Lessons on Localizing Video Games - Part 1

Discussing the processes and intricacies involved with localizing video games

Lessons on Localizing Video Games - Part 1
Source: Alconost.

Alconost recently had a chance to talk about the intricacies of game localization with Josh Bycer, the welcoming host of Perceptive Podcast. As guest speakers, we shared so many practical tips and real-life examples with Josh that we brought you the highlights of the conversation in the format of an article. Here goes its first part!

Yana, a localization manager at Alconost, and Josh, a video game and game design enthusiast, as well as an author and the owner of

Game-Wisdom.com, spoke for more than an hour. During the first part of the conversation, Yana elaborated on important factors to consider when planning to win the hearts of gamers globally and made a brief tour of the backstage localization process:

  • What does the game localization start from?
  • Which tools are used for professional localization?
  • Why do translators need to know the game characters’ backgrounds?
  • How to deal with the different cultural aspects of localization (local holidays, colors meaning, etc.)?

Please note: To make the article easy to read, we did editorial work when adopting a spoken narrative into a written piece of content, but you can always refer to the original record on Youtube. We also enriched the article with small inserts to give you a holistic understanding of game localization.

If you’re new to the concept of game localization, first get a quick & comprehensive overview of App & Game Localization: How to Reach Mobile Users Around the World. After you’re done, come back here to get behind the very scenes of game localization.

Source: Author.

Josh Bycer - Good evening, and welcome to another episode of the Perceptive Podcast here on Game-Wisdom.com! Tonight, we will be talking about game localization.

Please welcome the localization manager from Alconost, Yana! I’m happy we got a chance to do this cast! It’s a topic for a lot of developers out there — I’m sure for people that you and Alconost are working with — it’s probably something they don’t really consider when in the middle of game development.

Yana Tarasevich - Sure! Now, as the international market continues to grow, it’s really important to talk about localization more, and I think for developers it’s really useful to understand what the localization process consists of.

JB - What does your role as a localization manager entail at Alconost?

YT -
If you, as a developer, come to Alconost for localization, a manager like me will be your contact point. We’ll be connecting you to translators, proofreaders, and we’ll be managing the technical side of the localization (e.g., setting up your project on the localization platform, also setting up all the necessary things like the glossary and the translation memory). This is a person responsible for taking the strings for localization and then returning you the results in the languages of your choice in the same format as you’ve given the source.

JB - When a developer reaches out to Alconost, how do you start working with someone when it comes to localizing their game for different languages?

YT - Usually, developers come to us with the quote request. Everybody is concerned about the cost of localization — it’s understandable. We assess the amount of text in the game and provide a quote for every language of the developer's choice.

We provide a relatively specific budget for every language. I say ‘relatively’ because sometimes the budget can be added or reduced in the process of localization. However, first, we assess the approximate budget and the amount of time that we will spend on localizing the product.

Alconost offers professional localization services in over 100 languages. We have localized over 1,500 projects to do with software, apps, games, and websites. We can help implement a continuous localization workflow for frequently updated projects.

JB - Do you have different costs based on what languages you're translating into?

YT - Yes, sure, the costs differ for different language groups. It usually depends on the popularity of this or that language on the market.

We have 3 language groups with different rates:

  • The most popular languages — are the common European languages, like Italian, Spanish, French, German.
  • Less common languages where there are fewer translators who specialize in these languages, and that’s why they have higher rates.
  • Languages with the highest rates; it's usually the Scandinavian languages and Japanese.

When you choose which languages to start localization of your game, you need to consider the market you're coming to, e.g., whether it’s the most popular market with the lowest rates for localization.

JB - When should developers reach out to Alconost? When should they start considering localizing their game?

YT - Since localization actually requires lots of testing on the side of the linguists and on the side of the developers, it’s better to have more time to be prepared for any glitches and bugs that may come out. For console games, the localization process starts at least several months in advance, maybe half a year before the release.

JB - When we talk about the UI aspect, do you work with a developer in terms of how the translated text will look within the game space?

YT - We have a specific service which is called game localization testing. This is the final stage of the localization process — after the localization and proofreading have been finished and the strings are imported into the game, the developer can see how they look in the game.

We usually give testers access to the test build of the game, and then they check all the screens one by one, all the strings that they have translated before, to see if they look right — if they're not too long, not too short, if they fit the windows, the images, the context of the game. This is all included in the localization testing process.

