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The Indie Developer's Guide to a Kickass Game Localization, Part I: How to Prepare Your Game for Localization

Do you know how to prepare your game for localization? Some insights from a localizer's point of view.

Marianna Sacra, Blogger

February 12, 2018

19 Min Read

In this article:

You are about to develop your game. Your family is prepared to see little to nothing of you for a long time. Nights will be long while your budget is not. But when you finally finish your game, you'll want to take over the world, with localization. A localized version of your game can bring in more profits, and more people will be able to enjoy the result of your hard work.

No matter which languages you should decide to localize your game into—you'll want it to be authentic and enjoyable. You'll want as many gamers as possible to pick up your game, and you hope they'll never want to put it down. 
So do I, and so do my fellow game translators.

Before you embark on this exciting and exhausting development journey, consider giving an extra thought to localization. That's right, think about localization before development. And during. And after. Always keep it in the back of your mind. At least if you're serious about it. Because in order to create a healthy foundation for another language version of your precious game, it pays to plan localization from the very beginning.

Why developers should think about localization before and during development

Some things might not work in some languages or cultures. Certain things might be inappropriate, offensive, or even illegal in certain cultures. Think sex, boobs, alcohol, history, geography, weaponry, and other fun stuff. Those will also affect the age rating which in turn will influence sales.

Languages which are read from right to left (like Arabic or Hebrew) might require you to flip the menu.

Puns and language-related puzzles are often untranslatable and end up not making any sense (I'm looking at you, stupid monkey wrench!).

Even though your foremost thought is to finish your game, you will consider localizing it into more languages later on. Imagine your game is a huge success in the US but you can't successfully localize it for the Chinese market—which in 2017 has generated a quarter of worldwide gaming revenue [source] in the gaming market—only because you didn't consider localization-friendly coding. Big bummer.

In order to avoid such a loss, always ask yourself this one question while you develop your game: 

Will this work in [language]?

Keeping this question in the back of your mind will avoid many unpleasant localization-related surprises and make sure there are no reasons why the game's translations will suck.


I would love to give you advice on how to code your game to make it localization-friendly. But instead of trying to teach you something you know much better than I do, I will tell you what I know best: What makes a game localization-friendly so that we translators can focus on creating a beautiful piece of writing. If you are looking for guidance on how not to do it, read this article on how not to make a game localization-friendly.


Why we need it: Languages need certain characters to make for a natural read.

Many a translators' hearts have been broken translating a game where necessary language-specific characters, such as ßü¿, or å, caused the game to crash. No, I cannot just write "B" instead of "ß". And no, my Spanish colleagues cannot just use a "regular exclamation point".


Why we need it: To keep things together that aren't meant to be separated.

A no-break space (also called "unbreakable space", non-breakable space or "hard space") is a space that will not be separated from the two characters it's surrounded by. It's basically an invisible character. Hard spaces are needed to avoid splitting certain texts in different lines, such as

  • numbers (DE: 10 000)

  • names (EN: Mr. Spock)

  • numbers from values (DE: 5 %, 10 Gold)

  • or words from punctuation marks in languages whose convention is to have a space before certain kinds of punctuation (FR: Trop cool !)

Without a hard space, it could happen that the French exclamation mark moves to the next line, desperately waiting there in isolation for a hard space to lean on to.


Why we need it: Most languages need more space than English.

If you program your game so that the translation cannot be longer than the original text, the translators will have a very hard time creating a convincing localization.

Languages like Japanese and Chinese need very little space to express content. English needs a lot of space compared to Japanese (+20–60%) but still significantly less (-10–40%) than German, Finnish, all Romance, and many other languages.

Picture a Japanese game menu. Two or three Japanese characters may form a cool character name. Now picture a possible translation. That same character name might need 8 letters and a space in English, and even 14 letters in German.

