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


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.


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

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.


Ready Player Uno: Why Video Game Localization Matters

The video game industry is booming with 2.2 billion active gamers in the world according to a report by Newzoo. In fact, Newzoo estimates the global gaming market will reach revenues as high as $143.5 billion by 2020. As the number of gamers continues to rise across the globe, so does the need for quality video game translators. As you know, localization of the game and marketing materials is often outsourced and hiring the wrong translator can have gaming companies wishing they could hit reset.

The art of video game localization is more than just converting text word for word into another language. There needs to be a deep understanding of regions, cultural norms, cultural sensitivities, language nuances, and slangs of the target market. Metaphors, idioms, jokes, and sarcasm can be difficult to localize translate region to region and a good video game translator should be able to catch these issues and fill in the gap. In addition to linguistic skills, excellent translators also understand gaming worlds and cultures knowing terminology and how to localize within that specific genre.

Localization Should be the First Step, Not Last

Video game developers are now designing games with localization in mind. To better reach international markets, developers have started making graphics and texts as editable as possible to avoid additional coding down the line. Large video game publishers will expect localization for all non-audio assets with no written word left untranslated. That’s why developers should avoid hard-coding into the games’ core files. When a game is properly localized, there stands a higher chance of the game to receive higher ratings by players. Gaining higher ratings will increase the popularity of the game and ultimately increased sales.

Immersion Disrupted

Video games are designed to be an immersive experience. They create spatial presence when the user starts to feel like he or she is within the world of the game. Vibrant graphics, environmental accuracy, and a strong narrative all contribute to this immersion. For a moment in time, the player forgets about their true surroundings entirely. Localization builds this experience and is intended to be so fluid, consistent, and natural, as if it’s “invisible” to the player. However, one small error in localization can result in an inharmonious experience, disrupting the player’s connection to the game and quickly pulling them back into the world they had previously escaped.

Translations Gone Wrong and Viral

Unfortunately, translators don’t always get it right and now their mistakes are going viral. There are countless videos, memes, books, and entire websites dedicated to making fun of bad video game localizations. “All your base are belong to us” is a highly popular internet meme that is a screenshot of a poorly translated English phrase found in the opening cutscene the arcade Zero Wing. One YouTube video featuring the game’s poor localization has accrued over 2.5 million views alone. The bad publicity from a translation mistake gone viral can negatively impact sales and cost companies millions in PR recovery.

Focus on the Latin America Market

A driving force in the emerging industry of video games is the Latin American market. In 2016, a total of 110 million Latin American paying gamers generated $4.1 billion, a year-on-year growth of 20 percent (Newzoo). One of the leading Latin American markets in the world is Mexico with 55.8 million players that will spend $1.6 billion in 2018 (Newzoo). According to Competitive Intelligence Unit (CIU), Mexico’s gaming market will continue to grow at a rate of more than 13 percent. Argentina alone has over 18.5 million gamers that spent $423.4 million in 2017, making it the 25th largest games market in the world (Newzoo). To maximize profits, localization in these markets and their different Spanish variants are particularly important. The revenue from properly localizing to a Latin American market will recoup the investment of utilizing a translation service.

Localization mistakes are often avoidable when developers and publishers invest in the right translation team. Localizing video games, especially when text-heavy, can appear to be a daunting task. However, an expert localization team can make the process streamlined and seamless, expanding the game’s international reach and saving its reputation.