Is It Worth Localizing An Indie Game?
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
This article was originally posted on Level Up Translation's blog.
This is the Number One Question for any indie game studio considering localization, so we thought we'd get some answers from developers who took the leap.
They also go into detail about some tricks to save time and money on localization, their strategies and the tools they use in Unity.
At the end we talk about the impact of their localization efforts and each of them has a different take on that. From features in the app store, to reaching wider audiences and building larger player bases, all three studios have a valuable story to tell.
Jumb-O-Fun have been around since 2009. We recently localized their latest iOS title, Wagers of War, for which they had prepared carefully. Glen Pothoven shared the details of their meticulous approach and how it paid off.
Mega Dwarf are a three-man game-making band, from Canada. They are probably best known for their indie hit, God of Word, a project whose localization mistakes and successes proved to be very instructive. Daniel Batoff shares the ups and downs of their localization project and the impact it had on their game.
ZiMAD is an international developer and another partner of Level Up Translation. Their ASO wizard, Valeriya Shytikova, agreed to share some tips for mobile game developers and tell us about their experience localizing Dig Out!.
1 - To localize or not to localize?
2 - Making sure you're ready
3 - Deciding which markets are worth it
4 - How much will it cost?
5 - Choosing a localization partner
6 - The results
BONUS - Golden advice from devs to devs
To localize or not to localize?
Localization is the art of translating the text, cultural differences and well pretty much everything about a video game from one language to another.
In this section we were looking for the root cause for the developers’ decision to localize.
1. How did you feel about localization before you considered it?
We've always felt it was important for maximizing revenue. On the other hand, we were never sure if it would be worth the cost, unless we had a very successful game.
Before we localized our game, we weren't really sure if it would be worth it. There's a reason why AAA studios employ entire teams of people for the specific task of localization and there's clear logic behind Kickstarters doing localization as a stretch goal.
But unless you can actually look at sales numbers and see the regions your players are from, it can be hard to justify putting in all the effort to localize your game.
We were hopeful it would allow our games to take their natural place in their regional niche. Just like any other developer who loves their creation, we were optimistic and hoped we'd see more organic installs from the localization.
2. Why did you localize your game?
We didn’t initially plan on localizing Wagers of War for the launch. Then our marketing rep suggested localizing our game might have an impact on getting featured on the App Store.
And he was right... we did end up getting featured!
Localizing Wagers of War helped it get featured on the App Store.
There were a variety of reasons why we decided to localize God of Word.
First and foremost was we wanted our game to be as inclusive as possible.
We wanted as many different players from different regions to be able to play and enjoy our game. D. Batoff, Mega Dwarf
God of Word was released on Steam, and most competitive word games weren’t available in anything except English, so we wanted to give the gaming community the option to enjoy word games on Steam.
It was also a business decision. Like any other job, game development is about making money, and the more people you can sell your game to, the higher the chance of you getting paid. Mega Dwarf is a 3-man team, and for us, game development is either the main source or only source of income.
We also wanted to localize our game so it would appeal to more people in the Steam Greenlight process.
We found that games that were only available in English would receive a lot of “no” votes because non-English speaking voters would vote no, since they wouldn't buy a game not localized in their native language.
We see higher conversion rates for our localized games. If they can understand what a game is about, people can easily decide if they want to play it. After that, they can fully enjoy the game itself.
There are many regions where people don't speak English for a number of reasons. Some people never learned to speak English or learned another language instead and some people just don't speak it very well. Therefore, whatever message you are trying to deliver in your game, it won’t get through.
It's no fun trying to translate as you play. People will avoid it if they can, so localizing our games comes naturally.
3. Why do some indie developers hesitate to localize their game?
I think there are two major hurdles that we consider when looking at localizing our games.
One is the additional work required to develop a game to handle multiple languages.
The second is the direct cost of translation and the concern that it's too expensive or the extra revenue from localizing won't recoup the cost.
Localization was without a doubt our biggest expense. And for a lot of indie developers, the cost of localizing a game professionally isn't something they can afford.
There are obviously other options available, like getting fans to localize your game for you, or tapping into free game localization resources. But if you're looking for the utmost quality in your game, it's going to cost you hundreds or maybe even thousands of dollars, and that's a tough sell for a lot of indies.
Time is another big reason. We didn't have a particularly text-heavy game, even though we were a word game. But even with amazing localization assisting tools like TextMeshPro and I2 Localization, the process took us weeks of manpower to fully implement. In a business where you want to pump out your product as quickly as possible and have deadlines to meet, a couple extra weeks of development time is something a lot of people don't have to spare.
