Regardless of our industry’s wealth of creativity and resourcefulness, a large part of the market is firmly held by strong IPs (Intellectual Proprieties) and/or franchises. We follow our favorite characters evolving from one episode to the next, very much like we do in movies.
This trend might get even stronger with increasing development costs: big studios and publishers are likely to continue banking on solid brands and licenses, thus minimizing risks. Moreover, they’ve been exploring movie by-products for quite a while, and this tendency also seems to be gaining momentum.
Localization follows naturally as it broadens markets and revenues. This article explores the different aspects of localizing video games based on licences and franchises, and aims at giving perspectives and tips to organize localization preparation and production.
The main parameter is IP ownership, as theoretically the owner has the final word on nearly everything. Game localizing is handled in different ways, whether dealing with you own the IP or not. There are quite a few factors and pitfalls that will strongly impact your work, whether your game is based on a license that is yours, the IP is new or well-established, or your game is tied to a movie release (a “movie tie-in” in localization lingo). If you don't own the IP, you might need to seek your licensor’s approval on different items, which obviously bears heavy consequences on your schedule.
1. Organization: They All Lie, Size Matters
If you're a small or medium-sized developer, your publisher might want to handle localization on its own, as it usually has the need and means to do so. In this case, your publisher will have a localization producer or coordinator work directly with you.
should organize a kick-off meeting with the person who will be your
main contact. You want to come up with a plan and a suitable workflow
and timetable. In an ideal world, everyone leaves this meeting with a
clear task breakdown, a list of all key people details, and a thorough
calendar for deliverables (that specifies formats). Status meetings
should be held regularly so as to anticipate and / or address issues in
a timely fashion. Make sure to send minutes to all attendees to recap
Finally, you will need to appoint someone to coordinate with your publisher and make sure demands are met. On top of being a fairly good diplomat, this person must have a solid understanding of the whole production pipeline, be able to assess risks, raise red flags, and suggest workarounds. Associate producers or coordinators are usually the people assigned to deal with localization.
Your publisher might let you handle the localization process directly, but insist on contracting localization agencies or freelancers that have a good IP expertise, and with whom your publisher has a successful business relationship (not to mention service contracts). In this case, things need to be made clear early enough so that all parties know what their tasks and calendar are. Also, work cultures tend to be different from one country to another, so the more prepared you are for a little extra diplomacy the better.
Localization agencies usually offer translation, casting, recording and sometimes linguistic QA. Some offer one or two languages, others much more. Beware, though, that if you (or your publisher for that matter) hire one single agency to take care of all languages, it will be more expensive (unless you sign a yearly service contract), as subcontractors will be hired on their end (in particular, local recording studios and actors).
If you're a big developer (or publisher) with an in-house localization department, the logic is the same: have the right people at the right place with a clear breakdown of everyone's duties and unambiguous dependencies. If you're a publisher and you work with a small development company, make sure they understand exactly what they need to do (not everyone is a localization aficionado) and are staffed with enough experienced people; you don't want an intern to integrate and debug on-screen-text, unless you're on a suicide mission.
They must have proper tools and version-making documentation to create localized builds. Proximity also helps. If you've contracted a small developer to port one of your games on the other side of the world, send a few seniors from the original dev team for a short period of training. This will ultimately save a lot of time and headaches.
In either model, the developer is mainly responsible for extracting, formatting and delivering assets to translate and record, reintegrating localized assets once available, and debugging. While at the other end, publisher teams and / or subcontractor(s) handle translations (and any required updates) as well as audio production and linguistic testing (unless done in-house). It goes without saying that you must read your publishing contract carefully before anything happens; not just to clear responsibilities, but also to know who’s paying for what. If necessary, seek legal counsel so that things prone to misinterpretation are cleared for all parties.
2. You Own the Franchise (Yeah!)
You have a successful IP, and you're working on a sequel. This is also known as a franchise and it's the easiest pattern, as you already have experience and solid material to work with:
The vendors (localization agencies and / or freelancers) who worked on the prequel are familiar with your game and brand equity. If you are happy with their work, contract them again. Nothing beats a good localization agency that knows your brand and understands how you work (tools, processes etc.). You don't have to explain things from scratch: you already have a routine.
