOES! Err. Sorry. I’ll let you finish.

ANDY: Exactly. And as we brainstormed what to call a winged creature with volcano powers, we somehow stumbled on the perfect blend of Vulcan (Roman god of the forge, and the root of vulcanology, the study of volcanoes) and a well-known bird known for soaring high above the desert where this creature would live.

BRIAN: Vulcan + vulture = Vulcature.

ANDY: Brian and I also made sure to include the directors of design, art, and production in our early naming discussions. These are the folks who guide the game’s style and gameplay, so looping them in when decisions are still being made helps those decisions get accepted studio-wide.

Once the directors seemed reasonably satisfied that our process was providing good results, I allowed them to remove themselves from the day-to-day debates. (They have more than enough on their plates to be happy not worrying about every detail.) Of course, their opinions still carried a lot of weight even when they weren’t “in the room,” so to speak, and in a few cases I tweaked names that Brian and I liked based on their feedback.

At various points, I used other folks in the studio as sounding boards for my names, from design to production to QA. It’s not too hard to figure out who has the time and interest to provide their opinions — they’ll make that clear to you in casual conversations. Whenever I came up with a batch of name ideas, I shared them and let the group explore variations and new directions. In many cases, this helped a good name become a great name.

BRIAN: Good names aren’t always the right names, so it’s worth the effort to make that leap. We really want people to feel for these creatures—to invest emotionally in them, take care in training them up, and feel proud of their team when showing off to their friends. This means we need iconic and memorable names we feel can stand up against time and all the other distractions our players might face. Stuff that’s hard to forget. Sometimes, that means clever wordplay or elaborate schemes have to take a backseat to nonsense words or composite words that roll off the tongue better, or feel more uniquely appropriate.

ANDY: At one point, I had a plan that the evolutionary sequence of Solari that ends in Geonormous would all share the “Geo-” root to indicate their connection. But as they say, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. During a naming workshop I ran recently for industry folks, one of the participants came up with a name that flat-out crushed that plan...so I went with the stronger name rather than sticking to my original concept.

Say hello to Toddlerock

Having the time to stress-test names with the studio and other folks is insanely useful. Of course, we also work in a setting that stresses the importance of actually shipping a game. As much as we’d all like for every name to be absolutely perfect, we recognize that a good name now is far superior to a great name that shows up after our deadline.

And speaking of deadlines, we have an actual game to keep working on, so I’ll draw this article to a close now. Join us next week when Ian returns to lead a discussion on...we'll let you know.