Example I:
JP: カロン
EN: Dry Bones
DE: Knochentrocken

Example II:
EN: Screen Settings
DE: Bildschirmeinstellungen

If there is not enough space, translators might have to drastically abbreviate text in the ugly likes of "Kn.tr" or "B.sch.einst.".

-->If you write your game in English, account for at least 30 % more space for all other languages.


Why we both need it: To more easily prepare and translate files.

We can't say it often enough. If you mix in-game text with the code, it will be difficult to extract and integrate all the text for translation. The translator will have a hard time separating code from text, and game code might be accidentally altered in the process. Not hard-coding game text is a win-win for all of us.


Why you need it: It will be much easier to localize text that can be modified quickly.

You might not yet realize that certain text that you created as graphics should be localized as well. Graphic text is often used in menus, home screens, and within the game.

Picture your main character, gun in one hand, walking towards a big fence. He slowly looks up, and above the barbed wire he reads the letters "State Penitentiary".

If you would like a full localization of your game, such in-game graphic texts should be translated for proper immersion into the game universe. Examples like this are not easy to avoid. However, save yourself the trouble of using graphic text in unnecessary areas like the home screen.


Why we don't need it: It can cause clumsy-looking translations.

Pulling strings together to form new sentences has their good sides: It can keep a game small and save time—and money—programming, writing, and even translating. 

But concatenated texts are one of the localizer's biggest foes. Item names and characters can have different genders (German has 3), conjugations, and even completely different adjectives (think "handsome boy" vs. "pretty girl"). Some languages use cases (German has 4 and Russian even has 6).

Not only that, but we have to be able to rearrange the words in a sentence due to different sentence structures and language-specific rules. For instance, some languages might put the currency sign before the number, while others place it after.

As you see below, a lot of the text has to be grammatically adjusted to fit the variables. This is a simplified, but very common problem German game translators face when working with concatenated text, thanks to genders and cases.

If localization quality is important to you, try to avoid concatenated text.

Example: Genders
Basic English text: 
Vito found a brand new [item] in [location].

Vito found a brand new sword in kindergarten.
Vito found a brand new feather in school.
Vito found a brand new apple in Gotham City.

Now look at what parts I need to adjust in German to accommodate the variables.

Vito hat ein nagelneues Schwert im Kindergarten gefunden.
Vito hat einnagelneue Feder in der Schule gefunden.
Vito hat einen nagelneuen Apfel in Gotham City gefunden.


Why we need it: Languages have different rules for creating plurals. 

While English can often get away by simply adding the letter "s" to turn 1 house into 2 houses, most languages have more delicate plural rules. In German, the beginning, middle, or end of the word may have to be altered in a variety of ways.

Example I: Plurals
Basic English text:
You now have %i [item] in your inventory!

You now have 1 apple/duck/house in your inventory.
You now have 2 apples/ducks/houses in your inventory.

Du hast jetzt 1 Apfel/Ente/Haus in deinem Inventar.
Du hast jetzt 2 Äpfel/Enten/Häuser in deinem Inventar.

And what if the item number is zero—do we need the item name in singular or plural? The rule of thumb is there is no rule of thumb.

Example II: Zeros
EN: 0 houses (plural)
DE: 0 Häuser (plural)
FR: 0 maison (singular)
PT: 0 casas (plural)
PTBR: 0 casa (singular)

As you see, you can't even rely on nothing!

And have you heard of paucals? I hadn't until I stumbled upon this awesome article from which I derived the info for examples II and III. English, just like most western languages, has two number categories: singular (one) and plural (more than one). But some languages categorize words differently, such as with duals, trials, or paucals.

Polish, for instance, uses paucals. Look what Polish speakers have to go through if they want to add a number to “house”.

Example III: Paucals
0 domów
1 dom
2 domy
5 domów
24 domy
30 domów

Don't assume that every language works the same as English and stay flexible enough to accommodate the particularities of other languages.


Why we both need it: Better source text means higher chance for a good translation.

