The Trials and Tribulations of Localization

As the world becomes more global, so do the games we play. It's still very much a learning process, but companies are ready to find ways of winning new gamers.

A little more than a decade ago, the time between the release of a game developed in Japan and its North American launch would be well over a year. In some cases, especially for European gamers, classics like Chrono Cross never saw the light of day. Today, the difference in time for the launch of a game in Japan, North America, and Europe is rarely more than a few days. Developers and publishers not only understand the advantages of releasing games in all regions as quickly as possible, but they have also started digging into untapped markets that are eager to spend money.

Which Languages Matter?

Early on, there were essentially two languages used to develop games: Japanese and English. As the size of games grew and their popularity expanded, so did the language options. Today, it's extremely rare for a game not to include EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish) as language options. Developers and publishers are looking at ways of getting their games to more markets, but there is no clear-cut process in place that determines if a game like Prince of Persia gets a Hungarian language track instead of a Greek one.

Today, it's extremely rare for a game not to include EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish) as language options.

Developers and publishers are gauging worldwide interest by listening to the voices of potential customers through social media. If a large community of Brazilian gamers really wants the next BioWare game to feature a Brazilian-Portuguese language track, then the audience needs to be vocal about it.

Sony is probably at the forefront of language-support options. Most of its first-party games are produced to support 15 different languages, and that number is expected to grow. When you add in subtitle support, the number doubles. This is part of the reason why the PlayStation 3 is so popular in Europe; there's a good chance someone can pick up a game and it will have his or her native language on it.

To its credit, Microsoft has improved greatly in recent years. The company's Kinect: Disneyland Adventures includes full speech in six languages and even takes "cultural gestures" into account, ensuring certain hand movements don't offend specific groups of people.

Turkey, Iran, and the Arab World

The single biggest market that appears to be the next logical place for developers to move toward is in the Arab countries, including Iran and Turkey. It's hard to believe that a region where a half-billion people live hasn't been given the attention it deserves.

During a localization panel at the 2012 Game Developers Conference, Mahmound Khasawneh, CEO of Quirkat, explained just how much potential exists in that part of the world and that only a small number of studios have bothered to harness it. Studios like Sony, Epic Games, and Ubisoft have started to learn of the possibilities in this area, but others are still behind the times.

Even though Sony is the most popular platform in the region, obtaining digital content is still impossible if people don't use fake addresses from other parts of the world. The same holds true for Steam and Xbox Live, which also have not opened their respective virtual doors to the money in that region.

Turkey is in an interesting position. As the gateway between Europe and Asia, it enjoys a lot of the benefits of being connected to Europe, but it also has the disadvantages of being connected to Western Asia. Turkish people rank third in the world in terms of users of Facebook, and developers that create games for the social media site have begun to ensure that their products include full Turkish-language support.

Another example of the influence that Turkey has in games can be seen with the free-to-play game Knight Online. It originally began and failed in S. Korea, but that didn't stop the developers from releasing the game to Western audiences, specifically American gamers.

When the game was first launched in the US, the percentage of the game's users was approximately 90 percent American and 10 percent Turkish, but that didn't last long. In a matter of months, those numbers completely flipped, and Knight Online became an absolute smash in Turkey.

Surprisingly, the game was only available in English, but Turkish gamers ate up the content to the point that the game was banned in the country. Even after the ban was lifted, the number of players increased and the game became more popular; there wasn't a low return of previous players seen. The developers did eventually manage, with the support of volunteers, to localize the game, which opened the door for other games to pierce the market. More importantly, companies found ways of monetizing free-to-play games without the use of credit cards in a part of the world where they were not common.

…Turkish gamers ate up the content to the point that the game was banned in the country.

The Turkish influence continues to grow. Crytek, founded by Turkish brothers, included Turkish-language support in Crysis 2, and all future games developed by the studio will also include the language. With a population of more than 60 million people, we can expect to see and hear more about Turkey as the industry expands.

Standardizing the Localization Process

Square Enix uses a process called Moomle, Ubisoft has its own system, and Blizzard uses FaceFX for its animations. Other companies also incorporate their own methods when developing and localizing games. With all of the different systems in place, there is no standardized process, and companies are trying to find ways of making things simple or, at least, streamlined. While developers in Europe and North America are leading the way, Japanese companies, such as Square Enix, are still behind in the process. A publisher like Ubisoft can release its games in 10 different languages on the same day, but Square Enix's Final Fantasy XIII-2 still required more than a month between its Japanese and North American launch, in addition to a few more weeks before it was launched in Europe.

