Video Game Localization: If Content is King, Context is Queen

In our previous post, we looked at how cross-cultural appeal depends on flawless localization. Now we’ll delve a bit deeper, and take a look at the importance of context in product development (through the lens of the video game industry).

Localization Has Always Been Important, but is Now More Important than Ever

I.

It’s 2019, yet somehow not all video game studios have gotten hip to the fact that cultural and linguistic localization is essential for global success! Even some major AAA studios do not fully localize their titles and may skimp on the linguistic production values. In a globalized market with diverse language locales, this is just bad business. Players report that studios ignoring the important detail of localizing dialogue, characters, and features frustrates them to no end. The decrease in quality is such that it interferes with players’ enjoyment of the game. Especially if translation is shoddy, players can get more than just a little upset! Companies should take note that these frustrations could lead to poor customer retainment, cutting into sources of ongoing revenue from DLC and microtransactions. As far back as 2011, dedicated localization had become a recognized and important specialty in the industry. As Christian Arno wrote in AdWeek that year:

“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.”

Eight years later, the industry and globalization itself have come a long way. In today’s internationalized gaming environment, with massive-multiplayer games spanning continents, and epic storylines as the new norm, there is simply no excuse for poor localization when exporting a game to any corner of the world.

The spread of comprehensive localization to large parts of the world has led audiences to expect that any game produced by a major studio be custom-tailored in a “made-for-me” fashion. As technology enhances the already spectacularly immersive experiences of today’s video games, the depth and quality of product localization must keep pace. Augmented reality and virtual reality technologies are here and will soon become the new standard; localization, in every sense — linguistic, cultural, and technical must keep up with the three-dimensional trend that allows for the “suspension of disbelief”, the same capacity for wonder and imaginative realism that the world’s greatest movies and novels have achieved for decades. Interactivity has reached a new dimension as well: in many blockbuster titles players can act as in-game creators and share their creations with friends (think Minecraft’s virtual worlds or Grand Theft Auto V’s player-designed challenges and races). The experience of the game belongs to the player herself more than ever before.

Even in the pixelated era, “characterization” of in-game characters was important. With Pac Man’s American release in 1980, savvy producers realized that localization was vital to transitioning the game into the new market. Originally dubbed “Puck-Man”, the main character’s name was quickly changed to Pac Man due to concern that vandals would change the name to an English-language expletive. The names of several characters which were changed (including some of the ghosts) might not seem essential in a simple game, but translation and poor transliteration risk giving characters uncool or offensive names by mistake. Even fixing this small detail required acute cultural sensitivity and creativity for the translator/localizer to find a catchy solution to “Puck-Man’s” unfortunate original name. Arguably, failing to correct this detail could have hurt the game’s popularity in the U.S. In this day and age, it would likely make the whole game into a running joke and internet meme!

Great cultural sensitivity and linguistic sophistication are essential tools that a translator must have to ensure a game’s success. In modern games with elaborate, unforgettable plots, cinematic realism, and complex characters, such expertise is critical. Add dialogue, potential voiceovers, and lengthy text translation to the process, and localization becomes a sophisticated type of cross-cultural copywriting (together with the subsequent proofreading/QA). Passing on all of a game’s concepts and characters into a target language (a process sometimes referred to as “transcreation”) is a fine art requiring an astute ear for language and deep bi-cultural understanding of context, storytelling, and gaming tropes.

II.

Seamless localization is all the more vital to a game’s success since every new game has the potential to become a global cultural phenomenon overnight. The most ambitious new gaming ventures aim this high: they are high-stakes gambits to transcend the creative and technological limits of prior generations of games. The level of novelty and excitement required to win over gamers and get them to spend money has become extraordinarily high; therefore, games must deliver extraordinary new experiences, or they won’t be competitive.

In a globalized and instantly responsive community of gamers/critics, getting localization right the first time in every language locale has never been more important; industry insiders will recognize that the time-pressure of global release deadlines driven by the “sim-ship”[1] model makes this level of quality control a daunting task. So, it is up to game publishers to contract the best possible firms to work on their localization projects and make localization a high priority in from the start. Neglecting or deprioritizing localization can have serious consequences. A game with a great concept and commercial potential may easily become reduced to an unforgiving meme of lasting notoriety. Like an elephant, the Internet never forgets, and “A Winner Is You”. The stigma of poor localization and less-than-fluent translation is something to be avoided, and it can be avoided  — if and only if it is prioritized.

