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Lost In Translation--Japanese and American Gaming's Culture Clash

In an interview about translating American titles for the Japanese market, Simon Carless gets John Ricciardi to discuss the embarassing failures and the successes that various games have had in making the hop across the Pacific--and details what kind of effort he thinks is necessary to pull off a success.

Simon Carless, Blogger

January 21, 2004

16 Min Read

InterOne Inc's John Ricciardi on the "finicky" Japanese market, "hackjob translations," and why Crash ruled Japan.

Although many game developers and publishers speak of a truly worldwide videogame market, making a title popular in all of the major territories is still a tantalizingly difficult prospect. But nowhere is this problem more marked than in the gulf between Japanese and American/European tastes. It's easy to dismiss this cultural chasm as unbreachable. But with hundreds of thousands and possibly millions, of extra sales at stake, it's worth taking a minute to look at some of the issues and possible solutions that crop up when trying to transition titles between the West and Japan, and vice versa.

For example, there are still a relatively tiny amount of Western games that break through and sell a significant amount of copies in Japan. Why is Japan's relatively large gaming market so hard to crack for Westerners, and is there anything developers can do to make their titles more universally appealing? Is the Japanese games industry even well-understood by English-speakers?

But for every export situation, there's a similar import conundrum, only exacerbated by the language differences. It's true that the choicest Japanese videogames are often among the most popular titles in the West. But, if you're a publisher wanting to release Japanese games in the West, what's the key to getting a Japanese title translated properly, without, say, the Indian goddess Kali becoming the Three Stooges member Curly, as recently happened in the Game Boy Advance title Castlevania: Aria Of Sorrow. More worryingly, does it even matter, sales-wise, if a game is badly translated?

One man in a position to discuss these issues cogently is John Ricciardi, formerly an editor at EGM, and now working at Tokyo-based Interone Inc. Interone has translated titles such as Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht, Soul Calibur II, PSO Episode III: C.A.R.D. Revolution, and Tales of Symphonia for major publishers in the Western market, and also licenses Japanese games for release in the U.S. and Europe.

Invading Tokyo From The West

A good place to start, Ricciardi argues, is with the consummate example of a success story: "The most notable case in recent memory of a Western game becoming really popular in Japan would probably be the PlayStation 1 Crash Bandicoot games." He points out that this success, in the form of hundreds of thousands of sales for each game, was only possible by careful coordination of multiple factors.

Firstly, there was marketing: "Simply put, Sony did a superb job marketing the games. The Crash TV commercials were among the funniest game commercials in Japan at the time, and they spent a ton of money making sure everyone who owned a PlayStation knew who Crash was." Second, there's the question of timing: "Crash launched at a time when the PlayStation was enormously popular with young people and females in Japan. It was the "in" thing for 20-something girls to own a PlayStation at that time, and that kind of crowd was perfect for a cute-character-based action game."

Also vital in Crash Bandicoot's success was the question of design: "Sony Japan had a lot of input in terms of game design, which helped the games to maintain a bit of a Japanese feel despite being developed in the West. Most Japanese gamers I speak to actually think Crash was developed in Japan!" Finally, Ricciardi points out that the game's localization was carefully orchestrated: "Sony games always get the full localization treatment. Most of the time when a Western game comes to Japan, it gets a half-assed localization with the minimal amount of Japanese necessary for gamers to get by. In Sony's case, their games almost always feature high-quality translations, re-recorded Japanese voiceovers (often with famous voice actors), and in some cases, like Crash, visual design changes to make the games more appealing to the Japanese market. This goes a long way toward making the games more accessible to Japanese players."

So it seems that the most dedicated companies are even prepared to change their games graphically to appeal to the Japanese market. Sony has removed Jak's goatee for the Japanese release of Naughty Dog's Jak II, and, best of all, Insomniac's Japanese version of Ratchet & Clank II has seen Ratchet sprout bushy eyebrows. Stuart Roch of Shiny also has good comments about localizing for Japan in a Game Developer's Conference lecture transcript from 2000, discussing Wild 9's Japanese transition.

When asked to give advice to Western game creators hoping to make games that have a chance of breaking through in Japan, Ricciardi stresses attention to detail above all: "Make the extra effort to do a proper localization and be willing to make some changes if it seems like they might help broaden your game's appeal in Japan. It's a different country with an entirely different culture and you have to be mindful of that when trying to bring a new product over. If you just slap some Japanese subtitles on the box and change the region encoding, you're not going to have any impact whatsoever."

