The state of games localisation

The state of games localisation
Aaron Lee

By Aaron Lee

April 17th 2013 at 10:45AM

Develop reports on the translation firms that now have more to do and less time to do it in

[This feature was published in the April edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

Localisation is a preparation that, when done well, often remains oblivious to the player. Text and dialogue convey the means that were originally intended, regardless of what language they exist in. There’s a fluency, familiarity and consistency to the conversion right down to the packaging.

But translation is just the surface. It’s about understanding the cultural needs of individual countries and markets. And for the companies at the forefront of games localisation the road has been a rocky one lately.

New platforms, such as smartphones and tablet computers, have meant that there has been a fresh bout for their services. And the increasing interest in emerging markets such as Brazil is creating new prospects for them.

Yet conservative behaviour from publishers, and some developers, has meant that localisation firms are having to be canny about their businesses.

A question of cost

“The holy trinity is the same as it’s always been: quality, speed and cost,” says Michael Souto, business development manager at Localize Direct, when asked what it is clients want from external localisation companies today.

“The quality has to be great, it needs to be delivered as quickly as possible, but at a price which is comfortable to manage. Of the three, I would suggest that cost is probably the top priority.”

And by all accounts, he’s not wrong.

Hugh Edwards, director of voice and dialogue specialists High Score describes what the temperature has been like in the recent past: “The recession has had a huge impact on localisation, where many publishers are refusing to localise dialogue in favour of on-screen text. This is obviously a fiscal decision and is short-sighted in that the gamers in other countries have less of an experience than those in English-speaking territories.

“As the economy is starting to heal, we’re seeing that trend buckle and publishers more concerned with the needs of their audience. I completely understand why it’s happened, and in some cases it’s been unavoidable – especially in an effort to try and save jobs.”

On the development side, cost is one reason why a number of publishers and developers have taken localisation in-house where possible.

Launched in 2004, social gaming company Spil Games now possesses a collection of over 4,000 games created in-house and through partnerships for its gaming portals. It offers these games in 15 languages and today claims to entertain some 180 million players each month. Catering to such a wide breadth of audiences, Spil prefers to rely on its internal localisation team first.

“When it comes to localisation QA, an internal team can ensure localisation is much faster and usually testers are more in touch with the nature of the product and the company,” offers Spil’s head of localisation and customer service Laura van Nigtevegt.

Speed, agility and flexibility is what van Nigtevegt believes developers expect, but she also recognises that internal localisation has its limits.

“There are disadvantages that also need to be considered,” she adds. “Specifically, during peak times, internal teams might run into resource issues which can be helped by outsourcing overflow.”

Keeping costs down and quality up

This notion of keeping costs down, but quality up is nothing short of an obsession in games localisation.

Testronic Labs has been providing end-to-end localisation, testing and QA for an array of industries, including games, ecommerce and consumer electronics, for over a decade. The company’s VP of games operations and UK site manager Alastair Harsant says that having facilities in London and Warsaw gives it both the means and the muscle to fulfil its clients’ requirements.

For Harsant, games localisation is about providing quality, value and speed. To achieve that, in his view, it comes down to attracting the best staff in order to generate an infrastructure that allows them to offer clients the best possible price.

“We never compromise on quality and therefore speed can be the biggest challenge,” he says. “However, we work with our partners to prepare for the project. Receiving roadmaps, game design documents and project ambitions from developers and publishers early gives us an opportunity to get off to the best possible start. It allows us to develop the best overall strategy and test plan, and gives us momentum from day one.”

Another localisation firm aware of the cost-saving benefits that overseas branches can provide is Babel.

“With publishers and developers having to invest in the core game, budgets for localisation are getting squeezed, especially in audio, so delivering great work and the best overall savings possible are critical. Hence we now have a large internal team in our Montreal facility, where we can take the benefit of the Quebec tax grant and pass it back to our clients as lower costs,” says Babel’s VP of sales Keith Russell.

On the other hand, however, Souto of Localize Direct fears that some companies are merely in a race to the bottom, by offering “outrageously low prices”. Given the fact that there are base translation costs, he’s unsure how these companies are able to achieve this.

“I can’t see how this is done without compromising on how the translations are created. We just hope that companies will really investigate how these prices are achieved and understand that there must be a balance between super-low-cost translations and quality,” professes Souto.

Figs like these

Rampant belt tightening is one concern, but what has occurred in the localisation sector in recent years, and is continuing to evolve now, is a move to support more languages, beyond the traditional French, Italian, German and Spanish quartet.

