Today's 'Playing Catch-Up', a regular column which talks to notable figures in the video game business about their notorious past and intriguing present, talks to Ted Woolsey, former translator for Squaresoft’s celebrated line of 16-bit RPGs.
In most circles, Ted Woolsey is considered something of a pioneer in modern videogame localization. In an era where text and story seemed to be afterthoughts, relying on stiff and often mangled literal translations from their Japanese counterparts, Woolsey’s scripts were clean, memorable, and had an unmistakable touch of humanity. Woolsey’s first script can be seen in 1991’s Final Fantasy Legend III for the Game Boy. “I was told to review Final Fantasy II’s dismal translation,” he told us, “and make sure there were no ‘repeats’ of that mess. Talk about Manglish!” Final Fantasy II, released earlier that same year, was initially translated in Tokyo. However, faced with an almost unreadable script, Squaresoft’s American sales team spent extra man-hours trying to fix it up. “When you have the sales guy editing one file, and the finance guy doing others, and the files are not contiguous, you end up with a mess,” said Woolsey.
Obviously pleased with the results, Square kept Woolsey on translation duty, assigning him their top titles. His name can be seen among the credits of such legendary titles as Final Fantasy III, Breath of Fire, Chrono Trigger, and Super Mario RPG. In 1996, in lieu of translating the upcoming Final Fantasy VII for the PlayStation, Square’s offices relocated to Southern California. “After a few days,” he said, “my wife and I both realized we didn’t want to live there. Nothing against ‘So-Cal,’ but it was just not right for us at the time.”
Woolsey stayed put in Redmond, leasing Square’s former office and helping to form Big Rain with a handful of his co-workers, acting as both the Vice President of Marketing and Business Development. Initially, Woolsey was looking at obtaining a license for Ed Roth’s Rat Fink for a racing adventure. “Great character,” he said, “but hard to pull off the necessary detail on the PlayStation, which the team was targeting.”
Eventually Big Rain moved to Seattle and, after a year or so, merged with Crave, who were just getting their feet wet in the games industry. A subset of Big Rain’s staff formed an internal development studio, Crave Entertainment, and shipped one title, the Japanese-inspired but very much American-developed RPG, Shadow Madness. The game failed to perform well in the RPG market, which was mostly dominated by the same Final Fantasy series Woolsey helped to popularize. Subsequently, Crave began consolidating development efforts elsewhere, and Woolsey moved on.
In 1999, Woolsey was hired by RealNetworks to work on product requirements for their casual game service, RealArcade, and was an instant convert to the online business model. “From a cost-of-goods standpoint, I like the business models on the web. There aren’t any irrevocable letters of credit for manufactured cartridges and ROMs, no warehouses, no freight (well, except bandwidth), etc. And the return-on-investment to developers for some of the games we ship can be outrageous,” he says, “especially for the ‘hit’ games.”
From 2000 through 2004, Woolsey managed the Content Business Development Unit for the Games Division of Real, doing deals with game publishers large and small, and later, ISPs and portals, for the distribution of RealArcade. “This has been a kinetic but enjoyable position,” he said. “It’s gratifying that games are now a serious part of Real’s consumer business, along with music.”
Currently Woolsey finds himself working closely with Real's Japan games business - he helped launch the Japanese version of RealArcade in early 2004. “I’m working with the teams in Japan to grow the business, and the source content. We have some very talented folks working for us in Asia, and this part of my tenure at Real has certainly been a highlight,” he said. “I've been able to spend quite a bit of time in both Japan and Asia, which has satiated my wanderlust.”
[Frank Cifaldi is a Las Vegas-based freelance author whose credits include work for Nintendo Official Magazine UK, Wired, and his own Lost Levels website.]