The days of "all your base are belong to us" style translations might be thing of the past, but localization is still one of game development's Cinderella specialisms.
"A lot of people in the industry still don't understand localization very well," says Kate Edwards, chair of the IGDA's Game Localization Special Interest Group. "Many still think of it as something done at the end, but it is as much a part of the development cycle as coding or writing or designing."
But as the pressure for games to connect with a global audience grows, localization is starting to shed its afterthought status. When Sandra Pourmarin, localization manager at Ubisoft Montreal, joined the studio eight years ago, localization was closer in status to the testing department than the development team.
"All the localization resources were on a separate floor and worked as a service to the development team," she says. "Now the localization project manager is under the direct responsibility of the producers and we're on the same floor as the team. It's a huge improvement."
Localization is also starting to show that it's about more than translation as developers and publishers start to think more about how their games will go down in different parts of the world.
"Everyone perceives localization as language and for the most part it is but that is not all localization is," says Edwards. "Culturalization -- thinking about the use of symbols, environments, costumes, everything that isn't language -- is also part of the big umbrella of localization."
So how can developers and publishers make sure their international appeal is up to scratch? To find out we asked the localization pros who have worked on games such as Diablo III, Assassin's Creed and Fallout 3 for their helpful hints.
1. Make the context clear
Games often get translated before they are finished, so any text or speech handed over to the localization studios needs to be accompanied with detailed information about the context, says Irene Panzeri, content lead at localization studio Synthesis which has worked on titles such as Diablo III and Red Dead Redemption.
"Languages don't share the same grammar rules. In English 'you' is both plural and singular, but in French the singular is 'tu' and the plural 'vous' with the verb changing accordingly. Knowing how many people a character is talking to is a common dilemma for translators." Clarifying words with dual meanings is also important, she adds: "Does 'aim at the tank' mean aim at a fuel container or an armored vehicle?"
Assassin's Creed: Revelations
2. Let localization in early
Getting the localization team involved as early as possible can reduce crunch time headaches says Pourmarin. "With Assassin's Creed: Revelations the localization team worked with the development team on localization earlier and it really smoothed the process," she says.
"If we are aware of specific content that might be a challenge we can prepare for that and come up with options for how to address it rather than trying to do it in the rush time at the end of the project.
"For example on Assassin's Creed, we had cameras that needed to move to avoid showing some nudity that would be a problem in some countries. Being able to identify that early in the process is very precious. If you arrive late on a project with those issues there might not be time to tackle them properly and that will result in additional cost and harm the quality of the game."
3. Current events matter
Cultural attitudes aren't fixed and current events can change how a game will be received. "When I was localizing My Weight Loss Coach for the DS, a product manager in Belgium raised a flag about the use of the word 'pedometer' because there had just been a lot of pedophilia cases in Belgium, and it was felt the word was too close, so we replaced it with another word," says Pourmarin, who says Ubisoft uses its network of national offices and external localization partners to help spot these kinds of topical concerns.
Kate Edwards, founder of game culturalization consultancy Englobe, agrees that current affairs can affect how games are received: "Back in 1999, Age of Empires had a Japanese samurai on the box and Korean retailers didn't want to put it on the shelves, because at that time Japan and Korea were at the height of one of their rows about the Takeshima/Dokdo islands in the Sea of Japan. But I think if you released that today there wouldn't be the same problem."
4. Impose a text freeze
To keep translation costs under control and development on schedule, Paradox Interactive, the Swedish publisher-developer behind the Divine Wind and Europa Universalis games, sets and enforces a cut-off date for changes to in-game text. "At a certain point we have a text freeze, which is when our text files get sent to the translators," says Linda Kiby, associate producer at Paradox.
"Because we want our games to be moddable, we put all our text in CSV files, as that is the easiest way of allowing people to do that, and it also means we can just paste the finished translation into the text files. But it also means that if anyone changes anything or removes a line after the text is sent for translation that can create chaos, which is why the text freeze is so important."
