In multiplayer games, there are four approaches to player naming: Players can type in a name, be assigned a name, choose a name from a list, or have no official name.
Entering their own name
The simple and common approach is to have players enter their own character name. This works well; players can choose a name they want to roleplay, use their standard username, or make up something clever. Duplicate names are disallowed and no one has trouble creating a unique name.
The downside is that some players will create names that break immersion; names that don't fit into the game's design. We've all met "p0wnz0r3dyou" (as Tony11harp said in the forum
), "Stifler's Mom", and "George Clooney". These names range from distracting to offensive. You can try to disallow words, or change names after you catch them, but those stopgaps have never worked well.
Gamers are thick-skinned and are used to dealing with this type of thing. It's even part of the fun in a lot of games. A player's name choice tells you about their personality, and it's exactly one hundred times more satisfying to kill "p0wnz0r3dyou" than to kill Steve. Still, depending on the type of game, bad names can ruin the game's atmosphere, the same way obvious product placement can jar you out of a movie experience. Bad names also discourage other players from choosing good names, because "Tim Stadler" sounds stilted and dorky in a game with names like "GonnaGetYou".
Being assigned a name
Okay, so the solution is just to assign everyone a random name, like in real life, right? Wrong! The player has no attachment to a randomly assigned name; they didn't choose it, they probably don't like it, and it doesn't fit their roleplay expectations. To top it off, statistically, other characters will have better names, for the same reason that the line you choose to wait in is always slower than other lines.
Random names might work if player-parents had 'chosen' the name for a player-child, but that's an uncommon game mechanic, plus it just moves the frustration to the parents who didn't actually get to pick their child's name.
Choosing a name from a list
How about giving players a list of names to choose from? The list has to be big enough for unique names for all of your players. The list could be as big as you like; you could include every name that exists on record, or you could generate fake names. Players could get a list of names starting with whatever letters they type.
The problem: "Hugo Dick", "Shingo Shangle", "Santa Clause", "Mo Cash", and so on. There will be many unforseen combinations equally as distracting. It's also more difficult for players to choose between a large number of names. A confusing range of choices is not a fun start to a game. It's arguably a better solution than random names.
No official name
This is an unusual idea: Rather than giving players a name, don't give them any name. Instead, let each individual player "label" other players with whatever label/name they want. This means that, as a player, you don't know another character's name until someone tells you. Introductions would start realistically with "Hi, I'm Jess", and then you'd label that player "Jess" (or "Rude Guy" if you hated him and didn't care what his name was). This would fit well into a completely player-driven world, and it would prevent distracting names. Few people would have the guts to actually type out "I'm p0wnz0r3dyou" to someone, and anyone that annoying would probably be ignored.
This was almost used for First Earth, but the disadvantages are serious.
It obviously allows people to use fake names and do impersonations, so your game design would have to accommodate that. It removes the unique identifier that is a name, so the only way to identify another player visually would be by their visual characteristics; it's only appropriate for a game that allows unique visual character customization for every player. Further, it means there's no text identifier for unlabeled players, so text interaction with players is complicated. Say, for example, that a smith had crafted a hammer, and it was labeled "Crafted by... ". If the character was unlabeled, what do you put there, a player number? "Unknown"?
In the real world, we can uniquely identify a person intuitively by their appearance. Names are a useful shortcut to simulate that ability in games.
First Earth's experimental hybrid
The "name list" approach shows some promise, so let's start there. A database for First Earth was compiled from US SSA and Census lists of last names, female first names, and male first names, then combined with capitalization information from some internet sources. Each name is unique. Each name has the associated year when it was popular, and how relatively popular it was. This resulted in 165,641 last names, 57,152 female first names, and 31,364 male first names, for a total (combined sexes) of 14.6 billion unique name combinations.
The SSA states that "For U.S. births in 2010, the top 1000 [first] names represent about 73 percent of all names."
. This is pretty obvious when looking at the name database; the top names are names like Mary and Douglas, while the bottom names are names like Yaritzza and Udbhav.
One problem with a name list was that it gives the player a confusing number of choices. Let's reduce 14.6 billion to something reasonable, yet still enough choices that the player can pick a name they like. How about, say, 5 different first and last names? That's 25 combinations.
Would a player be happy with choosing a name from only 5 random names? That depends on how good the choices are. If the 5 are truly random, some players will get terrible choices, and others will get great choices. Since most names in the database aren't popular, this will tend toward 5 terrible choices.
Instead of 5 completely random names, let's use an algorithm to present 5 different types
of more popular names. People want different things in a name, so if we present a few different types of names, they'll have one they prefer. It will stand out to them as the best name by far, compared to the other types, and they'll feel even better about it than they would have if they were given 5 choices of their preferred type.
A name is randomly added to their choices based on each of these criteria:
- Popularity. Names like Margaret or Chris sound normal and many people like this type of name.
- Obscurity. Some people want a unique, attention-catching name like Dajion or Cabibi.
- Alliteration. It might be appealing to have an integrated name like Sherry Sinclair.
- Short. Having a short name makes things easy, and short names tend to be popular names. Mart Hann.
- Long. Someone who wants to have fun with a name might like Eleuterio Tankersley.
The first and last name are chosen separately, giving them even more options, such as a popular first name and short last name. Chris Hann. Everything except Obscure is weighted to some degree toward popular names.
If you're able to choose a permanent name that you like a little, with time it might become more meaningful to you as you develop your character. We'll give this a try in First Earth and see how it goes.
Forum discussion thread for this post.