The Beginner’s Guide to Video Game Localization

Maximize your game’s international appeal with these video game localization strategies, best practices, and tips from our experts.

The global gaming community is enormous. An estimated 2.7 billion people spent $159.3 billion on video games in 2020 alone.

Global successes like Pokémon Go, along with new venues and holidays dedicated to gaming will continue to break down international barriers, presenting huge opportunities for game developers.

But how can developers capitalize on this new, globalized gaming market? One key ingredient to international success is video game localization.

To help developers, project managers, and other professionals in the gaming industry understand why localization is so important and what separates a passable localization from an outstanding one, we created this helpful guide.

What is video game localization?

Modern video games are a multimedia experience designed to immerse players in a holistic virtual environment. Part Hollywood blockbuster, part real-time interaction, and part competitive sport, today’s games are a vast, ever-moving mix of sophisticated digital content.

Behind the scenes, high-level coding brings the mechanics and aesthetics of the game to life. Cinematic gameplay, elaborate end-of-level cutscenes, character dialogue, and in-game notifications all combine to draw players into a non-linear narrative that could take their character… anywhere.

Video game localization is all about creating the equivalent experience for players anywhere in the world. Importantly, this is not the same as simply creating the original game in different languages, but about creating versions of the game that feel authentic to the player, wherever they are in the world.

Is localization the same thing as translation?

Translating text and speech with a level of sophistication that recognizes the intended meaning of idioms and cultural references and adapts the translation accordingly—rather than simply providing a literal, word-for-word translation—is a multifaceted task in itself. Changes to on-screen text or spoken language may also require the scene to be edited to ensure the visuals match the newly dubbed wording. 

Sub-standard translation can break a player’s immersion in the game in an instant and result in the game’s developer facing derision from the gaming community. In fact, one of the Internet’s earliest and most famous memes was the result of a gaming translation gaffe. 

 The Japanese game Zero Wing, from the 1990s, included a character who announced: All of your bases are now under our control. When the game was translated for the English market, the phrase became: All your base are belong to us. The company’s mistranslation was mocked mercilessly as the phrase spread through Internet forums, into the media, and even onto T-shirts. 

Localization, therefore, is the process of adopting your video game for a new country or region. Translation and internationalization are two key components of localization.

Let’s take a closer look at these three concepts that are often confused for one another.

Translation

Video game translation is about rendering a game’s written and spoken words in a new language.

It’s a critical part of getting your game ready for a foreign market, requiring that you have a team of experienced translators who are both native in the target language and deeply familiar with video game translation.

While central to international success, game translation is just part of the work you’ll need to succeed abroad.

Internalization

Internationalization is the act of preparing a game or product for localization by making the game’s technical infrastructure adaptable to any market..

A technical process that takes place during development, internationalization addresses issues like text character encoding and making sure the source code will function in different regions. Internationalization also focuses on issues around date and time formats, the user interface, and more.

Internationalization helps make localization projects faster and more efficient. It’s especially important when localizing large games or localizing into several languages simultaneously.

Localization

The process of localization holistically prepares every element of a game for sale in a new international market.

A much larger concept than translation, localization involves a deep dive into the culture of the target market and significant creative efforts to produce a game that is comprehensible, engaging, emotionally resonant, and commercially viable.

Localization often involves addressing three key game elements:

1. In-Game Story Elements

A game must draw users in and keep them engaged, which is where story element localization comes into play.

Character names, place names, weapons, or other story elements should be localized to provide the player with as much realistic game script as possible. Names that “don’t fit” with the script can discourage the player.

For example, if the story is set in Mexico, the local bar should not have an English name. In some cases, like the Polish version of The Witcher, even the names of your main characters will need to be changed.

We should also remember that a name that’s feminine in one culture (e.g. the US) may be a male name in another (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.

Your localization partner (if you have one) will help you analyze each aspect of your game, from the name and look of each character and item, to locations, plot points, and more. This helps ensure that your game is easy to understand and poised to capture foreign audiences.

2. Technical Elements

Localizing technical elements, like dates, times, and units of measurement are often overlooked. They’re an important part of creating an immersive, seamless gaming experience, and any professional localization team will work hard to ensure your new audiences don’t miss a thing.

