Game localization: key challenges and process optimization tips from industry experts

For the video game Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009), an unnamed developer worked for a full two years on nothing but Batman’s cape, which resulted in over 700 animations and sounds related to its movement. This serves just as one example of the tremendous effort end users typically don’t see or recognize.

If you’re even a little bit fascinated by the detailed worlds depicted in modern games, you know they represent one of the finest results of teamwork. Depending on the game’s complexity level, it can take hundreds of people working on developing a single game before it’s ready to be launched. This includes game designers and artists, programmers, testers, and many additional roles.

But there’s more to it. Enter – game localization.

If the game is to be launched internationally and engage players around the globe, it first has to be properly localized. This requires the involvement of the project owner, game developer team, project managers, linguists, LQA specialists, translators, editors, UX and sound experts, and many others. Or, as one of our interviewees points out – it takes a village to raise a globalized product.

Game localization is a rather complex and delicate process. It involves a collaborative effort but if it’s not handled properly, it can set back launch dates and make the company lose potential revenue as it’s late to market.

We discussed how to handle game localization in the best possible way with industry experts to offer you actionable insights and help you rethink your current process.

Introducing Miguel Sepulveda, Global Localization Manager at King, the video game development company famous for Candy Crush Saga; Mette Clark, Director at Alpha Games, the localization service provider that’s been localizing game content for lots of different game developers, designers and publishers for more than 30 years; and Elizaveta Sidorova, former Lead Project Manager at INLINGO game localization studio, which has more than 1,000 localized games in its company portfolio.

Before we dive into the best practices for game localization, let’s take a moment to discuss the value of game localization and look at a few examples.

Understanding the value and scope of game localization

The video game market value worldwide is expected to reach over 200 billion dollars in the next couple of years. The landscape is becoming increasingly competitive. Those providers who stay in touch with their consumers and adapt the games to better fit their needs and expectations are ultimately the ones that will increase their market share.

The decision to carry out game localization is typically made because of the economic factors and the growth ambitions of the game development company. It’s most commonly about reaching new audiences and boosting sales through potential franchise.

In the past, simpler games of Japanese origin such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man, required far fewer localization efforts and just minor adjustments for western markets.

For instance, Pac-Man was originally called ‘Puck Man’ because the main character resembled a hockey puck, and speakers of Japanese pronounced it as ‘pakuhuman.’ To avoid mispronunciations and confusion in the U.S., they adjusted the name and as you know, it became a hit powerful enough to cause nostalgia in an instant.

Today’s game localization however, requires a lot more than translating and adapting the name of the game.

Just think about accompanying documentation such as the guides and game manuals, the various controls, the backgrounds of each character and how their narratives intertwine with one another, game expansion packs, etc.

This doesn’t even begin to cover the actual game in terms of the language used in dialogues, the appearance of the characters, and the policy-based localization changes.

Game localization examples

You may have heard that censorship is a big part of video game localization and it implies intentionally removing or adjusting content so that it’s culturally appropriate for the target audience.

Maybe the most straightforward example is Mortal Kombat 11, a very violent and explicit game known for its gore and the so-called “fatalities” which are basically highly graphic game endings, when one fighter defeats the other. While very popular in the West, they were not well received in Japan:

What is more, MK11 has been banned outright in Japan due to its excessive violence. For the Western release, MK11 got some heated fan backlash due to its female costumes.

Some changes have been made to the female costumes, compared to previous installments of the video game series, which did not sit well with many fans of the series. The female characters are now better equipped in their outfits to handle combat situations, according to Ed Boon, co-creator of NetherRealm Studios and creative director of MK11.

Similar adjustments were made in the case of Red Dead Redemption 2, where the Japanese version doesn’t show explicit content that could be labeled as disturbing.

Game localization can mean making alterations to make the game age appropriate while bearing in mind the language and the culture of the target market. But, it can involve full localization which means transcreating every aspect of the game, doing full voice-overs, and adjusting actual gameplay.

Understanding the process of game localization

Any localization process implies multiple localization layers that build upon the technological infrastructure. These include grammatical and semantic layers, a graphic and iconic representation layer, a business conventions and practices layer, a social and communications layer, and last but not least – a cultural layer.

