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.