In 2005, Activision, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft vet Heather Chandler founded Media Sunshine, a company that provides consulting services to game developers, publishers, and vendors.
In her career she's been involved in the localization of more than 20 titles, and at recent Montreal Games Summit, Chandler discussed key localization tasks to tackle during pre-production, production, and testing.
Began Chandler, "For today, we’re going to talk about - why should you care about localizations?" She highlighted the current state of the global market at $31.6 billion -- with 50 percent of that business comprised of international sales.
She ran down some quick stats for that year -- according to Chandler, EA reported national sales of $307 million and international sales of $306 million in a recent quarter, while Activision showed a 240 percent year over year increase in international sales.
Continued Chandler, "What’s important right now is not what is being localized, but how
you’re going to do it and when you’re going to implement."
Localization is usually viewed as a post-production task, said Chandler -- in her experience, it becomes a "grunt work" job handled by a junior team member brought in to cut their teeth on localized versions and move on to better projects -- thereby shuttling out an experienced localization team.
"All this work is crammed in on the end of the process, which limits the potential of localized titles, makes simship a big challenge," Chandler explained. "Simship is becoming the standard now – so if you follow this model, you’re not going to get your project finished on time, or [it will be] at great cost to your team."
She highlighted games like Ghost Recon
as samples, estimating they have 30,000 words of in-game text, 20,000 words of dialogue, and 10,000 words involved in the user interface. And there are subtitles, too, which she pointed out are an essential feature for accessibility.
Additionally, there are about 30 art assets to localize that may have text embedded into their texture, and need to be changed individually by hand.
Add in about 2,000 lines of voice-over -- 12 characters with 100 lines, 20 minor characters and 400 dubbed with cinematics.
Chandler added that in terms of simultaneous shipping in different languages there are also multiplatform releases -- so the job can be quite large for a post-production task.
Estimating Production Time
For 30,000 words, Chandler estimates it might take a translator who is also an editor some twenty days. It may take 7 days to cast 32 characters, including time for approvals -- if not longer. Voice-over recording for 2,000 lines can take 14 days, both recording and processing.
According to Chandler, the asset integration part is the most painful part for developers – with an automated process for asset integration it might take a day -- otherwise, it could easily stretch out to 10-15 days.
Linguistic testing -- which means procuring a native speaker, checking for truncated text and ensuring proper context -- can take 21 days, assuming 3 rounds of testing. Finally, the ratings review requires a title to be 100 percent content-complete, and the process of securing a rating can take 3-4 weeks. Microsoft, for example, won't accept any titles that aren't ratings-certified in all applicable territories.
"These estimates have no padding," Chandler pointed out. "There's lot of local work to be done, [and it] needs to be built into your schedule."
The Desired State
A strong process starts in pre-production, and Chandler advises localization consideration to begin at that stage. "If developers start considering English as a foreign language it’ll start to help them figure out how things go into the package, and how to structure the code," explained Chandler.
She also advised determining how much of the game needs to be localized for budgetary reasons, estimating it takes about 10-15 cents to translate a single word. Developers should start reviewing vendors as soon as possible, she said.
"Start reviewing content with them, get them prepared, treat them as an extended team member, and get them builds of the game," She added.
Lastly, Chandler pointed out that it's a good idea to do a general audit of culturally sensitive content.
First, organize assets, then complete translation and voice-over, integrate assets, develop a testing plan, and finally, a cultural content review, Chandler said.
She recalled working on a game where developers had a storyline in which a Pope was being used in the game as a villain,. There were lots of WWII references involving Nazis, and when the German translator saw the storyline, he said, "I can tell you right now this is going to be banned in Germany." Chandler said the developer had to go back and rewrite parts of the story. "He wasn’t thinking at the time it would be a cultural issue, he just thought it’d be cool to include the references," Chandler explained.
In the beta phase, she continued, complete the integration, perform the linguistic testing and review the platform's technical requirements. The final approval on localizations by each country's brand manager occurs in the release phase.
Keys to Localization
The number one technical thing is localization-friendly code, said Chandler. "Automate the process as much as you can, pulling out assets for translation and putting them back in."
She recommended scheduling early in the process planning to figure out how the assets will be managed. It can be challenging, she says, to work with developers that don't source control translated assets and testing.
She said one obvious thing that many groups fail to do is to centralize their language assets. "Create a folder, put all the text files in there, and know that if you zip that up and send it for translation, you’re covered," she advised, adding that when using a database, assigning a unique string ID makes it easy to look up a piece of text.
"This is really important when we’re looking at 30,000 words of text," she stressed. "Mass Effect
was something like 400,000 words."
Use a text file or something that can be opened in a text editor, she advised. Excel is not the ideal format because it has a tendency to truncate text, but when working with in-country editors it’s easier.
"If you have art assets, layer it and put your text on a separate layer – makes it a five-minute job versus a five-hour job," she added.
She also advised establishing naming conventions – for example, an underscore-F at the end of a file name to designate all of the French assets. "If you’re working on cinematics, do a separate voice track – really separate all three – it makes it easier to replace voice-over," she said.
Chandler pointed out that Unicode allows the display of any international character, and advised including double-byte support. She recalled working with developers who don’t include this up-front because they want to save memory -- and then they license a game to Asian distribution. "It’s a real mess to retrofit double-byte," she explained. So support international characters ahead of time, she advised -- both uppercase and lowercase.
"Choose a font that's easy to read on standard and hi-def formats," she added. "Especially in translations, because special accents are harder to read on standard if you’ve optimized for hi-def."
Chandler pointed out that translation increases text by 25-30 percent -- especially to German, so failing to plan for that can mean you'll need to use abbreviations.
Another important point Chandler stressed was avoiding overcrowding in the UI screen, recalling, "I worked on a game where you had to manage resources, and all these little small buttons were hard enough to read in English, but it was useless in international. We had to redesign it." She suggested dynamic resizing of UI elements like drop-down menus.
She added, "Use icons where you can; it can save you a lot of headaches. Keep the UI clean and simple, and support international time, date and currency formats."
Chandler pointed out that PC keys are located in different places on international keyboards. "Have a plan for how that’s going to function," she advised. She once again stressed supporting subtitles, which can enable a text-only translation and lets players enjoy the cinematics.
Also as regards the cinematics, Chandler advised, "Think about how you’re going to handle lip-synching. Look into middleware packages -- in the past we haven’t spent a lot of time on this."
As regards multi-lingual discs, she advised thinking about how they will be laid out out on the disc, making sure to correctly identify which game is the primary one when they start up the game or a title-screen choice.
Chandler stressed when dealing with issues of humor, politics and religion, cultural sensitivity is paramount. "If a joke isn’t critical to gameplay experience, think about that," she says. It's better to leave something out if you're uncertain than to need to edit it out later, she added.
Software ratings, she said, are mostly concerned with violence. However, places like Korea are actually sensitive to political ramifications, too. For example, she pointed out that Ghost Recon 2
was banned in South Korea in 2004 because of a rogue Korean general character that the board felt was too sensitive an issue.
Industry growth relies on localization, she said. "If you plan from day one, you’ll be more prepared when you’re in crunch mode. Treat it as core development. It's important to train people to become localization experts – they’re the ones helping you in pre-production."