If you think that a sloppy game text won't affect the games localized versions, you're wrong. Bad writing self-perpetuates. A clumsy text can make for a clumsy translation as the translator might not be able to understand the intended meaning of the text and therefore translates it wrong. Even the best translator can't always turn shit into gold. On the other hand, if the source text is well written, it's more likely that the translation will be too.


Why we need it: Fewer bugs in the source text means faster and better translation.

If the original text contains ambiguities or mistakes, the translator might not always notice that something is off, translating as he or she perceives the text. An error-free source text will cut down the number of unnecessary bugs in the translations, minimize Q&A discussions, and speed up the translation process. 

EN: Stay on socks

What are my toddler's feet trying to tell me? Should he stay on socks rather than under them? Are they "stay-on socks", meaning socks that stay on your feet? Or did a comma get lost somehow and "Stay on, socks!" is a collective plead from parents who can't figure out why those damn things can't stay on for more than 2 minutes?

Something is not quite right about this text, and a good translator will notice right away. But it's not the translator's job to figure this out for every one of those 25,000 words you send her, so please help us out.

Related article: Bulletproof Proofreading Tips


Why you need it: To be efficient and to not waste resources.

Do you want to have absolutely everything localized? In-game text, voice-over, manuals, and packaging—whatever is applicable to your game?

How much of your game you localize will affect both your budget and your revenue.
If you work with a publisher, make sure that you're on the same page regarding how much of your game should be localized. Big publishers like Sony and Nintendo will expect you to localize at least all non-audio assets, meaning no written word may be left untranslated. Now you're glad you've held back on those graphic texts, right?


Why we both need it: We all want to avoid crunching while making beautiful games.

The translation process often happens rather late in the game development cycle. But then everything has to go fast, leaving the translators little time to do a good job. Putting translators and your team under pressure to make a certain launch date will result in a ton of bugs that can be avoided if you allocate time for translation early on. Gamers hate bugs, so don't even think of using machine-translation. Also, if you want to hire a professional translator—and someone with ample experience in game localization—they might be booked out for several months and respect their work enough to charge a fee that reflects their value. But yes, localization is an investment.

Related article: Why Robots Don't Sell Apps in Germany




The localization kit is the "package" you send us that contains everything the translator will use for localizing your game. This package holds the to-be-translated files, and all the resources, all the information we have for creating our translation. 

The more relevant information we receive, the better the chances of a high-quality game translation.


Why we need it: Most translators will use different software than you.

Most experienced translators translate the game files in a CAT (computer-assisted translation) tool, a software that helps us keep consistency throughout the project. If we have to translate within the development environment, a lot of problems may occur: A slow and cumbersome translation, a ton of inconsistencies, and the will to end our misery right here and there.

Excel format, plain text, or Word have been proven to work well for all game translators. Whatever file format you choose, make sure it is easily accessible and editable with a common text editor or word processor.


Why we need it: It will make it easier to understand what's going on.

Having random lines of Steam text between bits of menu text in the middle of character lines makes it pretty difficult to know where a conversation starts and where it ends. Help us by organizing the game text in a way that makes sense for your game, for example by level, stage, or character.


Why we need it: Translators need context.

If the message ID is something you have to write anyway, why not add some useful information that will help your game's localization by providing your translators with context? The string ID could mention which character is speaking, which quest this text belongs to, or if this is a button.


Why we need it: Translators REALLY need context.

It might surprise you how hard it can be to find out what a word means that may have five meanings and translations in another language. The translator doesn't know the things you know about your game. You could let us know if this character is male or female, if this text is supposed to be funny, or if it refers to the latest Star Wars movie. Knowing the characters' genders is particularly important in Romance languages where the adjectives for males and females have different endings depending on who you're speaking about.

Example I: "You are beautiful" in Italian.
Sei bellissimo! (speaking to a male)
Sei bellissima! (speakingto a female)

Example II: "I am beautiful" in Italian.
Sono bellissimo. (male speaking)
Sono bellissima. (female speaking)


Why we need it: If we want to creative immersive text, we have to be immersed, too.

