Could localization be the key to bridging cultural gaps between Japanese and Western games?
Gamasutra asked Tokyo-headquartered firm 8-4, who has provided localization services to major companies including Bandai Namco, Nintendo, Sony, and Konami -- partners John Ricciardi and Hiroko Minamoto also work as Japan correspondents for consumer site 1UP.
But Ricciardi and Minamoto see their role as more broadly useful than simple interpretation and translation.
As the team's just passed its third anniversary, and as Japanese companies begin turning a more serious eye to ways they can better address Western audiences, the 8-4 duo has a lot of insight on the divide between Japanese and Western audiences -- and how localization can help.
You guys had your third anniversary in October. Before that, you were doing localization with another company, so you two have been doing localization for about how long now?
HM: Well, when did you have your first project?
JR: Well, I first worked on a Saturn game with Victor Ireland, like back in, what was that, 199-something; the Saturn game, Magic Knight Rayearth. That was my first dabbling in localization. And then I came to Japan at the end of 2000. So, I started getting more into it again back in like 2002, I guess? Or 2003.
HM: Actually, if I think about it, my first project was when I was in my first company, which is... back in the day.
HM: Well that was some European language to Japanese. So it's not quite the same as what we do now.
JR: You were 18 or something then, right? Or 20?
HM: 20, yeah.
JR: Yeah, so we've been around, I guess.
Now, your primary business is localization, but do you work on other projects, or do other things?
HM: Yes we do. We work for [consumer games site] 1UP; we're their Japan correspondents, so we do a lot of 1UP stuff. We cover events for them in Japan, and then whenever their people visit Japan, we coordinate interviews and such for them, and interpret them.
We also do some interpreting work for our [Japanese] clients, and occasionally some other sites and magazines as well. We helped out with gathering Japanese speakers for last year's Game Developers Conference, too.
Had you guys been doing any consulting work for companies, or stuff like that?
HM: Actually, we haven't, but we are looking into moving in that direction. And I guess, through localization, we kind of do some consulting, right?
JR: Just by virtue of the process of localization, we end up making lots of little suggestions to the developers that we work with about how they can slightly improve things for the western market.
I mean, it's very minor stuff, but in a way it is like consulting, because it's things they don't know that we know just from having had so much experience with western games; how they can make little tweaks to improve things and such.
HM: And also, these days, a lot of major companies are trying to do simultaneous releases, so, because of that, we get more involved with projects at an earlier stage, which gives us more opportunities to give out advice. So I think we're going to get more involved with consulting in the future.
JR: Yeah, that's true.
What are you currently working on that you can talk about publicly, at this point?
JR: Well, most recently, there were a bunch of Namco Bandai projects that hit within a span of three or four months. First there was Tales of Vesperia, which had a massive script.
Then, we worked on a bunch of Soulcalibur IV -- we didn't work on the voice script part, but we did a lot of the other stuff, like the story bits inside the game and the character backgrounds and such.
We did Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World for Wii, which just came out not too long ago. And then there was the PS3 version of Eternal Sonata, which has a bit more story content than the 360 version. Ah, and we also worked on Castlevania: Judgment with Konami.
Those are the most recent ones. We worked on a few games with Ubisoft, including the next Tenchu game for Wii and a couple of DS titles. We worked on Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon with Nintendo -- which was a really awesome project. We're currently wrapping up Star Ocean: The Last Hope with Square Enix, which we're really excited about.
And then we're working on a big project with Sony, which...
HM: That's gonna be a bit 'til we'll be able to talk about, but we have been working on it for a while.
JR: Yeah, we've been working on it for about a year. So, probably, people who know the games we've worked on in the past might be able to guess what that is, but I'm not allowed to say yet.
HM: (laughs) And then we are currently working on another one...
JR: ...We are?
HM: With the interesting text...
JR: Oh, yeah... I'd love to talk about that one because it's pretty interesting, but I suppose it's too early.
You mostly end up working on RPG titles, which makes some sense because they have a great deal of text. When you talk to publishers about localizing titles, do they favor you for any particular genre, or is it just that those titles get localized more frequently?
JR: I think, generally, a lot of our games end up being RPGs because with the smaller titles, some of these companies can just do them in-house, or they don't need to outsource them. Generally, when you can handle it yourself, there's no need to hire someone like us, so we end up getting a lot of RPGs.
But the fact that we've worked on so many RPGs in the past, now -- I mean, we've worked on quite a few, in different genres too, like sci-fi and fantasy and whatnot -- thanks to that, we're getting known for our RPG work. But I think that, in general, those are just the games that require outsourced translation the most.
