How Video Game Localization Works

"Zero Wing" translators totally nailed it.
"Zero Wing" translators totally nailed it.
Groxius/Villains Wikia

A foreign film's reception often depends a great deal upon the quality of its translation. If its script is rendered too literally or if the dub fails to match the "flap" of the actors' lips — as in early kung fu movies — the sublime can quickly devolve into the ridiculous.

A similar problem plagued early attempts to bring Japanese games to America and gave the Internet one of its earliest memes, "All Your Base are Belong to Us." A sub-par adaptation of the side-scrolling arcade shooter "Zero Wing" gifted our pop-cultural lexicon with such immortal phrases as, "Somebody set up us the bomb," "You have no chance to survive make your time" and "For great justice."

Consider it a paradigm case of "you get what you pay for."

"Towards the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, Japanese companies started to develop and export more games, translating them into English," said Carme Mangiron, co-author of "Game Localization: Translating for the Global Digital Entertainment Industry."

"The translations were usually done by the developers, who were not proficient in English, and this led to many mistakes and funny sentences that have become memes."

In those early days, when games consisted mainly of text or simple graphics, game companies could get by with a basic translation of the words on the screen, box or documentation. But as games grew more complex and immersive, a need for more than just a "box-and-docs" translation emerged. By the late 1990s, game companies realized that they needed a way to push past the subs and dubs that left foreign films still feeling foreign and find an approach that would make players feel at home, as if the company had made the game with them in mind.

This localization process began with more nuanced translations, but it soon came to encompass subtler issues such as cultural norms, historical sensitivities and local tastes. Depending on the need, localization could entail changing entire scenes, voiceovers, visuals, character designs, plot lines or music. Today, growing demand is taking the industry further in this direction, toward a more all-embracing approach that some call culturalization.

"It's about translating experience," says Mangiron. "If a game is properly localized, users should not notice that they are playing a localized version."

Video game localization has grown with the industry and pays for itself in its return on investment (ROI). Yet game localization remains something of an afterthought and, in many ways, has become a victim of its own success.

Think Localization, Act Globally

"Metal Gear" creator Hideo Kojima poses with the character that uttered the (in)famous words, "I feel asleep."
"Metal Gear" creator Hideo Kojima poses with the character that uttered the (in)famous words, "I feel asleep."
J. Quinton/WireImage/Getty Images

The video game industry has grown substantially since its infancy in the 1970s, and with it has come the need for better localization and the resources to make it happen.

"Older games are known for low-quality localization, including nonsensical grammar and spelling mistakes — such as "Metal Gear's" 'I feel asleep' — but growing demand for high-quality games necessitates higher quality localization," said Karin Skoog, a former game localization specialist at Language Automation Inc. (LAI). "Numerous localization companies have popped up over the years to accommodate this growing need."

It's a worthwhile investment. Today, game localization accounts for, on average, around half of the industry's total revenue stream, varying from 30 to 70 percent for individual companies and games [sources: Edwards, Mangiron]. Then again, maybe "stream" doesn't quite capture the $91.5 billion revenue torrent that research firm Newzoo predicted would gush through the sector in 2015, or the $107 billion flood projected for 2017 [source: Sinclair].

With the dawning of the Internet Age came new online game types and a more urgent need for better, faster and farther-reaching localizations.

"Game types, such as multiplayer, MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) and the like, also made the access to players from all over the world more common, and the need to localize for those audiences became more relevant," said Stephanie O'Malley Deming, president of XLOC Inc., which provides content management software for localization.

Meanwhile, the ever-growing scale of video games created both problems and opportunities for the sector. "Fable II," released in 2009 and published in 15 languages, comprised 420,000 words, 48,000 audio files, 54 actors, 50 quests translating into 238 hours of gameplay, and both a male hero and a female hero [source: Edwards]. It's probably just as well that it had to run on only a single platform.

Localizing such massive games requires significant resources, and game companies must think strategically when choosing their markets. Not surprisingly, most companies choose to localize in languages that have a wide reach: most commonly, English, French, Italian, German and Spanish (known in the industry as "EFIGS") and Chinese, Japanese and Korean (aka "CJK") [source: Skoog]. Others go with a subset nicknamed "FIGS and J" [source: Edwards].