Context is everything. Without a dedicated localization team working closely with developers, the product’s narrative content, gameplay itself, and overall quality of player experiences all suffer. Since commercial success depends on these factors, it’s best to plan for localization and invest in it from the start.

[1] simultaneous shipping — the distribution model for most new games in western countries

gala-conference

Getting the Most Out of the GALA Conference

The Terra Translations team is gearing up for this year’s Globalization and Localization Association (GALA) conference held in Munich, Germany on March 24-27. The annual conference brings together professionals within the translation and localization industry for a unique opportunity to network, discuss emerging trends, and exchange best practices. Participants will spend four exhilarating days attending sessions, workshops, panels, and sharing ideas to evolve and innovate the translation industry. In addition to professional growth, attendees will be treated to a magical tour of the Neuschwanstein Castle and the Hohenschwangau Castle. These destinations are two of Germany’s most iconic and enchanting landmarks.

“The GALA conference is important because it builds a supportive community for translation professionals,” explained Marina Ilari, CEO of Terra Translations. “It’s a place to learn about new technologies and trends. Most importantly the event is a place to network and learn from each other as industry peers.”

What is GALA?

The conferences are produced by GALA, a global, non-profit trade association for the translation and localization industry. The membership organization supports the globalization sector by creating communities, championing standards, sharing knowledge, and advancing translation technology. Moreover, GALA plays an incredible role in the industry by strengthening professional standards. The non-profit supports initiatives that help global language industry professionals improve individual and organizational performance to meet the demands of multilingual markets.

GALA Film Fest

GALA encourages the participation of its member through various creative outlets. One such outlet was a short Film Fest contest of which the Terra team won twice. Although the Film Fest is no longer taking place, the team enjoyed the process of storyboarding and producing these humorous short films which can still be viewed today. The competition showcased GALA members’ personality and originality.

Tips for Newbies

Since 2009, the conference has drawn together top executives and senior leaders comprising more than 80 percent of total attendees. A key goal for organizers is to ensure that relevant contacts are made that generate new business. To support this mission, Ilari recommends that first-time participants attend the Newbie Orientation held on day one.

“The Newbie Orientation is a great way to start the conference,” Ilari explains. “This dedicated time offers new attendees an opportunity to meet one another and participate in “icebreaker” activities with fellow delegates. It’s a perfect way to jump-start networking.”

There will be a variety of high-caliber speakers that give attendees practical takeaways to apply to their practice or business. Ilari and her team are especially excited for Cristina Anselmi’s presentation on machine translation in the gaming industry. Video game localization is one of Terra’s specializations, an area that will continue to ramp up in 2019.

To make the most of every GALA conference she attends, Ilari takes vivid notes during the seminars and presentations. When she arrives home Ilari immediately shares inspirational ideas and valuable lessons with her team. Still fresh from the conference and invigorated, she will continue to research conference topics and apply them to strategically grow her business.

In conclusion, let’s meet!

Along with Ilari, Julieta Trovant and Colleen Beres will pack their bags and head to Munich. The team is ready to make new connections and refresh existing ones. If you plan on attending the GALA Conference, be sure to say hello to the Terra Team and share what you love most about language.

Product Localization: Lessons from McDonald’s

Consider one of the most successful globalized businesses, McDonald’s. McDonald’s menus differ vastly between countries due to the chain’s efforts to appeal to local tastes. In Croatia, if you’re brave enough, you can try the McDonald’s take on a beef tzatziki wrap; India offers a vegetarian option called the McPaneer Royale; Korea is home to the Shrimp Burger Deluxe; and Mexico boasts its own version of the McMuffin breakfast sandwich: the wildly popular McMollette. McDonald’s effort to internationalize its menu has been especially pronounced in Latin America. A prime example was the limited-edition “McArgentina” burger, made exclusively for the 2014 World Cup hosted in Brazil. The burger featured chimichurri mayonnaise and was one of a dozen custom recipes in a series of internationalized burgers, each designed to pay tribute to an outstanding nation competing in the World Cup. Perhaps no other ingredient could be more essentially Argentine than chimichurri – although the resultant condiment, by some accounts, tasted more like McDonald’s own “secret sauce”, famous worldwide for its uniquely questionable flavor.

