Video Game Globalization

Taking Video Games Global

An Interview with Heather Chandler, author of The Game Localization Handbook

Do most game developers plan to take their games global from day one?
Today, most game developers plan to take their games global from the beginning. As the sales figures in international markets continue to rise, localized versions of games will be profitable. If the game has been developed from the beginning with localization in mind, it is very easy to get the game localized and released.

Ten years ago, this was not the case. Game developers created localized versions, but did not think about them until the end of the development cycle. Often, the main version of the game was completed and released and then the localized versions followed anywhere from 1 to 3 months later. The reason for this lag was because the games were not easy to localize. For instance, the language assets were not organized in a way that made the localization process easy. Additionally, the code would need to be altered to handle different characters and fonts that are necessary for different languages.

Now it is more commonplace for developers to ship French, German, Italian, and Spanish versions simultaneously with the English. Korean and Japanese are also becoming more popular localizations.

Is there a general ratio that companies should follow when allocating time and money for developing and testing games for each new market?
Cost-wise, localizations can be done at a reasonable price if the game code is localization-friendly and the language assets are well organized. If all the text can be sent at one time for translation, extra costs are not incurred by sending several small batches of text to be translated. Likewise, if the localization testing schedule is well organized, it can be completed without a lot of additional costs. How much is spent really depends on the region where the version is being released. If sales are expected to be small in Russia, than a localization might not be any more profitable than the English version.

If a developer plans ahead for localizations, the actual localization work (translation, asset integration, and linguistic testing) takes about 1 to 3 months, depending on the size of the game. More time may be needed if voiceover needs to be localized and processed. Keep in mind that this time estimate is based on having one person on the development team who is dedicated to completing the localizations. This time will increase if no one can devote full attention to this.

What markets are most difficult in regards to localization, and why?
In my experience, there have not been any regions that are difficult in regards to localization.

If the game content is suitable for a general or teen audience, you likely will not have problems releasing it in other countries. If game content is rated for mature audiences because of violence, there will be some issues to deal with when releasing it in other countries. For example, Australia and Germany are very strict on violence and may ban a game that contains content deemed too violent by their ratings boards. Most of the time, the game publisher will be given a chance to edit the game content in order to comply with the violence restrictions in a given country.

From a technical standpoint, any language that uses a non-Western alphabet, such as Japanese or Hebrew, presents some challenges. There are issues with UI design and character display that need to be considered when localizing games for these languages.

Are there new career opportunities being created in this industry for localization professionals? How does someone get started in this industry?
I do think there is growth in the area of game localization. However, game developers have some very specific needs when making localized versions of their games and will be very involved in the process. These needs are discussed in an article I wrote for the ENLASO newsletter called Start Game: What Game Developers are Looking for in a Localization Vendor.

If someone wants to get started in game localization, I would suggest they contact localization companies that specialize in this aspect of localization.

Also, people who are specifically interested in game localization should become familiar with games—how to play them, how the UI is designed, what areas need translated, etc. If they are familiar enough with games, they can apply to work for a publisher that has an internal localization department. Unfortunately, I don’t have any solid leads on how to get started in this industry. Most people you talk to never planned to work in game development, it is something they just fell into.

How did you get started in this industry? What do you like best about it?
I got started in the industry almost 10 years ago. I was living in Los Angeles and looking for work in the film industry. At that time, game companies were actively recruiting people from the film business. Activision offered me a job as the assistant to the head of the studio, I took it thinking it would only be temporary until I find something in film.

However, once I started working there, I really liked it. Even though working in games can be high pressure, it is always fun. I become interested in production and worked my way up to a producer position. The thing I like best about this industry is creating something that entertains people. It is really cool to walk into WalMart and see a game you worked on for sale. Also, the people I work with make this job even better. Everyone is very talented and passionate about what they do, and we all work together to make great games.

What mistakes have games developers made when taking their products into new markets?
One interesting example is a game I localized into German. It was a WWII flight simulation where the player could either be American, British, or German pilot. After the player made his choice of nationality, authentic radio broadcasts from WWII would play from the appropriate country. These radio broadcasts for the German nationality had to be completely removed in the German version of the game. Germany has very strict guidelines about depictions of Germany in WWII, because of the politics at that time.

What developers do you think are doing the best job of developing global games? And why?
Ubisoft does an excellent job of developing global games. They have a very well-trained internal localization department and work with top-quality translators. They make sure all the voice acting and translations are of the highest quality and that the games appeal to a global audience.

Other large publishers such as Activision and EA also do a great job. Since they are large companies, they have a lot of experience making localized games. Also, they realize the importance of the international markets and will invest in the necessary resources.

You mentioned that poor localization can lead customers to purchase non-native games as an alternative. How do game manufacturers prevent this from happening?
Developers need to be aware of the quality of translations they are getting. If the French voiceover files are delivered to you and they don’t sound right—for example the sound processing is bad or the voice acting is over-the-top—it will sound that way to the French consumer as well.

The context of the translations is important as well. If the translations don’t make sense for the game—for example comedic translations won’t work in a realistic military game—it will create a jarring experience for the player.

These quality checks must be done by native speakers who thoroughly understand the context of the game. These checks can be done in each phase of the localization process to make sure the end result matches what is intended.

As a side note, I have recently been playing a game on the Playstation2 called “Katamari Damacy.” This game was originally released in Japan and was recently released in the U.S. They did an excellent job of translating this game for English players. One of the main characters is a goofy king who accidentally removed all the stars from the sky. He constantly speaks in non-sequiturs and uses some very interesting idioms. The English translator was able to expertly capture the King’s unique way of phrasing things so English players would have a similar experience as the Japanese players.

Finally, how much of an increase in sales can a game manufacturer expect to get from a well-localized game?
I don’t have exact numbers, but some games make almost 50% of their revenues from international sales (this includes English versions released in the U.K, Australia, and smaller countries). I doubt this number would be as high if localized versions were not available in key countries such as France, Germany, and Spain.

About the Author
Heather Maxwell Chandler is a multimedia producer with over nine years of computer and video game industry experience. She is currently the producer for Ghost Recon 2 at Red Storm Entertainment. Heather also wrote The Game Localization Handbook published by Charles River Media.