Text space in the UI is often 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.

Abbreviations are often used in the UI. These are usually abbreviated forms of English names, so they may need to be adapted for other languages. The solution is often either to either translate their full forms or leave them as they are if they are well-known (e.g. HP).

3. Marketing Elements

Marketing localization is a crucial but sometimes overlooked component of the video game localization process. Marketing teams spend months developing materials to maximize the appeal and commercial success of their games domestically.

Sadly, without localization, many of those elements will fail to connect with audiences abroad, which results in wasted time and opportunity and could undermine the localization effort entirely.

Localizing your marketing elements isn’t just about advertisements and graphic design, though in some cases that may be sufficient. In more extreme cases, the localization strategy may involve an entirely new monetization strategy, as gamers in different regions have unique habits when making gaming purchases.

What does the video game localization process look like?

The localization process can be quick and easy or long and complex, depending on the size of your game, the number of culturally sensitive elements, how many regions you’re targeting, and a myriad of other factors. It can also be affected by technical hurdles, which we’ll explore below.

Here’s an overview of the steps that go into a successful localization project.

1. Make a localization plan

Thorough planning at the outset of your video game localization project helps ensure you’ll complete the work on time and budget.

This process begins with a determination of which countries you want to localize for, which should help give you a sense of scope. It also includes creating a list of elements—both linguistic and not—that you feel will need to be localized.

2. Create a localization kit

A localization kit (or lockit) is a single package of data that helps your localization partner understand your game. It should include everything from information on the backstory and characters, to more abstract information like tone and theme. The more comprehensive the lockit, the faster and more accurately your localization partner can work.

3. Extract strings into a Translation Management System

A translation management system (TMS) is specialized software used in the localization field that helps the team collaborate on your project.

There are many benefits of using a TMS, like increased consistency, accuracy, and faster localization.

After you’ve extracted the text strings from your game, the localization team will load those strings into a TMS and address any technical requirements specific to your project, setting the stage for the next major phase.

4. Translate text and non-text features

Next, the internal team or language service provider (LSP) will begin the localization work.

While translators start working on the strings of text exported to the TMS, another team should begin working on whichever non-text elements you’ve chosen for localization, like character clothing (which can have varying cultural significance), backgrounds, color schemes, and a variety of other in-game elements.

5. Localization Quality Assurance (LQA)

This is the last phase in the video game localization process, in which a specialized team of reviewers will methodically go through the game, perform linguistic testing, evaluate the interface to judge usability, and run compliance and functional tests.

Once the game has been tested and your team signs off, the game localization is complete!

Business Benefits of Video Game Localization

Video game localization benefits players, who can enjoy the game in greater numbers, and benefits the companies who develop the games. Here are some of the ways localization can impact a business’s bottom line.

1. Generate more downloads

Studies show that gamers are more willing to pay to download a game if it provides an immersive experience ‘made for them’, rather than one that feels alien and confusing.

2. Increase high-quality reviews

A fully localized game will prompt a greater number of positive reviews. As ratings often drive publicity and retail priorities, localization can soon turn a local hit into a global sensation.

3. Build new fanbases

A flawless localization encourages new gaming communities to blossom. In turn, these will provide valuable user feedback and publicity for the game and other games by the same developer.

4. Launch with impact

The global release of a new game, simultaneously available in multiple languages, provides a perfect marketing opportunity in a highly competitive industry where maximizing consumer awareness is paramount.

5. Make inroads into new markets

Localization is all about embracing every aspect of a region, from color and music to food and festivals. Successfully done, it can make a remote company feel relevant to locals and part of the regional lifestyle.

What languages and regions should you localize video games for?

English is the lingua franca of the video game industry, so if English isn’t your starting point, it should be at the top of your priority list. But what languages come next?

A good place to start is the so-called “FIGS” languages, which are French, Italian, German, and European Spanish. These languages are important not only because they represent countries with significant gaming markets, but because each language has great reach beyond its borders.

For example, localizing into French not only gives you access to French gamers, but those in Belgium, Switzerland, Monaco, and parts of Canada, which are all high-value gaming markets. Similarly, German localization gives you access to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Luxembourg.

