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The Naming of Squads is a Curious Thing

October 8th, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Design

So X-Com: Enemy Unknown comes out tomorrow, and I have already pre-loaded all 12 gigs of it. The reviews are out everywhere that review copies were available, and many former podcasts guests have weighed in with their glowing impressions. Evan Lahti at PCGamer. Dan Stapleton at Gamespy. Rowan Kaiser at GameRanx.

And, of course, my good friend Rob Zacny collaborates with Joe Robinson in a non-review on one of my new favorite sites, PC GamesN.

So if I hate this game, I now have a kill list.

Speaking of kill lists, one of the most remarked on and celebrated features of XCom (old and new) is the ability to name your squad mates. This is not only a great way to see your friends die and tell funny stories about how you killed them, but also a useful mnemonic, since it is easier to remember that you made Julian your heavy or that Bruce is laid up with alien fever than to keep track of Bob Smithov.

This was a thing in the previous month’s fresh hotness, FTL: Faster Than Light. Since I had friends that donated to the Kickstarter, there was always a chance Bruce Geryk would be on my ship anyway. But you could name your starting crew members whatever you pleased, and I did this for a while before I realized that the skill building in the game was kind of unimportant so remembering who was who became less important.

The chance to name your characters is pretty standard in role playing games, of course. In an RPG that me make my entire party, I would often name every character after friends. If I was feeling especially fantasy fancy, I might Tolkienize them first. And choosing the race that suited that person’s name became an important task as well. But I’d also name them after groups I liked – I’d name them after Arthurian characters, or historical contemporaries, or actual Tolkien characters. The evolution of these characters would be guided by the names and my understanding of “What would Merlin choose?” as much as game practicalities.

Yeah, it took me forever to finish Icewind Dale.

I never, however, name my children in Crusader Kings 2. If that means a long run of Vladimirs on the throne, then so be it. For some reason my brain rebels at the idea of naming my next king after a podcast colleague, or marrying off my daughter, Dana Scully, to the prince of Kiev. It doesn’t fit the story in my head to have my friends or fictional characters engage in history like that. If I could name my Civil War generals in a game, I doubt I’d be doing that either.

Now, I’m no historical fidelity purist. In RPGs, I have sent Caesar, Pompey and Cicero through dungeons and had Trudeau, Mulroney and Pearson take down evil wizards.

Still, there are clearly limits to what I will name and when I will name. A squad based WW2 wargame? Take that machine nest, Sgt. Chick. A Total War type game? Sticking with the defaults. I never even name the cities in Civilization anything other than what pops up.

The act of naming can be a powerful tool, and I am sure it speaks to us in different ways. Clearly, I am more interested in naming people and locations in those games that give me some control over my friends and family, but also sees them develop. I sometimes wish Phantom Leader let me name my pilots. More importantly, I want my friends and family to be the center of attention, something less relevant in a game like Crusader Kings 2 or a Total War game where even as the characters gain attributes, they remain subject to the whims and forces of history. I’m not really pushing Queen Nicole around, I’m propping up a monarchy that will live on long after she dies.

Four hours till XCom. Until then, I have to finish video of a game that does let me name my entire crew and I hope Jenn gets out of sick bay soon. We need her on the bridge.


10 Comments so far ↓

  • Mygaffer

    Hey Troy, do you remember quote from about a year ago:
    “Even if X-Com is not a hit, it will sell more as a shooter than it would as a strategy game.”

    That was you in your post just over a year ago here:

    Looks like the shooter is on the back burner and the strategy game is getting all the sales! In fact I would not be surprised if your article and the fairly large backlash against Christoph Hartmann’s comments didn’t lead to the release of this game today.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    I do remember that comment, and if 2K had stood by the shooter team as strongly as they did then, I think I might have been right.

    However, once 2K put Firaxis on the job and moved full bore into promoting the strategy XCom, then the shooter was starved of marketing energy and life. The development seems to be a mess and I feel for that team.

    I will take no credit for 2K’s decision, but I believe sane voices there did pay attention to the outpouring of support for a strategy XCom and took what I hope is a profitable chance. I’ll have more to say on this gamble this week.

  • Mygaffer

    To follow up on my earlier comment I think we are getting passed the point where we have to think that ANY shooter is going to do better in terms of sales and profit than ANY strategy game.

