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The Challenges Of Localizing Video Games

The videogames industry, despite a slight recession-influenced decline in 2009, is still a huge money-spinning behemoth, and international, localized versions of games account for a sizeable portion of revenue.


While most major video games originate in the USA, the UK and Japan, the gaming audience is global. The videogames industry, despite a slight recession-influenced decline in 2009, is still a huge money-spinning behemoth, and international, localized versions of games account for a sizeable portion of revenue. Language is an obvious and clearly important issue but there are other considerations, from design to cultural issues.

 ‘All your base are belong to us’

 At the start of the millennium, the phrase 'All your base are belong to us' became an internet phenomenon and you can still regularly encounter the meme today amongst online gaming communities.

 The source of the phrase was the opening cutscene of the 1991 European adaptation for the Sega Mega Drive of a Japanese arcade game called Zero Wing. In the cutscene, a baddie called CATS (or perhaps baddies, plural; it's still unclear whether CATS was an individual or an organisation) utters the now legendary pronouncement, while elsewhere there are gems like 'Someone set up us the bomb' and 'You have no chance to survive make your time'.

 Not all early adaptations were quite so mangled, but localization, where it occurred, was often an afterthought. Today, developers can save time and money in the long run by planning for localized versions early. It's also beneficial to have these localized games available as quickly as possible, before grey market or pirated copies of the original have the chance to fully circulate, or initial excitement for the product fades.

 Lost in translation

 Good quality translation is essential if a game is to successfully cross markets. The ideal solution is to use native speakers from the target market to translate everything, from scripts to text to cultural context. The New York Times  quotes Yoichi Wada, president of Japan based developer Square Enix. “How do you truly globalise?” asked Mr Wada at the 2010 Tokyo Game Show. “I think you have to work with people who grew up overseas, who grew up breathing the culture. It’s impossible otherwise.”

 Voice acting has become increasingly important in the gaming sphere and the same quality as exists in the original version should always be the target. It's not enough for the script to be accurately translated; the delivery is equally important and professional voice actors should be used when possible.

 Questions of design

 Some design issues can be planned for in advance. For images, you should use multiple layers, allowing any text to be separated from artwork. Similarly, the voice track should be kept separate from visual cinematics, allowing it to be replaced with relative ease. Using Unicode with appropriate fonts will enable the conversion of scripts, but it should be kept in mind that some scripts can take up more or less space than others.

Interface aspects such as menus and dropdown lists have fixed dimensions and if allowances are not made in the original design for text expansion, the contents may have to be rewritten rather than translated. International keyboard layouts differ, so care must also be taken with hotkey mapping.

 In terms of game-play, story and graphics, different cultures may have different requirements. In Japan games tend to be linear, whereas there's been a tendency in the USA and Europe of late for more open, 'sandbox' style games.

Asian audiences also have a penchant for stylised, cartoonish or ‘child-like’ characters, while more realistic features are more common in the West. It might not be possible to appeal to everyone at all times, and some games will always be more successful in one territory than others, but thorough planning, localization and execution will help produce that crossover success.

About the author

Christian Arno is founder of Lingo24, an international translation services provider which specializes in website localization. With 130 employees working across three continents and clients in over sixty countries, Lingo24 is on course for a turnover of $8m in 2010.

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