Kongregate Developer’s Blog

The Agony and Ecstasy of Coming Up with Achievement Names

I'm pretty sure I've designed more achievements in games than anyone else on the planet.

I don't make this claim lightly. I've been making badges at Kongregate for 10 years now, with nearly 3,000 achievements total. I wrote a popular Gamasutra article about how to design them, and later spoke at GDC about achievement design.

I've gotten this down to a science. Play a game (until you know it inside and out), identify potential tasks, filter out the bad ones (see above Gamasutra article), expand on the best ones, carefully set the thresholds (not too easy, not too long/frustrating), decide what difficulty it should be, ensure it highlights the best the game has to offer, make sure all the technical API submissions are working properly, find a relevant image, crop/resize it, BOOM, done!

...except, wait, no, it needs a name. Dammit. That's always the hardest part.

Whenever I speak with developers during the achievement-making process, I always give them a chance to suggest names if they want, and about 90% of the time their response is, "I'm not good at coming up with achievement names." Well, no, no one is. It's hard. They don't exactly teach this in school. I've been doing this for a decade and it's still really hard. In fact, maybe it's even harder for me now because I've already strip-mined the depths of my subconscious for anything usable as an achievement name (they're all unique on Kongregate).

So this article is an attempt at explaining a process (yes, there is a process -- I'm not just staring at the ceiling for no reason) that most game developers will need to go through at some point (achievements are everywhere now), while at the same time admitting that it's really hard and I'm still not super great at it.

From there we'll explore, more broadly, what the value is in adding these sorts of little details to your game.

Tier 1 Achievement Names: Cultural References

The first step to coming up with an achievement name is brainstorming mental associations. ANY mental associations. The best achievement names usually take some reference to something and change that reference slightly in such a way that is relevant to the achievement task. This is super important. Unless there is some special context (elaboration to follow), you can't just reference something letter-by-letter and have that count as a joke.


Welcome to Medical Mechanica Children's Hospital!

And you shouldn't just tweak that reference in such a way that is irrelevant to the subject matter of the game/achievement, either. Ideally, players should understand the reference being made, what the connection is between that reference and the game/achievement task, and how that relates to the small change you've made. It is ultimately the strength of the connection between the material being referenced and the idea that you're presenting in the achievement design that will determine how good of a name it is. Additionally, the name should stand on its own and make sense to someone even if they don't get the reference. You shouldn't have to explain that it's a reference for the name to make sense; that should be an added layer.

Chippin' Dale

_The developer actually came up with the name for this Slayaway Camp badge, which requires the player to push a character named Dale into a wood chipper. This name would be 100% perfect if there were a stronger relationship between male strippers/Rescue Rangers and Slayaway Camp, but it's basically perfect otherwise._

Words with Fiends

_Words Warriors is a word-themed game with a badge that references another word-themed game, with tiny a word-themed tweak that reflects a key difference (you're fighting enemies with words in this one)._

The Band Before Time

_This badge in Super Crazy Guitar Maniac Deluxe 4 requires the player to get a high score on a song called "Dinosaur Dance Floor" -- the Land Before Time reference here wouldn't really work without that detail._

Raiders of the Lost Bark

_This Indiana Jones reference in Raiders Took My Dog is somewhat obvious, if only because it fits so perfectly -- it could practically be the title of the game itself. The "Golden Achiever" badge name in this game is also pretty good, and both of these names actually came from the forums, so I can't claim any credit. (Thanks for all your name suggestions, Precarious!)_

One caveat, which is going to directly contradict everything else in this section: References don't have to be changed if they're common/generic enough phrases or if they relate strongly enough to the game/achievement subject material to stand on their own even aside from being references to something. Here are some examples:

Where the Sidewalk Ends

_Dead End St. is a game that's themed around streets and sidewalks, and the badge is themed around reaching the end. Also, the Shel Silverstein book/poem by the same name was referencing an already common concept._

