GameSetWatch has an interesting opinion piece on why The Orange Box is a bad name choice, which they followed up today with another opinion piece on why The Orange Box is NOT a bad name choice. The second piece’s major argument is that Valve’s customers are mostly hardcore players anyway, so they would’ve bought it whatever it was called, and it wasn’t necessary that the name of the product indicate what it contained because everybody who would want to buy it already knew. That really fails to be an argument for why The Orange Box in particular is a good name; the same argument could be made for calling the package Princess Fancy-Pony’s Poop-Sex Massacre.
The first dozen times I heard the name The Orange Box I had no idea what it was; at first I thought it was some kind of new computer company or productivity software, and when I figured out it was from Valve I presumed it was probably a repackaging of all of the original Half Life games (with their orange Half-Life logo), maybe remade in Source like Half Life: Source. Eventually the information finally trickled down to me that The Orange Box was a collection of five games, some old and some new, and that two of the games I’d been mildly interested in — Portal and Team Fortress 2 — would not only be part of it, but would only be available as part of it (unless you bought them separately via Steam, which Valve didn’t advertise at all). At that point, I assumed that The Orange Box was a working title or codename, and they’d change it to something more marketable at launch, but I clearly need to stop expecting non-utilitarian, “friendly” names from a company that officially calls its game engine “Source” because the source code for it was in a folder labeled “source”. (YARLY)
Valve makes great games, but they’re really really bad when it comes to naming them. Half Life is not a title that evokes running around and shooting things; it sounds more like something akin to The Sims (especially since the release of Second Life). And once you learn that Half Life is a first-person shooter, what about Half Life: Opposing Force, Half Life: Blue Shift, Half Life: Generations, and Half Life: Source? What do those titles even mean? Are they remakes of the original Half Life with better graphics or a better engine? Are they sequels? Prequels? Side-stories? Completely unrelated games that all use the Half Life engine? What order are you supposed to play them in? (Yes, I know the answers to all of these questions, but only after actually asking these questions and researching the answers.) If Joe Average has heard a lot of good things about some game called Half Life 2 and heads down to the store to pick it up, is he supposed to start with the box that says Half Life 2, or the box that says Half Life 2: Episode 1? Probably the latter, he reasons, since Star Wars: Episode 1 is a prequel to Star Wars… and certainly not that Orange Box thing, because it has all kinds of confusing stuff crammed into it, and prominently displays Half Life 2: Episode 2, and that’s definitely not the right one to start with. Or, wait, maybe it IS the right one; maybe he’s been mis-hearing it all along and maybe Half Life 2 is shorthand for Half Life 2: Episode 2 and that’s the one that everybody’s REALLY been telling him to play. Or maybe… aw, fuck it. He’s just getting Bioshock. Now there‘s a title that sounds like a game where you run around shooting stuff, there aren’t any numbers so he knows he’s not gonna be jumping in in the middle of a series, and it’s even got a big-ass monster in a cool environment on the cover, whereas the cover of Half Life 2 just has a big picture of Elvis Costello on it.
Seriously, Valve, Half Life 2: Episode 1 is the most confusing video game title EVAR.
The most unfortunate part of this is that The Orange Box is the perfect introductory package to first person shooters, and with the number of moms and other unlikely characters that the Wii is turning into gamers, there sorely needs to be an introductory package to first person shooters. Portal is extremely accessible, presenting its layers incrementally, beginning with the fundamental basics of how to move in a first person shooter, and with very very few ways to die in comparison to every other game in the genre. Likewise, Half Life 2 begins with the same amount of hand-holding and simple instruction, before slowly layering on the standard conventions of first person shooters in a natural way that makes them easy for new players to grasp. (Team Fortress 2, on the other hand, is a whole different ball of wax with no learning curve at all that just dumps you into the action with no idea what’s going on and nobody to teach you except the other players on your team. I stumbled onto my first server pretty much by accident, I still have no idea what the two or three letter acronyms at the beginning of map names mean, I don’t know how much lag is too much lag, and The Official Team Fortress 2 Manual, while quite entertaining, doesn’t really help.)
At this point, of course, it’s too late for Valve to rename The Orange Box, but since everybody else is playing armchair-marketing-executive, I will too. Re-package The Orange Box as KICKSTART: The Definitive Collection of Valve’s First-Person Shooters. Split the cover into three, equally-spaced frames. The top frame has a picture of the portal gun on an off-white background, and says “PORTAL rewards you with cake”. The middle frame has a picture of the gravity gun on a sepia background, and says “HALF LIFE 2 rewards you with freedom” (at the bottom of the middle frame, in small print, it says “Also includes the follow-up HALF LIFE EPISODES games: HALF LIFE 2: EPISODE 1 and HALF LIFE 2: EPISODE 2!”). The bottom frame has a picture of the minigun with a red background and says “TEAM FORTRESS 2 rewards you with the cheers of your teammates — other players from around the world”. The back of the box has the same three frames, with the blurbs and screenshots for each game in its corresponding frame. The order of the frames on the box is echoed by the setup menu, to hammer home the message: Start with Portal, graduate to Half Life 2, and once you think you’re really hardcore, go get your ass kicked in Team Fortress 2. Since nobody reads instruction manuals anyway, the manual can just be liner notes that explain the histories and backstories of HL2 and TF2, and give instructions on how to get the previous games in those series via Steam, because the instruction manual is the first place anyone who’s actually curious about such things is going to look.
If the promise of cake, freedom, and social accolades doesn’t bring in the Wii moms and casual gamers, I don’t know what will.