As barriers between regions continue to break down and we stride towards a truly global games market, nothing becomes more important to that process than localisation. Being able to give players all over the world a genuine, authentic experience is key to taking advantage of emerging markets. In its most basic form localisation is translation, but there’s a clear and important difference: players increasingly expect a native experience, taking full advantage of cultural differences, slang and local knowledge. Something that can be very difficult to perform in-house.
Localisation agencies offer the expertise and the experience, plus the wealth of resources, to localise even large-scale projects. It’s big business, because the world of games continues to grow, and it benefits everyone involved to take advantage of their services. Including the players.
“Universally Speaking is a game-centric localisation provider,” says Tim Horton, the business development manager at the company. “Gaming is our passion and our only focus. With over 15 years in the global gaming sector we have the experience and the knowledge to truly understand the processes and workflows that are integral to effective international localisation of gaming titles.”
We spoke to several localisation providers in the industry for this feature, in order to figure out the state of the sector and any upcoming trends. Every one of them asserted that a passion for games and a respect for gamers are key selling points for their services. ‘Translation factories’, these are not.
“One of the key selling points at LocalizeDirect is our extensive network of game-specific translators,” business development director Mike Souto says. “Terminology in games is quite specific and to choose a translator who may not be experienced in games can lead to errors and sub-par – and irksome – translation.
“Our diligence and care is also a key selling point. Many of the founders have a vast development background and understand game development. As a company, we pride ourselves on trying to provide the translators with as much information on the game as we can get hold of from the developers. This helps us to provide the best translation possible.”
And even for studios with a vast development background, localising in-house is incredibly costly and challenging.
“Development teams are located in a number of places in the world, not necessarily where the best linguists are,” says Fabio Minazzi, director of localisation services at Keywords Studios. “Setting up a team of internal translators, reviewers, localisation engineers and managers is a major and expensive task. Keeping and managing them over the course of years can be a daunting effort. Adding new languages can be simply impractical. If the developer is successful, nowadays 25 languages are the norm, and a minimum team of two per language means 50 translators to start with, plus editors, management to deal with contracts, visas, accommodation, space, career development, not to mention IT and localisation engineers to address the ever changing translation technologies and methods. An in-house team quickly becomes a very costly setup to maintain.”
With their eyes focused on localisation and nothing else, agencies can assure that they are offering the best experience for gamers and, overwhelmingly, the feeling seems to be that service is directly for the players.
“Consistency and quality are key,” says Lily Gavin-Allen, the head of business development in Asia at Testronic. “Most developers are unaware that style and consistency are important to players. Using termbases [a database of terms], style guides and a translation memory help to keep the consistency. For example, one linguist could use the word ‘potion’ and later in the game we find the word ‘elixir’ used. Things like this confuse the players.
“Like anything in advertising, if you are targeting a market in another language, quality is key and consideration of the target market is highly important. If we see bad advertising in English, we automatically discredit that brand and this goes for other languages. The gamer doesn’t feel appreciated.”
Gavin-Allen’s colleague at Testronic, Edward Buffery, the head of localisation QA based in the Croydon office, believes this is easily solved by a strong show of intent.
“Knowing in advance that a game has been localised can make gamers feel appreciated before they have even begun playing, and a high quality localisation will improve the user experience in many ways,” he says. “Following conventional gaming terms for the description of controls and game mechanics allows players to pick up a new game quickly and seamlessly, lowering the barrier to entry. Well-localised story text and character dialogue are also essential to ensuring that players in different languages can experience the same level of immersion and emotional investment as players of the developers’ source language. With large pools of native speakers in many languages, staff working for a large and dedicated localisation agency can easily consult with each other to reach a group consensus, which can be difficult for the smaller, single project teams sometimes hired directly by a developer or publisher.”
It’s fascinating to see this player-centric focus from large agencies, already one-level removed from the communities and IPs on which they are working. Localisation means releasing in more regions, which means more money for studios and publishers, but there’s an underlying human element to the service which belies a purer purpose.
“For me, as the business manager, the obvious answer [to how localisation improves a game’s sales or critical reception] is that effective localisation allows a title to be distributed to more regions which, in theory, equates to a higher level of sales,” says Universally Speaking’s Horton. “But, the real benefits come from the player’s immersion and how accessible the game is to the player-base.
“Many of the most memorable games in history have notoriety because players felt emotionally invested in the game – through a narrative that draws the players into the game.
“Look at the critically acclaimed, now BAFTA winning, title, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, for example. Players across the globe were able to connect to a character dealing with serious issues surrounding mental health. They felt connected to the world and the emotional toils of such a topic. Effective localisation was vital here, as not only are you dealing with complex storylines and characters but issues that are seriously tough to broach effectively in society.”