Having tweaked and redeveloped menu items to incorporate and imitate regional cuisine, McDonald’s proudly offers an original take on the Big Mac in every country. McDonald’s stands as one example of a company that has recognized the importance of localization to its bottom line. Whether or not you like McDonald’s (or any of its international menu items, for that matter), it’s worth recognizing that one of the most profitable international businesses invests a tremendous amount of its resources in R&D for localized products. Assessing McDonald’s successful conquest of one of the world’s largest fast food markets, Indian academics found that “product localization plays a crucial role in McDonalds’s success in maintaining its competitive position in Indian market.” (Panwar & Patra, 2017). With an early entrée into the Indian market, McDonald’s overcame the fundamental problem of its core product offering, beef burgers, being taboo to the majority-Hindu Indian population.

The iconic chain recognizes that, while many new localized menu items may go belly up—at least initially, making these adaptative changes is much smarter than serving up food that is completely foreign, and therefore less likely to appeal to consumers in a particular locale. Successful restauranteurs who launch operations in new countries are careful to study the gastronomy of the foreign market in detail. So “Arcos Dorados” (as it is known in the Hispanic world) is no doubt savvy to adapt its signature items to localized tastes.

Every part of the world possesses a unique palette, nationally prized delicacies and authentic flavors, and culinary preferences rich in cultural significance and tradition. Some foods which are considered delicacies in one part of the world may be considered inedible or disgusting elsewhere. Likewise, any product imported from one region to another may have cultural connotations that outsiders are unaware of, and risk offending local consumers. Misguided attempts to get creative and impress foreigners may backfire horribly without knowledge of proper cultural context, yet another reason why expert consultation in a global localization effort is advisable. In an apparent attempt to design an artistic presentation for a state dinner, a celebrated Israeli chef created a metal statue in the shape of a shoe from which he served Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife an assortment of dessert chocolates when they dined with Israeli P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu. A senior Israeli diplomat, who had previously served in Japan said, “This was a stupid and insensitive decision,” as “there is nothing more despised in Japanese culture than shoes. Not only do they not enter their houses while wearing shoes, you will not find shoes in their offices either. Even the prime minister, ministers and members of parliament do not wear shoes to work… It is equivalent to serving a Jewish guest chocolates in a dish shaped like a pig.”

Talk about putting your foot in your mouth!

It doesn’t take a culinary genius or a marketing guru to understand that product localization is essential when entering a new market. The upside to a skilled, tactical localization effort could not be higher. On the other hand, the downside of ignoring strategic product localization can be disastrous.

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ALC UNConference 2019 Recap

By Marina Ilari |

In January 2019, I had the honor of attending the Association of Language Companies’ UNConference, at the Pasea Hotel and Spa in Huntington Beach, California. While heavy rainfall greeted the conference attendees, the following days were all sunny and warm —meeting everyone’s high expectations for beautiful SoCal weather and complementing an incredible experience!

As an attendee of several conferences for translation professionals, I’ve routinely encountered a format in which I’m expected to assume a passive role – listening to speakers give presentations. All. Day. Long. In contrast, this event followed a uniquely hands-on format, which allowed attendees to participate and generate discussion in small groups. Thus, the name “UNConference”.

As a first-time participant, I have to say that I initially felt nervous about the discussion format. Would we be asked to stand and address the entire group? Public speaking is a human’s number one fear —even before the fear of dying!  Therefore, my uneasiness was justified in some way and I bet I wasn’t alone in my feelings. Fortunately, all my fears proved unwarranted; once the discussion began, I quickly became comfortable speaking in my small group.

