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Video Game Localisation - A Tricky Game

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Get an overview of the process and pitfalls of localizing a game for several countries during or after development

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Things have moved a long way since primitive table-tennis classic, Pong, represented the peak of video gaming. A simple 2D game in which a straight line representing a bat was moved vertically to hit the ball might have needed little doctoring to make it accessible across different cultures but as video games have grown ever more complex, so the process of localising versions for use in other regions has become more elaborate.

The value of localisation has also grown massively in importance. Japan, the USA and the UK are the three biggest players in game development but the gaming audience is now a truly global one and the potential for increased sales afforded by well planned and executed localisation cannot be ignored.

Sim-Ship Vs. Post-Gold

'Sim-ship versus post-gold' might sound like some esoteric (and possibly badly translated) game title in itself but actually refers to the two basic models of game localisation. Sim-ship, or simultaneous shipment, is the model whereby localised versions are developed and released alongside the original product. Post-gold localisation is the process of translating and adapting a game after the original version has been completed and released.

The sim-ship model might seem like the better option and, indeed, working on localisation from a developmental level can yield the more seamless results. It can also save money in the long run but a thorough cost/benefit analysis might conclude that it's only worth localising a particular game for certain markets, if at all. Should the situation change the game can always be adapted later.

At one time such adaptations were often shoddily realised and carried out more as an afterthought. Mangled translations from the European Sega Mega Drive version of Japanese arcade game Zero Wing have passed into the gamers' lexicon, with lines such as 'You have no chance to survive make your time' and especially 'All your base are belong to us' still appearing in chat and on forums some twenty years on. These days games will often be primed or optimised for localisation later on and, of course, good quality translation will help avoid any such comedic mistranslations...

Lost In Translation

Professional translation, preferably by a native speaker from the target market, is essential. “How do you truly globalise?” asked Yoichi Wada, president of Japanese developer Square Enix 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.” Working with native speaking translators will help achieve accuracy and retain nuance when it comes to the technicalities of translation and will also help with any more cultural issues that may arise.

Not only spoken dialogue but also elements such as the user interface, menus and manuals – whether online, on-disc or printed out old school as a proper paper booklet – must all be translated. Space in interface elements such as menus and hint captions is both fixed and limited and so the translation must use the same or a fewer number of characters. Some languages or scripts tend to be longer. German, for example has a tendency towards longer words than English. For this reason a straight 'dictionary' translation might not always be suitable and translation might involve elements of rewriting.

It may also be worth changing written information or spoken dialogue that is not integral to the gameplay or plot. This could include background dialogue or readable graphic items such as signs, book and magazine covers or advertising hoardings. Effective localisation preserves as much of the gameplay experience as possible and translating absolutely everything could add to the immersive quality of a game. On the other hand the extra work might not be deemed necessary for such non-integral elements and keeping some of the original flavour may even be beneficial if, for example, the Japanese feel of a particular game provides a draw for European audiences or vice versa.

I Dub Thee...Sir Localisation

Dubbing translated content over original spoken content is the optimum solution but offers its own set of problems. The quality of voice acting in games has become increasingly important over recent years and the quality in a localised version should be as near as possible to that of the original product.

In times where famous actors often lend, or at least sell, their talents to game developers (the stellar cast of last year's Fable III included the likes of John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Simon Pegg, Ben Kingsley and Zoe Wannamaker), it might not always be possible to recruit household names for every territory but professional voice artists should always be used. When it comes to translating dialogue for dubbing purposes it should also be remembered that the timing of the dialogue itself must match the visuals or graphics.

Subtitles can offer an easier and cheaper solution but may be to the detriment of the gameplay experience. They can be distracting and difficult to read, especially in a fast-paced or action-oriented title. Cutscenes are an exception but few players will busy themselves reading subtitles with a dozen armed-to-the-teeth orcs breathing down their necks or with a high-speed racetrack to negotiate.

We’ve conducted a number of in-game text localisation projects at Lingo24, with one memorable project being the translation, checking and editing of creative content for video games by a gaming industry giant (we can’t tell you which, but it’s one of the big guns). These translations required intensive research for the localisation of key phrases, as well as recruiting translators with in-depth knowledge of the gaming industry, to ensure that the correct terminology was used in every case.

We’ve also localised the text for a series of online games for a world famous youth culture and music TV network, which involved not only ensuring that the translated text was perfect for its context, but that it was correctly localised for the slang and idiom of its target youth audience.

In both these instances, the key to translating and localising in-game text was to ‘transcreate’ the text with care and effort, looking at the context of each piece of text within the game, as well as the idiom of the gaming community within each language (how do you translate 1337 in Russian, for instance?). There is also the issue of ensuring that translated text for menus, etc, will still fit within the required space when translated – German, for instance, generally takes up more space than English.