Prior to Crysis 2, Crytek had never done audio in multiple languages. With the game being released on three platforms, the company wanted to ensure that as many people had the opportunity to play its game as possible; thus, it dubbed the game in eight different languages, each with two to three hours of recorded dialogue. The entire localization process for the game was a learning process and forced Crytek to make changes throughout the course of development. It even had to look at ways of dealing with the setbacks of a DVD's size limitation when trying to fit in multiple language tracks. It was a difficult process, but thanks to what the team learned throughout development, its next games should be a much better experience.

Events like GDC present a great opportunity for developers to discuss these processes and share ideas. When Square Enix held an audio localization panel, numerous members from Ubisoft were in attendance and quite vocal during the question-and-answer period. And when Ubisoft held its own panel the following day, the gentleman leading the talk, Alexandre Piche, was one of those who asked questions the previous day.

Developers across the world encounter the same issues. Dealing with changes in gameplay, adding or removing scenes, working with the schedules of animators or voice actors, and encountering other surprises can seriously alter the course of development. Being able to talk to each other and learn from the collective mistakes only helps to strengthen the future of localization.

So much has changed in the past 20 years, with the days of getting the localization and audio of a game done at the last minute under limited budgets behind us. Those who remember playing Japanese role-playing games on the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis may remember just how different those games were when they were read in comparison to how they were translated. Ted Woolsey, currently with Microsoft Studios, was behind the translation of a lot of the 16-bit era games that so many people have proclaimed as being the best games ever made and reflected upon how stripped down the process was back then.

A lot of the original Japanese dialogue was reduced to use as little space on the ROM cartridge as possible.

Because of the limited space available on cartridges at the time, cuts had to be made to fit on all of the content. A lot of the original Japanese dialogue was reduced to use as little space on the ROM cartridge as possible. Instead of getting really meaningful dialogue in an RPG, translators had to settle on simple responses that failed to convey the original impact that the developers intended. In other cases, if a company couldn't afford to hire someone decent to localize its game, then it would give birth to an infamous gaming meme, such as "All your base are belong to us."

Looking Forward

As technology advances, we can only begin to guess how developers will deal with future challenges. It's no longer simply a matter of ensuring a game has subtitle support because it also has to include multiple language tracks. When Blizzard released Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty in 2010, it not only featured voice support in multiple languages (including Korean, Polish, Spanish, Russian, and both traditional and simplified Chinese), but it also went so far as to ensure that all text in game, from small news ticker headlines to bottles of beer, was localized.

In Blizzard's case, it was very "picky" when it came to immersion. The software it used for voice-over syncing is called FaceFX. The software for Wings of Liberty supported six of the game's included languages but not Russian and both forms of Chinese. While the development team could work around some of the Latin-based languages that weren't supported, it had to create custom dictionaries where words were Romanized. Developers took the respective words and wrote them out phonetically so that the system could recognize them and have a character's mouth move properly. Then, by matching Chinese with Korean and Russian with Polish, the team had all of the characters speak in those languages and had it appear as though Jim Raynor was a native Russian speaker.

While a company like Blizzard can afford to have multiple language teams around the world to help with this process and develop alternatives to cope with certain setbacks, others aren't so lucky. With that, we can expect outside vendors that specialize in language support--both audio and visual--to be relied upon in helping improve the gaming experience around the world. Although it may still be another few years before this becomes the norm, the days when games were only available to play in a single language are no more. Even if a large portion of the world speaks and understands English, those who do not won't have to miss out on experiencing something incredible.

Written By

Former GameSpot Associate Editor, current Content Manager for EA SPORTS.

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Discussion

52 comments
Agent-M
Agent-M

Awesome and informative article! On a side note, I guess I will be in a retirement home before a true Chrono Trigger sequel is made.

Kinpong
Kinpong

aww Chrono Cross good time good time

DeadlyMaster
DeadlyMaster

Its not easy to put Arabic language in games. The characters are connect in words.

Shadow_Fire41
Shadow_Fire41

if only we had 1 massive translation group, dedicated to translating as many games as possible for release in as many places as possible, rather then each company (or publisher) having to translate it themselves.

Nic345
Nic345

Man Gamespot that was deep. Interesting stuff. I'm all for localisation but I would not mind more options geared towards being able to listen to original audio with subtitles. Its the same with movies. Translations/localisation are awesome but you can't beat the original.

shadowysea07
shadowysea07

hahahahaahahah most games these days don't even get world wide releases let alone being released with months of each other. days is wishful thinking. or did i imagine ff13 and 13-2 having a gap between the na eu and jpn releases and type 0 not even being released here yet.