We were divided into groups of 6 to 8 people with a designated moderator. A topic was assigned to each group for discussion and debate; the topics encompassed a wide range of business areas including human resources, technology, sales and marketing. We were all encouraged to participate and share our personal experiences, opinions, and tips. By asking questions and discussing our stories of both triumphs and challenges, we gained valuable insight from fellow professionals in the industry.

The event was attended by approximately 85 professionals from across the globe, although most hailed from various parts of the United States, especially from California (as one might expect given the location). Indeed, issues specific to California took center stage during the kick-off panel discussion, which featured state representatives speaking on the topic of worker classification. The ALC Advocacy Forum was the only part of the event limited entirely to an on-stage panel, as opposed to the discussion group format.

A highlight of the UNConference was definitely the environment; the Pasea Hotel and Spa was the perfect venue for the event. Each group had a different, but equally awesome, meeting location around the hotel grounds — usually outdoors facing a beautiful view of the palm trees and the beach. The oceanfront vibe complemented the event’s informal feel and laid-back atmosphere, making it even easier to engage in meaningful conversation. And, of course, the golden sunset became the protagonist when the sessions were coming to a close on Friday evening. Personally, this was one of my favorite moments of the conference: the sun was setting when ALC´s president, Rick Antezana, suggested that we all gather in an outdoor area of the hotel to take a group picture. Everyone looked cheerful and satisfied, which was a testament to a day of fascinating and productive discussions that would remain forever captured on film.

Congratulations to the ALC´s leadership council, and in particular to Rick Antezana and Jennifer Alvarez, for organizing such an amazing event. I look forward to attending the UNConference going forward. I found the conference format to be special and dynamic. It was certainly conducive to forging new relationships and learning from one’s peers—an invaluable asset which we all know lies at the heart of the work in professional translation.

video game localization

Video Game Localization: How to Sell Games Globally

The localization of products and services has become a critical part of most business models, as the rise of globalization drives rapid, efficient expansion to foreign markets. We’ll take a look at some best practices, and pitfalls to avoid when expanding your business to another country. The gaming industry has a storied history of localization triumphs and failures, so it makes for a nice case study.

International Success Depends on Cross-Cultural Appeal

By 2015, the gaming industry posted revenues of $91.5 billion worldwide, dwarfing the box office take of global revenues from movies of $38.3 billion. In recent years, the most successful major titles such as the FIFA franchise, Fortnite, and Grand Theft Auto V, among others, have produced hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue within months of their release (and sustainably throughout their continued lifecycle).

Today’s international blockbuster video games have completely broken down the wall between mainstream culture and the traditional niche of gaming as a sub-culture. This is not to say that gaming sub-culture has faded away or is going to despite gaming becoming a more mainstream phenomenon across demographics of age and gender. Committed communities of superfans have continued to thrive and expand. Internationally, gaming and esports have attained mass appeal, especially among younger fans. A WaPo-U Mass Lowell joint poll found that among Americans age 14-21, almost as many respondents were fans of esports and competitive gaming, 38 percent, as were fans of American professional football (40 percent).

Commitment to cross-cultural appeal is essential to any publisher hoping to compete in the global market; therefore, successful localization is not an “extra” feature that’s nice-to-have, but an absolute requirement for a successful product launch. In short, game localization has become a universal vertical in the industry that is here to stay.

Would games like Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto V have achieved the same preeminent cultural status and sales records if publishers had been short-sighted about localization requirements? Translation of in-game text and voice-overs may be the most important localization task to enable creators to stay true to the characterization and storylines they have worked hard to achieve. It’s also the foundation for all the collateral involved in making the game playable by international players (directions, walkthroughs, guides, etc.) It’s hard to imagine games getting off the ground and gaining a global fan base without careful translation and quality control.

It’s amazing that players in the Bundesliga (the world’s football – a/k/a “soccer”), have been miming celebrations from the game Fortnight after scoring a goal at the same time that elite athletes in United States’ National Football League (an entirely different sport and cultural niche) are celebrating big plays with their own imitations of Fortnite in-game celebrations! Although each is a sports celebration, it is a tribute to the unbelievable cultural and commercial success of the game. It’s hard to imagine how a game could transcend linguistic, cultural, and geographic boundaries across continents without effective localization practices integrated into its development.