Technical Issues

There are various issues alongside translation that also need to be addressed at the design level. An obvious one for PC games is that some territories have different keyboard layouts and so hot-keys may need to be re-mapped.

On all platforms, images should be created using multiple layers, allowing text to be easily separated from artwork and, on a similar note, the voice track should be kept separate from both the visuals and ambient sounds. The soundtracks themselves will not be continuous but will comprise multiple separate sound files and meticulous care must be taken to match translated versions with the original.

There are a host of challenges facing designers and developers when it comes to localising video games. It takes time and can be expensive to fully maintain the original gameplay experience but, with the global spread of the gaming audience and industry, it is increasingly viewed as worth all the effort and more.

About the Author(s)

Christian Arno is the founder and Managing Director of global [url="http://www.lingo24.com/"]translations service[/url] Lingo24, specialists in website translation and creative localization. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 150 employees across three continents and clients in over sixty countries.


Apr 01 2011 03:31 AM
Interesting article,but I have to say I strongly disagree with some of the points raised. Before Iget to that I think it’s important to point out that I’m from Denmark, Denmarkbeing the small country it is (approx. 5.4 million); the budget forlocalization properly often limited. Possibly for that reason (maybe there areother), movies have never been dubbed, but have always been subtitled (theexception being kids movies).

Recently some gameshave been stepping up the localization (especially Ubisoft published games).And I can’t possible express how annoying it is, I recently played AssassinsCreed: Brotherhood on the Xbox 360, here all menus and in-game hints / tooltips have been translated to Danish. This leave me wondering what they mean,since they’ve had to make up new expressions Danish gamers are used to read inEnglish. In the case AC: Brotherhood you actually have to change the Xbox 360settings to get the original English wording.

I think coming from asmall country like Denmark you more easily realize that the world is biggerthan you. Making it easier to appreciate details like the German soldiers inThe Saboteur speaking German, this greatly adds to the immersion in the game.You just couldn’t get this feel with the usual overly bad English with a thickGerman accent.

There’s also thepoint of experiencing the work (be it movie or game) as close to way theauthor(s) created it. I believe some of the larger countries like America,England, France, Italy, Germany etc. is missing out on grander more diverseexperience, because they’ve been “raised” to expect everything in their native tongue,to the point where they almost think other languages are “stupid”. That if ofcause not totally true, but it’s often the feeling you get when going abroad ortalking to people online (speaking English to a French waiter, or recommendinga French movie in an English Forum).

I do of cause realizethat you can’t release a game in a territory where only small part of thepopulation will be able to fully play the game. But I think that gamers shouldalways have the option of playing a game as it was originally created.

That got a bit longwinded,but my point is that while localization is definitely needed, I feel thisarticle is a bit lopsided.

Apr 01 2011 08:38 AM
Jacob's opinion is very interesting.
I'm from Argentina (spanish speaking country) and I see two kind of gamers (among my friends):
* Those who don't speak english and say "I don't play it because I don't understand it" "It's boring" "When is the spanish version coming up?"

*Those (including myself) who do speak english, but can't understand (just like Jacob) what the game is saying because we're used to english terms when it comes to gaming or PCs in general. Not to mention dubs that are with spanish (from Spain) accent, although it's the same language, it's too different the latinamerican accent. In other words, THE HORROR. The dub problem is a localisation problem already pointed out in the article, but still I often find myself switching the in-game language for written text back to english, except cut-scene subtitles (when this is possible).

Sometimes the game allows switching subtitles and dub's language independently, but sometimes you're forced to use both; which IMHO is bad for the experience.
Apr 14 2011 12:22 PM
Very interesting. As an Anglophone game writer with an slight (but I'm assured, truly comical) level of ability in French and German, I've never been involved in the transalation side of a localization project. However, I've worked on a number of titles that were either imported into English-speaking markets or developed for them in non-English-speaking countries Although the developers (or in a few cases, some kind of translation agency) did their best, there was still a lot do to in polishing the text both for style, accessibility, and tone.

In case anyone is intersted, I blogged on this a little while ago (http://graemedavis.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/ten-things-i%E2%80%99ve-learned-about-localization-editing/). I'd love to hear from other folks who have worked on localization projects going into English rather than out of it, to compare experiences and insights.
May 31 2011 07:53 AM
I'll agree that you should always have a native speaker - preferably also a trained writer - read and edit the localization copy (text). And, yes, even if the localization writer is a dual-language speaker.

I realized that means you really need two people to do a localization. So often well-trained dual-speakers have some outdated phrases they learned (from decades old textbooks or simply decades old vernacular in newer textbooks) or are over confident in their translations that they do not use American English grammar or spelling.

It's akin to a copy editor on a print publication double checking work (and often helping to create a better flowing read).

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