Interview: Nintendo, Advance Wars, & The Art Of Localization
It's a balancing act to shift cultural touchstones from Japan to the West, and Nintendo is renowned as one of the best game localizers around.
Thus, Gamasutra recently caught up with Nintendo's North American localization lead, Tim O'Leary, to discuss NOA's surprisingly complex process of localizing key titles -- most notably, the recently-released Advance Wars: Days Of Ruin.
The latest installment of the long-running tactical series for Nintendo's DS features some stylistic changes that O'Leary tells us were based on the American audience's response to prior titles.
But it can be a challenging balancing act to translate certain cultural touchstones from Japan to the West while still maintaining the developer's vision, and O'Leary explains more about the art of localizing games, outlining how his office works together with the Japanese developers to walk this fine line.
One interesting about this title is the change in the art direction -- where did that come from?
Tim O'Leary: Sure. Well, it all comes from the team back in Japan. In the course of the series, they'd make a lot of changes to gameplay and how the system works. But they were hearing a lot of comments in the media, and things from users: "We like the game, we love the game, but it's the same thing." Where we've got the same game -- it looks like a solid game, but there's not really a lot of new things.
Their reaction was, "What? We're changing so much!" But I think a lot of the changes that they were doing were not cosmetic changes. So we were seeing that sort of feedback. They decided, "OK, well, let's make a cosmetic overhaul of the game. Let's see if that works." And it was really an organic process for them, where they said, "OK, what is 'war'?"
And they discovered that they, as Japanese people, have an idea that is different from what other audiences were looking for -- and this is all based on comments that I've heard from them -- a lot of their view of war, based on their previous games, was that they had a very light-hearted take. You know, pastel colors, quirky characters, and what-not; and they basically said, "Well, let's take that and re-envision it." You know, it's dirtier, it's darker, it's more somber.
And basically what they did from that is they said, "OK, we want to give people a new idea of our vision of war. Introduce a darker palette, so it's all browns and grays and dark greens, and it's a much more somber looking game. We want a world that will inhabit that vision. And so they created this world, and then they destroyed it with this meteor strike, and so 90 percent of the population is dead; there are tsunamis, and earthquakes; and there are these giant ash and dust clouds that block out the sunlight, so the vegetation is dying. So it's a very somber, very dirty, dark world.
And then they said, "OK, who will inhabit this world?" And that's how they came up with the character creation, how they came up with the motivation for the different characters, and that of course informs the whole plot line in the whole game. It all stemmed from this much-re-envisioned take of 'war'.
That's where the art direction came from, and also like I said earlier, it seems to be a very organic process. "OK, we have a world. We crush it. What does that world look like? OK, these are the colors that display that best. Who inhabits this world? These characters. What are these characters doing? Well, what would you do if you were the last remaining 10 percent of the population? What kind of people are you going to find?" And again, it all just stemmed from that conversation. That's where this new world came from.
I'm under the impression that this series has been a lot more successful in the U.S. and the Western market than it is in Japan these days.
TO: I don't have specific numbers. You know, this is a long-running series, it came on the Famicom -- or NES -- and of course the Super Famicom, here. I know that they released Advance Wars, for Game Boy Advance, 1 & 2 in a pack first. And I don't have numbers on how Dual Strike sold. I know that it's won a lot of awards here since being launched, and actually they were really surprised at how excited people were over the series, but obviously they were happy about it as well.
But with the game very successful in the West now, how does that influence development decisions at Nintendo?
TO: Again, they took that under consideration when they went back and they said, "Let's start with a new area." And again, their discussion of 'what is war', came about, and that's where they went from. I think it was definitely influenced by the feedback they got from here, and also what they got from [Nintend U.S. localization division] the Treehouse, but it was also just a desire on their part to be creative.
Intelligent Systems is one of those companies that has a lot of franchise work. They do the Fire Emblem series, the Advance Wars series, the Paper Mario series; and they're always trying to make sure that everything they do is new.
What does the Treehouse do for Nintendo?
TO: The Treehouse itself is just one room, and that's where the localization group happens to be. And also, we have our second party support team in there, we have our marketing support guys in there -- and I can answer for the localization group.
Basically, we do what you think we do, in that we do the translation and rewrite of any second or third party games, or first party games that are requested of us through our parent company. But we also look at games that come in -- they'll say, "Hey, can you guys come in and take a look at this? Do you think it will work for our market?" We give some creative feedback that way -- although that's more the product support group's job than ours, but sometimes we'll do that as well.
Is that Nintendo's games only?