Mette Clark is currently head of Alpha Games, a company that focuses on delivering top quality localization services in the gaming industry. She explained that some parts of game localization are similar to those of localization projects involving IT products, but that there are still differences in terms of the type of content that’s getting localized:

There is in-game content, website, marketing content, etc. The key difference lies in the fact that the linguists must have a close connection to the game. So, not only do they need to understand it, but they also need to truly feel it. It’s crucial to set aside the budget for familiarization and introduction to the game.

Miguel Sepulveda who has more than 20 years experience in the localization industry also pointed out how game localization shouldn’t be an afterthought:

“The game localization process is actually quite long. It might start with deciding in which markets we want to launch a game, then following this by choosing a font and preparing internationalization activities. But that’s just the beginning. I like to refer to the Globalization formula as the combination of the following:

Culturalization + Internationalization + Localization + Localization QA

Each phase is happening at a different stage in the game workflow development but all of them are necessary to create a global product.”

Elizaveta Sidorova contributed with her experience as a Lead Project Manager and it’s all about the importance of engaging developers:

“I think there are two important components for a successful game localization process: 1) sufficient time to complete projects and 2) the developers’ willingness to participate in the process.

Ideally, developers should answer questions in detail and provide a lot of context (or a build) to communicate the feel of the game. It’s also important for files to be well structured with, for example, the lines of dialogue, and in the right order.”

Key game localization challenges

There are quite a few game localization challenges that can set you back if you’re not careful.

1. Inefficient processes and the lack of context

According to Elizaveta, the most common bottleneck revolves around idle time spent waiting since developers need to answer a lot of questions. Other unexpected problems might also pop up, such as when a translator doesn’t meet a deadline.

The most typical issues include complicated files, tight deadlines, and a lack of context for translation. Elizaveta also shared how the specificity of the projects might require additional creativity:

“There was one interesting case we had recently: my colleague Oleg Komarov was managing the translation of a client’s game from English to Japanese. The game contained lots of puzzles, and some of them were encrypted with a Vigenère cipher, so we had to decrypt the text.

Here’s how we did it: we translated the encrypted text into Japanese, transcribed the Japanese text into Latin characters, and then sent it back to the client for re-encryption.”

2. Not enough time for the LQA phase

Miguel believes that the main bottleneck in game localization is the LQA phase. Very often, LQA takes place at the end of the process, when the pressure for release is high. He explained the consequences this creates in terms of launch dates. If the game roadmap had any delay and somehow ate into the potential buffer that we might have had in our calendar, the LQA phase is shortened, which is a mistake, says Miguel:

LQA is a crucially important phase where we see the game as our potential players will see it. Cutting corners in this phase is quite dangerous.

3. Negotiating rates and treating localization as an afterthought

Mette touched upon the the difficulty of negotiating rates in game localization, which have been pushed down and down. It’s a challenge to reward the linguists for the truly amazing work they do. But she also pointed out something that all the participants agree upon, and that’s the problem of how the localization process is organized:

“Localization is often an afterthought in the game dev cycle. Unless the client-side team has a dedicated in-house localization team, it’s not always fully understood what is involved in localizing a game.

Sometimes game dev teams think all the creative thinking and development has been completed, but in reality – the linguists have to be creative writers to truly transfer the gaming experience to their own language.

The localization stage is at the end of the game dev cycle and often any time lost earlier in the development is cut from the loc timeline.”

Tips for optimizing your game localization process

So, how do you handle game localization without jeopardizing the release cycles? Where should you begin?

Tip #1: Start game localization at an early stage

The answer has been hiding in plain sight: if you want to prevent being late to market, you should start localizing earlier. Preferably the localization activities should be integrated into the game development process, says Miguel:

“The internationalization activities should start ASAP, so the code is prepared to handle multiple languages and the fonts can be integrated from the beginning.

Also, giving feedback about culturalization in the ideation phase is a very good best practice as the cost to change something in this phase is not as expensive as when it’s done in the final code.”

Mette agrees with this:

Development and localization teams should ideally form a partnership very early on. There needs to be a strong, seamless communication process with regular touchpoints.

Elizaveta shared her experience as well, and highlighted that there are many parts of a game where you can go wrong from the start if you forget about localization.