However, one Western game which has succeeded on its own terms in Japan is Grand Theft Auto III, recently published by Capcom. Ricciardi muses: "GTA III has sold almost 250,000 copies and counting here--certainly not bad, but nothing at all like the response it got in the West. I think it's the most important game to hit Japan this year, and I'm hoping that developers here will take notice of it, study it, break it apart, and try to learn from it. Capcom's done a great job of keeping it in the public eye, and sales remain strong on a week-to-week basis, mostly due to positive word-of-mouth." But he comments that even GTA doesn't go all the way in meeting the needs of the Japanese consumer: "I think it makes as much sense for Japan as any other game, but I would've spent more time on the localization to make it more comfortable for Japanese gamers."

But things are not altogether well in Japanese gaming, which is why Ricciardi ends his analysis on a cautionary note to anyone who would presume to deliberately target Western and Japanese gamers at the same time: "Japanese gamers are a finicky bunch, and cracking that market has proven to be quite a task. Developers would probably be better off putting as much focus as possible on creating a game that'll be a hit in the West and then worry about Japan later. The market in the West is much bigger and more stable. In Japan, most people are finding other ways to spend their money and their time lately, which is a big reason why games in Japan don't sell as well as they used to."


99_icon_arrow.gifOn The State Of The Japanese Industry

On The State Of The Japanese Industry

So, what of this alleged slump in the Japanese market? At any given moment in any territory, there are naysayers predicting doom and destruction for videogames in every territory, but it seems there are significant problems with the game market in Japan, in concert with their general, countrywide economic recession. With a recent survey revealing a large majority of Japanese game developers thought 2003 a "bad year", for the industry, Ricciardi echoes these perceived problems in his comments: "Well, sales have been down across the board for the last three or four years running, so in a sense, yes, but you can't blame it all on the recession. Consumers still have a fair amount of disposable income, but they're using it on other forms of entertainment, like DVDs, the internet, cell phones, and the like. Games are failing to captivate people the way they used to."

Interestingly, it seems that the Japanese market may be growing away from the very "mainstream" market that developers in the West are currently striving towards, according to Ricciardi's anecdotal evidence: "I don't know the exact demographics, but one thing that fascinates me is that the PS2 generation definitely skews older and mostly male, whereas PS1 was much broader, with lots of females and younger players. I think the decision to make PS2 look like a fancy stereo component had a lot to do with this, and it wound up costing Sony because they lost a very hard-to-reach demographic that they had complete control over in the PS1 era." And with Sony so dominant in Japan, the other hardware competitors are lagging and possibly niche-limited even more than they are in the West: "Xbox gamers in Japan are mostly super hardcore types, and GameCube owners are mostly kids--I hate to play into the stereotype, but it's really true."

As for other reasons for the Japanese slump, Ricciardi adds credence to the views of others involved in the Japanese games industry in showing concern for the sometimes formulaic nature of Japanese development: "I feel like we're seeing far more innovation from the West these days than Japan. Games like Tony Hawk, GTA III, and Halo really took things to a new level of immersion and fun. Personally, I'd love to see some more collaboration between Western developers and Japanese developers--somewhat like Metroid Prime, which turned out brilliantly, in my opinion."

This view raises the question of how Japanese developers differ from Western dev teams--Ricciardi notes: "My impression is that Japanese developers are highly organized and efficient, but a bit rigid in terms of being able to adapt to new practices. One thing that irks a lot of Western programmers who work in Japan is that generally, Japanese developers don't share code. They spend months building new engines for almost every game instead of using that time to refine an already existing engine and give more time to the actual game design and development. This has changed a bit recently now that software like Renderware has become more widespread, but for the most part, Japan is still way behind in this area."

He continues with another important difference--pay scale: "Another point that I'm sure many of my friends in development out here would love for me to point out: Japanese developers get paid like garbage compared to Western developers. Programmers and artists here, even high-level ones, make a fraction of what their counterparts make in the West. This can't possibly be good for morale, but at the same time it's kind of normal for Japan; employees here are expected to be loyal to their company and treat it like a second home, so most people don't complain about these kinds of issues as much as they probably should."