For us, it was also a question of features. One big feature that we wanted to implement in God of Word was a bestiary. Our plan was to give an informative little paragraph about each of the enemies, bosses and items in our game, which would teach the player about some of the lesser known facts in Greek Mythology.
Unfortunately, dozens of paragraphs of text would have been too expensive to localize for us. So because of this, there isn't a bestiary in God of Word.
The US mobile games market is tough at the moment. A small indie project will have to try really hard to “survive” there. The big studios competing with each other for the top charts are likely to wash them away. To be frank you're lucky to have a place in the US app market without a big investment.
On the other hand, some regional markets are in need of good quality content available in their language. There is a real demand for localized games and apps there.
"I think many indie developers underestimate the potential gains from localizing their game." V. Shytikova, ZiMAD
Making sure you're ready
As with any project, implementing a strategy from the start will spare you headaches further down the line. Keeping localization in mind from the early development stages is the number one thing you can do to set your localization project up for success.
Jumb-O-Fun, Mega Dwarf and Zimad all had a different approach towards localization, which impacted the development of their games in as many different ways.
4. How did you prepare your game for localization?
We've been developing our games on a simple C# code library we created for Unity some years ago. That library manages a variety of core game aspects such as; game text, game settings, music, sound effects, it also supports multiple languages across any Unity supported platform. So all our games can be localized at any time.
We also developed our own custom font to support the languages we knew we'd be localizing to.
This is actually not too difficult unless you're developing a font for the Asian languages. We also have all our text strings held in an Excel doc which is fairly easy to hand over to a translator.
We create our custom fonts with High Logic's Font Creator in combination with Photoshop.
Our first step is to use a basic font like Arial and type out all the characters we need into a big Photoshop doc. Then, using a Cintiq tablet, we draw over the Arial font using solid black until we're happy with the look of all the characters. From there we copy each pixel based character from Photoshop into Font Creator. When that's done we may add some kerning pairs if necessary and then export as a TTF. That TTF is then used in Unity.
We ended up making the decision to localize our game into other languages about halfway through development, and at that point, it was pretty difficult to keep track of all the text in our game, both in the scene views and what was left hardcoded in the scripts.
AAA studios tend to use programs that keep track of all the text in their games, making it much easier to track spelling errors and text that hasn't yet been implemented. If that's an option that indie developers have, I would highly recommend using it as early as possible.
"Honestly, one of our biggest localization mistakes for God of Word was not keeping localization in mind from the start of the development." D.Batoff, Mega Dwarf
We start by putting all the text into an Excel spreadsheet with one word or sentence per cell and one column per language. This way, the localization agency can’t mess things up, and we have everything accurately set and ready for when we decide to integrate the new translations into the game.
5. How did your preparation affect the implementation of translations?
It made a big difference. Our decision to localize came about 1 month before we needed the game done.
"If the game hadn’t already been built to handle multiple languages, we wouldn't have been able to localize for launch." G. Pothoven, Jumb-O-Fun
All we really had to do was pass off the Excel document to Level Up Translation and create the custom font.
Since we didn't keep proper track of all the text in our game, we actually ended up having to send off multiple passes for localization to our provider, and that really upped the cost.
Normally game localization studios will give you discounts based on word count.
Not only did we miss some words on our original pass for the base of God of Word, we decided during our post-launch to do a Halloween update, which required a whole new batch of words to be translated professionally.
All in all, it ended up being three different paid batches of words, which would've been significantly less expensive had we have done it all at once.
In summation, keep track of all the text you currently have in the game and think about patches, DLC, and updates before you send off for localization, or... you'll pay for it later.
Having all the translations in one document really helped our team to integrate them into the build. We also have a similar process and similar documents for the store descriptions and marketing.
Spreadsheets are a practical format to keep all your strings in one place.
Deciding which markets are worth it
Some markets are certainly more profitable than others, but that can vary on the type of game you're producing. Research is clearly invaluable and doing your homework can really pay off.
How did our three studios tackle their research and what helped them to decide which languages to focus their localization on? Well, let’s find out!
6. How did you decide which markets to localize for?
With market research mostly. The major considerations for each language were:
1) Total App Store revenue generated
2) Average revenue per user
3) Penetration of iOS devices
4) Number of native speakers who also fluently speak English
This was also a pretty simple process to decide on. Since we were releasing on Steam, we used a Steam Hardware Survey that gives up to date information on all sorts of user hardware specs. It also gives the main language of gamers by percentages, so that made it easy to choose which would be worth localizing for.
We carefully analyze the target market. We look for clues that can tell us whether our game could become popular within the region.
"We want to know how many competitors we have, what the top apps/games and current trends in the market are and then we collate the data before making a decision."
