5 Most Expensive Game Localization Mistakes
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
This blog was originally posted on Level Up Translation's blog on August 19th 2016 and updated in October 2017.
Gaming is one of the few truly global industries, filled with passionate fans (like us) who really care about their favorite titles. Which means simply doing localization isn’t enough. You have to nail it.
Poor localization can make your games more expensive to produce, hurt sales and create all kinds of bad press. Yet we see publishers large and small making the same mistakes time and again.
Here are five of the most expensive game localization mistakes you want to avoid.
#1: Embedding text into the game’s core files
One of the most costly mistakes we often see is text being hard-coded into the core files. This will include things like the title of your game, menu text, and any dialogue printed on-screen during gameplay.
It can be tempting for developers to embed this text directly into the game’s code – especially if you’re launching in one language first. This is a bad idea, though – even if you don’t have any plans to expand into other languages at this stage.
Instead, you’ll want to store all text as variables in a separate resource file.
This way nobody needs to plough through source code to add translated text into the game. You can simply add the new variable and place the translation inside its own dedicated file. This not only makes future localizations easier for your team but also for the translators you call in.
#2: Cutting corners on translation
This isn’t only a problem for game localization but any project that needs accurate translation.
The fact is, cutting corners on translation only creates more work further down the line – and that means spending more money, too.
Forget machine translation and don’t even think about free tools like Google Translate. Not only are they world away from producing the accuracy you need, they’re a security threat for any sensitive content.
Such translation tools are vulnerable to hackers via your Internet connection – especially via WiFi. These risks are widely publicized but they may not be something you associate with online translation. More worryingly, anything you type in is handed over to the translation provider (eg: Google). It becomes their data and they can do anything they want with it.
Speak to your translation agency about non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).
These contracts make sure everything in your game stays completely confidential – so you can relax while translators are working on the localization of your game.
Money-wise, the reality is, if you cut corners on translation, you’ll only end up paying more for it later. We get far too many partners who need to start all over again because they tried to take the faster/cheaper option on translation.
Take shortcuts and you’ll end up with the kind of mistakes we still mock the arcade classics for...
– or worse.
#3: Using translators who don’t know your game (or video games at all)
With context being so important in game localization, the more a translator knows about your video game, the better.
We still see too many publishers handing over spreadsheets full of text to translators who basically know nothing about the game they’re working on, or worse, nothing about gaming at all.
Instead, you should seek out experienced video game translators and give them the chance to play your title whenever this is possible. The more they know about the gaming experience you’re trying to build, the better equipped they’ll be to recreate that in another language.
If you can’t give translators access to play your game, then at least get someone in with a track record of translating games in your genre. Be sure to hand over as much information about your title as possible: glossaries, visuals, style guides and any translations you may have from previous releases.
And if your game is about to hit platforms like Playstation 4, Xbox One or Nintendo's consoles, make sure way ahead of submitting your build that it meets Sony, Microsoft and big "N"'s strict naming conventions in all languages, or risk getting it rejected. Here as well, it takes an experienced localization service provider to go smoothly through that phase.
#4: Ignoring cultural factors
Accurate translation isn’t the only goal of localization. You also need to be sure your titles are culturally sensitive to each market – or risk alienating one of your target audiences. Much of this comes down to the actual content of your game: the story, characters and events that take place.
In this very insightful documentary about The Witcher III's localization, CD Projekt explain how they dealt with "butts, gods and prostitution" in order not to offend Arabic markets (start from 13:00, but the whole documentary is actually a must-watch).
Just ask Nintendo how important it is to get video game localization right. It spent the first quarter of 2016 embroiled in a localization row that escalated into debates over sexism, homophobia, child pornography, slut-shaming, prostitution and a hate campaign against one of its most infamous employees. It was pretty intense.
It all came down to a localization vs censorship debate that peaked with Fire Emblem Fates. The version for US and EU markets was heavily altered from the Japanese original and fans were less than pleased.
Shortly after, there were protests in Hong Kong after the firm decided to alter the name of beloved Pokémon Pikachu. It sparked a centuries-old sentiment of China encroaching on Hong Kong culture – all of which was reignited by the slight change of a name to one character.
#5: Thinking of localization as the last step of game development
Perhaps the most expensive mistake you can make with game localization is letting it sit at the bottom of your to-do list. It’s easy to think of this as the last stage of production – but that’s a costly assumption.
A classic example is the humble game description; vital to selling your game but something often overlooked. These few words are your only pitch to convince new gamers – especially if you’re not creating a famous brand title (eg: Star Wars, Final Fantasy, etc.)
All you have to do is visit Google Play to see how little effort many publishers put into these descriptions:
A lot of words but not much that makes any sense.
And this publisher didn’t even bother trying...
It rarely ends with game descriptions either. Publishers who are happy to settle for this kind of first impression tend to take similar shortcuts in other areas of development.
The amazing thing about video game localization gone wrong is that most mistakes could have been avoided with the right planning.
Just go back to our first point about hard-coding text into a game and you can see how poor localization planning makes production costs skyrocket.
Or think how many problems Nintendo could have avoided this year by localizing its content during the writing process, rather than leaving it until post-production.
The fact is localization should be included at the very beginning of game development – and you need to allocate enough time and budget for the entire process. This way you can avoid extra workload and costly mistakes further down the line.
So there you have it – the five most expensive game localization mistakes. They’re all completely avoidable with the right planning in place from day one and the game localization company with the right experience and methodology. Did someone say Level Up Translation? ;)
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