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Q&A: NIS America's Spaulding On Localization, Disgaea's Future

The business of converting Japanese console games for the Western market has swelled significantly in the past few years, and in this interview, Gamasutra talks to NIS America writer Phoenix Spaulding on the art of localization and the future of the firm'
The business of converting Japanese console games for the Western market has swelled significantly in the past few years, and one of the smallest but more notable firms doing this is the American division of Nippon Ichi Software, the developers of titles such as cult strategy RPG Disgaea. As well as publishing its own games in North America, the firm has also put out games in the Atelier Iris series and GrimGrimoire. In this recent interview, Gamasutra talks to NIS America writer Phoenix Spaulding on the art of localization and the future of the firm's Disgaea series. The Art Of Localization So, what is your localization process like at NIS America, in terms of making a Japanese game appropriate for the U.S. market? What are the stages you go through? Phoenix Spaulding: The first thing that happens, after you get the contract for the game, is they’ll send us all the untranslated script, usually in Excel format, and we have a translator who will get to it and do all the rough translating, and that lasts probably about a month to a month and a half. And either after they’re all done - or, depending on their schedule, while they’re working on it - they’ll start giving it to me, and I’ll start doing the actual edit. We usually start with system files – the menus, item descriptions, and all that stuff, and after that we’ll start in with the actual story of it, and we’ll pretty much just start at the beginning and work chapter by chapter up to the end. After that, we get that script done, and this whole time we’re sending files to Japan, piece by piece. By the time we get done with that, they’ll take all the text, throw it into the game. Usually maybe a week or two after we get done with our work, they’ll send us the first ROM. That’s when we can start debugging it, which can last a month or a month and a half. After that, it goes to Sony, and gets the approval, and that’s usually everything. So are you working on the whole thing yourself? I’m doing all the script editing myself. We have the translator who does all the translating, and then me who does all that. Some projects, depending on time, if one person has more time to work on it... We only have two script editors, so at most, it would be two. For example, on Disgaea 2, we were really pressed for time, so one guy was doing the main story, and I did the item descriptions and the bonus story and everything. But usually it will be just one person. And then everyone as a group, the whole localization team, will read through the script together and make suggestions, or make corrections, or whatever. Does that mean Nippon Ichi doesn’t release that many games, thanks to this level of detail and staffing? I think in the last year, we released around 7 games, which is a game every 2 months. The whole process for us lasts around four months per game. Usually, right as we’re getting into debug on one game, we’ll start the translation or localization of another one. So we’re almost always balancing two projects off of each other. NIS America is releasing Disgaea, already localized by Atlus, on the PSP later this year - are you using the existing translation, or starting anew? Well, we used, for the most part, a lot of Atlus’s translation, and all we’re really doing is fixing any grammar mistakes. The other editor, Steve Carlson, is working on it, but from what I understand, we’re only making changes where we feel it’s really necessary. But then on top of that, they’ve added so much new content [to the PSP version] -- there’s new voice acting, there’s new chapters, so that material obviously is totally different. And we’ve re-recorded some voices based on what we’ve done since then, like Disgaea 2 and Makai Kingdom. But for the most part, we’ve left everything pretty well intact. How much say, if any, do you have in the voice direction? Actually, we have quite a lot. We will send our supervisor, Jack Niida, and whichever of the editors are working on the game to a session. Most of how the character’s going to sound, or how they talk, is usually determined by the script writer, primarily. And then, while we’re doing the voice acting, we’re sitting there listening, and if we have something we want to change, or want to explain something, we’re right there to make the change. So for us, at least, for our company, the script editors have a lot of control on the voice directing. So Jack Niida is helping oversee things from a different perspective? Since he can read the original Japanese, what he usually does is follow along in the original Japanese. Sort of like a last-minute safeguard, to make sure what the line says in English is the right line. Once in a while he’ll stop us and say “Oh, wait, this doesn’t quite read exactly how it is in the original Japanese, we should try to redo it.” For the most part he doesn’t do a lot of: “Oh you should say this this way, or say it this way.” It’s mostly technical elements, at least with the actual direction of, “Oh, this should have more of an accent, or this should have less of an emphasis." That’s usually left to us. The Business Of NIS America Moving on from localization to any business issues you can discuss, some people have been wondering if you’re actually going to be able to get Disgaea 3 approved on the PS3. PS: It’s tough to say, because I know there’s a lot of rumors about what Sony demands or expects or whatever, but it’s not anything set in stone. It’s almost never a case of, “Do what we say or it won’t come over.” It’s more like, “Well, we see what you have, but we’d really like to see more content.” Especially with PlayStation 3, Sony doesn't want to publish something that doesn’t, to them, live up to their standard. Not just the whole flashy graphics, but they want companies to really consider utilizing the network mode, and downloadable elements, those sorts of things. As it stands right now, in Japan, it’s ready to go. We won’t really know about America until we start working on it, and start talking to Sony America and find out what they think of it. Turning to your confirmed portable release, how do you think Disgaea: Afternoon Of Darkness for PSP will do? We recently just reprinted Disgaea for the PS2, so that’s getting easier to find for people. We have our level of acceptable sales. Based on how well Disgaea 2 sold, I’m confident that we’ll get to that. I don’t know if it will be like a runaway breakout title, though I’m hoping it will be. That’s the funny thing about games - you never can know. In the U.S., you publish games by Gust, and Hitmaker, and Idea Factory. Are you looking into any more of those kind of relationships? Whenever our boss goes back to Japan, there’s usually like 4 or 5 companies that he meets and talks to, and even if we’re not making a game, he still has those relationships. What he usually wants to do is he’s always looking for a company to build a long term relationship. But we’re always looking - we have a couple of companies that we’re talking to right now for our next set of games coming out, that we might deal with. And for me personally, I always get the new issues of Famitsu, and I’m always looking. Do you feel like Nippon Ichi in Japan is going to have to start looking at the Nintendo systems, because they haven’t been so much yet? That’s where some 80 percent of the money is right now. Whe do you think that’s going to happen? I don’t have any details on it, but I know back at Anime Expo, NIS Japan made a very brief mention about Disgaea on the DS. As far as I know, that’s still planned, and I know they’re at least looking at the others, like Wii, and maybe some other DS titles. I hope they do because so many of our fans, they’re all DS kids. It really just makes sense to at least try it.

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