The Challenges of Localizing Video Games

While the majority of games still originate from the USA, Japan and the UK, the video game market itself is now a truly international one. Developers and publishers no longer see foreign language or otherwise localized versions of their games as merely a nice little bonus; in many cases they represent a major and sometimes essential revenue stream.

Translation is obviously a major factor in successful localization, but there are many other issues to consider. Cultural preferences and various technical issues must also be taken into account, and retaining the original feel of a game while adapting it for a whole new market can be something of a balancing act.

Planning ahead

The two basic models of game localization are sim-ship and post-gold. With sim-ship (simultaneous shipment), localized versions of a game will be developed and released alongside the original product. This may entail a single disc or download with various language settings or separately packaged products for different territories.

Post-gold localization is a process that sees the game adapted for a new market after its initial release. On the face of it, this may seem more like an afterthought but flexibility can still be built into the game’s basic template. Images should be created using multiple layers, allowing text to be easily separated from artwork and, on a similar note, the voice track should be divided into small files and kept separate from both the visuals and ambient sounds. This will allow certain changes to be made with greater ease later on. The post-gold model may be ideal for smaller developers who may want to see how the game fares and gauge demand before taking the plunge into foreign markets.

Translating the content

Good quality translation is essential. Not only in-game dialogue, but all text within the interface, menus and manuals (whether online or printed) must be translated. It’s tempting to think that automatic translation programs can do the job but there’s no substitute for native-speaking translators, who will help minimise errors and will also help to reflect and adapt contextual and cultural nuances. Translators should also be well versed in gaming culture and mechanics if at all possible.


metro last light The Challenges of Localizing Video Games
Metro: Last Light, a title developed by a foreign developer, but still wholly accessible and relatable to Americans and other foreign parties.

To dub or not to dub

Simply laying subtitles over the spoken in-game dialogue (and replacing existing subtitles with new ones in the appropriate language) can be the easiest and cheapest option but it can be to the detriment of the gameplay experience, especially in an action-heavy title. No one wants to be glancing at subtitles while taking a corner at 80 mph or fending off a battalion of alien invaders! The sound of the original dialogue, if not removed, can also be distracting.

Dubbing a new voice track onto a game can help preserve the original dynamic but the quality of voice acting should be as high as possible. Not all games feature such a stellar cast as games like Fable III (eg John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Sir Ben Kingsley), but voice acting is seen as an increasingly important element and professional voice artists should be used at the very least.

ffr2 thumb The Challenges of Localizing Video Games
Final Fantasy with Japanese Subtitles

Cultural differences

Different cultures can have different expectations from their games. In Japan, for example, there’s a tendency toward stylized, cartoon-ish avatars, reflecting the manga and anime traditions that are such a large part of popular culture. Gameplay tends to be more linear than open-ended and there’s less emphasis on the black and white concept of good versus evil. The opposite is often true in the West.

These are generalizations of course and don’t hold true in every case. It may also be difficult to change the entire feel or tone of a game but little tweaks can sometimes serve to make a localized version of a game more accessible to different cultures.

Technical Issues

Translation and cultural issues are key to preserving the gameplay experience but every bit of adaptation must be achieved within the framework of the software and the layout of the game. Translated text strings need to be appropriately placed within the software and hotkeys may need to be remapped for different keyboard layouts. Thought should also be given to aspects of the interface such as menus and drop-down lists that have fixed dimensions. Some language scripts take more space to impart the same information, meaning extra space must be built in or the translators must come up with alternative ways of saying the same thing.

Localizing video games is a process that throws up many challenges but with a little forward thinking, the benefits can be worth the extra effort involved.

About the author

is the founder of Lingo24, Inc., one of the world’s fastest growing translation agencies. Launched in 2001, Lingo24, Inc. now has over 180 employees spanning three continents and clients in over sixty countries. In the past twelve months, they have translated over sixty million words for businesses in every industry sector.

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