Computer Game Localization

by Davide Solbiati

Defining the Market

The interactive entertainment software market has seen recent exponential growth, with no signs of slowing down in the foreseeable future.

During the last two years, the aggregate value of this incredible market surpassed that of the box office, while the music sector lost the battle long ago for the number one spot in the entertainment market. This trend confirms that computer games as a viable business is one of the most lucrative and promising for the immediate future. As a case in point, computer games have historically derived their inspiration - and owed their success - to Hollywood. In the past few years, however, the exact opposite has occurred: computer games are more and more frequently serving as inspiration for feature films produced by Hollywood.

Within this market we can find what has come to be known as 'multilingual entertainment software localization', often neglected and shown little, if any, respect. It is often relegated to "evil necessity" status, even though product localization is the phase within the product development lifecycle which most often jeopardizes time to market, and requires involvement from all areas of product development, from production to marketing.

It is an undisputed fact that a wider selection of titles is being localized based on the target market, a trend that will only continue to increase. Until 7 or 8 years ago, the majority of titles were released in a "box & docs" format: that is, only the user documentation was translated, with very few titles being fully localized (including the audio). Presently, the vast majority of computer game product user interfaces (i.e. the actual text which appears on the screen) are fully localized, while localization of the audio portions is erratic.

This is the trend in the European markets where my experience is focused. There is a continuous increase in revenue from the primary markets: Germany, France, Spain and Italy (listed in order of market size). At the same time, emerging markets such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Russia show significant promise. Some market projections forecast that within 3 to 5 years, revenue from these new markets will outpace all of the others mentioned above, especially Russia.

Italy: Doing the Numbers

A recent study released by Aesvi (the Italian association of computer software developers) shows that there are 18 million computer game players in Italy, constituting 36% of the adult population, or 1 person out of every 3.

The Italian computer game market is estimated to be in excess of 600 million Euro (over US$ 700 million) per year.

And finally, while the computer game world has always been considered a male-dominated world, 40% of all players are now female.

Conclusion: the computer game "phenomenon" is no longer a niche market: it has become more universal as regards age and sex.

Computer Game Localization: What's So Different?

Compared to other types of product localization, computer game localization is in a league of its own.

First of all, it is important to point out that very often, the computer game localization process needs to happen in tandem with development of the source language game to allow for a simultaneous release to market of all languages. Consequently, the localization agency needs to constantly badger the client: updating materials, turning around urgent translations for partial product builds, and working under very stringent timeframes.

The various components and tasks involved in computer game localization are:

  • user manual translation
  • user interface localization
  • script translation
  • audio dubbing
  • graphics localization
  • Desktop Publishing (DTP) of user manuals
  • testing and final Quality Assurance (QA)

The computer game localization process

Translation of the user manuals is fairly straightforward, the only challenge being the application of correct terminology available in an astonishing array of glossaries adapted to various format types. For example, as of today, the most popular titles on the market are available for 7 primary platforms: PS2, XBox, NGC, PSP, DS, PC, and GBA. Within a year, a new generation of platforms will be added, such as PS3, XBox 360, and Nintendo Revolution. Otherwise, translation of a computer game user manual is no different from that of any other product's user manual.

Localization of the user interface literals is more challenging because the target language text cannot exceed the length of the source language. Oftentimes what makes the localization process more difficult is the total lack of context while attempting to translate. Software developers are very protective of their products, especially during development, and so it is quite common that the game cannot be viewed in its entirety until after localization has been completed. The consequences of this are lengthy QA error documents, together with a litany of e-mails going back and forth between the translators, the project manager, and the developers, all with the objective of fixing the issues found during QA. Obviously, glossaries still have to be strictly adhered to, in order to ensure that the thousands of words and expressions are accurately translated.

As with every type of translation, the process is further complicated by the intrinsic simplicity of the English language. The target version needs to reflect all differences in gender and number, and must be done without exceeding the length of the English text. Result: unavoidable, incomprehensible and sometimes nonsensical abbreviations!

Script translations get even more interesting; computer game scripts can easily comprise tens of thousands of words, a similar length to movie scripts. Coordinating voiceovers and lip syncs within the available time constraints of the original English original is a particular challenge, especially for titles like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings (for example), where, in addition to the typical number and size of related glossaries, there are also volumes of books and a series of movies to consult.

With the script translation completed (after the requisite revisions and updates), the audio (for those games requiring it) is next. The quality of audio dubbing for computer games is identical to movie dubbing: the same studios are used, the same procedures are followed, and the same actors are employed for the major titles. Professional dubbers are used for all other cases. This phase in the process, often the most critical and complex, is executed with the highest degree of phonetical precision by dubbing directors and post-production related resources. Each and every file is played and every single segment is updated when the actor modifies the script on the fly during the recording session.

DTP and graphics for computer games are localized much the same way as other products.

Product testing is the final step in the process. Sometimes this is done in-house by the client, but more often the localization agency assumes this responsibility either internally or at the client's site (even if the client is on the other side of the world). It is worth mentioning that this linguistic test validates the accuracy and appropriateness of the translation, as opposed to a functional validation that tests the complete program to ensure that the translated software works in the exact same manner as the source software. Typically, the functional validation is done by in-house specialists.

Quality Above All

No other product that I have worked on is subjected to the same array of intricate checks and balances, which leads me to believe that the quality of a localized computer game is often higher than the source language version. In addition, there is a rigorous quality validation process which takes place within the localization team: at Vertigo Translations, this involves a second phase of proofreading and editing followed by a third and final revision wherein every single edit is accepted or rejected.

Every specific product component is properly analyzed and verified linguistically. For highly popular games, comprehensive testing is done to ensure consistency with collateral products. For example, terminology used in the localization of the Starship Troopers computer game must be identical to that used in the movie. Accuracy is so critical that frequently the time dedicated to QA surpasses the time spent doing the initial translation.

Files, Formats and Tools

Until a couple of years ago, files to be translated came in Microsoft Word or predominantly Excel format. Today, the situation is changing as a result of requests and suggestions made by localization companies. We regularly use tools such as Trados and SDLX in a way which allows us to create translation memories by engineering the files for specific use with these tools. This allows us to be consistent when translating the 33rd update of The Lord of the Rings, where, of course, consistency is essential.

Excel files are most common because they easily allow for source and target texts to be placed in a columnar format, in addition to being able to store contextual information, notes, and other important information in separate worksheets contained within the same file. Exceptions to the rule are software developers who require that specific on-line tools be used, tools which are very effective for the developers, but which sometimes cause nightmares for the translator due to the lack of context and spellcheckers, for example.

In my opinion, I have no doubt that Trados and SDLX (or however these tools will evolve in the future) are the primary tools facilitating the translation management process.

In Conclusion

Computer game (I keep referring to them this way, even though they are as expensive as Hollywood movies) localization is without a doubt a very interesting, compelling and stimulating experience:

Interesting, because it's very diverse, with a wide selection of topics: from deer hunting, to over-the-road simulation, and from space battles to sailing.

Compelling, because it involves all aspects of localization. A complex game includes all of the different types of localization components from help files to scripts, from audio files to DTP, and requires the commitment of a large group of professionals.

Stimulating, because every single phase in the process needs to be managed with a high level of detail. This is especially true for the Project Manager, who needs to carefully coordinate all of the different process components while at the same time managing multiple updates sent by the client.

To summarize, computer game localization, as compared to that of other products, is a unique, while at the same time challenging and fulfilling, segment of our industry as a whole.