How Game Developers Can Overcome Localization Challenges
By Natalie Gladkaya
A guest post by Natalie Gladkaya, Head of Localization at Plarium
In the world of game development, localization doesn’t often take the spotlight – but in today’s global market, even the best social games will never fully realize their potential without natural, native localization. A player who spends half their time deciphering lines of poorly translated text is a player who will leave before they get into what might otherwise be a great game. So, the question is not if games need to be localized, but how to do it properly.
I began my localization career while translating for a small firm while completing my Master’s in Economic Theory at Kharkiv National Pedagogical University in Ukraine. After two years of teaching high school economics, I decided to work in a less stressful field, but somehow ended up in game production! I like to think I have “linguistic instincts” and am fluent in Russian, Ukrainian, German, and English. I’ve been working on the localization team at Plarium since 2011. I started as a lead translator and game content editor, and have since then overseen the localization efforts for twelve titles. Most of our games are translated into seven different languages, although that number may easily grow as we expand into new markets around the world.
Based on my experience, I wanted to outline some common localization challenges, specifically for social game developers, and provide a behind-the-scenes look into how we solved these issues.
Challenge 1 – Building a Team
“Do you speak Klingon?”
Finding a freelance translator or a company that provides localization services isn’t rocket science – plenty of vendors and freelance professionals can be found online, offering services from translation and cultural/linguistic consulting to proofreading and quality assurance. The real challenge is finding someone you can completely trust with your product and consistently deliver a top notch translation.
How it works for us:
Three years ago, we began assembling our very own localization dream team, and in the process bumped into a conflict of interest. Most proofreaders also have extensive experience in creative writing and translation, and sometimes tend to challenge the translator’s linguistic choices rather than actually proofread the work. Ultimately, they might be trying to get a translation job instead, which is oftentimes better paid and more prestigious.
As a result, the early Spanish localization process was nothing short of a constant confrontation between the translator and the proofreader. Each one insisted their version was the best, but in reality both were absolutely fine and interchangeable. They kept editing each other’s versions so that one document bounced back and forth five or six times. After trying to settle the disputes between the two professionals, we ultimately had to set a standing policy on how the two roles interact, with one member of the team having final say. We found that clearly defining roles and laying these kinds of firm ground rules are the most important elements in forming translator-proofreader teams that can work together smoothly.
Get an independent proofreader/reviewer. They must be fluent in the target language and qualified enough to proofread the translations and ensure error-free localization. No matter how great your translator is, a second pair of eyes and a fresh head is a must.
Challenge 2 – More Than Just a Translation
What does it take for a really good localization? Any translator will tell you that context is the key. In game localization, context can’t be provided unless the translator is well versed with the game universe, knows its realities and mechanics, and is able to spot all the references, hat tips and Easter eggs. You can always get a good translation without these nuances – but then you risk getting a translation that is too dry, lacking in pace and style, or just a bit off. You might not even be able to tell it – but your fanbase will.
How it works for us:
We started localizing our Facebook game, “Total Domination,” using standard kits, which seemed to be working well – the translators had game descriptions, glossaries, screenshots and everything it took to ensure a good translation. Neither translators nor proofreaders felt it necessary to play the game prior to translating it, and everyone seemed to be in agreement. Then, a few months into the release, the translators started messaging us: “I’ve played the game for a while and I have some suggestions to revise some of the translations.” We realized we had possibly been underusing the potential of our translators and proofreaders, who were willing to be integrated into the process deeper than we thought. Many of our long-term service suppliers have become hardcore players and really enjoy our games – to our mutual benefit. They also help us test the beta builds regularly. Building this kind of a relationship with the translators and proofreaders is a rare thing.
Make your translator a gamer! Don’t rush them and make them plunge into bare strings of texts right away (realistic deadlines with a good “safety margin” might help here). Let them study the game first. Even the simplest games have a story. Explain every detail to the translator – why pigs wear helmets, how melons help fight off zombies, and who Morgana is. Don’t be afraid to expand the localization kit to account for game storylines/timelines, concept art, character references and background, music samples and sound effects. Let them explore every pixel of the game before they start. If you’re lucky enough to have your translator become a fan of your game, that’s the best thing that can happen to your project.
Challenge 3 – Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
Localization is a slow and thorough process that needs to be fit into a tight timeframe. No developer ever wants to push release dates for the sake of localization (that’s a fact). Sometimes, the time allotted for localization is barely enough to translate the content, proofread and test it – even just once. This is especially true when dealing with regular game updates and social gaming production cycles. You often cannot afford a luxury of 4-day localization and quality assurance in a 7-day production cycle. In an ideal world, you would accept a “final” text from the source language for a recently developed feature and lock it for editing, translation, and final release. You would take ownership, and there would be no more changes and no more tweaking of the feature (spoiler alert: It doesn’t work like that). In reality, social game content is most often a changing and constantly updated entity.
How it works for us:
Until recently we kept to a step-by-step production cycle, meaning that localization came in right before final quality assurance, and after the texts had been approved and tested in the source language. This method stopped working when reached a production speed where final source texts were received only a few hours before release.
Bringing localizers in earlier in the process and feeding them enough information to build prototype texts allowed us to produce copies in at least two languages in parallel – English and Russian – and allowed us more time for proofreading and quality assurance.
To speed things up, bring localization in as early as possible. You might think that a bunch of concept art and a page of feature descriptions won’t help much towards the final version if you don’t yet have the actual texts – but it can save you a fair amount of time when it comes to actual translation of the strings, as the translators will have the general picture of a feature or update by then and save you many hours of Q&A. Challenge 4 – “All Your Base Are Belong to Us”
We love making fun of others’ localization and marketing fails – there are even websites dedicated to highlighting them. What sounds cool and catchy in one language can mean something absolutely different, embarrassing or downright offensive in another one. Some of these hurdles are obvious; others are “hidden,” and only come to light when they inexplicably just don’t work with the target audience.
