What is video game localization and why should I care about it?

For developers of video games, applications or websites, localization is one of the key factors that determine whether a given product will be successful on foreign markets. So answering the question asked in the title we can say that video game localization is nothing but the key to your product’s success.

Translation can never be literal. If it is, there is a high chance that it was not done by a professional translator. Localization is essential not only in the video game industry. Electrolux – a Swiss manufacturer of home appliances – made a huge bloomer translating an advertising slogan too literally: Nothing sucks like Electrolux. The translator should have grasped this “detail” and instead of translating the slogan literally, localize it and choose a different word which would preserve the original positive message. To be more precise, video game localization goes hand in hand with translation, but it involves much greater interference with the translated product or service. The localization process will make your game or application more appealing to a foreign user by adapting it to another region, not only in terms of its language but also its culture, tradition, beliefs or common behaviour patterns.

As regards games, we can distinguish three types of materials that need to be translated and localized. These are the game’s story elements (i.e. all that the player hears and sees in the screen, from the names of places, weapons, challenges or the names of characters to graphics and the user interface), technical elements (code, text operations) and marketing elements (e.g. packaging, posters, website). Today, however, we will focus on story elements, to show how important localization of games is, what elements absolutely need to be localized and we will also give you a few tips on how to choose the right provider and how to budget such a service.

Localize, not translate

Let’s start by identifying elements that should be localized.  Of course everything depends on promotion and distribution channels, the target market or audience, but there are some universal tips to keep in mind.

Both the names of characters and those of places, weapons or other elements of the story should be localized to provide the player with as much realistic game script as possible.

Characters with strange names, that are in places that “don’t fit” to the script, can discourage the player. Translation alone, on the other hand, may end up in losing hidden meanings or metaphors – hence the need for localization. If the story is set in Mexico, the local bar should not have a name that sounds English. The names of protagonists should rather be left unchanged, but there are cases when localization is necessary (e.g. Polish The Witcher). We should also remember that a name that is feminine (for us) may be just as well as a male name in another country (e.g. Kim in Norway).  As these elements are quite important to the plot itself and the gameplay, more attention should be paid to their localization.

If you are localizing a game whose original language uses a different alphabet, transliteration is necessary as well. If for some reason you do not want to translate the names, you should at least write them in the local alphabet.  Even if the player does not understand a given word, give them at least a chance to read it – a clue like “Go to the bar ドラゴン”will be completely useless.

What else should be kept in mind? The UI. Text space in the UI is limited, which may be a problem when translating into a language using a different alphabet. Just look at the length of German words compared to those in other European languages. Besides, abbreviations are very often used in the UI. These are usually abbreviated forms of English names, so the person localizing the game should spend a while thinking what to do with them. The solution is to translate their full forms or leave them as they are if they are well-known. The worst thing the translator may do in this case is to translate a given term and then abbreviate it, as even those players that speak the target language may simply not know such a newly coined abbreviation.

Other elements that must be localized include, e.g. measurement units and the date and address formats.

Who can be of help?

How to choose the right translation agency which will handle the localization and translation of a game? And how much can it cost?

First of all, you have to decide whether you want to delegate the task to a translation agency or a freelance translator. For those who have already had to do with game localization the choice should be obvious – a translation agency.

Video game translation and localization may differ in many respects from the translation of other materials. First of all, this is audio-visual translation with numerous technical elements. The translation process is thus a multi-stage one and requires several or even a dozen or so people to be involved. A freelance translator is rather unable to handle the entire translation and localization process due to time and resource constraints. He or she will have to hire subcontractors, which will increase the price of the service and may make the translation inconsistent.

What we can be sure of is that the video game localization will be based not only on standard translation, but will require additional services as well – subtitling (translation, synchronization and adding subtitles), voice-over (voice recording), DTP (making graphics ready to be printed, especially in the case of instructions and manuals), localization of animations, graphics and Flash application. As you can see, only a translation agency can provide such a comprehensive service.

What is more, translation agencies that have been operating for a longer time have developed extensive bases of translators cooperating with them. So even if a translation agency does not have an in-house translator experienced in video game translation, it can easily find a freelance one. Such a translator needs to have relevant experience and skills – not everyone who speaks a foreign language is capable of doing that.

Is a game developer that does not speak the target language able to somehow affect the quality of the translation and verify the correctness of the localization process?

First of all, video game developers are responsible for the proper preparation of files for translation. Not only does it make the whole process shorter, but it also makes it easier and eliminates the risk of misunderstanding. Developers must remember that the quality of the source content has a significant impact on the quality of its translation and localization. Moreover, the more specific you are in exchange of information with the translation agency, the better effect you can expect.

What information should you communicate to the project manager in the translation office?

– What should be translated and localized, and what should be left unchanged. Start with the name of the game (this is not as obvious as it might seem) and analyze all its other elements.

– What will be the game’s distribution channels and will there be a version for mobile devices? This is important when we consider the amount of written text in the game or the right localization of keywords for positioning the game if it is made available on Google Play or AppStore.

– The characteristics of the target group and market will have a significant impact on the language. Information like “We want translation into English” is too general. Is it to be British or American English? Should slang or any specific dialect be used besides terminology specific for the video game industry?

– The game’s history. Is it the first episode or a sequel? Was the game developed based on a book or a film? If so, the translator must follow the canon. If not, are there any guidelines from the authors of the game or marketing specialists?

– Translators are bound to appreciate additional notes added to the dialogue list, e.g. ones concerning the tone of a given utterance. Such notes will eliminate the risk of “loosing” the context in translation.

Is there a chance for the money spent on video game localization and the efforts it involved to pay off?

Complete video game localization is long and uneasy processes. It may take as much time as the creation of the game and cost quite a lot. So is it worth doing this? The answer is given by Lars Doucet on his blog in this example: after releasing of Defender’s Quest, fully localized in six language versions, the game’s sales in non-English speaking countries significantly increased. The sales of the Russian version on Steam increased from 5% to more than 11% (share in the total sales), while those of the German one – from 7% to more than 8%. As a result, sales of the English version decreased by 12.7% in favor of the localized versions.

Harlem Shake Yourself, whose results of sales on AppStore are given by its author, is yet another example confirming the benefits of localization. After localizing the keywords, name and description only, the number of downloads increased by 767%.

So the time spent on preparing files for localization and familiarizing the translation agency with the details will definitely not be lost. It is worth investing in complete localization of video games, but if you cannot afford it or cannot spend more time on it, remember that localization of just some elements (as in the case of Harlem Shake Yourself) will pay off, even a lot.

In the ideal world, the author of the game should have an expansion strategy (which involves also translation and localization) still before he/she writes the first line of the code. This would obviously make everybody’s life easier, but even if you decide to enter new markets after the game has been released, the right translation agency should handle the development and implementation of an effective language strategy.

Read more about localization in e-commerce here.

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