The Way the Cookie Crumbles

_You need to defeat a giant cookie in Burrito Bison Revenge to earn this badge. The phrase is generic enough to use as-is, and the added bonus here is that the phase is usually intended as a metaphor, but in this case it's more literal (taking metaphorical colloquialisms and applying them literally to achievement tasks is another great little formula when it makes sense)._

"And It Was All Yellow"

_Quoting relevant song lyrics appears in Kongregate badges somewhat regularly, but none apply as perfectly as the badge name in Yellow. In fact, the game itself seems structured around the Coldplay song by the same name -- the whole point of the game is literally turning the screen "all yellow." This name probably took about 5 seconds to come up with, which is something I wish were more normal..._

Operation Market Garden

_I'm breaking my own rules again with this name in Bunny Flags -- I didn't change the reference, and it's not a generic phrase (in fact, it's so obscure that no one would understand it as a reference if I changed anything). But rules can be broken if there's a good enough reason -- in this case, Bunny Flags is already very military-themed, and the badge requires the player to complete all of the garden levels. It makes perfect sense just on its own (arguably more sense than the actual military operation by the same name)._

Tier 2 Achievement Names: Wordplay

This can overlap a bit with the former group, if the achievement name is both a cultural reference AND a play on words:

Peddle to the Medal

_Swords & Potions is a game about running a shop and selling equipment to adventurers. There's a common phrase being referenced here, but only the spelling (not phonetics) of that phrase is altered. Bonus for two words being changed this way!_

Raze the Roof

_Another common phrase with only the spelling and not phonetics changed appears in this Villainous badge. You're literally destroying villages to earn this badge, so it fits perfectly._

Land Blown Under

_I don't know how perfectly this badge name in Sydney Shark fits this category, but I still like it a lot. The game is themed around Australia, and you earn the badge by nuking Sydney. This badge name would be perfect if the phonetics were somehow the same between "down" and "blown," but whatever, the words look similar enough at least, right?_

Causal Gamer

_This badge name in Chronotron is one of my favorites on the whole site. The game is all about manipulating time and causality, and the nature of the reference is relevant to the game itself (or a related industry, at least). I also love that the "reference tweak" here is so subtle that some players thought it was an unintentional misspelling._

Felis Navidad

_This perfect (purrrfect? sorry) badge name in Christmas Cat is another one that came from the forums, so again I claim no credit (you guys wanna write the next article?). Here we have the song Feli-- ah, you know what, you can figure this one out._

But even if you're not referencing anything specifically, there's a lot you can do with just playing around with words themselves:

"Cyan-ara!"

_I'm pretty damn proud of this badge name in Zak, but it might need some explanation if you haven't played it. The whole game is themed around running quickly, and the badge task is a time trial. The power within the game that enables your character to run so quickly is called "Cyan." The connections here between that and "sayonara" only entered my brain by some miracle._

Arm a Dillo

_This badge in Curl Up and Fly requires the player to purchase all 152 in-game upgrades for your animals (one of which is an armadillo, of course). _

Bakin' Bacon

_Kamikaze Pigs has some great badge names in general, thanks to lcenine's game comment. This one is for frying 100 pigs._

Finnish Finish

_Complete all the songs in Finland to earn this badge in Santa Rockstar: Metal Xmas 3._

I'm pretty sure that I single-handedly make up about half the traffic on Rhymezone.com. One shortcut here is to think of a word that directly relates to the game/achievement, then search for rhyming words. You can also take this a step further by starting with a little phrase or saying that applies directly to the game or task included in your achievement, then load up a rhyming dictionary and see if there are any words that you can replace with rhyming words to tweak the phrase a bit (making it more your own and perhaps even more relevant to the game/task).

