How Video Game Localization Works

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.

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