On their end, they will probably contract the same translators, voice directors and actors for recurring characters so that you don't run into style / voice consistency issues.
- Example 1: Recurring characters that interact have customary ways to address one another. They may use a nonformal form (i.e. "tu" in French) or a formal form ("Sie" in German, "Usted" in Spanish). Keeping the same style is important. A knight can't address a king the way he addresses a fellow horseman. On a side note, cultural differences between formal form and nonformal form are widely different from one language to another. Let your local agencies decide what's best. They usually know their market pretty well.
- Example 2: Your
new game features video excerpts from the prequel, perhaps in the form
of flashbacks. You don't want players to realize that you didn't use
the same actor, so try to stick to the same voice range. Example 1 is
also valid here: you want characters to speak the same way to one
another if you recycle video or audio material.
If you decide to go for a new vendor, send a localized version of the previous game before the new localization begins. They will probably come up with a pretty long list of questions that will hopefully cover all potential issues.
While preparing, collect post mortems and other post-release memos that list difficulties met during the prequel production, whether they were specifically localization-related or broader. You need information on the engine and other peripheral tools your team will have to work with for text and audio integration. If you can get your hands on this material early enough, there will be time to voice a few recommendations and suggest improvements if necessary.
Key people might include the localization coordinator or project manager, lead integrator (the person in charge of formatting the text assets for translation, integrating them back and debugging all text related bugs), sound designer, linguistic QA coordinator, data management lead, producer, and/or associate producer. If you don’t know who they are, check the credits: people are usually pretty adamant about having their name and position accurately spelled and described.
If you're a publisher, gather all prequel foreign reviews you can get your hands on so you can assess the localization quality. Asking for your local brand manager's opinion is also a good idea, because they might have casting suggestions and insights ("The main character got terrible reviews last time, so we would like your Italian vendor to hire a new actor", "We think hiring this famous TV actress will bring a lot of PR exposure" etc.). Their input might also influence the type of localization that will be signed off on eventually ("The game sale potential in the Netherlands is too small, so we recommend a subtitled version only.")
Make sure you have the right to recycle previously recorded voices. This is not trivial: you don't want to play this game with actor's unions. If legislations are different depending on countries, most of the time actors are contracted for one game only, not all by-products.
In France for instance, to avoid contract breach, the game needs to have the exact same title. Let's say you port a PS2 game to PSP: the PS2 voices will be recycled and a few new cues will probably be recorded so that Sony's additional content standards are met. Of course, your marketing people will rightfully tell you the game needs a new title. Your vendors' studios must clear issues with all actors beforehand (if you know there will be a port) or negotiate when it's time (usually a proportional additional fee for actors).
Money money money. In Japan you will need to pay again for all PS2 voices: Japanese actors' unions require paying a full fee for each platform, even if the audiobase has only been recorded once).
Let's say your PS2 voice budget for Japan was $18,000. You will need to pay another $18,000 for your 360 version and another $18,000 for the PSP, plus new voices, etc.
Leading actors hold strong negotiating positions, all the more when they've been dubbing your favorite game heroes for years, and some might eventually ask for unreasonable money (that applies to US versions too). Others are too busy to be booked in a well-timed fashion. Weigh actual added value versus risks and costs.
Okay, you've been using this guy for ages and he's good. But what if he wants to triple his fees? It happens. What if he's so busy you can't secure a three-day recording session, but half a day here and half a day there? This will jeopardize the delivery of your U.S. and localized voices1 and negatively impact the allocated time for audio post production and integration, QA and debug.
Casting. Send your vendors a new character brief with detailed descriptions and updated info on recurring characters, as they often change from one game to another (note how much physical change Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia has gone through).
A character brief provides "final" visuals for main characters, along with voice and acting feel, frequently using Hollywood references such as: "XXX is a bad tempered cop / anti hero archeologist morph. Think Indiana Jones and John McLane with a zest of Austrian accent."
Make sure all listed models ring a bell on the other side of the world. Everybody knows Die Hard and Terminator, but isn't necessarily familiar with all U.S. TV shows or other vernacular references.