Hostile Goggle Debacle

_The above process is probably most obvious in all 3 badges in Road of Fury 2. You're fighting against the evil Goggle corporation, and a rhyming dictionary yields "debacle." "Hostile" is a near-rhyme that I (probably) came up with on my own. The other badge names in Road of Fury 2 ("Road Range" and "Fast and Luxurious," the latter suggested by wouterboy) follow the alternate pattern of rhyming with a replaced word in phrases ("road rage" and "Fast and Furious" here) rather than another word in the name, but otherwise the process is the same -- just hunt for rhymes (or at least near-rhymes). The Road Range badge is for traveling a set distance, and the Fast and Luxurious badge is for upgrading your car, so the rhyming words are directly related to the badge tasks (in addition to the root references being related to driving cars)._

Fleeting Greedling Greeting

_"Greedlings" are the names of enemies in Witch Hunt. "Greeting" is a fairly obvious rhyme from there, and if you plug it into a rhyming dictionary, you'll find "fleeting," which relates to the badge task because you're killing greedlings. This isn't an amazingly great badge name, but it also illustrates the process pretty well._

Hook, Line and Thinker

_Hook is a puzzle game that contains both hooks and lines. Again the process here is pretty obvious -- just take a phrase ("hook, line and sinker") that relates to the game in some way, then replace a word with another word that suits the game more accurately, and have it rhyme with the word you replaced._

Pony Distress

_Kick the Critter ends with defeating ponies. Start with a phrase related to ponies ("pony express" here), then again swap in a word that relates to the game more closely._

Tier 3 Achievement Names: Alliteration

Alliterations are always available avenues. But they're cheap, easy, and really not that clever. The first sentence of this paragraph took me about 5 seconds to come up with, which is probably a surprise to no one. But if you're really, really stuck, alliteration might be your best option. And if you're having a hard time with even that, here's another trick -- think up a short little phrase that describes your achievement, then hit up the thesaurus and use it to change one of the words to another word whose first letter matches the first letter of the other word (or words) in the phrase. For example, you might start with the super-generic phrase "protecting sovereignty" to describe completing the game "50 Years (graphical)", which requires building up a nation-state and protecting it from invasion. Plug the word "protecting" into a Thesaurus and it'll show that you can swap "protecting" with "safeguarding" to get some alliteration going with "Safeguarding Sovereignty." Here are some other examples of alliteration in badge names:

Mr. Mitsk's Missing Memorabilia

_In Zombie Society - Dead Detective, players assist a Mr. Mitsk with retrieving a lost item of personal significance._

Ship-Shape Shipments

_This is the only G-rated badge name in High Tea, a game about 19th century tea and opium commerce. It's probably one of the better alliteration-themed badge names on Kongregate, which isn't saying a whole lot._

Ten Times the Turtle Torture

_Wow, 5 words that start with the same letter in Epic Combo! You might say that that in and of itself is a bit of an epic combo (hur hur). It's usually best to limit alliteration to 2 words, since going beyond that starts to fall into the "trying too hard" category. You can go a little crazier if you find a great phrase that suits the game perfectly, but bear in mind that no matter how many words you use, alliteration by itself is never going to be considered all that clever._

Make no mistake -- most alliteration badge names exist on Kongregate because I couldn't think of something better. Really, don't give yourself too much credit for this tier of achievement name.

Tier 4 Achievement Names: Just Don't Try Too Hard

Maybe you're reading this article and thinking, "Dude, a lot of the Kongregate badge names are actually pretty bland -- you're not exactly Rembrandt here." That's because when you've got nothing, admit that you've got nothing. Don't shoehorn a reference that doesn't fit. Don't allude to a common phrase/saying super awkwardly. And don't just throw two words together because they start with the same letter. If you really, really, really can't come up with something clever, then just admit to yourself that, in this moment, you have failed as human being, but that's okay. There will be other moments of living as a human being, other achievements to name, other ways to color our shared reality with your unique personality. But for now, just hang your head low and go with something generic -- this is actually much better than a terrible name with a forced joke/reference.