Your thoughts have evolved around your game's universe for a long time, and you know it inside and out. The translator, however, does not. All he knows is that he was sent an Excel file and was asked to translate all its contents.

The thing is: We really do want to get to know this world. We want to know how big it is. We want to know why there is magic and why there is a war raging. We want to know how pixelated or comical it is. The more information we have, the better we can envision your vision. And the closer the translation will be to what you would have written if only you spoke French, Spanish, and Hebrew. So please, take me by my hand and show me your world.


Why we need it: They are strangers who should be friends.

No doubt you put a lot of thought into creating your PCs and NPCs. They have a backstory that will not be discussed in the game but that should still shine through by their actions, look, choice of weapons, and by what they say and how they say it. Why did you choose to give some characters an accent or dialect? The translator only knows a fraction of what you know—and a character's character is not always obvious by the few lines I see scattered in textfiles. Good writing doesn't spell out everything right away.

It might be that this dude seems like one of the good guys. After all, he helps the heroine on her mission. But 10 chapters later he turns out to be the villain of the story (oh yes, that did happen to me). If I know these things beforehand, I will write him so that there are subtle hints of him not being quite as good as he seems.


Why we need it: Knowing the game means knowing what we are translating.

I know this isn't always possible for various reasons. But if it's doable, consider sending a build of your game to your language provider. The reasons are obvious: If I know the game, even just a little bit, I know which overall style to choose. I know where this text without much context is being displayed, and if my translation will cause a text overflow.


Why we need it: We cannot finish every game in an hour.

Being able to jump to different stages in the game is a great help as we can get to those difficult-to-reach parts of the game and find out the context of this piece of text.


Why we need them: Creative translations require visuals.

And items often don't need an accurate translation, but a creative one. Knowing how these items look like and what their purpose or "special effect" is will help us make better translation choices. To top it off—textboxes for items often have a character limitation, which limits possible translations. A screenshot goes a long way, especially if we don't have a build to play.


Why we need it: There might be different rules for small and capital letters.

Until recently, the German special character "ß" existed as a small letter only. When written in CAPS, it became "SS". Only last year did the ß get a big brother.
Not all keyboards can write it yet and not all fonts have it, so both translator and developer might need to add it manually. And in other languages, accents might appear differently in capital words, or not at all. To be on the safe side, tell your translator in case a text will be displayed in capital letters.


Why we need it: It will make looking up information easier.

It's awesome that you're sending us background info on your game universe. But rather than sending us an English version of War and Peace, we appreciate when we can look up information quickly, so we can get right back to translating your game. Get to the point so we can get back to translating.

"Emma (NPC, female, Lv. 10): black long hair"
"Emma is a female NPC who shows up when you meet her in level ten. She wears black hair, and she wears it really long."




Why we need it: We can't do it without you.

No matter how well you prepared the localization kit, we will have questions. We really appreciate your responsiveness and kindness when we ask for information to help us make your game a success in our country.


Why we both need it: The most awesome coder and translator make mistakes.

Seeing the translated text in-game brings issues to light that couldn't have been noticed during the translation phase, such as text overflows or text that has been implemented incorrectly. Seeing the translation against what is actually happening in the game, testers will also notice translation choices that could be improved. Perhaps the stage name I've given isn't the very best considering how the stage looks like.

Even though most translation-related mistakes happen due to a lack of context (or bad translation skills), there may still be mistakes in the game—even if you sent us the perfect localization kit.


Why you need it: You are so, so close.

Localization is hard for everyone involved. But it's one of the final steps of finally sharing your game with the world! If done right, a good localization will bring your game to a wider audience, expand your fan base, and help you conquer the world—one sale at a time

In part 2 I'll give some tips on how to find the right translator to localize your game.


This article was originally published on 1UP TRANSLATIONS Loc Blog

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