TO: No, our management team will sometimes ask us, "Hey, take a look at this game." And a lot of those games, when we are asked about them, we are told if they are first party, second party, or third party. But generally it's not third party; it's going to be first party or second party mostly.
So, we'll look at those, and we'll give some feedback, but we don't make decisions, per se, through our group. Like, "Yeah, we're going to launch this game, or not." That's all executive management. But we will provide any help that we can, and a lot of that is just language-based help, where they come in and say, "Hey, you guys that speak Japanese. Tell us what this game is about," if they don't have that support documentation already.
But we do things like, again, all the translation, all the rewrite. If it's a group that we've worked with for a long time, and we have a nice trusting relationship with -- which is everyone at our parent company, of course -- they'll ask things on character design. "Hey, what do you guys think of this character?" or something. "Oh, it looks great, but you might want to lose the bangs on this kid." We give some feedback from time to time.
That's more in terms of market perception than in terms of aesthetic?
TO: Oh yeah, it's definitely market perception. You know, they're just thinking that the Japanese might think, "Oh, this is a really cool design," and we'll be like, "Well, kinda pass that," or maybe that's not an appealing design, physically, for this title.
Then we do all the voice recording here; all the additional scripting, and the actors, and going to the studio, and that sort of thing. And then, of course, we do all the marketing support. That's kind-of in a nut-shell. It depends on the project. When I worked on a Kirby game, that was a game that you can pretty much localize in four days. It's not text-heavy, and we're not going to be doing any characterization, because Kirby is Kirby, and he's got his personality.
And it's established, too, so you're not going to say, "Kirby? Not pink this time. Make him black." It's not a question.
TO: Yeah. A bigger game, like Fire Emblem, which I've worked on those as well -- in that, you've got a cast of 75 characters, and they come in and go, "OK, all of these characters look great! Let's name them!" OK, here are the romanizations of the Japanese names... And then, maybe let's change this name, because the spelling doesn't work, or we can't pronounce it that way.
Then we go and do the voice recording, and we try to get a character voice that matches not only the image of the character, but the role that the character is supposed to perform in the game. And we do this hand-in-hand with the team; we always go back to them and say, "Hey, we like this character, this is great, and we'd like to change this character's name to this for this reason." And they go, "Yeah, OK."
So you communicate with the original development team a lot.
TO: Oh yeah. You have to.
How do you ensure that things stay true to that vision?
TO: For us it's just basically that we really want to be true to the developer's intent. That's like a mantra to us. If somebody says, "Let's change this to this!" Why? "Oh, I think it's cooler." Is it really? Does it really add a value to our market? If it does, then let's go back and explain it to them, to say this is why we want to do it. And if we can't come up with reasons that we think we should change something, then we shouldn't change it.
That's our litmus test for ourselves, too. "I want to change this, because I don't like that character's name, because it reminds me of a bully in second grade," or does it actually make sense to change the name? Luckily, we do communicate so often -- I'm on the phone with Japan five nights a week. We do video conferences, and we're doing more and more of those at the beginning of a project.
We'll sit down and have six or seven people on there, and we'll talk about things like, "OK, why this game title? Why these characters? What's your motivation? What's the background?" And we get as much information off them as possible. And of course we play through the game from the beginning, hopefully before we have to start on the project. Sometimes, of course, with parallel development, we don't have that opportunity. So we're playing as they build, and we're keeping up.
Is this game even out in Japan?
TO: No. But the game looks done when it gets to us, so it's a finished product for us. In a best of worlds for us, ideally they send us a finished product, and then they say, "Here's how it is in our market," and we play through it and just do straight localization, characterization, and voice recording, done. We don't have to change a thing, and get it done ASAP.
Other times they'll send it over, and they'll say, "This is pretty much done; anything you like?" And we'll say, "Well this scene B, here..." One thing you'll hear about, sometimes, you'll hear about is Shorinji Temples. The iconography for the Shorinji Temple is basically a swastika revisited. And the swastika actually is -- obviously, the Shorinji icon is much older than the swastika, but a lot of Americans don't really know what the Shorinji temple is.
Pokémon ran into that some years ago. There was a big controversy.
TO: Right. Rather than explain that, and try to educate the American market, "This is just ancient Japanese blah-blah-blah --" just swap it out. And there are things like that, where by and large we're doing it for our market, for a good reason, so they have no problem going back and doing stuff like that.
Games like Animal Crossing for the Game Cube: That game was really, really based on your interactivity with the characters in that world, on a daily basis, with a real-time clock. But it was very, very Japanese. All Japanese cultural references, Japanese holidays, Japanese furniture, and all of the core concept of the game was based around familiar things in Japanese life.