ClaudiusCaesar
ClaudiusCaesar

@Halloll What does a Italian assassin killing Turkish soldiers have to do with Americans?

shaks101
shaks101

I think every game made and to be made should be available to everyone who wishes to purchase it so long as the developers think it will sell well.

LiqMD
LiqMD

It's funny how GameSpot can trick us into reading articles we normally care nothing about by putting up a picture of Chrono Cross . . . Damn it, they got me again.

finalcross
finalcross

@Halloll - I used the picture because of the location, not the people. Just like I used Constantinople on page two where I'm talking about Turkey and used a Japanese text image from Valkyria Chronicles III on page three where I was talking about translating. @ROMEOHELL - I think you completely missed the point, this is defending The Middle East. By no means am I writing something here as an insult. I love the fact that companies are opening studios in that part of the world since it creates jobs and opens the door to more creativity. This was meant to highlight that fact. @Architeuthis83 that does go along the lines of size, they were limited to the amount of space that was available and had to make do. @Jinroh_basic - you have a point in terms of immersion. I played Metro 2033 completely in Russian because I wanted to experience the game as if I was actually that character in Moskva. It's all about choice; some people want that extra layer of immersion, others just want to play the game. I think any period piece game (eg. Assassin's Creed) or location specific (eg. Yakuza) should have audio that is correct to the location, but if I can't speak that language, I'd still want the ability to understand what is happening (eg. proper subtitles).

TheLoneMortal
TheLoneMortal

@Jinroh_basic I very much agree with your statement. Experiencing the unfamiliar allows you to expand your view and enjoy something unique and refreshing.

R1KU
R1KU

Thank god games almost never get translated into dutch (only the kids' games). It's embarrassing to even think about Dutch voice actors trying to do a dramatic scene.. Also, translations usually get terrible jokes, puns and references to culture.

genjuroT
genjuroT

tales of xillia and gundam:girhen no yabou(the new ones) please? Japan, please localize your good games, not your overhyped ones.

marshalmathers2
marshalmathers2

'Chrono Cross' screenshot got me here! Oh my... Can a remake be made for this masterpiece retaining the overall visual style and feel? Why wasn't it - or FINAL FANTASY IX - released on PC. Someone would have made a mod for those games with a little bit tweaked visuals and animations.

Halloll
Halloll

what does American Nathan drake kicking British secret agent have to do with Arabs? or is it relevant because they're in the desert?

turulomanco
turulomanco

They should focus on gameplay and the story instead of making the industry more and more complicated. But since gamemaking is now an standarized industry they focus on stupid issues like foreign languages. I can't speak for everyone but even non speaking english/japanese players probably prefer the original vocal language with the subtitles in his language. For instance I speak in spanish but I cannot bear to hear spanish from spain, nor mexican, chilean, perubian, bolivian, etc. So I only play games in english/japanese with subs. So why bother ?.

edubuccaneer
edubuccaneer moderator

Yeah, I always get cranky when I don't see portuguese in any form in a game. I'm happy when I see an option for it, even if it is the Portugal type and not Brazilian. Heavy Rain and Little.Big.Planet were nice surprises.

Architeuthis
Architeuthis

What the article failed to mention is that the biggest limiting factor with old SNES and Genesis games was that the Japanese developers set in stone the number of dialog boxes that could be used, and so translators like Woolsey were limited to the number of dialog boxes in the original Japanese game for the English translation. Epic fail!

Carreau13
Carreau13

You give me English and Japanese voices with English subtitles and I'm 100% satisfied period.

Sandylecuistot
Sandylecuistot

"A sequel to chrono cross would be amazing." Almost impossible. Rights an development team are two things separated.

TheIfym20
TheIfym20

A sequel to chrono cross would be amazing.

white_wind
white_wind

and I find it amasing why US of America and Europe are considered different teritories for game releases, you just need to change the dam cover, they don't need EFIGS languages on every game, English alone withh do.

white_wind
white_wind

wow , I am an Arab and did not think I would get offended by some of the stupid comments here, but I did. anyways, as long as we get chatting that supports Arabic letters we are fine, Sony failed to do that for the PS3 even though it was the second most popular demand on their website after cross games chat.

master_mantrox
master_mantrox

Only a small part of Turkey lies in Europe. On the cultural side it's much closer to Asia.