Where do you see the health of the market right now for games that are being localized and sold in the U.S.? Do you think it's a healthy market, and do you think that the titles that are coming from the Japanese companies are satisfying the fans the same way they used to?
JR: Hmm. I would say that my impression is that they're not satisfying people the way they used to. I mean, it seems like Western games are getting more and more popular -- but I do think there are still a lot of really awesome games coming from Japan.
And we talked a little bit about this recently with [8-4 executive director] Mark [MacDonald], as well, but I think that the market is not dying. People seem to think that Japanese games are going away or something. That's not the case. They are trying to learn, and they are working really hard to catch up.
I don't think they're going to catch up completely with the West, but I do think they're finding more ways to make games that are appealing for a worldwide market. And I think that you're starting to see that.
We're starting to see, from an internal level -- just the people we know in the industry -- a lot of these companies are having more Westerners, like Western programmers come in. And they're trying to use the Unreal Engine, and everything else. I don't see it dying, but I don't see it, necessarily, being extremely healthy for a little while longer yet, either.
And, there's also a split between the titles, for the Wii and DS, and the PS3, and Xbox 360 -- casual games on Wii/DS, hardcore on PS3/360; are you finding it still the case? You have a little bit of a head view, working on games that may not even be announced yet.
JR: As far as I can tell, it seems to me like the casual thing is still growing and growing, and the hardcore thing is still shrinking and shrinking out here. So, I don't see that necessarily changing.
HM: Although, you know, the Wii titles and the DS titles that we've recently been working on are "game" games -- real games. Hardcore games.
JR: Yeah, but they're just so few and far between.
HM: That's true.
JR: In fact, core games are becoming so rare, it's at a point where if you list all of the core games out, a chunk of them are games we're working on right now; because there's just not that many left.
HM: That's true.
Do you find, when you have discussions with companies that you've been working with, that they want to bring you into the process sooner so they can get your feedback? Or is it a natural consequence of the fact that they want to get the games out sooner in Americ, and therefore have to bring you into it sooner?
HM: Actually, well, I think it's both. Like we said in the beginning, we've been around for three years, so the clients that we've been working with, they're clients that we've been together with for several years now.
So, I think it's come to a point where people have more trust in us, and are a little more open to our opinions. Like, the project we mentioned earlier with the 'interesting text' -- that client is more willing to listen to us and our opinions; not just to translate, but be more involved in the creative process. So, I think it's a little of both.
I think there's a lot of pressure on the Japanese companies to create games they think will appeal globally -- but that's a challenge. There are a very small number of games that can appeal in Japan, the U.S. and Europe.
JR: I do think localization should play a more important role in that. I've been thinking about that a lot lately. I wish there were some way I could go give a presentation to the entire Japanese market, of, like, "This is how it needs to be."
I'm not quite sure what that would be yet, but I have been thinking about it. It seems to me like Japanese developers do make really awesome games, and they still have some really unique talents. I mean, the art is amazing; design sense, they're really detail-oriented; their music is generally very good.
They're lacking in other areas, but I think that from a localization side, you can kind of hide some of that stuff. If you involve people like us from the beginning, you can have more natural writing, and we can tell you things like, "This is too corny," or, "This 12 year old girl in an S&M outfit is not gonna fly in the West," and such.
If they had that kind of feedback from the beginning, maybe they would understand better. Because I think they're innocent; I don't think they're trying to go against the grain or anything. I think they just genuinely don't understand the Western market.
What kind of things would you say? You just talked about appropriateness of characters, but if you were to give a base-level presentation about some key points, to Japanese developers, can you think of anything you'd say?
JR: Well that's what I'm trying to work out.
JR: But, I mean... I can't -- I don't know if I can mention specifics, just because I don't really know right now, but I do think that it could be two sections.
There would be general content stuff, which is more like the game consulting side: "Here, we've been reviewing games, and we've been involved in games for years, and this kind of stuff is good; this kind of stuff is not. This kind of interface is very clunky." You know, those kinds of things.
From a technical side, as far as localization goes, there are also a lot of ways, at least from our perspective -- which I guess the end user doesn't really see -- in which the localization could flow more smoothly.
For example, there could be preparing more resources ahead of time, organizing files in a more efficient manner; things that will allow us to more clearly see and understand the vision for the game from the get go, which in turn leads to a better localization.
If we could see the text that we're writing, on the screen, as we're doing it -- which is possible, when developers actually take the time to make tools -- we can actually make the game better that way.