European Spanish alone gives you access to 340 million users worldwide.

Beyond FIGS languages, we recommend consulting your data. App stores and online gaming platforms have given developers access to intelligence that would have been hard to collect even a few years ago. Analyzing that data should provide a sense of which locales are embracing your game and what strategic localization decisions you should make.

To help you make a wise decision, here are the top ten gaming markets by revenue, listed in descending order.

  1. China
  2. USA
  3. Japan
  4. South Korea
  5. Germany
  6. Great Britain
  7. France
  8. Canada
  9. Spain
  10. Italy

While it may be tempting to go straight to Mandarin Chinese because it has an enormous game market, it’s not that easy. You should consider the lifetime value of the player in each country, and other factors like ease of doing business.

While large countries like China and India have enormous player bases, individual games tend to spend less on games than other countries, which may affect your decision to localize your game into those languages.

If you need help deciding, a veteran localization partner should be able to help you devise a profitable strategy.

Tips and Best Practices for Game Localization

You shouldn’t take game localization lightly. It can easily make the difference between overseas success and failure.

Based on our decades of experience in the localization industry, here is some advice to help developers realize a successful game localization.

Start planning your game localization early

Localization is a long process fraught with technical hurdles. Starting the planning process early helps you avoid language-specific issues, ensures the game interface will accommodate new languages, and gives you ample time to build a glossary.

The more runway you give yourself, the more time you and your partner will have to build a truly first-rate game.

Communicate freely (and frequently) with your localization team

If your language service provider is in the dark about any aspect of the game, it could easily lead to cost overruns and missed deadlines. For example, imagine if they didn’t fully understand the importance of a key item or character in your game and localized it improperly. This would not only waste time and resources, but it would also sap morale and may lead to business problems.

Consider specific language requirements

Do you plan on localizing your game in a language that doesn’t read left to right like the romance languages? Arabic and Hebrew go from right to left, and several Asian languages will employ top to bottom text, especially in their classical forms.

Be proactive around the needs of each target language and save yourself major headaches.

Ensure your text is easily extracted from code

Write your source code so that you can easily access, translate, and re-import language elements into the game. XML is a popular format for creating resource files, but there are many alternatives like JSON and YAML to explore as well.

By giving each string its own ID, you can not only make localization easier, you help the localization team increase consistency and reduce costs.

Don’t place text over pictures

Embedding text within photos is a localization nightmare. While it might be necessary in some situations, you can’t easily localize or update this artwork, which can slow down or even derail the localization process.

How do I choose a localization partner?

Video game localization requires a specific blend of know-how and tools, which is why most game developers choose to work with a partner who handles the entire localization process for them.

A seasoned localization agency will not only provide you with a team of translators who have experience working with video game projects, but will also provide a single point of contact for all the other skill sets and specialists that you need to ensure successful game localization, such as subtitling and voice-over work, graphic design, animation specialists, and more.

But how do you differentiate a quality video game localization team from the many smaller, inexperienced operations or giant, generalized localization companies with a lack of video game expertise? Here are some tips:

Pick a company with game localization expertise

The localization industry is large, with many firms specializing in one type of product or another. While many companies will claim to be able to handle game localization, you should ensure they have the experience and track record of success to back those claims up.

Dig into their process

Don’t be afraid to ask a prospective localization agency probing questions about the tools they use and their team of localization experts.

Do they have documented processes for game localization they can share with you? Are their subject matter experts able to provide insights that you wouldn’t have otherwise considered? Both are a good sign.

Find a company with the right culture

Your localization partner is going to be a critical role in the success of your video game abroad. You’ll also be working closely for several months.

To make sure that process is efficient and enjoyable as possible, you should partner with a localization firm that takes the time to learn about your company culture and prioritizes long-term, win-win cooperation.

Are they willing to go the extra mile for your game? Are they easy to communicate with? Those intangible factors can sometimes make all the difference.

Need a video game localization partner?

If you’re a game developer who would like to learn more about the video game localization process, or get your new game ready for international success, contact us here.

We’d be happy to discuss how to bring your game to a global audience.

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