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Q&A: SDI Games Talks The Localization Process

For today's latest Gamasutra Q&A we talk with localization group SDI Games about the process of text, asset, and cultural localizing in its work with Ubisoft, THQ, Sega and Microsoft, as well as what the company is doing to translate into underserved regi

Alistair Wallis, Blogger

September 12, 2007

9 Min Read

SDI Games became a separate division from localization group SDI Media in 2005, and now translate and localize titles for over 20 clients, including Ubisoft, THQ, Sega and Microsoft. The company is currently working on titles such as the upcoming Silent Hill titles, with a focus on translating and localizing titles in Portuguese Brazilian, Arabic and Flemish, amongst a number of other generally under serviced languages. We recently spoke with Scott Womer, who works with SDI Games’ Business Development, and Kirk Lambert, the company’s Global Project Manager, and asked about the differences between localization and translation, the challenges in working with culturally specific references, and how the level of localization in games will continue to expand in smaller markets. Gamasutra: When did SDI Media begin working with games localization? Scott Womer: SDI Media has been operating for more than 30 years, and we have been localizing games around five years now. It became a natural evolution for SDI to start working with games since we already had a huge presence in the entertainment industry, working with most major film and broadcast studios. In 2005, SDI Games was created as a separate division dedicated solely to games. Most recently SDI Media was acquired by Elevation Partners, the parent company of Bioware and Pandemic Studios. What are the "linguistic TCR requirements for Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo"? Kirk Lambert: SDI is licensed by all three game platforms and thus can provide TCR, TRC and Lot checks for any system; they are basically the same as the USA requirements. In your view, do you think there is a lack of actual localization going on, as opposed to simple translation? SW: As you probably know, localization goes beyond just taking text and translating it. To actually make the text relevant, it has to be adapted into each territory. You can do a quick translation to save on time and money, but you risk many of those translations being either misinterpreted or often times incoherent because they don’t pertain to that particular culture and/or dialect. SDI will not use any game translators unless they pass a strict “SDI Game Translator test” which provides the best results. The text must be interpreted and translated by a proven translator within that territory and then further quality checks must be applied to further guarantee its accuracy. It is also important to make sure the translators know games – all too often game text is translated by “non-gamers” resulting in babbled jargon that gamers can often struggle to understand. What problems does this cause for consumers? SW: Well, if it’s done incorrectly, it can cause huge frustration for the player as he is trying to get through the game. Everyone knows how tiresome it can be to read bad subtitling or hear bad voiceover - at first it might be funny but then it just gets annoying, especially if it causes confusion and affects how you play the game. What gaps are currently in the market in regards to traditional publisher and developer-based localization services? KL: Years ago there was translation to the main European languages. Now games are localized in up to 15 languages and with tremendous amounts of voice recording being needed the traditional publisher has a lot more activities to handle this expansion. Many developers still do not provide the proper spacing for text and also need to be more aware of the voice needs. Are there publishers and developers who you think are doing good jobs in regards to localization? SW: Sure, but you don’t need me to tell you who they might be; ask the folks playing the games and they can tell you who is doing a good job in this area! Unfortunately, because game budgets are usually so tight, localization often is one of the last line items on a budget and can often be mistaken for a luxury rather than a necessity, and therefore gets dropped off the production schedule or they are forced to go cheaper, resulting in a shoddy translation. What competition does SDI face in this market? SW: Since SDI is one of the only companies in the world that can provide localization to all languages for translation, voice recording, linguistic testing and functionality testing, we face different competition in each of these areas. What areas are not receiving properly localized games at this point? KL: Many of the Scandinavian countries are just now receiving localized products. Most of the time, it’s only FIGS [French, Italian, German and Spanish] countries that get the 1st priority. We have also found that there is a strong opening for Eastern European countries and even some of the Asian markets are getting poor translations. What kinds of elements need to be taken into account when localizing a game? SW: Well, the publisher or developer needs to know what markets they wish to localize to. The most common are usually French, Italian, German and Spanish, or otherwise known as FIGS. Other popular languages are Portuguese, Latin American Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Korean and both Simplified and Traditional Chinese. To create a schedule and finish date, the word count must be determined