Experts discuss how developers can best prepare for releasing in new territories

Localising your game for overseas success

The work of localisation specialists often goes unnoticed when everything is done right – from the well-translated text to the quality of the voiceover work. But when it goes wrong, it can be jarringly noticeable.

As games increase in scope, and more are released in a variety of markets across the globe, good localisation is arguably more important than ever, particularly if studios want to take advantage of the growing Asian markets, and especially if you’re in free-to-play.

But is this key aspect of a game’s production given enough attention, money and time?

The first word

“It really depends on the project,” says Binari Sonori co-founder Fabio Minazzi, a company now part of Keywords Studios after its acquisition last year.

“We observe a very wide range of approaches that depend on the experience and proficiency in localisation of the studio or publisher. Traditionally developers considered localisation an activity to be taken care towards the end of the project. Localisation management used to be low-ranked and not very strategic in a development team, if at all present.

“With simship and digital distribution taking over, there’s obviously more consciousness of the importance of international sales to reach success, so engagement happens at an earlier stage. A real localisation producer role is emerging in bigger teams: among their tasks, the producer needs to bring the localisation topics to the game design table, harmonising the different needs that appear during the game lifecycle.”

Universally Speaking business development executive James Hull says these days the team is often brought in at an early stage, which ensures time for setting up the correct teams, referencing, and allowing them time to familiarise themselves with the game, text and language. But it doesn’t always go smoothly.

“We also see the other extreme, where developers view localisation as necessary, but remember at the last minute or put it off for as long as possible. This has an adverse effect on the quality of translation,” he states.

Traditionally developers considered localisation an activity to be taken care towards the end of the project. Localisation management used to be low-ranked and not very strategic in a development team, if at all present.

Fabio Minazzi, Binari Sonori

LocalizeDirect business development director Michael Souto says that in his experience, many developers still leave localisation until the end. Early warning gives localisation firms time to plan out a strategy and offer insight to developers on issues that may not have been taken into account but could be important to the process.

“If there is dialogue, has the developer thought about providing info on who is saying the line and who it is delivered to?” asks Souto.

“Has the developer thought about max text length? Is the source text already snug so translations will be overlong? How are they dealing with gender? If there is a choice of male or female player then is there flexibility to manage gender specific instances? Are the various platform-specific strings split out and clearly marked?”

No small talk

Considering localising your game early can be doubly important when considering how long translation work may take – particularly if other services such as voice acting are required. Leaving this too late could result in unreasonable deadlines, and ultimately, a lower quality product for select markets.

Minazzi says the typical duration for localising a title with a handful of words to be translated can take two weeks, which includes translation, implementation and testing. For bigger projects, this can be much longer.

He explains how Binari Sonori has worked on projects that required localisation into nearly 40 languages simultaneously, including translation, audio and language testing. Its work on Fable III required six linguists per language and was recorded with a cast of 50 actors per language, in eight dialects over a period of five months.

“A triple-A game is usually translated, dubbed and tested in four to eight months. For those games that are run as a service, for example MMOs and social titles, localisation happens in iterations, like development,” he says. “Usually there are updates every two weeks or on a monthly basis and localisation occurs in the same timeframes.”

Hull adds that Universally Speaking has worked on thousands of tiles, including one project that took two years to complete with multiple teams in a plethora of languages, amounting to millions of words.

Despite the length of these projects, Hull explains that it’s important developers remember most agencies work on a per-word basis, not on duration.

“The main reason for a per-word basis, is you only pay for what you need. Each request is different and very game-specific,” he explains. “Localisation as a skillset is creative and therefore not straight-forward in measuring productivity.”

Lost in translation

As well as considering localisation early on, a number of other significant challenges remain that require careful planning to ensure a smooth workflow. Souto says process is the biggest difficulty, as even a game with a small word count can lead to time wasted on tracking strings and changes, especially if they are translated into ten or more languages.

“If you don’t have an easy-to-manage process then you are going to have a nightmare, that’s pretty much guaranteed,” he says. “Then consider that most games are no longer a case of ‘ship it and work on the sequel’. There is additional text for updates, and DLC. How are these all managed?”

The main reason for a per-word basis, is you only pay for what you need. Each request is different and very game-specific. Localisation as a skillset is creative and therefore not straight-forward in measuring productivity.

James Hull, Universally Speaking

Souto also stresses the importance of sentence structure. He says many developers have a rigid structure, such as ‘Select Dave and fight in the car wash’, for which the string for translation may be ‘Select %1 and fight in the %1’.

“Ignoring the fact that in many instances we aren’t told what %1 can be replaced by – which is a nightmare – we have another two issues,” he explains.

“Translations may need the character variable to follow the location variable. However. we have encountered on many occasions that the order of the variables must stay as per source. This leads to super clunky localisation and what the player will view as machine translation, even though it’s not.

“What if either of these variables is replaced with something that has a gender consideration? If we can see these earlier we can potentially point these out.”

Minazzi says the two biggest challenges of localising games for a variety of languages and territories are speed and quality. Swiftness in particular, he says, can be difficult, particularly when considering that teams are often dispersed to ensure the right language coverage, flexibility and quality.

“In exporting games to and from Asia there is also a cultural dimension to be accounted for,” he states. “On a macro scale East-West cultural adaptation has a major impact compared with publishing in one region only.

“On a smaller scale the challenge is the level of adaptation to each individual locale, which can be pretty subtle nowadays: taking into account country-specific cultural references – such as literature, movies, pop culture, politics – requires lots of care for details.”

It’s clear that, even with a smaller game, but especially large and regularly updated titles, localisation work needs to be carefully considered during production to ensure a smooth workflow and a quality experience for players across the globe. Without planning early, a graphically and mechanically polished title could still have the player’s experience tarnished by poor translation work.

As Hull says: “This is still the number one challenge both for the cost in a single project or in creating a scalable business for the future. If you think about localisation early, challenges such as preparing the title for multilingual support, tools and file formatting can all be addressed, leading to a much more efficient workflow.”

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