The reason for this is in part down to an influx of emerging markets, such as Brazil, China and the Middle East. But it is the powerful new mobile platforms – smartphones and tablet computers – which have made gaming accessible to more people worldwide than ever before. That fact has also led to today’s current climate, and established a new avenue for localisation providers.

“Arabic, Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Thai and Turkish are lately in demand, both in translation as well as testing,” says Randall Mage, CEO of Localsoft.

“In terms of mobile and Facebook games, it is common to translate these into a dozen or more languages and word counts can be as small as a few words to a few hundred words.”

Anna Wojewodzka, operations manager at Universally Speaking, says she has also witnessed a significant increase in the volume of languages requested outside of the traditional FIGS arrangement: “As more games are released on mobile platforms and often self-published, the quantity of text in games decreases, whilst the number of projects we handle is rising.”

By contrast, Mage says MMOs commonly run from tens of thousands to millions of words, and his company is used to setting up large in-house teams to work on these titles for several months to a year or more.

More platforms can equal more opportunities to generate income, but today’s constantly upgrading hardware also bring with them their own challenges for firms. All mobile projects now require a level of functionality and compatibility testing. The non-stop conveyer belt of app updates means outsourcers have their work cut-out to keep up with clients’ needs. Testology has adapted its services to address the ongoing issues that that the mobile revolution presents.

“We recognised the emerging mobile markets and began to invest in mobile devices a few years ago,” says Harrison Baker, product manager at Testology.

“We now have 30 iOS and close to 50 Android devices, each running multiple OS versions. We utilise tests over multiple device iterations to ensure accurate market share compatibility coverage.”

U-Trax’ president and founder Richard van der Giessen adds: “Now, more than ever, games are rarely ‘finished’ when they go to market. DLC and especially business models like free-to-play and games-as-a-service keep the game developing while consumers are already playing it.”

Moreover, Localize Direct’s Souto tells Develop that it is experiencing a greater reliance on split releases.

“There may be a few languages at time of launch but then other languages follow after a period of time. If there isn’t a great localisation process in place, then the path will be littered with lost and old strings, more translator questions and wasted developer time,” he argues.

A culture of speed

The demand for games to appear in a wider selection of languages is only the surface of what has become known as culturalisation. This practice is about making a game suitable for a particular locale.

The aim is to make it more appealing and remove any elements which threat to offend, and therefore everything from cultural symbols like signs, to gestures and clothing, to religion and current affairs, needs to be considered.

Davide Solbiati, executive localisation director at Systhesis, believes that to guarantee proficiency in culturalisation and manage the challenges localisation presents, companies must have a direct presence in every single market.

“You can’t just rely on a central office and then have a network of vendors,” he says. “You need to have your own people around the world so that you can provide a consistent and standard service throughout your company.

“Having people working in the Americas, in Europe and in Asia, all part of the same company, all sharing the same approach, the same procedures and the same passion for gaming: this is what I see as the key elements to be unique and successful in the market.”

Spil’s van Nigtevegt claims that the industry is moving away from a ‘one size fits all’ model. “Sometimes you need superb quality that’s highly culturally relevant,” she adds.

Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, the much anticipated collaboration between Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli and Professor Layton creator Level-5, was translated for the European market by Babel, and Russell says its involvement helped retain the game’s endearing sentiment.

Russell adds: “It was a joy of game to work on and we were so pleased the localisation quality drew praise from both reviewers and players. It really shows what’s possible when you get involved early and work as a team with a great developer and publisher.”

Unlike Ni no Kuni, however, many games are not given the luxury of time for localisation.

Speed is the issue that almost every company Develop spoke to emphasised. It’s a pattern that Testronic’s Harsant is very much aware of: “The last few years has seen the need for more languages, less time in general to test and tighter budgets to work to. To achieve these client goals we need to constantly review our efficiency, technology and personnel.”

And Spil’s van Nigtevegt says the same is true of internal teams: “In a constant quest for a faster time-to-market, we’re always overhauling our internal and external processes. A big gain can be achieved when we manage to automate the full production process with the least possible human intervention – we’re working on that here.”

Universally Speaking’s Wojewodzka claims there is now a “need for around the clock service to deal with short translations requiring a quick turnaround”.

“As this trend progresses, we become more agile and responsive to make sure that we do not cause delays in the development process, but integrate our processes instead,” she says.

Same old, same old?