We can save time, we can save money, and we can actually see what it's going to look like, figure out how it's going to affect the player while we're working on it, instead of having to wait until after the fact, when we're always in a crunch and there's no time to fix things.
There are lots of different things that could be fixed about the processes that we would love to talk to them about.
Do you find that different clients have really different demands, or different attitudes toward working with you?
HM: Oh, yeah, totally.
JR: Definitely. Each client is very unique.
HM: Very unique.
JR: Some are very businesslike, like, "Boom, we need A, B, C, by D, and that's it." And then there are others that are involve us very heavily in the process -- and, of course, we prefer to be very heavily involved, but we understand that not everybody can do that.
HM: When we first talk with clients, what I usually tell them is that we are not a normal translation company; we will have lots of questions and comments, so if you guys aren't interested in involving the translation company that much, then we might not be a perfect match for you guys.
Just observing the Japanese market, are there any trends that you think people are missing out on, or aren't seeing yet?
JR: Hmmm... It's tough to say. I often question myself, as far as that goes, because I'm so stuck in it here -- things that I see that are starting to make sense to me wouldn't make sense in the West.
For example, games like Monster Hunter are so popular here, and that's only because of the way things work here. It's not weird to go outside, and turn on your PSP in ad-hoc mode, and find other people to play a game with, whereas in America, that would never happen. Those kinds of things strike me as the current trends here, but they don't translate over to the West, so...
Capcom has been really outspoken about the fact that they'd like to see Monster Hunter catch on in the West, but I don't think that's possible. What about you?
JR: I don't think it's not possible, but I don't think they're doing it right. Or, at least, not yet. To be fair, the last time the director said that, a new game hasn't been out since then, in America. So we've yet to see, and I really want to see, what they do with Monster Hunter 3, to bring it over.
I think it could've had, and should've had, that kind of boom that Phantasy Star Online had, back in the day. I mean, there's a big hole left where that was; remember how amazing that was? Everybody was into it. They could easily have filled that hole, but it wasn't really marketed properly; I don't think it was localized entirely properly.
There's a lot of things about that that could've been done better, and it needs to be online in the West. Well, it is going to be online in the West on Wii, so we'll see, maybe that will help. But you can't do a PSP game, ad-hoc only, and expect it to be popular; it's just not gonna happen there.
I wonder if the Wii is the right console for it in the West, though. I wonder if it's the right console here, actually.
JR: I think here it makes sense. Again, to bring up Mark, who would be here right now if he wasn't leaving for LA today; he mentioned this on [podcast] 1UP Yours. Basically, it's very likely that they're making the game for Wii first because they can easily put it on PSP; they'll port it to PSP after, and sell another kazillion copies.
So, I don't know if that's just an attempt to appease the Western market, or if that's because Nintendo said, "Hey, come do it for us." I also remember hearing, back when it was first announced, just the cost of creating assets for PS3 and Xbox 360 is too expensive, and it doesn't really make sense.
They can make [a lot of money], and if that game was even on DS, they could still sell a gazillion copies, so why put out the effort to make it on a next-gen system, when you can do it on Wii?
Square Enix decided to kill Final Fantasy Agito XIII and Parasite Eve: The Third Birthday, its games for DoCoMo's next gen cell phones, and put them on PSP, because they were getting to the point where they were heavy 3D games, but they could only sell them in one territory. Do you think that, as game development on mobile phones gets more and more expensive, people are going to have to look at ways to sell them globally, and it might affect the market?
JR: Well, definitely, but I wonder -- I mean, we all know that that divide between cellphones is not going to change, just because of how unique the Japanese cellphone market is, but I wonder about the iPhone, because the iPhone seems pretty popular here.
I mean, I don't see the numbers, but I do see them everywhere. I've seen a lot of people have iPhones that I didn't think would normally have them, and the iPhone is a platform on which games could be made in Japan and then localized to the U.S., no problem.
HM: Yeah. It almost seems like an entirely new genre, doesn't it?
JR: Yeah, that seems like one way that this can happen. But yeah, I think it's going to be PSP games, and DS games, and whatnot, because yeah, you can't sell those Japanese cellphone games overseas. There are a lot of really good Japanese cellphone games, but they'll never come out in America, because there's no platform for them.
And if there's no platform, you can't sell them in Japan and America, and you can only make roughly one third of your potential profits. I mean, roughly; obviously, depending on the game, it might make sense only to release it in Japan, period.
JR: Sure, sure. Right. But Final Fantasy IV: The After -- which is like a sequel to Final Fantasy IV -- I think would have been really popular in America, but not in its current form. They're going to have to port it to DS or something.