Translation. Creating bibles and glossaries is a good idea, and simple to put together. An Excel spreadsheet with a column for English and one for each language listing existing translations (as they are in-game) for important items such as character names (they are sometimes adapted), names of locations, ships, weapons etc.
In the Harry Potter license for example, there is a lot of witty noun use (characters, place names etc.) that bears meaning and therefore requires adaptation for each country.
Hogwarts becomes Poudlard in French.
Cornelius Fudge becomes Cornelius Caramell in Italian .
OWL (Ordinary Wizarding Levels) becomes TIMO (Título Indispensable de Magia Ordinaria) in Spanish. Please note that TIMO is an actual word meaning cheat.
1. You need the US audiobase to properly record localized audiobases. It serves as reference (especially for time and animation synch constraints). Recording foreign versions without the US audiobase is very risky (unless your lip synch and animation AI are so über powerful they can adapt to each language and your recording script is bullet proof and provides all necessary documentation on alt takes, volume, distance between characters and so on).
3. You Don't Own the IP, and it's Already Well-Established
Again, if you’re the licensee, the contract is your gospel for the organization and approval process. Your producer or executive producer should be able to tell you whether or not localization is submitted to your licensor for approval, and if so to which extent. Everything is doable as long as appropriately scheduled.
Here is a short list of items / assets that affect your schedule, and over which your licensor might demand to have partial or full control:
Asset Translations. Very big companies have policies that you must abide by (however strange they may seem). Buena Vista Games, the interactive subsidiary of Walt Disney, will ask for any reference to existing religions to be removed from your game (forget about "oh my god" and so on). You will have to get rid of those in English and in other languages.
If your licensor wants to go over translations, these review times and the subsequent back-and-forth sessions need to be accounted for in your schedule. A topnotch licensing coordinator (who will review and possibly copy edit) can't seriously check more than 10,000 words a day. Add some time difference and other variables (your licensor teams being swamped with work not being the last) and your integration process might be considerably slowed down.
Casting. Suppose your game is based on a famous TV show. Your licensor may demand that you use the same local actors (and often same voice directors if not studios) to dub your game2. That may be very well doable (clear the "who's paying for this" issue beforehand), except that dubbing a movie or a TV show and dubbing a game is quite a different experience for actors, voice directors and studios.
Game dubbing is a tricky exercise, as performers and engineers have a lot less information, as opposed to movies for which they obviously have...the movie. If you can, send someone from your team who knows both content and game mechanics to attend the U.S. recording sessions so that he can explain context and various functionalities. Having a very good and detailed audio script is an excellent thing, but you want to trust humans better than documents.
A simple omission in the script – or the recording studio forgetting to print a hidden context column – and your hero ends up saying “Man, I really can’t see a thing!” with a normal tone while he’s supposed to shout it from a chopper. This cannot be fixed in a studio: your lead actor has to come back for a retake (of course you always find out at a very late stage).
This also explains why you need the U.S. audiobase to be done before you start recording languages. Your game and audio designer or script writer do not have the super powers to attend four or five simultaneous recording sessions. The local studios will mirror the US audiobase, which comes in very handy, especially if something is unclear in the script or if keepers haven’t been chosen yet and there are a few versions of the same line (projection, volume, tone etc.).
In other cases, the IP owner might want to approve local castings and keep the upper hand on final choices. Send all samples on time and kindly request quick (and detailed) feedback so that you can proceed with booking. You need to give dates, but remember to keep some buffer.
Since the profile of your contact may vary greatly from one company to another, favor live casting (as opposed to already recorded samples stored in agencies’ databases). It's a tad more expensive, but way easier to test if actors fit roles. With the help of the game designer or creative director, select three or four lines typical of each character’s range of emotions. Once lines are translated and recorded by agencies (usually three or four actors will audition per role), you can then edit a few together to appraise chemistry between actors sharing a lot of scenes.
Audio Approval (on all localized recordings). This approval step may be awfully time-consuming, as your licensor contact will have to listen to all cues (there may be thousands of them only for scripted scenes). Plus, before you deliver these files, you will need to go through all alternate takes and perform a bit of editing (a basic cut and clean) and / or split your raw session into several folders and subfolders in a suitable format, so that people who are not sound Jedi can listen to the recordings.