Finally, Ricciardi takes a little time to dispel some of the myths regarding Japanese gaming tastes, starting with the impression that the Japanese videogame market is all about the infamous dating-based videogames. He notes, "Dating games do exist in Japan, but they're not really popular anymore. They're mainly aimed at lonely guys and hardcore otaku, but I guess that market shrunk a bit over the last generation as PS2 has become more of a mainstream console. Personally, I don't see the attraction to these kinds of games."

He also takes issue with the claim that overly "cute," anime- or manga-inspired games have trouble reaching an appreciative audience in the West, suggesting: "The 'too cute' notion in regard to gaming is kind of unfair, in my opinion. Granted, it's not a regular part of our culture to have games and other forms of media that subscribe to that particular art style, but that doesn't mean we should prevent people from having the opportunity to check them out. In order for the medium to grow and mature, we need to be more open-minded about the kinds of games we bring over."

Overcoming Los Angeles From The East

Despite the possible Japanese downturn, there are still plenty of Western publishers fighting to pick up Japanese titles to round out their roster of Western-developed games. Ricciardi explains: "Japan has an awful lot of budget titles, which are ripe for licensing, as the fees are cheap and the localizations are usually inexpensive. These days most publishers aren't looking for huge hits from Japan, but rather solid, affordable A or B titles to pad their lineup. The licensing scene is pretty competitive here; big titles often get scooped up within days of being announced and it's very, very rare that a suitable game remains un-translated unless it fails concept approval for one reason or another."

So, you have a Japanese videogame that you want to localize and release in the West. What's the key to making the translation a good one? Ricciardi suggests that a major mistake occurs when third parties translate without being able to actively consult the original game creators: "The biggest issue is simply finding that delicate balance of staying accurate and true to the original while also making the text sound good and read properly in English. It's not as easy as it might sound, and often it can't be done to perfection without the translators having access to the development team to make sure their interpretations of the original text are accurate. This isn't always possible, but when it is it definitely makes for a better final product."

When translation is done with the ability for consultation, it leads to, well, jubilation: "The very best localizations are the ones that are done in-house, with the cooperation of the original developers. This is an approach Square Enix takes, and it works well. They have bilingual translators and editors literally working side-by-side with the developers in Japan, so that whenever there's a question or an uncertainty about the meaning of something being translated, they can go straight to the source to make sure they get it right. This is pretty important, which is something we've learned as a third-party translation house. Fortunately, the publishers we've worked with [at Interone] have been very good about giving us access to the developers, so we've been able to manage."

Another pitfall for eager Western publishers is the extended timeframe and cost of localization, but there are ways to ameliorate this: "The time it takes to do a game depends entirely on the amount of people involved and the size of the script. In the case of a major RPG, the translation alone can sometimes take up to two or three months, and that's not counting any editing or polishing. Then you have voice recording, which can take weeks, voice implementation, testing, debugging...it can be a pretty long process if the game is large enough. This is why we're seeing more and more simultaneous releases--it's easier for a developer to program in multiple languages at once, to cut down on the costs associated with localizing for each individual region. Of course this is a luxury most companies simply can't afford, so don't expect it to become the standard any time soon."

But what of the question posed at the start of the article? Do "hackjob translations" from the Japanese negatively affect a game's popularity? Well, perhaps not--Ricciardi laments, "Sadly, poor translation and voice acting don't seem to affect game sales as much as I wish they would. I can't stand playing games that are littered with typos or nonsensical English, and for the most part, the quality of voice acting in videogames is just terrible. I'd like to think that a good translation affects sales in a positive way, but unfortunately I don't have any evidence of this. As mentioned, Square Enix seems to have the best overall track record for localizations at the moment, but is that why their games sell well? I really don't know."

Ricciardi ends his discussion of the translation business with a caveat for those hoping to skimp on translation costs and still get the substance of the game conveyed properly: "Just having native English speakers isn't enough--it's important that everyone involved is familiar with games, understands how they work, and in the case of a franchise property, has studied up on past games in the series. Far too many companies treat the localization of games as an afterthought, hiring any old cheap translators, regardless of their experience with games. That's one of the main reasons you see so many hackjob translations. If videogames are to be taken as seriously as movies, publishers are going to need to start taking localizations more seriously."


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About the Author(s)

Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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