Agile localization bridges the gap between the developers and the localization team members and it also helps you conserve resources, whether we’re talking about money or time.

In game localization, it makes sense to go another step further and turn to continuous localization, where localized content is always ready for release. Games that are continuously improved at a fast pace involve multiple versions being released in a short time period. This means the project would require localization teams working in parallel with development to ensure timely launches around the globe.

Pro tip: Game localization should keep pace with the speed of game development. Continuous localization provides faster translation turnaround times and much-needed velocity so that you can enter multiple markets almost simultaneously.

Tip #2: Use tools that address your specific needs

Now let’s talk about the tools for game localization. What are the ones that can be of most use to you?

Elizaveta shared that her team typically used CAT tools and software such as Lokalise:

These tools help us preserve the uniformity and structure of the text. For example, they leave in-game tags undisturbed. To speed up and facilitate the process, you can use services that support an API and allow you to quickly export the translated text back into the game.

A combination of different tools can also be helpful. For instance, Alpha Games combines memoQ and Lokalise, depending on the type of project.

Miguel believes everyone involved in the game localization process can benefit from the following “software trinity”: a solid TMS, an app to track bugs, and Google Suite.

Pro tip: When choosing the best tool for game localization, devote enough time to thinking about the bottlenecks and frustrations you want to eliminate. List them all before you start comparing the solutions on the market. Ask product specialists about specific features that can help you move faster without jeopardizing quality, and customize your workflows. For instance, these can be various features and integrations that help you automate your process.

Tip #3: Find a good localization project manager and invest in LQA

Of course, the tool is only as good as its user. The localization project manager is the one who holds the entire game localization process together. Miguel explained to us why the process has to have an appointed localization project manager and we used these insights to create the following table:

What localization PMs ensureHow it looks in practice
Seamless communicationCommunication is streamlined between different stakeholders to avoid having teams working in a silo.
Knowledge transferLocalization PMs create presentations, evangelize internally, present during conference events, they take note of lessons learned, encourage retrospectives, and ensure this material is understood and implemented.
Account managementThey support translators and protect them from unrealistic client/internal stakeholder demands while serving as their main POC.
Tech stackThey facilitate the implementation of technology frameworks and high-class TMS, and orchestrate complex localization settings.
Budget & project managementThey ensure the project is on schedule and take care of all budget-related activities.

Elizaveta shared how INLINGO Games handles the process of game localization:

“First, the text falls into the project manager’s hands. The manager assesses the text and loads it into the CAT tool.

The translator then starts working and asks questions about the text, and the manager serves as a bridge between the client and translator. Once the translator is finished, the editor proofreads the translation.

In the final stage, the manager does a QA check, makes sure all the tags are in place, and reviews the file after exporting it.

It’s highly recommended that you always do linguistic quality assurance (LQA) after the translation is done. It’s an integral part of the workflow for good localization. During testing, you can find cosmetic and contextual bugs that detract from the translation.”

Pro tip: For the best quality, you need at least two people working on every piece of text to deliver full TEP (translation, editing, proofreading), while the LQA process has to be carefully planned, says Mette. If outsourcing, consider hiring LSPs for bigger projects as they will cover the localization phase and the LQA phase, too.

Final thoughts: game localization is no joke

Game localization requires time and in this context, time is literally money.

We learned from Elizaveta that translating a game with 30,000 words of average difficulty will take one translator approximately 20 working days. But it all depends on the type of game, the languages required, and the complexity of the localization project.

For instance, a casual mobile game that has just a few thousand words requires around 3–4 weeks for the translation phase, which is then followed by LQA. Only then can all the language assets be integrated into the game, explained Miguel. But with a console game, the process might take an entire year: just think about games with audio voice-over and more than a million words!

Mette pointed out that the length of the localization process is highly dependent on the type of project. For instance, a 3-million word MMO game will take months, while a hyper-casual mobile title can be done within a week or two.

To truly utilize the time you have at hand, you need to rethink your game localization process. There is no quick fix for enabling fast release cycles, but this more so requires an in-depth analysis of all the inefficiencies in your existing localization workflow.

As we learned from our interviewees, starting localization activities in parallel with game development makes a lot of sense. So, what are your thoughts on this?

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