The expectation for greater speed from localisation vendors stems from the immediacy that connected platforms present. It’s platforms such as smartphones, browser games and MMOs that have required them to expand their scope and skill set, and it looks as though it is these platforms, not the next generation of games consoles, where much of their work will be coming from.

Wojewodzka describes what’s changed for Universally Speaking: “We’ve seen a decline in console development, which historically has been core business for localisation. However, this has been matched with an increase in development on other platforms. We are truly multiplatform which means that as long as we keep a balanced portfolio, reflective of the industry, we remain competitive and healthy.”

Testology, too, is now seeing mobile, web and social projects dictating 80 per cent of its business. And Testology’s Baker is frank about what’s occurring: “Our industry is all about evolution, and the accessibility of these platforms – for both developers and consumers – means that service adaptability is crucial. This inevitably means that project size and budgets are smaller, and influence the amount of QA contact required.

“But we still need to ensure that these applications, websites, and Facebook games ‘ship’ with the same level of quality a consumer expects.”

Of course, many of these firms are gearing up tackle the new machines, regardless. Testronic has increased capacity at its London and Warsaw facilities and the level of training for team members, Babel is directing its efforts to building teams that specialise on franchises and U-Trax has already begun to adapt by starting work on its first eighth generation titles.

Hush-hush

The shifting sands of emerging markets, new platforms and skittish publishers is apparent. What’s not so easy to approach is the affect the secretive nature of the games business is having on localisation firms.

The concern, which has been hinted at by some of the companies Develop spoke to, but only acknowledged as a real issue by a minority, is whether localisation companies are allowed to discuss the projects they have worked on more freely.

Though other sectors, such as the film and automotive industries, are known to keep their cards close to their chests, it has been suggested that the games industry operates in a uniquely guarded manner when it comes to disclosing work by external parties.

While this has been the agreed etiquette for generations, there are those working in games localisation that believe it shows that the industry still has growing up to do. After all, a little more openness could go a long way.

What’s clear, however, is that the need for localisation has never been greater.

“With many customers self-publishing and going multiplatform, we get more requests for rigorous testing plans, but also an increase in playability and user insight. Companies need to know a lot more about what players are doing,” concludes Wojewodzka.

“As long as we keep a balanced portfolio, reflective of the industry, we remain competitive and healthy.”

This feature was originally published in Develop #137, April 2013

Case Study: Testronic Labs

Founded: 1998
Locations: UK, USA, Poland, Belgium, Japan
Headcount: 400+
Previous projects: Gran Turismo 5, Kingdom Hearts, Angry Birds, League of Legends, Dead Island, Batman: Arkham Asylum

In 2012, Testronic had its most successful year on record, and this year it expects to do even better. The company’s games division continues to go from strength to strength.

Not only is it Testronic’s fastest growing division, it also boasts many of the industry’s biggest publishers on its client list, including SCEE, PopCap, Square Enix, Sega, Deep Silver, Kuji Entertainment and many others in Europe, USA, Japan and elsewhere.

In recognition of its  services, the company received a Develop Award nomination for the fifth consecutive year in 2012.

Having seen an increased demand for QA localisation, functionality, compatibility and compliance, the firm has significantly increased capacity at both its London and Warsaw facilities.

The company’s broad QA coverage extends to all major consoles, PC, Steam, MMOs, handheld, mobile, social, casual and online games.

Recently, Testronic has invested in new technology and services, including a programme known as User Experience, which it showcased at GDC in San Francisco earlier this year.

www.testroniclabs.com

Case Study: Localsoft

Founded: 1988
Location: Spain
Headcount: 75
Previous projects: Command & Conquer, LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4, Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, Monster Hunter Tri, Wii Sports

Localsoft is a one-stop localisation service provider with more than 20 years of experience in video games localisation.

It translates video games manuals, on-screen text, voiceover scripts, packaging text, promotional material and websites into 50 languages.

Additionally, Localsoft offers other services such as desktop publishing, text-flow, complete audio services including foreign language voiceovers, linguistic and cosmetic testing via debug units and quality assurance.

It has localised over 500 titles, including triple-A games among them, in a variety of languages and platforms.

“We bring a wealth of experience to every project we work on,” says CEO Randall Mage, a US citizen and long-time Spanish resident.

“Our goal is to create a collaborative environment between the different parties involved in the project, not only concerning communications but also regarding procedures and tools. We care about the quality of your products, ensuring security during testing periods and providing guidance on quality checks and standards.”

www.localsoftgames.com