And yes, there are plenty of terrible badge names on Kongregate. I'm the first to admit this. Why, why didn't I just go with something generic instead of "Eye-Rock Exit Strategy"? Don't let yourself live with this same regret.

God Tier Achievement Names: None of the Above

The above formulas are really just for getting the process started, or if you're stuck. The absolute best achievement names probably won't fit into any pre-defined category, or they might reference something within the game itself rather than an outside pop culture element. This gives the player a stronger connection between the achievement name and the game itself, especially since the achievement name will live on in their profiles, and it'll remind players of something within the game every time they read through their badge collection.

pǝʇɟıɥs

_It is only by some miracle that this badge name in Shift didn't break the whole site (yes, I have actually done this before with a special character in a badge name -- sorry Kongregate engineers!). If this badge name doesn't make sense, it's because you haven't played Shift yet, which is your own problem that you should correct ASAP._

If (Recursion) {Recursion};

_Lightbot 2.0 is a game about learning to program, so naturally the badge name had to follow suit (recursions are explicitly taught in the game, also). Again I am grateful that this badge name didn't somehow break the whole website._

Sesquipedalian

_This badge name in Clockwords: Prelude doesn't really count as wordplay because it's just one English word with no changes. But the word itself is long, and it literally refers to long words. Clockwords is a Scrabble-like game where the goal is to make long words, and the badge task here is to deal 100 damage with a single word._

You + Doodle God = Badge

_Kongregate's badge system automatically adds the word "Badge" to the end of every achievement name, which is sometimes a bit awkward, but sometimes it allows for some creative badge names that incorporate the word "Badge" into the name itself. Doodle God is probably the best example of this because it fits the game's theme so well -- you're combining elements to create new "things" in Doodle God, and that theme is referenced in the badge name itself as part of its naming structure. Thanks to Thok for suggesting this one!_

In general, when a name comes to you, and it "clicks," trust that moment! That's the moment where you're hitting on some universal quality that's difficult to fully articulate -- a weird quality of something abstract that countless artists have spent thousands of years attempting to capture to the best of their individual abilities.

On Being Human

I don't think robots will ever be able to automate achievement names, which is kind of weird because robots are able to automate a lot of other things that seem much more difficult. I guess the inescapable conclusion here is that we're putting a little piece of our own human souls into every achievement name that we come up with.

More broadly, though, all of us are always putting a little piece of ourselves into everything we create, whether it's a painting or a sandwich. It's all a spectrum, and achievement names are on this spectrum -- probably somewhere between high art and that sandwich, if I had to guess. But I often joke with friends and coworkers that aliens from the future could probably reconstruct most of my personality entirely from Kongregate badge names. There's very little kicking around in that ol' noggin that isn't represented in a badge name somewhere on the site.

Luckily for us achievement-namers, humans born within the same cultural zeitgeist are (for the most part) not as unique as we like to pretend. As the occultist Paul Foster Case once said, "...the adept realizes that his personal existence is nothing but the manifestation of the relationship between self-consciousness and subconsciousness. He sees, too, that self-consciousness and subconsciousness are not themselves personal, but are really modes of universal consciousness. Thus he knows that his personality has no separate existence."

Fishing the depths of our subconscious minds for achievement names is really just a form of meditation. We have a focal point, and a specific goal in mind. We're concentrating all our mental energy on receiving that achievement name from somewhere in our psyche. When we land our fish, we're greeted with the same "aha!" moment that accompanies any other realization about anything else. The actual hooking of this fish is beyond our direct conscious control, but we always know when we get a bite.

"Just think about it, deeply, and then forget it. An idea will... jump up in your face." - Don Draper, Mad Men

Admittedly, there have been times when a badge name has come to me, and only a split-second later did I consciously realize that it was a reference to an inside joke with a small group of friends. Obviously this isn't usable, but still, it's a sign that I'm fishing in mental waters at the appropriate depth. You should be scanning your whole mind -- the entire collection of your life experiences -- for anything at all that might have some connection to the achievement you're naming. Filter out the overly obscure ones (just in general, I probably toss out 5-10 achievement names for every 1 that I actually use), but don't worry too much in the initial brainstorming phase about whether the names are universal enough. Most of your mind (probably) already overlaps with the mass mind of your culture anyway, so take that as an asset and plunge away!