ROMEOHELL
ROMEOHELL

why everything has to be within the concept of racism ? rly fuk humans .. i wish i was born as a kilngon rather than being called a names by a fellow race . isnt Turkey a European country ? why u always try to separate it from Europe ? Iran and the ME ( ARAB WORLD ) ... the terrorists nations right ? ok enough finger pointing ... we rly suffer a lot in middle east . i'm from jordan .. and everything is fukin expensive , i cant afford to buy a 60$ game , and ur talking about potential for a possible market in ME ? Game Spot i respect 90% of ur articles , but this is the end of the line for me , now I HATE U .

tmaclabi
tmaclabi

Makes me remember good old days :)

dexter_graves
dexter_graves

I hear there was a pretty major translation confusion in the explanation of Chrono Cross' villain. The main baddie was actually Lavos from the first game. But he'd upgraded and was now sucking the very fabric that makes up the timestream instead of just munching planets. Some of my Japanese speaking gamer friends tell me that this is completely lost in the English translation but it explains a lot about the game's story. That's why all the characters from Chrono Trigger were dead in Chrono Cross. They'd been wiped off the map by Lavos, who sent his assassin Lynx to take them down. But what he did was an anomaly. It wasn't supposed to happen that way. So when you free Schala and get the good ending you restore the timeline to what it was before Lavos' interference. The game doesn't show what happens next but it implies that Chrono and all the other characters will be restored and free to live their lives. This is what I've been told Since this article uses CC as an example of localization I figured I'd mention an often unmentioned issue with CC's translation.

021-Vincent
021-Vincent

Yeah we in Iran have so many great gamers that deserve more attention than ever before and I think this is a good start for many game companys to know our potentials :D This is going to be new era for our gaming situation in Iran :D WE EARNED IT ;) :)

mumui10
mumui10

Chrono cross is the best!

darkouer
darkouer

Great to have the option as a Mexican, however, in my experience Spanish (specially European, but Latin American is not much better) tracks tend to suck big time, so I'll just keep playing games in their native language, with subtitles... Thanks.

Jinroh_basic
Jinroh_basic

globalisation is also about diversity, and that means accepting and enjoying cultural differences. as such, complete localisation is hardly necessary, as it not only incurs higher production costs but also dilutes what could've been a unique experience. instead, publishers should focus on delivering a minimal level of localisation and counting on the audience to exercise taste and tolerance. The first thing that needs to go is dubbing, which more often than not turns out to be an insult to the original material. if you cannot tolerate people speaking Japanese in Yakuza maybe you shouldn't touch these games to begin with.

GodsPoison
GodsPoison

"looks at various posts" Oh good im not the only one who saw Chrono Cross and clicked on it before even reading the topic title lol!

bhmg
bhmg

@tommygun6644 WHO are you to give lessons to another country beliefs of whats wrong or right?

tommygun6644
tommygun6644

Some of those Arab countries need to get out of the stone age and stop treating women like property before they worry about Nathan Drake.

hippiesanta
hippiesanta

Come on don't insult the arabs... they know English ... or at least understand

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

I came for Chrono Cross. As for localization, companies should take as long as necessary to do it right. In many cases that means more than literal translation of dialogue, especially between Asian, Western, Latin, and Arab cultures. Dubbing is especially tricky. Good dubbing is a blessing; bad dubbing is like a root canal without anesthetics.

Sgthombre
Sgthombre

Wow... I'm shocked. Not at any of those numbers, however. I would have bet a billion dollars that "All your bases are belong to us." would be mentioned at some point, and I'm completely wrong!

Courtawulf
Courtawulf

How many people read this article just because it mentioned Chrono Cross? I'm willing to bet about 90%. Hey Square-Enix RE RELEASE CHRONO CROSS!!!!

gohan661
gohan661

"As many games as get ban in Europe and Australia, I can only imagine that number doubles in the middle east, try releasing Mass Effect with some of its aforementioned "controversies" there. " Are you serious brov? I am not for a second all of europe is the same but what was the last game that was banned in the UK? and is it not true that we get more uncut games than the US?. Australia has some seriously harsh rating system but dint they just get the 18+ R rating for games? so even that will dull down. I doubt there will be nearly as many bannings as you seem to imagine. I'd only guess games which depicts Muslims in a bad light, nudity and possibly alcoholism will be banned. which believe it or not those kind of games are still way in the minority. As to Mass effect I don't see anything wrong with it being released there perhaps the sex cut scenes will be more edited and alcohol renamed but alot less than effort than you say

Ovirew
Ovirew

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

AndCarlsen
AndCarlsen

The "large community of Brazilian gamers" is the fourth largest videogame market, so they're not doing us a favor by translating the game to our language. Also, Inniciatives like dubbing Uncharted 3 are more than welcome (if well made).