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When to Forgo the Culturalization of Video Games: Contextualizing Globalization within the Mobile Marketplace

Localization is defined and discussed in relation to the mobile marketplace by a Bay Area company that focuses upon the translation and localization of video games.

Written by Language Automation Inc.’s Game Localization Marketing Specialist Karin Skoog in collaboration with LAI’s CEO David Lakritz. [Originally posted on LAI's blog.]

Localization is the adaptation of video games for regional markets, to include changing components such as graphics and cultural references.  Localization is important so gamers within specific regions can enjoy the game as if it were the original, by integrating key aspects of local culture while also adhering to legal and regulatory requirements.  (It is necessary to censor certain components of games in order for governments or organizations to approve a game’s release or rating.)  The ultimate goal of localization is to ensure the game makes sense for natives while maintaining the original feel of the game.  Localization can occur in the absence of text or audio translation.  For example, no translation is necessary in manipulating images like eliminating skeletons and exposed bone in Chinese versions of games to accommodate for country restrictions.

For the purposes of this article, we will define localization in the broadest sense to mean adapting any and all aspects of a game for the local market.  This can include text, graphics, audio, and even elements of story design and gameplay.  Within this context, we define three degrees of localization, each a deeper dive into the adaptation process and each associated with increasing time and cost of implementation.  We call these degrees “Simple Localization,” “Partial Culturalization,” and “Full Culturalization.”  These are depicted in the diagram below along with examples of typical activities associated with each.  Note that these divisions are somewhat arbitrary and were chosen to make it easy to conceptualize the overall process.  The horizontal axis represents a continuum, and the question of which activities belong to which degree is just a question of semantics.  The main point being that as you engage in deeper culturalization of your game, the greater the cost will be in terms of time and money.


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“Culturalization is going a step further beyond [simple] localization as it takes a deeper look into a game’s fundamental assumptions and content choices, and then gauges the viability in both the broad, multicultural marketplace as well as in specific geographic locales.  [Simple] localization helps gamers simply comprehend the game’s content (primarily through translation), but culturalization helps gamers to potentially engage with the game’s content at a much deeper, more meaningful level.”

~    The Game Localization Handbook, 2nd edition, page 26

Heather Maxwell Chandler & Stephanie O’Malley Deming

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It is no secret that the popularity of Facebook and other social media platforms together with the accessibility of development tools have created a perfect storm that has enabled the explosive growth of social gaming apps.  Companies looking to increase their market share in this highly fragmented space must expand their global reach, given that over 50% of worldwide game revenue comes from markets outside the US.  In a world of rapid internationalization, game developers realize it is important not only to translate games but to localize (or culturalize) as well.  Yet, the app store is a rapidly evolving space with thousands of new apps submitted every month and over 100 games submitted every day.  With the culturalization process adding valuable time to the translation of games, when is it important to delve deeper into culturalization, and when does it make sense to forgo certain aspects of culturalization for faster time to market?

Language Automation, Inc. (LAI, @LanguageAutoInc) was at the Mobile Gaming USA (#MGUSA) conference in San Francisco last month, where we heard important players in the social gaming space both here and in Asian markets speak about what it means to “take your games global” and what this means for culturalizing games in the mobile market.  Among the presenters were Paul Chen, Vice President of Developer Relations at PapayaMobile (an open mobile social network for casual Android gamers, headquartered in Beijing with an office here in Menlo Park); Kyu Lee, Vice President of GAMEVIL (an award-winning mobile game publisher with offices in Seoul and Los Angeles); and Randy Lee, Director of Business Development at CrowdStar (a top social gaming company based in the Bay Area and a major player in the Japanese market).  Although each of these social gaming professionals recognizes the need for culturalizing games, they also speak to the importance of rapidly publishing games for the mobile market.


To Culturalize, or Not to Culturalize, That is the Question

There are some cases in which it is critical to culturalize at least particular aspects of games in order to adhere to the strict game regulations of Asia.  The Japanese market already saw a sudden decline in social gaming due to gambling laws and a pending lawsuit for the sale of social gaming items through compugacha (similar to real life gashapon machines in which customers must find complete sets of rare items for even rarer items, often resulting in thousands of dollars spent by a single consumer in one month).   A panelist at the Social Gaming USA conference referenced a game where it was necessary to change briefly shown flesh-colored parts of a female changing clothes to resemble a colored tank top.  Since failure to comply with local game regulations can cause a dramatic loss in profits and market share, it is in a company’s best interest to culturalize not only currently regulated aspects of gaming but to also foresee problems like compugacha and gambling laws in Japan.

Due to the panelists’ extensive experience in the North American and Asian mobile gaming markets, each recognizes the need for culturalizing mobile games in certain instances – ex. making games harder for the Korean market than the American market.  Yet, they also understand the importance of sometimes eliminating the culturalization process, citing the “hunger” in China for Western games and the tendency to merely translate games for China as opposed to culturalizing them.  The need to eliminate culturalization is even greater when it comes to the mobile gaming space.


Differences between Console-Based Games and Mobile Games – Implications for Culturalization

It is of course important to contextualize games for different regional markets (for example, using a soccer ball for other markets when an original American version includes a football), yet it is equally critical to recognize the unique market of mobile gaming when juxtaposed against the traditional console space.  While it is common place for console-based game developers to spend many extra months translating and culturalizing games for foreign markets, mobile games often do not have the luxury of time.

Mobile gamers expect fast results, even faster than Facebook’s social gamers.  Jason Loia, COO of Digital Chocolate, says that although Facebook players don’t mind waiting hours for a tree to grow in order to harvest fruit, mobile players may have only a few minutes to play and therefore expect faster methods of gameplay and tutorials.  Since the mobile market space is highly fragmented, mobile users can quickly and easily download competitors’ games.  According to the Mobile Gaming USA’s panel “Taking Your Games Global,” this could mean lost opportunity for capitalization if an extra 6+ months is spent culturalizing a game that turns out to be a “flop.”

When assessing the need to culturalize, it is critical to assess the specific segment of the marketplace – social vs. console-based and mobile vs. online gaming – in conjunction with cultural market expectations (such as the commonplace practice of forgoing culturalization for the Chinese social gaming market).  Although hardcore gamers expect delays in the translation and localization (culturalization) of console-based games and will wait long periods of time for the superb translation of a major title, the social gaming space is vastly different, particularly when it comes to mobile games.  The games of mobile users are easily substitutable, except in the case of true brand loyalty such as diehard fans of Rovio’s Angry Birds.  The lifecycle of mobile games is also significantly shorter than other games.  Therefore, a company that chooses to spend an extra half a year or so culturalizing a game may miss out on a social gaming trend critical to their game’s success.


Back to the main question – when to forgo culturalization?  Look at the trends and stats for the marketplace and determine whether it makes sense to immediately take your product to market.  You certainly don’t want your game or the authority of your company to diminish by ignoring the importance of culturalization, but you also don’t want to miss out on a market opportunity in the mobile gaming space by spending too much time on culturalization.  It may make sense to partially culturalize a game as opposed to fully culturalizing.  It is important to strike a balance – culturalize where relevant but be wary of time to market.

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