If your licensor insists on approving the recordings, suggest they send a local representative to attend recording sessions. Unless his attitude is totally counterproductive, the rep will be able to approve each recorded line on site and prevent the process from stretching unreasonably. Typically, you want to favor parallel approval, as it saves a lot of time.
Build Approval. Some licensors will ask to test localized builds and demand some linguistic bugs and / or polish be done before it's submitted to first parties. Most likely, this will come at a very late stage (at which point you won't be able to do much) and will duplicate already identified (if not already fixed) bugs.
Remember, your licensor might not care at all that localized versions do not meet the usual quality standards or are off brand equity, but it's not in your interest to be careless. Your goal is to successfully localize a game and sell as many as possible. If you work on a notorious brand, you deal with a very solid fan base all over the world that already has a whole set of enshrined references. This leads us to our next topic, brand equity.
Let's take a look at the Star Wars license. Working on George Lucas’ baby means dealing with millions of fans whose expertise and subsequent attention to details (may they be praised) you won't be able to deceive.
You can't invent planet names or choose to translate "light saber" other than "sabre laser" in French or "sable láser" in Spanish (though in the first trilogy it was "Espada de luz"). The French public is used to "Dark Vador" and not "Darth Vader" whether you find this ridiculous or not. "Death Star" is not literally translated for all languages (it is "l'étoile Noire" – black star - in French).
Ensure your vendors hire people who are either already familiar with the IP (specialists may be required sometime), or are properly trained. Have them gather as many references as possible -- comic books, movies, books, web sites etc. -- to ensure no stupid mistake will go unnoticed: you don't want to end up with "L'Étoile de la Mort" ingame.
Pay attention to spelling and pronunciation of important names. Fans will pin you down for a lot less than a double e missing in "Wookiee".
Once your vendors are done gathering local "official" translations, put together a multilanguage glossary that will be submitted to your licensor (unless he already has provided you with his own). Most of the time licensing and consumer product departments are overwhelmed with work and have very little time for preparation, so by doing this, you pass on the responsibility to your licensor to check the accuracy of the assets you are working on, but at the same time you help them. Let's take a look at Figure 1
Figure 1: Multilanguage spaceships glossary
In this example, I have listed each country's official term for spaceships used in-game. You can see that Millennium Falcon has two different translations in French (an overlooked mistake in the first trilogy’s dubbing). Request approval from your licensor. They're the ones who should know or decide which to use.
As soon-to-be-Lord Vader Anakin Skywalker says, "This is where the fun begins." If your game is tied to a movie release, you will be dependent on a few (and not lesser) assets to localize your game in a way that respects and resembles the movie. Moreover - and this is not breaking news - license deals are tough on developers and publishers. Your negotiation latitude with your licensor is relatively small, to put it mildly.
Movie licenses are expensive to buy (around six figures), and your licensor will be awfully busy finishing the movie and dealing with worldwide post-production. Chances are they won't be able to arrange their production and post-production schedules to accommodate your own. Your room for maneuver will be a little different whether the movie releases worldwide or at different dates (a staggered release), and depending on how well the contract has been negotiated, and if those dependencies have been discussed and organized beforehand. Let's take a closer look at movie / game dependencies:
Local style and artistic choices: Your game might feature some lines taken from the movie (beware: animation movie scripts are usually locked at a very late stage) and of course you would like the lines to be (translated) the same (way).
Some characters may speak with accents that will also require local adaptation: some things work for English but not for other territories. In the U.S. version of Finding Nemo(Disney / Pixar 2003), Jacques the hermit crab is French and of cooorse he speaks wiz a verry heavy French accent. For some pretty clear reasons, it didn't make any sense to keep it that way for the French version of the movie, nor for the French localized version of the game. So Jacques was given a south of France accent (Marseille) that kept the character's specificity and "cuteness".
It's rather important, especially for kids' products. Voices that do not match or blunt discrepancies will break immersion. I recently managed the localization (13 languages) of a line of games based on a CGI movie for kids, and accents were different in nearly all territories.
