In brief

  • Plan ahead: develop your games with localization in mind from the very beginning
  • Know the market: get familiar with local laws and regulations, costumes and preferences
  • Deliver a high quality product: don’t deliver a poorly localized game, bad games mean bad revenues

Planning ahead

Even nowadays, in the age of globalization and world trade, in many cases localization does not play a key role in the video game industry, but only pops up months after the main version has been released. Unfortunately, this is NOT a good approach in taking games to a global market and it may affect timing, costs and quality, and eventually your sales. Keep in mind that the demand for entertainment software currently comes from countries all around the world. Therefore, the game industry needs to localize more and more products in order to respond to the increasing demand and to maximize their ROI. Localization is becoming (or at least ideally it should!) an integral part of videogame development.

By having localization in mind from the beginning of game development it is then very easy to get the game localized and released. Ten years ago, this was not the case. Game developers created localized versions, but did not think about them until the end of the development cycle. Often, the main version of the game was completed and released and then the localized versions followed anywhere from 1 to 3 months later. The reason for this lag was because the games were not easy to localize. For instance, the language assets were not organized in a way that made the localization process easy. Additionally, the code would need to be altered to handle different characters and fonts that are necessary for different languages.

Fortunately, things are changing and now it is more commonplace for developers to ship versions in many languages simultaneously.

Planning localization earlier in the development cycle means making life easier for both the translation agency and the game developers. Thus, saving time and money.

Game localizations (or any kind of localization for that matter) can be done at a reasonable price if the game code is localization-friendly and the language assets are well organized. If all the text can be sent at one time for translation, extra costs are not incurred by sending several small batches of text to be translated. If the localization testing schedule is well organized, it can be completed without a lot of additional costs.

Avoid embedding text in the code; this makes localization much harder and slows down the process dramatically.

If game developers and localization providers work together from the early stages of development, the quality of the localization can be improved more effectively, resulting in a more appealing product for the gamer.

English syntax, grammar and mindset MUST NOT be the driving force behind the development of scripts, dialogues, interface etc. unless you want to face major problems and delays. Different languages have different rules, different word order and so on and so forth. What works smoothly in English does not necessarily works well in other languages. For example, adjectives may vary with gender and number or s come after the noun and not before as in English. Therefore, whereas a single word in English can function well virtually in any position and acting as verb, noun or adjective, this is certainly not true for languages like Spanish, Italian or German.

Consequently, chaining strings or using variables in multiple instances is not always a good idea, especially if you do it the wrong way.

Here is one example:

String 1: "Hit";
String 2: "the";
String 3: "green";
String 4: "white";
String 5: "van":
String 6: "car";

These strings can be combined depending on the situation to form the sentences: “Hit the green van” or “Hit the green car” or again “Hit the white van” or “Hit the white car”. This is the result of String 1 + String 2 + String 4 + String 5 and so on. Moreover, you can certainly reuse those strings in a number of ways across the game… in English!

What happens when this is to be translated to Italian or Spanish for example?

String 1: "Hit" - "Colpisci";
String 2: "the" - "il";
String 3: "green" - "verde";
String 4: "white" - "bianco";
String 5: "van" - "furgone";
String 6: "car" - "auto";

String 1 + String 2 + String 4 + String 5 = “Colpisci il bianco furgone”…. not exactly the proper style for a videogame… but rather for a poem. Adjectives usually come AFTER the noun in Italian. The sentence should read “Colpisci il furgone bianco”: String 1 + String 2 + String 5 + String 4… String 4 and String 5 are inverted compared to the original English order.

Now, what if it is the car that has to be hit? There will be two problems: one of concordance article-noun, and the second of concordance adjective-noun (precisely the words highlighted in red in the above list).

String 1 + String 2 + String 4 + String 6: “Colpisci il bianco auto”. Any Italian would perceive that as totally wrong, why? Because a) “auto” is short for “automobile” which is feminine, therefore the correct article is not “il” but “la”, which before nouns beginning with vowel becomes “l'” (L plus apostrophe”; b) because the adjective “bianco” is masculine, therefore we need the fenimine ajective “bianca” and c) because again the order is inverted. The correct translation is “Colpisci l’auto bianca”. “Verde” is correct for both “furgone” and “auto” but still the order would not be the correct one. We certainly cannot assign 2 values to a variable for “the” and “bianco”, and we would certainly face more problems if those strings would be used again in the game in other contexts (what about plurals for example? “the” is ok in any case in English… not so in Italian or Spanish”).