Testers make a report where they list all issues they've encountered, and we fix them. By the end of this process, the developer can be sure that everything in the game looks as it's intended.

It’s always a good idea to play with a so-called pseudo localization. When you’ve got all the technical aspects sorted out, you can do a test run with the help of pseudo-localization tools available across the Web. They can imitate your interface as if it were in a foreign language. It doesn’t replace localization testing but prepares you for it.

Source: Alconost Twitter.

JB - Before we talk a little bit more about the actual process, let’s talk about the tools that you use; for myself and developers and students listening, we probably haven't done this before.

YT - One of the assets we provide to our customers is expertise in using localization platforms. We use different ones; usually, they are cloud platforms made specifically for localization. They include all the features that make localization as seamless as possible. Our company uses a localization platform called Crowdin. We use it to provide the highest quality and to build our quality assurance processes around it.

The localization platform is a perfect instrument for communicating with the translators and proofreaders. The developer can see the entire process on the platform, answer questions that arise about the context, add screenshots, and add background information. This is a good place for everybody to connect and for the process to be more transparent.

Localization platforms feature translation memory and glossary. Glossary is especially useful for games because in games when you have characters and specific items, it is very important for them to be called the same way around the game. That’s why making a glossary is one of the first stages of the localization process.

After we start working on the project, we ask the customer to provide all the information they have about their game. We ask for screenshots for access to test builds, and we always make a glossary that will include names of characters, items, specific actions that the characters do in the game, and so on.

And then goes the translation memory. When we translate strings on a localization platform, the translations are saved in a database which is called translation memory. So the next time the developer sends us the strings which are similar to those we translated before, or which are just the same, the translation memory suggests the translations that we did last time. When there are lots of repeating strings in a game, it's good to use translation memory for consistency.

Developers can benefit from the translation memory after the localization is done. If customers come to us with updates months after they finished the initial localization of their game, we still have the translation memory, and we still can see strings that were translated last time. We can use this information rather than start from scratch.

JB - Are there any interesting or unique challenges that come up in specific genres that a developer who is coming to Alconost may not necessarily think about?

YT - If we're talking about role-playing, we know that there are lots of dialogues in these games. Sometimes, your next dialogue string depends on the reply that you chose before. This is an interaction of a player within the game, and it’s very important to connect all the strings in a way that this dialogue goes seamlessly.

When you’re developing a game, you come across these challenges when you're writing the script. But when you're localizing it, it’s important to remember that, for example, in one language, a character’s gender can be obvious, while in another language, gender features can be erased from a grammatical point of view. In English, it happens all the time. When localizing from English, it’s very important to give the translators a notion of the character’s gender.

Sometimes, when we're localizing games, the questions that come from translators can be really surprising. For example, they can ask whether the character is tall or short because something in translation will depend on how they look!

Source: Alconost Twitter.

JB - With role-playing games, in particular, games that are built heavily on how characters are defined and how they speak to one another, this is certainly a major point! I was hoping you could spend a few minutes talking about making sure that characterization transfers from localization to localization?

YT - It is what the developers sometimes don’t consider, like the style of their characters and their specific characteristics: the way they speak, the way they think, the way they interact with one another...

For example, we worked with a game where there was a character who was talking like a pirate. He wasn’t really a pirate, but he was heavily using the words from a pirate's vocabulary. We had to give the same impression in all the languages. The solution that we provide is to have several test localizations made, so we have several specialists; each provides some short piece of text localized in their language. Then we assess the style and the knowledge of this specific vocabulary and either make a choice on our own, with the help of a proofreader or a senior localizer, or we give the customer an opportunity to make a choice on their own; they can look through the test translations and choose the translator whose style is the best. The quality is high anyway, but it is about the specific style that should be transferred because the features of the character make the game alive.

JB - Definitely! One of the worst things I think you can do to a game, in terms of this aspect, is having a lot of your characterization lost in one specific language… How you write a character in one language may not be how you want that to be exactly translated into another language!

YT - Yes, that is true. The characters change with the language, so they should be appropriate for the audience, and they should be understandable for the audience to appreciate them. So that is why we can also ask the developers for some specific characteristics for each character in the game so that we have a grasp of what the characters are to convey.

Sometimes we can provide different approaches to some characters. If we know they won’t be really accepted in some countries or in some cultures, we’ll discuss it with the customer. After the localizer suggests some options, we can just change some details which are important in one culture, but which will not be accepted in another.