So that, for us, was our first real big foray into development, rather than just localization. Because we were looking up images, going, "OK, this is what an American barbecue looks like."
And you were sending this back to the team in Japan, and having them model, and...
TO: Well, let's say we wanted to create a furniture set for our market that's based on the American Old West. So we want a stage coach, we want a wagon wheel, we want a cow skull with horns. And so we would send them back images of all these things, and they said, "OK, we'll create that."
And it was really gratifying for us, since it was a nine month project, and we had seven people working crazy hours. But when they were done with it, they liked it so much that they released it as Animal Crossing Plus in Japan, with our American content in the game. So that was a lot of fun.
So it runs the gamut, again, from a Kirby-style game, or a Mario Kart DS game -- where there are menus, and you translate it, and rewrite it, and do some legal checks on things, make sure everything is good, and then you ship it -- to games like Fire Emblem, or Animal Crossing, or games that are more text heavy -- where there's a long drawn out process, there's a lot of talking back and forth, and making sure that, again, the experience that they hope the gamer will have, and the intent of the original creation, is as true as it can possibly be in our market.
How do you balance that? Because obviously there are some really passionate fans that are going to get upset over localization changes, but on the other hand, you are right in saying that it's required to massage things, to make them make cultural sense.
TO: Well, I think you just use your common sense barometer, really. In our group, we have the translation side, and then we have the rewrite side, and all of our translators are people who have lived in Japan for long periods of time, so we have cultural awareness as well.
We have to find a parallel that works for our market. And that, really, like I said, is sort-of a litmus test. If left as is, does it convey the same intent? Because this is what the developer wants. They want the character to either see this and feel nostalgic, or to be afraid, or moved, or whatever it is.
And if the original Japanese idea, as cool as it is, doesn't elicit that same emotional response, or any sort of response, in the gamer? Then it's not working, and we need to find a vehicle that again pulls that out of the gamer. And so, unfortunately, even though it may be a really cool Japanese vehicle, if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, and we need to change it.
Do you have an example?
TO: Sometimes you see, in old Japan, and in folk tales, you'll have tatami, these bamboo mats, and in the middle there's a hearth, basically, an open fire. And in old Japanese homes, that was the style that you would see, and people sit around that, and cook. And I mean old. Not twenty years ago, but two hundred years ago.
But people see that, and people in Japan say, "Oh, I read about that in folk tales when I was a kid," or history classes; and Americans are like, "Why does he have a camp fire in the middle of his building?" Obviously people can know about it, and think it's cool, but it just doesn't work for the majority of people.
And actually we did go through, and we took some of the Japanese stuff that we thought was cool, and rather than take them out, just give them little tweaks to make them more accessible to an American market. One thing we kept is, the Zen Garden stuff, and the mossy rocks, and the Asian lanterns that you can put in your garden. Just because those are familiar for us; and those are some of the things that we were able to keep.
Reggie is the first western president that Nintendo of America has had, and has that afforded any more autonomy to NoA in terms of making games? Do you have any idea?
TO: I have no idea! It really hasn't affected what we do in the Treehouse. We are under the direction of mister Mike Fukuda, who is a Japanese man, and he is a good voice for us. He fights for everything we do.
We have such a great relationship -- we deal directly with the development teams, and those guys make games. They want people to play their games, they want people to enjoy them, so if we say, "This is what we want to do, for these reasons"? Generally, they're like, "Great! Thank you so much for taking care of our games! We really appreciate it!"
We get Thank You notes from people that we work with, and we get New Year's cards, and we'll have post-development video conferences where we'll just sit and chat, and we'll go over there and we'll meet the people, and they're really excited to meet us, and we're excited to meet them as well.
You talked about how the team took feedback from the Western audience, and fed that into finding expectations of what the western audience would like to see in a war game. So do you guys actually translate reviews and stuff, and feed them back in?
TO: Oh, we will give them reviews, and they have people on there that will translate if they ask. And yeah, we'll do postmortems. I've been working with people on this team who will say, "Oh, hey, how do people feel about this game?" And we'll say, "Oh, well, let's see what the internet buzz is."
Again, there are more, I guess, 'official channels' which a lot of this information is going through, but because of the expediency of the internet, and telephones, we'll just chat with them, and we're pretty honest. But yeah, I think that they were getting a lot of the same feedback from their Japanese market, too. "Great game! We want to see something new..." And it was like, "OK, what do you guys want?"
So it wasn't just Western markets, but they look to you, and they look to us, and they also look to the Japanese market. And I thought it was interesting. They didn't set out to... "get America;" they just went back, and went, "Aha! What is war?" And from that discussion, this is what came up in that. It was a very fascinating, and again, a very organic process.