Beyond the linguistic shotgun approach, companies must also consider which countries will show the most interest in a given game. Figuring that out requires expertise and careful study, and some companies have carved out a niche doing this kind of market analysis. For example, Skoog's old company, LAI, published an app called the Game Market Analyzer to help game producers do the marketing math [source: Skoog].

The Translation Trap

German players probably didn't enjoy "Torin's Passage" as much as others.
German players probably didn't enjoy "Torin's Passage" as much as others.
Mika1h/Wikimedia Commons

Effectively localizing volumes of content under tight deadlines poses serious challenges. The translation process alone is peppered with pitfalls. Often, translators receive nothing more than a spreadsheet of words and phrases, robbed of any context. Working in such a vacuum makes divining the meanings or nuances of basic words difficult, and of culture-specific jokes or figures of speech nearly impossible.

"Even if the localization company cares about creating a quality experience for the player, they aren't always provided with the information needed to produce high-quality localization," Skoog said. "This is worsened by the fact that some developers use localization companies that don't specialize in game localization, so translators may not be gamers at all and may not know terminology used in games."

To throw another variable into the mix, not all character sets are created equal. Asian and Latin alphabets are stored differently by many programs and operating systems. Moreover, Japanese can be written using different character sets, including kanji, hiragana and katakana. Different kanji are pronounced the same, and a single kanji can have different pronunciations depending on context. Without more information, there's no telling how a Japanese name might be pronounced or spelled [source: Hatori and Suzuki].

Even under the best of circumstances, some words defy translation. Entire books have been written about words that exist only in a given culture, the meaning of which would require paragraphs to unpack.

That's a problem in a medium where, because of rigid game design elements like text boxes, changing the length of a sentence might not be an option. To make matters worse, some languages take up more space than others: German runs an average of 30 percent longer than English, which eats up 30 percent more space than Japanese [source: Mangiron].

Dealing with such constraints requires a translator who is not only intimately in tune with the language's modern usage and slang, but who has a knack for creative writing as well [source: Skoog]. Not everyone fits the bill.

"There are many facets that comprise a quality translator," Skoog said. "Although someone may be fluent in two languages as well as a gamer, writing — particularly creative writing — may not be their strong suit."

In rare cases, tricks of language can cause localization to break a game. "Torin's Passage" (1995) included a puzzle in which players had to bring together audio crystals to make a sentence. Because German tends to place the verb at the end of sentences, players in Germany could not complete the task. In the end, the publisher resorted to adding a note in the game box with instructions on how to pass the puzzle [source: Mangiron].

Such examples highlight the need to build flexibility into game engines, and the challenges that await as the industry moves beyond localization toward culturalization.

The Call for Culturalization

The creators of "Little Big Planet" ran into some trouble when their game's soundtrack was found to include snippets from the Koran.
The creators of "Little Big Planet" ran into some trouble when their game's soundtrack was found to include snippets from the Koran.
Chris Weeks/Getty Images for Sony Computer Entertainment America

Today's video games amount to cultural documents. Through their rules, vocabulary and presentation of racial, ethnic, cultural, sexual, gender and other norms, they reflect the cultures that create them and project that culture into other areas of the world. Thus, proper localization must reach past the superficial, down to the tastes and deep-seated expectations of a target culture.

Fast food and candy companies have long since figured out that success in new markets takes more than changing a quarter pounder into a "royale with cheese." It means delving into local tastes and preferences. Thus, in Japan McDonald's sells plum-flavored seasoning for its fries, while KitKat offers a dizzying array of flavor varieties with carefully targeted packaging and artwork.

Most commonly, though, porting games means toning down sex and violence. Germany is well known for its restrictions on violent content, such as requiring that companies remove or recolor blood [source: Mueller]. The American rating system, ESRB, has less of an issue with violence than Europe's PEGI but makes up for it with Puritanical prudishness.

"An example of this is the rating for 'Grand Theft Auto V,'" Skoog said. "The PEGI rating details violence and strong language as reasons for the age 18 rating, with no mention of sexual content, whereas the ESRB rating also lists sexual content and the use of drugs and alcohol."

Of course, there's no shortage of ways to offend a country's citizens or government. It's hard to imagine Lara Croft doing well in traditional Islamic cultures, especially when her Syrian counterpart, a game called "Zoya," sold less than 100 copies [source: Sisler]. China famously required that Blizzard Entertainment cover the bones of skeletons in "World of Warcraft" [source: Skoog]. And then there's "Resident Evil 5" ...

