Game Localization: The Complete Guide

by OFER TIROSH 26/08/2020
Game Localization: The Complete Guide

I’ve been playing video games since childhood, so game localization is a topic that’s close to my heart. I remember the excitement of having first a Commodore VIC-20 and then a Commodore 64. Though the games were incredibly basic by the standards of today’s $100-million epics, they were everything video games should be. From Out Run to Bubble Bobble, games challenged and delighted in equal measure. 

Just as games have developed immeasurably in the years since then, so too has the video game localization process. That’s why I thought it was long overdue to take a close look at game localization. 

In this article, we’ll look at what localizing games involves, how translation agencies such as Tomedes carry it out and why it’s so important to our modern gaming experience. Shall we jump right in? 

What Is Game Localization?

Let’s start with the basics. Video game localization is the process of adapting a game so that players in different locations all feel as though the game was made for their particular region. It’s a simple-sounding concept that’s actually pretty complex, once you start looking at everything that’s involved. 

Localizing video games encompass various language-related steps, such as the translation of the in-game dialogue and instructions, as well as technical processes, such as pulling the strings from your code and pushing them into a translation management system. 

I’ll walk you through each of the stages of video game localization below, but first I wanted to share a quick example of what can happen when localization isn’t quite as much of a priority as it should be. 

In the early 1990s, I became the proud owner of a Sega Mega Drive, losing hours on end (as only children have the time to do) to playing the original (and many would say, best) Sonic: The Hedgehog. It was a superb gaming machine back in the day and the quality and choice of games was impressive. At least, mostly. 

One game – Zero Wing – stood out as being somewhat less than perfect. While the gaming mechanics functioned as they should, the dialogue localization was abysmal. Even the opening transcript was littered with mistakes. This was certainly not an example of high-quality Japanese to English translation! If you’ve not played the game yourself, you can click on the link below to check out the opening dialogue in all its glory! 

Essentially, the poor translation provided as part of Zero Wing’s localization process detracted from the overall gaming experience. The playability of the game was fine, but the immersive experience was marred by the translation quality. 

This is a key reason why localization is so important when it comes to video games. Localization can make the difference between a game being loved and a game being laughed at. I’ll explore this in more detail below. 

Read more: Tomedes Insights: The Video Game Translation and Localization Market

Why Should You Localize Your Video Game?

I was staggered to read, a few years back now, that video games had begun to eclipse Hollywood blockbusters in terms of how much they cost to make. If you’ve got a spare $100 million kicking about, you can make a blockbuster, albeit not one of the Marvel/Star Wars ilk. 

However, you may need to stump up a bit more cash to make a globally successful video game. Tomb Raider, Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV were some of the frontrunners when it came to breaking the $100 million production budget mark back in the mid 2010s. 

Each of these games was enjoyed by players around the world, with video game localization being the key facilitator of that success. Gaming is no longer a niche subculture but a mainstream activity to be enjoyed by players of all ages. 

The upwardly spirally revenue of the gaming industry reflects this move into the mainstream. Back in 2012, video games generated revenue of USD 70.68 billion. Fast-forward nearly a decade and we have Newzoo projecting revenue of a cool USD 180.1 billion in 2021. 

A massive expansion in the number of available platforms is one of the reasons that gaming has become so much more widespread. Another is the continual improvements we’ve seen in both technology and connectivity over the past 20 years. This has enabled gaming to become a global experience like never before, with plenty of countries keen to challenge the powerhouses of China, the US and Japan. 

Of course, reaching a global audience means translating and localizing games into multiple languages. Few companies understand this better than Apple, which in August 2020 became the first US company to reach a $2 trillion market cap. Apple’s App Store is available in 175 countries and territories. To service those, Apple supports 40 different languages. Obviously, not every game developer is going to have dreams on this scale, but Apple provides a strong example of where a successful localization strategy can get you. 

All of which is to say that you should localize your video game because doing so opens your work up to millions more players – and their wallets! In fact, given that there are over 2.5 billion gamers on the planet these days, localizing games could give you access to billions more players, not just millions. For example:

  • China is home to 900.6 million internet users, generating video game revenue of USD 36,540 million. 
  • In the US, 273.7 million people are online, producing gaming revenue of USD 35,510 million.
  • In Japan, 121.2 million internet users generate a video game revenue of USD 18,683 million. 
  • The Republic of Korea, Germany and the UK all individually generate more than 5,000 million in gaming revenue. 

Tired of reading? Here's a short video that will help you get back to gaming.

A Step by Step Guide to Game Localization

I mentioned above that I would walk you through the game localization process, so here goes. This is based on Tomedes’ own experience of video game localization over the past 13+ years. Our service has grown alongside the gaming industry, adapting and innovating hand-in-hand with developments to the games themselves. 

Let’s break this down step by step. 