5. Translators should be asking questions
Since external translation agencies don't get to see the text within the context of the game itself, alarm bells should start ringing if they aren't coming back with questions says Omar Salleh, game director at Tragnarion Studios, the Spanish developer of the XBLA, PSN and Mac third-person shooter Scourge: Outbreak.
"I've worked with some who took the text said everything was fine and we didn't hear back until they were done," he says. "We didn't think too much about it at the time, but when playtesting the game with the localized text we realized that while the text was grammatically correct, it didn't really fit the style of the game."
6. Be aware of cultural issues from day one
Developers need to think about culturalization early on because some issues just can't be fixed at the end of development, says Edwards. "I was asked to review Fallout 3 to see if it would be compatible with the Indian market, and because of the two-headed mutant Brahmin bulls, it was not going to be viable because India has laws that protect cows from harm.
"Those laws pertain to real ones, of course, but if it's sensitive enough that there is a law against real cows being harmed then it is going to be sensitive to see a virtual one that is mutated and can be eaten and all that," says Edwards.
"We did discuss whether this could be changed, but the game was done at that point, so it was a question of whether it was worth spending all that money to release the game in India. The only other thing you can do at that late a stage is to go ahead with release, and plan for the reaction it might get."
7. Provide biographies for characters
Biographical information about in-game characters is extremely helpful for localization studios if they are casting actors to perform in-game speech in a foreign language, says Ambra Ravaglia, lead audio director at Synthesis.
"It's important to know the characters you are going to cast, their ages, their looks, their moods and so on, since that means I can choose an actor who can manage those emotions and correctly reflect the character," she says.
This is all the more important because localizing speech is often more complex than text translations. For instance, what would be the German equivalent of a Scottish accent compared to an American accent? In such cases having an understanding of who the character is helps localization teams figure out what accent would be most appropriate for a foreign language audience.
The differences between the actors in different countries also matters, says Ravaglia. "A 25-year-old U.S. marine in a game usually has a deep voice, but deep Italian voices are rare, so we have to keep back deeper-voiced actors for the older characters -- so our 25-year-old marine would have a younger, higher voice."
8. Work with your fans
Paradox Interactive draws on the enthusiasm of its fans to polish its translations. "Our beta testers are happy to help on the translations and often they are better than the professional translators, because they know the games and the situations in which the text is going to be used," says Kiby.
"Because they are fans, and other fans will agree if they think something could be improved, we trust their judgement. We don't use them for whole masses of text, though; it's more for shorter sections of text and checking the flavor of the translation. After all, you can't send volunteers 8,000 lines of text to go over in three weeks, and we want them to have fun."
9. Beware of string concatenations
"While making Scourge: Outbreak, we initially made the mistake of cutting phrases into chunks, and storing text separately, so the code could string them together in the multiplayer mode to create phrases like '<Player 1> captured <Team 2's> flag!'," says Salleh. "But that meant these words were being translated out of context, and the game engine was stringing them together in a way that might make sense in English, but not in Spanish or any other language. So we had to go back through every message of this type, so that we didn't end up with Yod- speak like 'Captured <Team 2's> <Player 1> Flag! The' in other languages."
10. Appoint a cultural watchdog
"There's a stage in game development where you've got the basic world and characters in place, and you then start backfilling it with additional content to make the world more real and complete," says Edwards. "It's during this stage where a lot of culturalization problems get added, because the creative folk are up against a tight deadline and just use what comes to mind so they might, without intending to, insert stereotypes or culturally sensitive content."
One way to deal with this is to make one individual on the team responsible for watching out for content that might cause trouble. "Create a bug type in the bug tracking system so they can flag up these things and track what's happened to them in development," she says. "Whoever is responsible needs to ask questions like 'Where did that symbol come from' and 'What was the inspiration for it' or 'What do the foreign language words in the soundtrack actually say?'"