It can be difficult, of course, because we have the images, key visuals, which sometimes are hard to change… So that is why, again, why localization testing is so important. During the localization testing, localizers can actually see if what the character says doesn’t fit the characters’ looks in the game. So this is actually what we can also advise, to, maybe, change a bit. Sometimes slight alterations can be unimportant in the source language, but they can make the character fit for other broader markets.

JB - One thing that you said about using images and information like that… That actually brings up an interesting question! What information should developers either send or prepare to send when they're reaching out to a company like Alconost to get their game localized?

YT - We usually try to collect every piece of information that the developer has about the game. It’s always great to have images of the main characters, items, and locations. Descriptions can also be useful, especially with the description of a character’s personality.

We provide a detailed localization brief with specific questions, and it guides the developers through the information we would need. It also includes technical questions about what symbols can be used in the game or what shouldn’t be translated. The questions we ask before localization are a good way for the developer to understand what exactly we need.

If you are at the initial stages of game development, here are the 10 basic rules that will help you prepare your game for localization before you reach out to a localization vendor.

JB - Could you go into more detail about how many people work on a game? How does work get divided up?

YT - Oh yes! The basic localization process includes translation and proofreading. Sometimes with mobile games, we can afford one person to translate and one person to proofread.

However, if the game is really big and we can divide it into specific sections — for example, we have an interface, narrative part, and rewards part — we can have several translators on the project. But it’s still important to have one proofreader who will be consolidating the whole project and keeping the same consistent style and terminology across it.

For localization testing, we can either invite the same proofreader who knows the context to look for the technical problems and context problems, or we can invite a third-party proofreader who will play the game, look through the screens, and have a fresher look at the whole game as it is.

Source: Alconost Twitter.

JB - Regarding making sure that the game makes as much sense in one language as it does in another… Any other aspects of that that we didn't hit on that you like to bring up?

YT - I think we didn't talk about some specific cultural features which require a really complex approach. I'm talking, for example, about holidays, like Halloween and Thanksgiving in the U.S.

There are lots of updates, like holiday promotions; these are the features that are changing, but they need to be changed for each specific market. Just because we have different cultures across the world, and some events are more important for some groups of people than for others…

This is, I would say, a real art of localization, of keeping such things together. When you have an update, and it should be localized in several languages for different groups of people with different backgrounds, you do it in such a way to engage them anyway, whether they’re interested in this or that cultural event or not.

This makes localization so fascinating, and why localizers are really thrilled sometimes when they keep the attention of the players regardless of their cultural background.

JB - When you're trying to build a game globally, it must be a very interesting challenge when you're trying to make sure that every culture you have represented in your game has its respective holidays and traditions in it.

YT - Yes, that is exactly the challenge that we're tackling when doing the updates and dealing with the specific cultural events in games. Sometimes the whole game can be built around some specific event that is important in one culture. And it’s important to explain why the event is important to players from other regions.

This is actually the approach that we use most in translation — the explanation which is not really visible, which is so smooth that you don't really notice how you get engaged in other cultures' events. This is a challenge, but this is actually why localization is a greater challenge than just translation.

If you want to dive deeper into how localization for different markets works, also read:

JB - Here comes up the idea of having people who are native speakers for the translating work. Who do you think should be doing the localization of a game?

YT - For Alconost, it is usually a native speaker who does a localization. Native speakers are the best conveyors of cultural background, and they are the people who live in the country where the game will be played. They understand everything that is happening in this country right now, immediate interests, and all the rights and wrongs of this country. That’s why we usually work with the native speakers who live in the country of their language.

JB - Is there anything else that a developer may not necessarily think about that needs to be properly localized or even changed if you're going from one language to another?

YT - A thing that not so many developers think about is colors that are used to convey positive or negative meanings, especially in games where you fight someone.

When a team fights another team, there are specific colors chosen to show where your team is and where your opponent's team is. And for some specific regions, the coloring should be different just because of the cultural specifics of this region.

We usually mention it to the customer, and of course, if they decide to implement different colors, we change the text.

For locations, visuals can also be challenging. For example, if you’re building your game around locations that are really famous in your region, it can be difficult to understand for players from other regions. So this is where we sometimes need to invent or add text to explain the specific meaning of some location for the players to understand why it is important.

This is what we can advise on, just because of our background and the knowledge of our linguists, but this will actually be the developer's decision if to change something in the visuals of the game or to keep them as is.

This was the first part of the article. Look out for Part 2 in the coming days!


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