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GDC 2011: The Travails of Localizing  Star Wars: The Old Republic

GDC 2011: The Travails of Localizing Star Wars: The Old Republic

March 1, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

March 1, 2011 | By Christian Nutt
More: Social/Online, GDC

At GDC's Localization Summit, Gordon Walton and Ian Mitchell shared lessons learned localizing BioWare's RPGs and experiences gained by working on its in-development Star Wars MMO.

The Need for Localization, and How to Communicate It

Up until recently when he switched to Playdom, Gordon Walton was one of the studio directors of BioWare Austin, where The Old Republic is being developed and has been under localization during its development.

"Localization is essential. Are we still talking about this?" asked Walton.

"The chart on costs of making a game are going up and worldwide competition is increasing... At a hypercompetitive rate." Meanwhile, "the most expensive games are where we're seeing a down trend in the market," he said. "In the end, if we don't make money with games, people won't give us more money to make more games."

BioWare mandates a simultaneous ship for localized products despite the huge amounts of text and dialogue in its titles (Dragon Age Origins had 1 million words; Mass Effect 2 400,000.)

In the case of localization, which allows developers to reach wider audiences with their work, "for once the business people and game making people are in alignment," said Walton.

But "to make localization work, it has to be a reqirement that the team embraces. Which means that whenever you start building a game, in the very beginning you need to say which customers we're going to reach and how. If you don't do that at the beginning, you are doing it at the end, and what you end up with is a Frankenstein's Monster."

In Walton's view, "To make entertainment you have to suspend disbelief and to suspend disbelief you have to be seamless," and that is true also of localization. It's ougher than it looks, too: "Localization being done well is about every part of the team being involved."

Convincing staff can be tough, but "the smart people can get context... They want to know why the extra work they are going to do matters. You can give them that context: 'If I don't do that work we don't meet our goal of reaching the most possible people with a game they're really going to like.'"

Localization at BioWare

Ian Mitchell, a localization PM for BioWare, discussed how the company handles its complex, simultaneous-ship localizations.

"At BioWare, we really strive for sustainable localization, and that's really challenging," he said. However, "There is a big difference. It's a really good business practice that will make localization a really good return on your investment."

He noted that its games require a big time investment from players, and "you don't sit down and spend 60 hours playing a game that grates on you in terms of the VO or the text."

In his view, to succeed, you need a dedicated, "passionate and knowledgable" kocalization team, a committed development team who are accountable for the quality of the localization, and "efficient practices, processes, and tools."

Localization project managers at BioWare run educational sessions and seminars from staff, to "bring it up from the grassroots." Asset managers "find the assets to localize. Content creators don't always know what needs to be localized." QA is "integral" to localization, and marketing and PR need to be "experts who are dedicated to maintaining consistency between our products" and running effective community that matches the localized product.

"Excel sheets don't work for us very well because they're so big, so we have to build very robust processes," Mitchell said. "The more specific you are about your process, the better the tools you're going to get out of it. You're going to build a better GUI and better cinematics design tools if you're specific about what you need for localization up front."

"We have dedicated teams building our localization toolsets," he said. "I can't stress enough how important it is to have good tools. [If not], your process can't be facilitated and it makes it impossible" to get the development team to work with you.

The tools are built "to empower the localization team"; it's a cross-project tool suite because this "encourages reuse and helps sharing of knowledge" He describes BioWare's localization tools as "an organic construction of tools that build on one another."

Having localization built into development brings in "extra checks and balances," which "mitigates risk on high impact features... They get to make sure their features don't require refactoring or intense rework."

To get your company to embrace localization, said Mitchell, "have patience and think long term. Come up with committed ideas... Dedicate your time to teaching the development team about localization. Let them know your time is there for them as well. Get to know how they develop their features and content. Sit down with the guy who builds maps for your game and... get to know those tools. Being there and aiding them with that is invaluable. The greater you involve your dev team, the greater commitment you'll have from your team." 

At the end of the talk, Walton revealed that good localizations of BioWare games aren't cheap. "The number to do one more localization in The Old Republic is a 'make another game' number for most companies. It's a 7 digit number."

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