V. Shytikova, ZiMAD
According to our experience, it doesn’t make sense to localize your app/game if:
1 – Its content is related to a specific regional event or holiday
2 – There are 50 localized “Flappy Bird” games in the region and you’re going to be 51st.
AppAnnie offers great insight for mobile game developers.
How much will it cost?
When starting your new project remember that not all games require the same localization effort. Everything will depend on how text-heavy your game is. Localizing an RPG title with a heavy narrative will require considerably more effort than a minimalistic game.
7. What was your localization budget?
Wagers of War has approximately 2,000 words and was localized in Dutch, Italian, French, German, Russian and Spanish. I think originally we wanted to keep the budget within $1,000 USD. Ultimately, we went a bit over because we added an extra language or two.
We didn't exactly have a budget, what mattered to us was to localize our game professionally. We went with the company who would offer us the most affordable rate.
After all three batches of localization, we ended up spending a little over $500 USD on localization. I believe this is a pretty reasonable amount of money to spend for a small/medium sized indie game.
A lot of smaller games can get away with not using much text in their game.
"There are lots of tips and tricks you can use to cut down on localization prices, like using simple icons instead of text for buttons." D. Batoff, Mega Dwarf
For larger indie games or AAA titles, the localization costs can easily be tens of thousands of dollars. So if you're thinking about writing an epic storyline and translating it into every language under the sun, expect that to run you quite a bit of money.
I can’t give exact numbers because our budget really varies from one game to the other and depends on the amount of in-game text and the store descriptions. But we usually spend around $1,500-$3,000 USD for everything in approximately 10 languages.
Choosing a localization partner
If you don’t want your game to turn into meme material or get bad reviews pointing out its sloppy translation (which could have devastating effects on the game experience if your title is narrative-heavy), professional localization is mandatory and you will have to budget for it.
Finding a specialist and getting the job done well will always be a better solution than lowering your standards to save a few bucks, and then end up paying for it with your game’s reputation.
But don’t take our word for it! Here’s what our three studios have to say.
8. How did you choose your localization service provider?
I'm always reading game industry websites and had read a well-written blog post by Level Up Translation. At the time we weren't looking to localize any game, but knew it could be a valuable resource later, so we bookmarked the article and came back to it when the time was right. After contacting Level Up Translation and researching the company a little more, I felt confident they'd be a good fit, and they did an excellent job.
It was a pretty simple process, we just searched the Internet to find as many localization providers as we could. Most providers will offer you a free estimate based on your word count, the number of repeating words, and difficulty of sentences. Remember, you'll need to have a complete list of text in your game to get an accurate estimate. We went with the least expensive option, but also made sure they had good testimonials.
We’ve worked with a lot of translation companies in the past. Some of them were found on Google, some of them were recommended by colleagues. In the end, the determining factor for a collaboration is the quality of the translations they deliver.
While the impact of localization on sales can be hard to measure, it’s a given that you don’t buy what you can’t understand (although fidget-spinners are the exception to prove the rule). It's also true to say that the more people that can play your game, the more potential sales you could make.
Looking back, Jumb-O-Fun, Mega Dwarf and ZiMAD all had differing experiences with the localization of their game, but they all agree on one thing: the positive impact it had. Whether this meant more sales, having more users for multi-player games or getting featured on the App Store.
9. What impact did localization have on your game's reception and sales?
A significant impact, very significant! Wagers of War is a multiplayer game so having a sizable user base is important for healthy matchmaking.
"By supporting 7 languages at launch we dramatically increased the size of our user base. We also earned back the cost of localizing very quickly.
And of course, there was the App Store feature which we may not have received otherwise." G. Pothoven, Jumb-O-Fun
It's honestly difficult to say exactly how much impact localization had on our game's reception and sales. God of Word was our first ever game, so we don't have easy data to compare it to, to see if it did better than non-localized games.
"From reviews and testimonials from our players, we know we made a lot of people happy by giving them our game fully playable in their native language." D. Batoff, Mega Dwarf
It’s hard to say because we also have a strategy for user acquisition, and it’s a well-known fact that the organics are highly dependable of the paid UA. That’s why the best way to judge our results is by analyzing our conversion rate (CR).
Our CR increased by at least 32% for both paid and organics.
The below graph shows the impact of localization on our game Dig Out!:
Overall increase in CR after localization in 10 languages.
10. What were the most and least profitable markets? How much do you think localization influenced those results?
Least profitable was the Dutch market, mostly because it's a smaller market. Most profitable would be English and French, though I don't think English counts in this regard. These are followed by German and Italian.