Another example is the movie title and the consequent movie tag line, i.e. Monsters Inc. - We Scare Because We Care (Disney / Pixar 2001). You need it for your game splash screen and on your box and docs.
You can't have approximate translations, you need the official ones; luckily enough, these are decided very early in production. In French it ended up being “Monstres et cie. Nous faisons peur et nous le faisons bien” (which is by the way a lot less funny).
A good way to keep track of needed assets is to provide your vendors with accurate information and help your licensor is to create (and regularly update) a compounded glossary. Your licensor will be grateful that you have compiled a list of assets for which they can then prioritize translation.
Figure 2: accent table for character families
Create a similar table for characters and location names, common lines, etc. (use one single Excel document with different tabs for categories). Keep the master version on a revision control system (Perforce works well) and update it regularly if necessary.
Of course, to put this glossary together, you need to cross-check the movie and the game scripts for similarities. This means you need an electronic copy of the movie script (you don't want to work on a hard copy), which is by and large very hard to get due to confidentiality reasons.
Use your charm and explain why you need it. People are a lot less suspicious when things are explained: promise the script won't be sent via email or posted on an FTP. A hard copy is usually available (mainly because your creative director and script writer need it for the game) but you won't be able to use your word processing search functions.
You will either hire "soundalike" actors - also called a B cast (same voice range and if possible same type of acting) - or the actors that will be contracted to dub the movie in each country (again, that might be requested by your licensor and, as always, check who is actually paying for this).
To hire a B cast you obviously need to have solid information on the A cast, and most of the time the final choice is made far too late for game development. Negotiations with agents and actors are usually lengthy, whereas the actual dubbing can be wrapped up in ten days. By postponing the dubbing, your licensor post production department has more time to carefully cast, adapt the script and wait for the movie final cut and mix. Of course they need to have marketing material ready in advance (teasers and trailers) but voices are often temporary (in the same way music is).
To sum up: if movie post production has room for maneuver (it can start a few weeks before the movie releases), game recording has none. To combine marketing plans, a movie tie-in game must be on shelves two weeks prior to the movie release. For this to happen all game recordings (U.S. and localizations) must be done several months before the same date so that you can go through submission process, manufacturing and distribution (See Figure 3, next page).
Of course, your licensor has to move up their post production schedule, and this cannot be improvised.
(note: if you work on an illustrious franchise, risks are minimized as well. Established characters are easy to cast: most of them have had official "local" voices for years, whether it's James Earl Jones [Darth Vader voice] Donald Duck or James Bond.)
Nevertheless, game production constraints are a hassle for your licensor - especially if we're speaking staggered movie release. For instance, French and Spanish will need to be ready for the first NTSC SKUs, while French and Castilian Spanish versions of the movie might be scheduled to release in Europe only a few months later. (See Figure 3). Worldwide releases are a bit easier - your licensor will have everything ready more or less at the same time. But then you will deal with more languages simultaneously.
Figure 3: Pink illustrates SKU 1 with US, French and Spanish (usually on NTSC versions). Observe how early localization needs to kick off in comparison to its local movie avatar.
Movie excerpts, let’s call them movie clips, are the bonus material section highlights. Surely your marketing department will be delighted to advertise on this. It's usually stipulated contractually (the licensee will have the right to use up to X minutes of feature footage – the selection of which is generally up to the licensor). This is one of the reasons why you also want your game voices to resemble the movie.
Following the same logic, you need these movie clips to be ready on time for your development team to reformat and integrate. Very likely you will receive high resolution formats such as QuickTime movies with separate tracks for each language and end up using Bink in your game to minimize disc space requirements.
On your licensor’s side, this means that dialogues need to be adapted, recorded and mixed for each language. That requires of course early selection (this might prove not so easy as movies undergo a lot of last minute editing changes especially animation) and some serious organization on your licensor side to avoid schedule conflicts. No licensor, unless he has arranged for it beforehand, will rush post production to meet your deadlines; the stakes are simply too high. That's why you want to go over this when you sign the contract.