For developers looking to localise their games with the help of an agency, Horton has some key advice: “A few key points to make regarding the decision-making process: do not go for the cheapest option. Research your providers, check if they have worked on similar projects to yours, read their testimonials – industry referral is a huge indicator of a quality provider. Does their website reflect your industry? Do they work with linguists that are experts in your sector? Are they responsive?
“All these considerations must be taken into account. You get what you pay for in localisation, do your research and take into account the variables, not just the lowest number on a quote, because you will save money in the long run by doing it right the first time.”
MADE IN CHINA
One area of the industry that is seeing huge growth lately is the number of developers and publishers pushing their way into the Chinese market. Likewise, many Chinese companies are looking to bring their games to the west. With such different cultures, there’s a lot to consider for everyone involved.
“There is more awareness, not only of the opportunity presented by the Chinese market, but also of what it takes to get the game accepted, both by the authorities and by the players,” says Keywords Studios’ Minazzi. “With time, western developers are learning what works best in China and how to partner with the Chinese publishers, for example by retaining the ownership of the localisation process while the local publisher takes care of promotion and distribution. There is still much to learn but there is more collaboration and communication happening across the board.”
Agencies across the industry are happily growing alongside this new trend: “We’ve had to recruit more Chinese translators to cope with the increased demand,” says LocalizeDirect’s Souto. “It’s simply a huge market and Chinese – simple and traditional – is absolutely vital. Developers are also regularly surprised about how massive Steam is in China. They should however always investigate the technical requirements, ensuring that Chinese characters can be displayed properly.”
Technical issues like these are the sort of thing that could blindside developers which don’t have any experience with non-roman letters in their games.
“With literally thousands of different kanji [Chinese letters], choice of fonts can be a major decision, especially for games utilising a broad vocabulary,” says Testronic’s director of QA in Warsaw, Erik Hittenhausen.
“Legibility, maximum character length, and the way that icons and variables are concatenated into longer strings may result in additional localisation QA hours if not planned for in advance.”
Other hurdles include the Chinese government, which can review games before they are allowed to be sold in the country. There are some cultural quirks which manifest as strict rules during this process. Skeletons, for example, are something that can’t be portrayed in China for religious reasons. They’re also common enemies in a lot of RPGs.
“Games published in China can also be subjected to governmental review, and their content could be inspected to ensure it does not violate constitutional policies on permissable content,” explains Testronic’s Hittenhausen.
“Should such content be present in the source material, elements such as overtly sexual behaviour or suggestiveness, course language or excessive violence may require further consideration and adjustment for a Chinese release version. Based on examples of games that have been banned in China, military-themed games which include representations of contemporary or modern China are clearly disadvantaged.”
Agencies are happy to discuss with clients the rammifications of attempting to enter the Chinese market, and give advice. Universally Speaking’s Horton has a couple of key things to think about for anyone looking to do so: “The formula is similar for most regions when it comes to localisation but for the Chinese market some of the bigger things to focus on are advising clients on dialect choice (regional variant) or whether to be generic and localise into the main language only. Whether to go traditional or simplified, determine whether your product and its content are even suitable for the Chinese market – skeletons, for example, are a no go. It must be determined if sufficient consideration has been made on the culturalisation of the source content, rather than direct translation.
“These are all things we discuss with our clients before kicking off any project destined for the Chinese market. But, though that list is extensive, this is just a slice of what must be considered.”
Another expanding area of the localisation business is keeping up with the explosion of games-as-a-service. These require regular, specialist localisation staff that are practically embedded in the community and the games.
“The games industry as a whole is facing the huge challenge of continuous content generation to support the games-as-a-service model,” says Keywords Studios’ Minazzi. “If you don’t keep providing fresh content, players eventually leave the game and the cost of getting them back is very high. This challenge is multiplied across all the languages and the challenge of dealing with vastly differing volumes across daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly content updates makes it very difficult to remain cost efficient while ensuring the best and most experienced talent is ready to transform and deliver the localised content for the game no matter what the quantity of each content drop is.
“Specialised localisation companies like Keywords aggregate volumes across multiple games and can therefore provide guaranteed availability, next day turnaround and at a world-leading quality standard. The key word here is flexibility. While in the past games localisation was about rendering the contents of the game and possibly the marketing materials associated with it, now the paradigm of localisation is to support an experience.
“We’ve built the capacity to support that with local offices, with a group-wide infrastructure to ensure interoperability, and with a broad range of services which we combine in new and creative ways to fulfil each game’s specific needs as they evolve during the course of their lifetime.”
Testronic’s Hittenhausen is in full agreement and the agency is also spinning up bespoke teams for live games.
“Games-as-a-service require ongoing commitment and continuous improvement,” he says. “Building and retaining dedicated core teams with meaningful working knowledge of the product allows efficiency gains to keep up with the continuously growing scope and content of the product. Specialising people and embedding expertise allows you to capitalise on experience and effective planning.”