"Without localization, we almost certainly wouldn't have gained the same amount of traction in non-English speaking regions." G. Pothoven, Jumb-O-Fun
Germany was by far the next most profitable market after English-speaking regions. In fact, our sales from Germany alone would have covered the cost of our localization. Not only that but countries like Austria, which has German as their national official language, was also in our top 10 largest revenue producing countries.
Other than German and French, none of our other localized languages made an obvious splash in revenue. Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese all sold decently, but not much more remarkably than in countries that didn't have their main language supported in our game, like the Netherlands or Japan.
In fact, two countries that accounted for large portions of our revenue, and even larger portions of our units weren't supported at all. We were unable to localize for Chinese or Russian due to the different characters sets these languages use, and yet China has downloaded almost as many units of God of Word as the United States. Although we put this down to being included in a special bundle sold in China.
Localizing your Steam game in German is a safe bet.
For every game/genre there are different profitable markets. In our case, localizing Dig Out! influenced the Asian region the most, Europe the least:
The organic conversion rate increase for Asian market after the localization ~34%
Overall (paid and organic) increase in CR for Asian market ~78%
11. All in all, was localizing your game worth it?
It absolutely was, both for profitability and for the sake of our multiplayer matchmaking.
One of the challenges moving forward, however, is that updating the game takes a bit longer because we need to accommodate for multiple languages. This means translating any new game text strings and the update text which appears on the App Store. Luckily Level Up Translation turns these around very quickly :)
It's hard to pinpoint whether or not it was monetarily worth it to localize God of Word.
Without hard data on which players purchased the game because it was localized into their language, who wouldn't have purchased the game otherwise, it's nearly impossible to know if it was worth it.
However, from reviews and testimonials from our players, we know we made a lot of people happy by giving them our game fully playable in their native language.
"As for sales... well sales in Germany alone grossed more than our localization costs. So it would be hard not to say it was worth it." D. Batoff, Mega Dwarf
It’s definitely worth it. You only need to go through localization once and it will have a continued effect.
Golden advice from devs to devs
12. What’s your best advice to developers thinking about localizing their indie game?
Biggest thing is to develop from day one to support multiple languages. This is best done by having a file hold all your game's text strings. Hard coding text is a big no-no and will only cause pain in the future or prevent you from localizing entirely.
English is still the dominant language by far for western developed games unless you understand the Asian markets really well, which we don't. But the other, non-Asian, languages can provide a significant boost in both revenue and player numbers.
"Depending on the popularity of your game, localizing could be the difference between financial success or failure." G. Pothoven, Jumb-O-Fun
It's also worth learning a font creator program, we use High Logic's Font Creator. They aren't particularly hard to learn and you don't need to understand all that nitty-gritty font lingo to create a usable font. And, if you're considering Google Translate just watch Miley Cyrus and Jimmy Fallon sing popular songs translated by Google Translate, it'll probably change your mind:
I would advise all other developers to seriously consider the idea of localizing their game. Localizing your game opens all sorts of doors for you. It can entice vast player bases to your game and it can be a big reason why they choose you over your non-localized competitors.
"It's not just about your average players either; there are lots of YouTubers and review sites that like to pick a game in their native language over an English only game.
If localization is the difference between getting your game professionally reviewed, or played in front of thousands of people, then it's a no-brainer." D. Batoff, Mega Dwarf
Although we have no experience with localizing our games into Chinese or Russian, they're huge markets that are largely untapped by a majority of Steam games.
The experience we do have shows that German and French are safe bets when it comes to localization.
Without a doubt, if you're using Unity, look into TextMeshPro and I2 Localization.
Both will save you an incredible amount of time and headaches, and they are definitely worth the money (TextMeshPro is now free, so go download it right now).
If you can't afford to go with a localization company, you'll surely be able to find fans who will help you with localization for cheap or even free. The gaming community can be an amazing place, full of people who just love video games.
Don’t waste your efforts on the US if you know that competition is going to be too fierce for your game. It's better to start by making your positions strong in other regions. If you rank high in those regions, you’ll constantly get organic installs.
From supporting your multiplayer gameplay to helping it getting reviewed internationally, or getting featured on the App Store, localization is a powerful marketing tool for your game.
In order to be easy to implement, localization must be planned from day one and just like the art or the code from your game, the quality of its execution is a key factor in its success.
With good preparation, extensive market research and professional game localization, the effort put into localizing your game will be well spent and you should soon reap the fruits of your investment... provided your game is good ;)
What's your experience with localization? How do you prepare for it? Do you have some tips to share with other developers?
Let us know in your comments!
Like what you just read?
Check our blog for more game localization best practices and tips.
Need localization for your game?
Tell us about it! We've got plenty of XP to help you level up!