Plan B consists of subtitling the U.S. movie clips, but this creates TRC issues with first parties, especially with SCEE whose standards are super picky. Sony wants game versions to be consistent. If your game is partially localized (U.S. voices with subtitles) it totally makes sense to have subtitled bonuses. If it's a full localization (localized voices) then having subtitled bonus material will look odd and break the player's immersion. Of course, everything is negotiable with first parties, but you might have to negotiate over more serious matters, plus it's not entirely satisfactory for consumers, all the more if your target audience is kids that do not read.
Localizing licenses and franchises greatly depends on a successful relationship between licensees and licensors, and can be far less tedious if properly scheduled and conducted. Licensors will behave very differently whether they have a solid consumer product department and if they have enough in-house resources to follow-up on deliverables and sufficient interest in helping you. Some will have a very scrupulous “by the book” attitude and will check every single submitted item, requesting many changes. If possible, try to find out in advance what their structure is like, so that you understand how you can help them help you. Get to know people and think positive!
And to conclude, here are a few (hopefully) smart tips:
A worldwide release has advantages and drawbacks. Schedule-wise it's easier, since the movie is dubbed for all territories at the same time. Chances are assets will be ready on time for you to use them. But if you have a lot of languages (more than four), you need to arrange for more integration, testing and debugging resources.
Movie / Game Schedule Conflicts
They are a bit unavoidable unless everything has been secured when the deal was signed. Help your licensor understand your constraints. List all assets you need and build a consolidated schedule (movie vs. game production) to spot hot zones and raise flags.
Beware of post Christmas or post summer break movie releases: good vendors are hard to get during holidays. If European territories release in the fall, your licensor will wait for the summer to be over before dubbing the movie.
Also, you can’t always escape bank holidays. Some countries (especially Catholic countries) shut down totally for a couple of days once or twice a year (same for Japan in May): should you need them to open office for you, let them know in advance.
If you have more than one platform and four languages, and if you work on a tight schedule, use one single QA vendor to run linguistic testing (preferably one that is in your time zone). Some agencies are quite serious, and can do excellent work if well prepared. You will save a lot of time on build sending (your security protocols will suffer a lot less) and will receive feedback on all languages in a consistent way (and at the same time).
Too Much Food on the Plate
Check what's on your licensor’s line up for the coming year. If they have a huge title on the slate while you work on a minor license, you will need to struggle even more to get attention and feedback on time.
A Healthy Relationship
The approval process has to be crystal clear before you put together your localization schedule. Approval (even if parallel) must be taken into consideration (you need to know how long each step will take and how much time you’ll have to resubmit). You need buffer time to work around refusals.
Hold regular meetings with a detailed agenda. Always detail what you need, when and in which format (and of course why). Create an agenda template with columns for dates, formats, comments and responsible key persons.
Be smart and don't give your licensor ideas that will slow down your work if they're not already detailed in the contract. Ask for legal counsel if needed.
Hold your ground: explain why this particular correction can't be implemented at a very late stage. Demonstrate how it may jeopardize the release of the game.
If applicable, make sure your licensor checks a build that's been already debugged. That way you will avoid duplicates.
Sometimes, voices need special effects that are implemented by your licensor. Lucasarts usually have their in-house studio apply their SFX. It's a process that takes time and you want to secure delivery dates.
Your licensor might not be able to provide you with already subtitled clips that once reformatted to meet your platforms' specs you can just drop in. You will often need to subtitle clips yourself to accommodate different screen layouts and font sizes, which takes time. (They might want to approve the fonts…)
Plan C consists of selecting scenes that have no actual dialogues but only music and / or onomatopoeias but, again, it's not ideal marketing-wise, and will look a bit cheap.
Be careful also with other types of bonus material that will require some translation and dubbing: making-of's, interviews, deleted scenes, etc. You can choose to have different bonus material depending on the territories, but that will need to be specified in your submission documentation (and this will create more work for your data management team).
And of course, have your licensor confirm that all assets they provide you with (movie line translations, bonus clip voices) have been legally cleared for all territories: you don't want an adaptor or a voice director or actors to sue you. Last but not the least, they need to be credited (all of them).
Do not hand over a AAA project to a new vendor until he's proven he works well.
Have a good localization! Should you have any question or comment please feel free to write me.