Plan Your Project

Game localization is neither quick nor simple, so I advise anyone undertaking it to create a project plan. The plan needs to incorporate details of:

  • The resources that you’ll need, from staff to budget to voiceover artists
  • Which countries or regions you plan to localize the game for 
  • What the translation will entail – that is, what precisely you need to translate
  • Whether modifications will be needed to text and visual elements outside of the in-game dialogue and instructions (for example to street signs or billboards contained within the game)
  • Who will be undertaking the translation work – will you be bootstrapping it or hiring a professional localization agency? 

Run a detailed analysis of your content in order to work all of this out. In my experience, allowing sufficient time for this planning stage can lay the foundations for project success – or otherwise! 

Select Your Localization Company

If you’ve decided to hire a professional localization company rather than bootstrapping (we cover the pros and cons of each of these approaches below), then it’s time to choose your agency. Be sure to grill them on their experience of video game localization and which languages they usually do this for. Remember that the localization expertise and the linguistic expertise are of equal importance here, so never opt for an agency that only seems to excel in one of these areas! 

Create a Localization Kit

This is another element of the process that I can’t emphasise strongly enough in terms of its importance to the final localization outcome! 

A localization kit – or lockit, for short – is your means of conveying all you know about your game to your translators. From brand considerations to the quirks of the game, this is your chance to share your knowledge with your localization agency. Doing so will result in enhanced translations and a smoother localization process. 

Like the content analysis and project plan, creating your lockit is a step that shouldn’t be rushed. 

Export Your Strings

If you’ve developed your own video game, then you’ll no doubt be familiar with the joys of coding. At this stage in the process, you’ll need to pull the strings you need to translate from your code. Essentially, you’ll need to produce resource files with your strings and translatable content in. 

Import Your Strings

Your chosen game localization agency will then need to import those strings into its translation management system, so that the language-based part of the localization process can begin. Your localization company will guide your through this part of the process carefully, as there are different localization standards for different operating systems. 

Translate Your Content

This is where your talented linguist(s) step in. Your translator(s) will first read your lockit, then get to work on translating your content via the translation management system. It’s essential to use native speakers of the target language (never the source language) for each translation, as this will drive up the quality of the work. 

Localize Non-text-based Elements

While the translation is underway, you can work to ensure that the other, non-text-based elements of the game all suit the local region for which it is destined. Do you need to change the race of your characters, for example, or the way that a particular location looks? When it comes to localization, games that need a lot of work at this stage need careful attention in order that all elements marry up in the final version, just as they did in the original. 

Undertake Quality Assurance Checks

Before you integrate your translation with your adapted visual elements, check the quality of both. For the videogame translation, ask your agency to provide proofreaders for the languages that you don’t speak. These should not be the same individuals who undertook the translation as a fresh pair of eyes is far more likely to catch any typos.  

Pull Everything Together

Once you’ve localized your game and its dialogue, it’s time to pull it all together. Be ready to mould your code slightly in order to knit the updated visual elements with the translated copy! Then check, check and check again to ensure that each localized function works as well as the original game. 

Localize Your Packaging

In addition to the game itself, you need to localize your packaging. This means ensuring the box and any health and safety information contained within meets the requirements of the country or region in which the game is going to be sold. 

Bootstrapping Vs Professional Game Localization Services

I just want to share a couple of quick thoughts on bootstrapping before I wrap up. Specifically, on the merits of bootstrapping versus those of hiring video game localization services. 

Bootstrapping

Do you already have some linguistic expertise in-house? If so, bootstrapping could be the way forward.

Assembling Your Own Localization Team

If you have native speakers of the target languages that you need, it may be possible for you to undertake your game localization in-house. To assemble your own localization team, you’ll need people who are tech-savvy, speak two languages fluently, have a deep understanding of the target culture(s) and can use translation management systems. 

Pros

  • Potential to save on the cost of using a localization agency.
  • No time lost recruiting an agency. 
  • No need to create a lockit.

Cons

  • Little scope for providing quick cover if a localization team member is unwell for a long period. 
  • Potential lack of proofreaders for translated text.

Video Game Localization Services

If you don’t fancy bootstrapping, you can use game localization services, which will undertake the translation and localization of your game. 

Pros

  • Access to a team that knows the localization process inside out. 
  • Potential to add other languages at short notice. 
  • Expert advice available 24/7 on everything from language to local cultural norms. 

Cons

  • More expensive that bootstrapping. 

Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve found this game localization article useful. Here’s a quick recap before you head off elsewhere: 

  • When it comes to localization, game income potential depends massively on the quality of the service. 
  • Successful localization can connect your game with a large proportion of the world’s 2.5 billion gamers. 
  • Localization is a detailed, step-by-step process that requires plenty of care. 

The video game industry’s revenue is increasing rapidly. Would you like to be one of those sharing in it? If so, it’s time to localize! 

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