Rapid Fire: What’s In A Name, Part One

The big news of the week – Microsoft has officially decided to name its next system “Xenon”. Big deal? You betcha.

Why the fuss over the name? Because the name is possibly the most important part of the system. The name is the first thing a potential buyer hears, and that first impression goes a long way toward a purchase (or a decision not to purchase). The name will be spoken, written, and screamed by gamers and store owners for five years after it’s announced. It’s got to be catchy, memorable, and able to stand the test of time. Simply put, during the pre-launch period, the name IS the system.

A good name meets all of the above criteria, but also sheds some light on what the system hopes to achieve. And sometimes, a system’s name is so powerful that it gets carried over to the next console cycle. Other times, the system is such a dismal failure that the next system has a totally different name. But in any event, when it comes to video game systems, a name is more than just a name,

Time and perspective have allowed us to break down system names into three distinct groups. One deals with the building of a brand, the second emphasizes technology over marketabilty, and the third is just the opposite of the second.

The Introductory Group
Most developers choose to insert the company name into their first system, thereby comprising the Introductory Group. This group is rather generically titled; however, it also contains two of the biggest systems ever released.

Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES singlehandedly made the Nintendo Corporation a household name. The combination of affordable hardware, irresistible games, and a killer buzz turned Nintendo into the standard-bearer in video game systems. Nintendo didn’t feel it had to create a snazzy name for its system; instead, it focused on marketing the Nintendo brand, which has proven itself to be an extremely successful maneuver.

Sega Master System. The Sega Master System had the unenviable task of competing with the NES for the industry’s market share, which was rather small at the time. However, the competition served to benefit Sega in one way, as video game fans began to recognize Sega as a big name in the video game industry. This set the stage for the Genesis to become the industry’s top draw.

Sony Playstation. Sony has long been successful in creating brands by adding their company name to whatever they’re trying to promote (Sony Trinitron, Sony Vaio, etc.). The Playstation was no different. Sony’s system had been hyped for some time by gaming fans and tech buffs alike, and the public responded by making the Playstation into a juggernaut. In fact, it was so good that the Playstation brand became almost as big as the Sony brand, with the third Playstation on its way.

You might be wondering where the TurboGrafx 16, NEC’s first system, belongs in the Introductory Group. Well, it actually belongs in a different group, since it didn’t call attention to the company name. This group is known as…

The Fanboy Group
This group is named as such because the names in this group mention aspects of system hardware that the general public knows very little about. To gamers, though, they’re deal-breakers. As such, these features warrant mentioning in the system’s name.

Turbo-Grafx 16. NEC decided to buck an unestablished trend by attempting to build the Turbo-Grafx brand instead of promoting NEC as a video game powerhouse. The results weren’t so good, in large part because the industry wasn’t ready for a third system to be competitive. The truth is, most people didn’t care about 16-bit graphics outside of the gaming world. The system’s later attempt to rebrand itself as the TurboDuo failed, and NEC exited the gaming business, albeit with little damage to the company name.

Nintendo 64. People cared a whole lot more about the first part of the system’s name than the numerical portion. Perhaps this was Nintendo’s attempt to showcase the system’s 64-bit graphical abilities while simultaneously distancing the Nintendo name from the NES system that gamers grew up with. In theory, the company would benefit from prolonged marketability, while gamers would love the system because of its games and its advanced technology. Instead, the Nintendo 64 never reached the heights of the prior Nintendo systems, sending the company into the console slump it currently finds itself in.

Completely opposite of the Fanboy Group is the next group, which places a great level of importance on the system’s appearance instead of what it can do. These systems, not coincidentally, have been the two most recent consoles on the market in this era of mainstream-friendly gaming.

The Geometric Group
In today’s era of console development, there’s more than just bringing the best technology and best games to the market. The technology can be there, and it almost always is, but there must also be a sort of hook for the casual audience. Something to wow the unsuspecting consumer and get them thinking about the system not as a game system, but as a must-have device. As a result, the system’s look – and the distinctiveness of that look – is given heightened significance.

X-Box. Microsoft uses two separate suggestions to convey the overall package of its system. First, the “x-factor” which represents the unknown future, and the “box” calls to mind the notion of many things included in one package, or box. Combining the two, we have unlimited possibilities coming from one box – the X-Box. Call it corny, but it works. You can save games onto that box. You can burn CDs onto that box. You can get awesome graphics from that box. So much has been packed into that box, you don’t even need Microsoft’s brand power to sell it to you.

Nintendo GameCube. Again, Nintendo tries to allow a brand to stand on its own without having to rely on the N-word. By having a system called “GameCube”, consumers can refer to it by that title without having to preface it with “Nintendo”. The system’s shape was a major marketing point upon release, with mini-disc games being sold for its incredibly small system. However, as remarkable as the system performs in spite of its small stature, maybe it would play even bigger if the Nintendo side of the equation were more prominent. One could make the argument that Nintendo tried a little too hard to create a new identity for itself. This reinvention strategy backfired on Nintendo, with Nintendo perhaps being a victim of its own previous successes with the casual gamer market. After all, without a big-time Mario game at launch, it barely felt like a Nintendo system was launching.

With all three of the current Big Three consoles returning for another cycle, the names they choose for their next systems have great significance. Not only for the future, but to provide reflections on the current console cycle as it winds down to a close. Next week, we’ll look at each of these next-generation consoles, their names, and what we may be able to expect out of these names.

See you next week!!