Localization Is More Than a Game

[Editor’s note: Christian Arno, founder of translations services company Lingo24, shares his perspective, below, on the different facets of localizing a game around the world. He gives special attention to issues social game developers should be thinking about.]

Japan was always at the forefront of the console and computer gaming industry, with the likes of Nintendo and Sega having their main headquarters in Kyoto and Tokyo respectively.

But with the popularity of computer games growing exponentially over the past couple of decades, there has been a slight shift away from the Japan-centric video game industry, with many of the top publishers and developers now based across the world – such as EA (US) and Rockstar North (UK).

Many of the top video game companies use the services of dedicated localization specialists, who not only arrange for the translation and interpretation of the text and dialogue, but also help them to consider the subtler aspects of the gaming experience: the characters, the story, culture-specific points of reference – key aspects of a computer gaming experience that have often been more of an after-thought in the past.

Layers of simplicity: keep text and graphics separate

When developing a computer game, many of the design aspects can be planned with one eye on adapting the game at a later stage for international audiences.

Layers, for example, should be used to help keep text and artwork separate. The term ‘layers’, in this instance, does not carry the same meaning as it usually does in video game design, which is the various layers of the game, from its basic setting to its plot, core mechanics, meta mechanics, etc.

Rather, ‘layers’ in this instance refers to way the game is designed and programmed. As an example, a website designer might use CSS to design a site with different layers – the framework, text, graphics and images would consist of a series of different layers. This way if the designer needs to change an image or change the language of a piece of text, they need simply change one or two layers, rather than redesign the page from scratch.

As such, when programming and developing a game, it helps to keep this concept of layers in mind. Exactly how you would go about this will depend upon the development software you’re using, but keeping in mind that elements of the game may need to be slotted in and out, like a Rubik’s Cube, for various localized versions will save you time and money down the line.

Additionally, any vocals and voiceovers should be kept separate from the visual or musical elements, meaning that separate vocals can be recorded and included in the game with ease.

Space considerations

Some languages require less space than English to express a message. The word ‘information’, for example, needs only two characters in Japanese. The same is the case with many Asian languages. In contrast, European languages tend to be longer than English.

The specifics of how much more/less space one language needs over another is difficult to convey, given that there are 101 ways of saying something in many languages. However, it’s possible to give some general direction on which languages are typically longer/shorter than English.

Let’s start with the four main European languages: French, Italian, German and Spanish (FIGS).

French is generally longer than English by anything up to 20%, whilst Italian requires about 15% more space, German 20% and Spanish 25%. So whilst German has a reputation for being a particularly ‘long’ language, it is about the same as French when compared to English. And Arabic is typically about 25% longer than English. As a general rule, English is at the lower end of the language-length spectrum.

In terms of tongues requiring less space, Japanese and Chinese generally consume less room, but it really does vary quite a lot as the writing system is completely different to English.

From a game design perspective, this has massive implications. Dropdown lists, menus and other textual elements will require the necessary space to grow or shrink depending on the language, without worrying whether it will overlap a graphic or if it will in some way be displayed incorrectly.

In the design phase, enough space should be allowed for translated text, including any text-boxes for user-input, menus and buttons. Where feasible, try to avoid ‘static sizing’ and if some elements do require strings of a set size, include a comment to this effect so that translators know the limitations during the translation process.

Another point worth considering is that the layouts on many international keyboards differ, so this should be taken into account with hotkey mapping.

Cultural considerations

Culture plays a massive part in how someone perceives a computer game. In Japan, for example, games have a tendency to be rather linear, whereas in the US, UK and across Europe, games have gravitated towards a more ‘sandbox’ style of game.

Social games are typically ‘horizontal’ applications – in that many social games are the sort of games that everyone enjoys playing, from your friends to your mum to your boss. The ‘vertical’ industry in social gaming – i.e. games designed to appeal to a specific demographic – is still developing.

However, even with ‘horizontal’ social games, it’s important to take into account cultural considerations when undertaking the localization of a game. Zynga, which can lay claim to the two most popular social games on Facebook – FarmVille and CityVille – has recently localized both games for international audiences, and while CityVille has seen only localization for European languages, FarmVille has been localized for China, which involved rebuilding the game from the ground up.

This localization process involved taking into account cultural considerations including changing the color palette to be brighter and increasing the size of the farm plots, to appeal to Chinese aesthetics and cultural experience.

With a fairly innocuous game such as FarmVille, you can imagine that the cultural considerations in localization would have been fairly mild, but with a more controversial social game such as Mafia Wars, which involves such nefarious dealings as violence, swearing and drug dealing, the cultural considerations for localization would be significantly larger, especially for a country such as China, where the government has declared increased regulation of online games.

Beyond cultural considerations such as the appropriateness of references to sex, drugs and violence, however, you should also be careful of gestures/icons you use in your game, as meanings can vary across the globe. To illustrate this point, a ‘thumbs-up’ means ‘OK’ or ‘fine’ in the west. However, in other regions of the world a ‘thumbs-up’ hand gesture can be offensive.

Other considerations

So, it’s clear that app and game localization involves more than simply getting the language right. Other considerations include getting formats correct with dates, numbers, currencies, weights and measures.

Whilst the UK is technically metric, ‘miles’ and ‘pounds’ are still widely used and understood, so a US developer would probably be fine leaving such units of measurement in place. But when localizing for elsewhere in Europe then unit conversion would be necessary.

And if user input is required anywhere, then forms should be flexible enough to cater for subtle regional nuances, such as zip codes/post codes and address formats of a specific country or region.

With that in mind, it can be useful to plan well in advance. Even if you have no immediate intention of localizing a game for other markets, it may be worth thinking what countries you would like to target, and factor this into the original game/app design.

As a game developer, you probably won’t be able to cater for all cultural tastes, and it will often be too impractical or expensive to completely overhaul your game for other audiences – some games will simply be more successful in some countries than others. But thorough planning will help maximize the chances of cross-cultural success.

Going local: costs?

Of course, proper localization will probably cost you at least some money – how much depends on how much is required and how professional you want it.

If you’ve followed all the steps above and it’s literally just a case of localizing the text for other languages, then the charges will more or less be the translation costs. Again, these vary from language-to-language and by company, but here are some ball-park figures for translation – and always check that they include full project management costs:

· English to French, Italian, German and Spanish: $160-$275 per 1,000 words (depending on the type of text and the expertise required from the translator)
· English to: Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Icelandic, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian and Swedish: $190-$325 (same conditions as above)

Other languages are in a similar ballpark to the languages above and the price will vary depending on the exact language combination (e.g. translations between two unusual languages, one of which isn’t English, may cost a bit more).

In addition to the translation costs, there may be associated file-management and DTP costs attached, these are normally charged per-hour. Again, depending on the nature of the technical requirements, these could be anywhere between $75 and $150 per hour.

Christian Arno is the founder and Managing Director of global translations service Lingo24, specialists in website translation and creative localization. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 150 employees across three continents and clients in over sixty countries.