How it works for us:
When developing a new project, we always bear in mind that our products are released worldwide and keep them to global standards, while also allowing for possible local tweaks. With the help of our translators, we are highly aware of the cultural specifics of each country and do our best to avoid sensitive aspects. In any case, we’re quite flexible when it comes to adapting content, provided we know where to look for. For example, the 4th of July holiday special in Total Domination would be Independence Day theme in the English version and something completely fictional like Gen. Winters’s birthday in the Russian version.
Do your research. Understanding basic information about a country, their culture, history and ways of life will help avoid most common localization mistakes. Use the translators as a reliable source of linguistic and cultural consulting – let them know they have full freedom to comment on any part of localization process. Especially when it comes to humor, you have to be ready to change a lot of jokes, punchlines and references and fully trust your translators with adapting or re-inventing them in a way that will be best perceived by the audience, but still complies with the original style. Try to minimize the amount of graphic content that has text in it – localizing graphics is always a pain.
Challenge 5 – Say it out loud!
If your game has well-written characters with a substantial amount of dialogue, you may want to add another dimension to your game and voice them. A good voiceover gives you extra karma points from grateful hardcore fans, and a fully localized voiceover is a solid combo. However, if you choose to give your game a full voiceover, be ready to give what it takes. It’s an elaborate time and resource-consuming process which involves lots of planning and networking. Your creative director and sound engineer will tell you all about it, but from a localizer’s standpoint – as shocking as it is – if a social/mobile game is to be fully voiced, you have to go all the way and have it voiced in every single language it offers – subtitles are not an option.
How it works for us:
Following our own testaments of localization, we provide voiceover for all supported languages in every game. Sometimes it’s a bit of a strain, given the amount and frequency of game updates, and balancing multiple recording sessions is more demanding than it seems.
Luckily we don’t have to worry about the scripts since we’ve got our translators acting as scriptwriters a bit, and they help us with script adaptation, picking voice talents and even directing them during the sessions. They seem to enjoy wearing different hats throughout the process.
Sometimes the schedule is incredibly tight, and with an international cast of actors we cannot always afford the luxury of having all voiceover recording participants in one room. We get around this by doing much of our work remotely, with the voice actor and sound engineer in one or more studios, and our translator/director and voiceover producer sitting in on Skype chat. Our record so far is one studio session with participants in four time zones.
Make it professional. A quick and sloppy voiceover done by amateur actors is not worth the effort. If you’re ready to embark on a several-week (sometimes months) scripting, casting and recording journey, remember: the process of a single-language voiceover hardly differs from multi-lingual voiceover, except that it requires more script copies, character descriptions, casting sheets, casting processes, voice actors and studio sessions. Remember that all of these processes should all be setup to work in parallel across languages if you don’t want your voiceover status to linger perpetually at “in progress”.
Challenge 6 – QA, QA, QA and then, QA
You have built a superb team of translators and proofreaders. You have the texts proofread and edited by 3 different people maximum. You brought in a couple of native-speaking beta-testers as well as quality assurance (QA) engineers. You have it all covered.
Well, think again.
Mistakes will happen. Regardless of how hard you’ve been working on eliminating them, there are all sorts of ways localization can go wrong. Most of these bugs and errors will be insignificant – they can be ‘sleeping’ for weeks and months in the live build until some player decides to read that game guide again. Localization errors can also be serious, epic and hilarious.
How it works for us:
There’s a story we like to tell to highlight the importance of QA – the infamous Research Lab update of 2012. We launched a feature in “Total Domination” that went live on Facebook without any localization whatsoever – the only language available was Russian. Unfortunately, rolling back the game to an earlier version was not an option at that time, and patching the missing languages and updating the server required a couple of hours.
We ended up with a very confusing situation for users and a very embarrassing one for our localizers. The community ended up running with it in the forums, with players even competing to deliver their own translations first.
While this was a great demonstration of how an engaged player community can adapt to practically any game situation, it was mortifying, and made us implement another layer of “eyeball checking”. Your team will have at least one mistake like this, and when it does it focuses them on why attention to detail is so vital. When something goes wrong, make no mistake — the community will rip the poor translation apart, write about it in a “blog of shame”, and let you know about it. Something like this hasn’t happened again since.
Never underestimate human quality assurance and cross-checking. Automated testing is a great help, but it can hardly replace human quality assurance to tell if a localization effort “works” or not.
Don’t be afraid of bugs and errors that slip through multiple levels of quality assurance. Instead, think of the fastest and most efficient ways they can be swept up and eliminated – and have a couple localizers ready and standing by to pick up the problem once detected. Community management and user support will be your eyes and ears once the game is live and they will help you minimize the damage in case the situation went alarmingly south. —
It’s an Ongoing Process
Obviously, there are more than six main challenges in game localization, and there is no ‘magic formula’ that suits every game and works for every developer. Even when working with a string of projects developed at the same time, sometimes you have to revise and adjust your processes and timeframes to make it work. There are certain rules and standards set in the industry – all we do is take them, try them out, and devise our own style and way of localizing every product. The key is not to make localization an “unnecessary evil” that is usually done toward the end of production. Make it part of the process. Let it evolve and grow along with the game itself and the experience is actually enjoyable. Your localization process doesn’t end when the game is released – it starts a completely new life.（source：gamesbrief）