8 min read

English as a Lingua Franca, Diversity in Games, and Selling Indie Games

As Rami Ismail pointed out recently, English is the defacto lingua franca of video games. This affects both the diversity of the games we play and how games can be distributed.

On Culling Emails

The saddest thing about working for is that since it's a side job, I can't possibly cover everything that comes my way. We get dozens of game pitches pretty much every day, but we have a small staff. It's just not humanly possible for us to cover everything, even before you throw in all the cool things that come out of game jams. And so it is that every day I cut down that huge list of email to 3/4, then 1/2, then a handful. I act on maybe one of those if it's a weekday and anything I don't act on and can't make myself cut immediately gets rescheduled for Saturday, when I do a grand culling. It saves my sanity (there was a point in time where I was trying to do too much and was losing the ability to concentrate on anything because I had so many games I wanted to cover), but it sucks to do. That's why my recent Trailer Roundup posts have come about; they've helped ease the stress of having to pick and choose which games to devote my limited time and energy to. Even with the Trailer Roundups, though, a heartbreaking number of emails just have to go in the trash.

Tempting as it is to just toss the less well-formed pitches because they take more effort to follow up on, I avoid doing so. I know that a lot of indie developers are single- or few-person teams, possibly made up of nothing but programmers who are diving into marketing for the first time in their lives. That isn't to say that I never toss an email just because it's a bad pitch; if I've been working late at my day job all week and am not feeling well and just need the number of emails to go down, I sometimes do. But there have been numerous times that I did the little bit of extra leg work and it turned out that the game on the other side of the hill was pretty damned grand.

Another thing I've been doing for a while, though, even before Rami Ismail wrote his piece on English being the lingua franca of the video game industry, is trying to give a bit more attention to pitches if I can tell that English isn't the developer's native language. I've learned a second language myself; I currently teach English as a foreign language here in Japan. I am well aware that it takes a great deal more effort to communicate one's own ideas in a foreign language than it does to understand something that someone else has said or written in a foreign language. It's a lot harder for these developers to get attention for their games, which is really unfortunate because their games potentially have a lot to offer to us all. The fact that Engish isn't the developer's native language is actually a plus.

Lingua Franca vs. Cultural Diversity

Part of the reason learning a foreign language can be so difficult is that you must learn to think differently. Memorizing words and possibly learning new writing systems isn't exactly a cakewalk, but in the end you can't just swap out words in one language for words in another and expect it to work. An easy example is the question, "What time is it?", which is used to find out if it's 5:30 in the evening or 2:07 in the morning or whatever. The Japanese equivalent of this question, the query that is used to obtain the same information, literally translates to, "What hour is it?" If you think about it, that makes sense. Time is a large concept involving things changing, seasons passing, the flow of history and things to come in the future. "What time is it?", you say? Do you mean, "What timeline are we in?" This is really just the tip of the iceberg on that front. Language is tied to culture and when comparing two languages you will always find single words that exist in one language but require an entire sentence or two to explain in the other.

So people who speak languages besides English as their native languages simply think differently than do people who speak English natively. In James Mielke's opening speech for the first BitSummit, he talked about the choice of Kyoto as the location for the event. I'm paraphrasing from an old memory here, but he basically said that since Japanese developers are Japanese, since they have a range of experiences that are unique to those who have grown up in Japan as members of Japanese society and surrounded by the evidence of its culture and history, they make games which only Japanese developers can make. Kyoto was his choice of location because it's steeped in Japanese history but still a modern city, making it very representative of the mish-mash of new and old things about Japan. I think he's right, but I think that idea can also be extended to other cultures. What kinds of games can only Nigerian developers make? What about developers from Tailand, or Guyana?

Selling Games to Foreigners

Last week, one of the pitches we got to the editors email list started with the warning, "This document uses the google translation." As you can imagine if you've ever used Google Translate, the email was a bit nonsensical. The developer mentioned living in Japan, though, so I replied in Japanese asking him to try again in his native language. That worked, and I tried the game. It's done in the style of Fire Emblem and is good... but has no English version. caters to an English-speaking audience (lingua franca, wot wot), and although we do sometimes feature games which don't have English versions per se, they're generally games that can be played without needing to be able to read them. Action games, shooters, things with very little text at all. For a Fire Emblem type of tactical game, however, you need to be able to read menus and character stats. I told the developer that I wouldn't be able to feature the game unless there was an English version or at least an English guide with translations for the menus and the like. It was one of many frustrating moments I've had where I've been unable to feature a good game on because it just required too much Japanese.

The reaction I got back from the developer surprised me. They were so happy, they said, to have someone from the English games media even play their game that they were moved almost to tears. The developer said they really want the game on our site and would work towards making an English version.

A couple of days later, I got another email from the developer. They had thought of something I hadn't, which was that if accessibility to English speakers was a hurdle to overcome, they also needed to consider the accessibility of purchasing the game for English speakers. The digital distribution sites they are currently using are in Japanese only, and the developer felt that the English-accessible options they knew of were too costly. The developer wanted to know if I had any ideas for ways they could distribute their game.

Aside from Steam, which takes a pretty big investment of time and energy for indies to get on even if their native language is English, the major English-language digital distribution services commonly used by western indies such as the Humble Store and Desura just don't seem to cater to developers who speak non-English languages. The developer stated that he didn't want to use Playism, so the only thing I was able to recommend them was PayPal. I know you can use PayPal in Japan because I have done so in the past, but it's not a major thing here. The developer was excited about the prospect of using it, but the lack of information available online because it's so uncommon here meant that they were going to need to wait for a business day to call PayPal's customer service about using their payments service.

The thing that makes this developer's conundrum really unfortunate is that I know that some of these digital storefronts have some measure of international support in the form of allowing international payments. Every time I go to a game's page on Desura, I see a price in yen. I don't know if it's because the digital storefronts think there wouldn't be enough return on the investment of localizing their sites or what, but this is definitely an example of the depth of the lingua franca issue. Unless there's something wrong with how I was searching and these storefronts do indeed offer non-English developer support. I would love to be wrong and have to edit this post.

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