initially. Because of our size, SDI Games is always able to translate in territory and then QC back in our Los Angeles headquarters. This additional QC step is crucial in our process and assures a very accurate translation. It must also be determined if there is a need for voice dubbing and how much studio time this would require. Of course, this is determined by the scope of the project and how much dialogue there is throughout the game as well as the number of voice actors that will need to be recorded. Oftentimes one actor can handle multiple voices which can lower the overall costs. Lastly, it is usually best if the game is scheduled to be tested linguistically. What we would do for this is request a build of the game after our text files are placed back into it. Our testers would then go through and test the game within each localized language, which would include playing through the game and finding contextual issues, overlapping text and TRC/TCR/Lot Check issues. How much of a challenge is asset localization? KL: Asset or art localization is a great challenge. There are usually 3-4 steps. First the text involved has to be translated and placed back into the file by a person versed in an art-editing tool. Then it has to be placed back within the game and tested. Aside from the work on the actual game content itself, what other efforts needs to be put into the localization of a game? KL: Manuals, box art, marketing materials and websites are the usual suspects. How difficult is it to localize cultural references, and how do you ensure that this is being done correctly? KL: Sometimes it’s very difficult. We only use in-territory translators so we can ensure we have the most up-to-date references, etc. Then we use native speakers in-house to QC and to make sure the context is correct for the materials. Are there markets that are more or less difficult to localize for? KL: Usually the Asian countries are the most difficult. There are many more language issues with honorifics. There usually needs to be much more reference materials to get the correct context. Are we talking to an older person, younger person, man, or woman? How often is re-dubbing actually attempted? KL: It’s getting better. Usually only the top tier of games can still afford to localize the audio. This has definitely changed the last 3-5 years as machines have come out that can handle more voices and the storage issues have become less and less. What kinds of costs and challenges are involved in this? SW: Actor and studio time can add up quickly depending on what is needed. Certain countries also have their own famous VO talent whom may or may not be known in the States, but are superstars in their own particular country, and of course can be more expensive to use. Fortunately, we own our own dubbing studios in different parts of the world, so it’s easy for us to bring in talent and control the overall costs. How much work would generally go into the localization of a game for a language like, say, Flemish, and how can this cost be justified? SW: Again, because of our global reach, we are able to go into many obscure markets and do a language such as say Flemish. It certainly is not a popular language for our video game clients right now, but who knows what the future will hold – as fast as this industry is moving, I wouldn’t doubt anything. Surprisingly, the work would not be much different than doing any of the more standard languages. Justifying the cost is ultimately up to the publisher of course, but if more copies of the game are being sold because the game was correctly localized, then mission accomplished. Often times it is possible for as few as 10,000 units to be sold to make it worthwhile for the publisher to provide the localized version. Why is outsourcing this a better option than doing it in-house? KL: Studios are already being pushed to the max in terms of production. Outsourced localization is a way for them to pass along some of the burden. Most often we can provide an end-to-end solution that can save them time and money. Going to a vendor keeps studios from having to hire localization staff and then worrying about keeping them busy during slow periods. Project managers create a seamless integration into the existing process, making it as easy as possible for both sides - and sometimes we can even decide to send our people on-site to the actual job location. What kinds of costs are involved for a developer or publisher to get a game localized for, say, the Arabic market? SW: The cost is similar to any other language. Since we have full teams in over 50 languages, the cost isn’t much different for SDI to localize Arabic then it would be for more common languages like German. What notable titles has SDI localized, and for which markets were they localized? KL: We have worked on lots of games for almost every major publisher. For example we have worked on games like Madden 2008, FIFA Soccer, Golden Compass, Everquest II, Silent Hill and many more. Will we see more titles being localized for smaller markets in the future, would you say? SW: I have to believe we will. As interactive entertainment continues to grow at mach speed and with the availability of consoles, PC, handhelds and mobile just about everywhere now, there is no reason to think that these smaller markets will not start demanding localized content.

About the Author(s)

Alistair Wallis


Alistair Wallis is an Australian based freelance journalist, and games industry enthusiast. He is a regular contributor to Gamasutra.

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