What's the Point of All This?

After the 2000th badge went live on Kongregate, I announced to my Facebook friends that my job is really hard:

Seriously though, why? What is the point of spending so much mental energy on these dumb little achievement names that half the people don't even read? Perhaps Frank Underwood of House of Cards said it best when he mused, "I think people underestimate the importance of detail to the overall impact."

It's these little details that bring your product to life, almost in a literal sense, because the "essence" of what you're inserting into your product is virtually synonymous with what life even is to begin with.

Consider AdVenture Capitalist, one of Kongregate's most popular published games. But more specifically, consider the managers in that game:

Hyper Hippo could have instead given the game generic managers with generic names, and it would have undoubtedly taken a lot less effort. Why didn't they just do that, instead of loading the game with pop culture references?

And why does Hearthstone have such well-thought-out flavor text to every single card in the entire game, which is only even viewable in the collection manager?

These are rhetorical questions with obvious answers, and yet, these answers are too often ignored when deadlines are looming and corners are in danger of being cut.

Your players are going to have an emotional connection to your game. They're going to know the game was built by humans and not robots. But how deeply your players are consciously aware of these things is largely decided by how much of your own "higher mind stuff" (call it soul, imagination, creativity, whatever) you have inserted into your game experience.

Implemented properly, adding "soul" to your game will augment its commercial success -- this isn't an either/or proposition. Back when I was running Kongregate's web game sponsorship program, one of the most common points of confusion for new developers was the fact that they could get a viral hit off a Game Jam game (or something else equivalent) with a development cycle of a few days, but when they sunk months into a much larger project, the viral success was often much lower. Why?

Why would a short game frantically crafted on a caffeine binge in a social setting be more successful than a "real" game, a "real" project, being developed from the ground up for the sole purpose of commercial success? It's because when you're in a human, emotionally charged state, and when you're acting on pure inspiration and "drive," you're almost inevitably going to create something that resonates with people a lot more than something that was crafted more as a work project. It's the same as the difference between work that is created because an artist feels a drive to create vs. work that is created because an artist has been tasked with creating something. Are you doing it for yourself or for the external rewards? Even if the truth is more in line with the latter (yeah, yeah...), you still need to find that center within yourself that creates purely for the sake of creating, and operate from that space.

"Even though it's a game that people are supposed to buy, it's not a game that I made 'for people.' I made it for myself. Ed and I made it as a reflection of ourselves." - Tommy Refenes speaking about Super Meat Boy, a game that received no shortage of critical and commercial success

If you don't put your heart into what you're making, people can tell, just like they can tell the difference between when I couldn't come up with a good badge name and when I've really struck gold. This distinction is difficult to articulate and impossible to quantify, and it might seem unnecessary from a utilitarian point of view. But it's so incredibly crucial, because your players are (hopefully) going to be hooked and having fun playing your game, and they might not be able to fully articulate exactly why.

There are a lot of factors here that contribute to a game like AdVenture Capitalist being as inexplicably fun as it is, but one of the biggest factors is just now much of the developers' lighthearted sense of humor comes through in all the game's little details. Don't underestimate their importance!

This Is Really Hard

I've already mentioned this a few times, but it deserves emphasis. It also deserves emphasis that the Kongregate community has named hundreds of badges on the site (including some highlighted in this article, for those skimming) by making suggestions on the forums and in game comments:

Maybe there's some lesson here about player community engagement or my ability to evaluate the best suggestions, but really, I'm just grateful to have some help coming up with achievement names, since it's really hard (I've mentioned that, right?).

...But It's Worth It

If there's anything more life-affirming than what's depicted in the above image, I sure haven't found it.