    There has been a huge explosion in indie game development. This is coupled with new ways to play games, from smart phones, tablets, netbooks to the expanding market for games distributed digitally to the expanded marketplaces on traditional consoles like xbox live and PSN.

    Taken together these things have lead to a wider variety of people playing games than might have in the past and a wider variety of games for those people to play. The fact that the originally announced X-COM shooter has no release date in site while the multi-platform TURN BASED strategy game X-COM is launching to fairly robust pre-orders and good reviews shows just how far this shift in the industry is reaching.

    Sure, we still see plenty of 1st/3rd person shooters, cover based shooters, Borderlands 2, Counter Strike GO, BF3, Serious Sam, etc. but these are more and more being balanced out by reboots and new games in genres long thought dead. Right now one of Steam’s featured games is Legend of Grimrock, a grid based RPG of the type not seen for at least a decade by my count. Some really interesting and fun rogue likes have done fairly well recently, I have dumped a good many hours into FTL recently.

    I am around 30 and have been gaming literally for as long as I can remember. I feel like it is a more interesting time to be a gamer than it ever has been before. I hope these trends continue and we see the gritty, dull brown/gray shooter recede to make way for a much richer and wider range of games.

  • Mygaffer

    “I do remember that comment, and if 2K had stood by the shooter team as strongly as they did then, I think I might have been right.”

    I have my doubts on this point, just being a shooter is no guarantee of success in this market, especially with sales weaker than they have been in past years. Look what happened with the Syndicate reboot. I honestly think the Syndicate name hurt the game more than it helped it as the people who still remember playing that game bristled at what EA did to it, basically slapping the name on a completely different game (I know it is a little more complicated than that).

    It also sounds like EA did not do so well with the title, from Wikipedia: “In an interview with CVG, Frank Gibeau of EA, told the website that the Syndicate revival had not been as successful as had been hoped. “Syndicate was something that we took a risk on. It didn’t pay off – it didn’t work,”

    I think it can be dangerous to slap the name from a classic IP on just any old game to try and squeeze out a few more sales. Syndicate was a game that was actually kind of interesting despite its flaws. I can’t help but wonder if it actually would have done better without the backlash from angry fans of the original.

  • Praestlin

    Great insight! I’ll admit I rarely use squad/party naming outside of RPGs with party creation – the selfish feeling that I could be using that creativity on someone that represents ME is overwhelming – but I may make an exception for XCOM, since I’d like to vary up soldier nationalities for that whole “United Colors of Alien-Killing” feel.

    Also, for Total War games (esp. the recent Shogun 2) I never rename, because the game sometimes picks names from Real True History. For example, starting as the Shimazu always names your daimyo after Shimazu Takahisa (or Tadahisa), the actual daimyo of the period. And his sons often take the names of actual descendants, at least until the game runs out of sons to pick and defaults to the random table (my Oda Nobu-something had something like 6 kids, when the real one had 2).

    It’s a very nice touch.

  • Mygaffer

    Troy, what do you think about all the soldiers having American accents despite it being an international force? Design oversight or budget constraint or something else?

  • Adam D

    “So X-Com: Enemy Unknown comes out tomorrow, and I have already pre-loaded all 12 gigs of it.”

    I’m in the same place of anticipation except being in the UK I’m going to have to wait till the end of the week because the brick and mortar stores still have a grip on digital distribution release dates. None of you are allowed to post up how fun and amazing the game is till we get a chance to join in.

  • Phil

    I second Adam D’s comment. Have to wait till Friday, utterly rubbish.

    I did giggle when playing FTL the other day and Bruce Geryk was one of my starting crew members!

  • Peter S

    @Mygaffter – good point, and I think we have DD to thank for that. Lowering the fixed costs of distribution, the barriers to entry, was a huge boon for every genre that had fewer than three “A”s!

    @Praestlin – hey, that’s very cool! Did you play Rise of the Samurai? If so, did you notice that Tomoe-Gozen is in the game (as “Minamoto Tomoe”)?

    @Phil – I saw Bruce (I think he was just called “Geryk”, surname only) as an enemy crewman in FTL! I had to kill him. :(

  • Dave Martin

    On honor of Firaxis making such a fine game, I’m going to name my soldiers on my first Classic Ironman play through after the various Civilization leaders.

    Abraham “Boom Boom” Lincoln.