In this case the strings ought to be reworked like this:

String 1: "Hit" - "Colpisci";
String 2: "the green van" - "il furgone verde";
String 3: "the green car" - "l'auto verde";
String 4: "the white van" - "il furgone bianco";
String 5: "the white car" - "l'auto bianca";

Lower number of strings but no room for error. This is even truer when dialogues are involved. Often we read on forums that fans complaing about the poor quality of the localized versions of some games. Although gamers (especially hardcore gamers) surely share a good degree of common knowledge and background. However, this is not true for all gamers. Customs and lifestyles are very different from region to region. What is acceptable, funny or appealing in one cultural context, may not work as well in a different context. Well written dialogues and interface, intense voiceovers and musical scores can really make the difference just like in the movies.

Another important issue is the length of words. Usually, the text must be short, even very short (especially for mobile and handheld videogames). Languages like Spanish, German, French or Italian are not as “short” as English, and text is about 30% to 35% longer than the original English text. This must be kept in mind when setting character restrictions. When this is not considered, translators have to condense, rephrase or even invent abbreviations to convey the intended meaning. Sometimes, there is actually no room for more characters, but often this can be avoided and a few characters more will make both translators and end users happier.

Alphabets are not the same all over the world; different languages use different characters. There are a large number of alphabets as well as different reading directions (right-to-left vs. left-to-right and vertical-reading vs. horizontal-reading). The coder should ideally support character encodings which allow displaying correctly all the characters needed for the countries where the games are to be marketed. Unicode is surely a good solution to the problems since it supports an incredibly large numbers of characters.

This leads to the problem of original font design. Often game developers come up with their own fonts, and these are usually Japanese fonts and US ASCII characters. Therefore, accented and other special characters are not included in their font set. This is a problem when the game must be localized to other languages that need extra characters.

Context is king

The translation of text or source code can sometimes be quite puzzling due to the lack of context. Again, this is often caused by the different levels of flexibility within languages. As a result, what can be used in different contexts in English without changing a single character, fails in Italian or Spanish. An example may clarify what we mean here.

Strings without context

T01 "View"
T02 "Run"
T03 "Start"
T04 "Inventory"

Strings with context

T01 "View" - VERB eg. view inventory
T02 "Run" - VERB eg. run left, run right; run + direction
T03 "Start" - VERB eg. Start the game
T04 "Inventory" - NOUN; objects collected by the character during the game

Considering Italian as the target language of the game, let’s examine some problems arising from the lack of context in the example above.

VIEW: the translation depends on whether the word is a noun (“vista”, “visualizzazione” etc.) or a verb (“visualizza”, “guarda”). The translation also depends on what follows the term View, in order to make the text sound more appropriate to the context and tone of the game.

RUN: again, is this a verb or a noun? What is the context? Once we have the context, the translator will immediately translate Run as “corri” because that is the correct form (eg. “corri a sinistra”, “corri a destra”… run left, run right). Without context the translator would have to ponder and come up with a neutral term or make a choice that might not be the best one. The same variable T02 might appear in the instructions or other texts meaning “Run the application from your hard drive…”. In this case the correct translation would be “Esegui” or “Eseguire”. “Esegui sinistra” or “esegui destra” would sound very funny and out of context.

START: Although this is easy and a very common term in games, it is still important to know whether in this case it is a noun or a verb because translation could differ (“inizio” for the noun, and “inizia” for example if it is a verb).
If a developer plans ahead for localizations, the actual localization work (translation, asset integration, and linguistic testing) takes about a couple of months, depending on the size of the game and the number of languages (for small video games it can be a matter of a few weeks). More time may be needed if voiceover needs to be localized and processed. Keep in mind that this time estimate is based on having at least one person on the development team who is dedicated to completing the localizations. This time will increase if no one can devote full attention to this.

Knowing the market

When developers plan to enter new markets they must be aware of what this market has to offer in terms of

  • audience (profiling customers by age, sex, preferences and so on),
  • laws and regulations (censorship, allowed type of contents, legal age etc.),
  • culture (people are not the same around the world and what may sound funny or appealing in one country may be offensive in another one, or simply not THAT funny or appealing),
  • pricing,
  • logistics and so on.

Delivering high quality products

Video game developers need to be aware of the quality of translations. If the Spanish voiceover files don’t sound right—for example the sound processing is bad or the voice acting is over-the-top—it will sound that way to the Spanish consumer as well. The context of the translations is important as well. If the translations don’t make sense for the game, this will result in a poor gaming experience for the player.

These quality checks must be done by native speakers who thoroughly understand the context of the game. These checks can be done in each phase of the localization process to make sure the end result matches what is intended.

The localized version must provide the player with the same gaming environment and experience as the main version. Poorly translated games mean very poor customer satisfaction and may lead to failing in that particular market.

Usually, game localization includes the following areas:

  • Translation
  • Localized Voiceover Recording
  • Asset Integration
  • Linguistic Testing

All of these areas must guarantee a high level of quality and accuracy.

Developers must make sure all the voice acting and translations are of the highest quality and that the games appeal to a global audience.