"'Resident Evil 5' was created by Capcom, a Japanese company, where the culture doesn't have the racial history that our country does, yet received quite a bit of backlash over its depiction of white heroes fighting black zombies — and being reminiscent of colonization and the slave trade," Deming said.

Because history casts a long shadow over national and personal identity, it can cause major issues in localization and culturalization. The South Korean localization of "Age of Empires" had to change a historical scenario involving the Japanese Yamato forces and the Choson of the Korean Peninsula to comport with South Korea's version of history [sources: Edwards]. China banned "Football Manager 2005" because it depicted Tibet and Taiwan as independent. "Hearts of Iron," which begins before the People's Republic even existed, faced the same objection [sources: Edwards, Skoog]. Germany bans portrayals or mentions of anything Nazi-related, which poses problems for an industry so enamored with World War II [sources: Deming, Skoog].

And then there's religion, the biggest cultural third rail of all. "Little Big Planet" faced delays after news leaked that its music track included snippets from the Koran. They had reason for concern: An earlier game, "Kakuto Chojin: Back Alley Brutal," saw worldwide recall after the Saudi Arabian government launched a formal protest over a similar issue [sources: Brown, Edwards, Mangiron, Skoog].

Nuance, technical issues, rewrites and cultural sensitivities: Any way you look at it, it's a lot to keep track of. No wonder localization is a team sport.

A Day in the Life

Voiceover actor and Texas native Troy Baker has voiced several video game characters.
Voiceover actor and Texas native Troy Baker has voiced several video game characters.
Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

Video game localization requires a group of talented people who can wear many hats. A typical team consists of the following specializations:

  • Translators convert linguistic elements — not only in-game elements, but also documentation like glossaries and style guides. They often work with a team that includes a lead translator, editors and reviewers, who check their work.
  • Artists adapt visual elements to a target age rating or culture, perhaps by adding clothes to characters, or by changing a wedding scene from a white dress to red and yellow for the Chinese market [source: Skoog].
  • Voice actors record dialogue, narrative or sounds.
  • Quality assurance (QA) subgroups perform functional and language testing to avoid bugs or other problems.
  • Project managers/localization coordinators oversee processes, timelines, budgets, etc., for every step of localization. They also act as a bridge and point of contact with the game developer.
  • Marketers consider whether existing promotional campaigns will work or if new regions call for fresh approaches.

Some companies prefer to handle one or more of these areas in-house and contract with a localization company to do the rest.

"Reworking and rewrites take time and cost money, so having a localization professional on staff is incredibly beneficial," Deming said.

As with any creative enterprise, roles overlap. The translator, reviewer or editor might adjust a string for length or ensure it retains its intended meaning and original purpose. If someone has expertise in a particular subject, such as sports, that can come into play as well [source: Skoog]. And so it goes, through multiple passes until the product is good enough — or, presumably, until time and money run out.

Today, hundreds of translation houses compete worldwide, and no single company dominates — although some, such as Keywords International, maintain offices in several countries [source: Deming, Mangiron]. Skoog said she worries that a growing glut of localization companies is driving rates down to unrealistic levels. This "race to the bottom" distorts how developers perceive costs — and causes quality to slide.

"It is easy to quantify cost, but it is not as straightforward to judge quality, especially if a developer doesn't speak one of the target languages and doesn't understand the quality impact an extra cost — such as linguistic QA — has," she explained.

It's a vital distinction. Poor quality can ruin a game's ROI in a region, which can lead game producers to assume that the game is a poor match, rather than seeing that the problem really stems from the bargain-basement quality of the work.

"Game companies are aware that localization is necessary to be successful globally and to maximize their return of investment, but I do not think all of them view it as a priority; for some of them it is more like a necessary evil," Mangiron said.

Author's Note: How Video Game Localization Works

One of my favorite aspects of the translation and localization worlds has to do with the choice of dialect. As a 2011 Wall Street Journal article pointed out, this can amount to a make-or-break decision, particularly in the Arabic-speaking world, where dialects have varying associations in viewer's minds. Egyptian Arabic is associated with comedy, for example, whereas Syrian Arabic is considered better suited to drama.

Not surprisingly, early efforts to dub the American TV show "Law & Order" into Egyptian Arabic didn't go over too well [source: Spindle].

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More Great Links


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