Ask GR Anything is a weekly Q&A column that answers questions submitted
by readers (as well as questions we're particularly curious about ourselves).
Got a burning question about games or the industry? Ask us in the comments
below and you may just get it answered!
Here at Ask GR Anything we often get questions involving game localization.
Since the beginning gaming has been an international business, with publishers
selling games all over the world, which means for each territory a game needs
to be translated and adjusted to fit each culture. Even now, in an age where
the internet crosses borders worldwide, it can take a surprising amount of time
to localize a game (if they even get released internationally). And publishers can
be frustratingly opaque when asked why a treasured game isn't being released in
a specific territory. This all leads to a lot of confusion over the process of translating
games to other countries.
Above: This may or
may not be how NIS records game dialogue
What actually happens during the localization process? And why do some
games get lost along the way? We got in touch with Jack Niida, a producer at
NIS America, one of the most prolific localization companies in the West. NISA is
best known to gamers for localizing titles like the Disgaea series,
Hyperdimension Neptunia, and the Prinny series.
"For our titles, we begin by first discussing the title with the
Japanese development team several months before the game is released in
Japan," said Niida. "Here we plan out the schedule and also what
direction we would like to pursue for the West. We ask ourselves whether we
have to change content from the original Japanese version, or will we keep the
exact same content and tone. "
Niida said that a lot of the work done here in the early stages is to
prevent small discrepancies becoming big problems. If you're tinkering with the
tone of a story, you've got to be very sure that you know what you're doing
before you start recording voices.
"We will receive all the text files and voice files from the original
game, and we then begin our localization according to our schedule," said
Niida. "Generally, we try to begin with system text (for example,
graphical image text, tutorials, battle system text) and then move on to the
voiced story dialogue. This takes around three months, and then comes the voice
recording. Our voice recording is all done locally in Southern California with
different studios. It usually takes about a week or two for a project, but
smaller action-based games can be finished quicker. But action games are
tougher for the voice actors, since they're often all battle cries that strain
their voices quite a bit."
Above: Never underestimate how much work it takes
to make Japanese drama understandable for Western audiences
It's often not as simple as re-recording voices and re-writing text though.
Sometimes the game itself needs to be reprogrammed in small ways to suit the
new language. We once spoke with a developer from Hello Games about the
localization process for Joe Danger in Germany. He mentioned that it actually
became a huge pain because of the nature of the German language. In German, new
words are rarely created. Rather, old words are stacked on top of each other to
form a sort of Voltron word with a new meaning. As a result, you sometimes get
words that are 20+ letters long. In the case of Joe Danger, we were told that
meant some sections of text couldn't be fit in certain places.
"When all of the translating, editing, and recording is done, we send
the final audio and text files to the developer, who will program everything
into the game," said Niida. "Game debugging will begin shortly after
this, and can take anywhere from one month to three months. Once we determine
that the game is ready, we send the master copy off to the first-party
publisher (Sony, Nintendo, Micosoft) for the master submission process."
So how much work does all of this take? One of the things we were most
curious about is how many people it takes to bring a game from Japan to the US.
"Bringing a game over to the West isn’t easy," said Niida.
"From initial negotiations to a signed contract to actual manufacturing
can take up to a year or year and a half on average. For our titles, it takes
six to seven people at NISA to keep the project moving forward, not including
outside testers, programmers, and recording studio engineers."
Above: There's no shortage of things that need to
be redone for a North American release, up to and including the graphic design
of the box art
The final question we had, and the biggest thing on most people's minds was
why some games never make it stateside despite a seemingly large demand. Niida
told us that it's a very simple problem. It just comes down to money. A large
game like Xenoblade Chronicles takes quite a bit of money to translate and
re-record. Add that on top of the cost of manufacturing and shipping the game a
second time, and it can be tough to recoup those kinds of costs. Unfortunately,
demand needs to be higher than a few thousand very vocal people on the
internet, and companies need to be wary of letting those few, loud voices
control the conversation. They need to figure out if the general gamer is going
to have any interest.
"I can assume that some titles can never recoup their localization
costs, so publishers have no choice but to abandon some projects. It’s becoming
tougher and tougher to sell retail package games, so this is an issue that we
face as well."
Submit your own questions in the comments (or Tweet them to @sciencegroen)
and we may tackle them in a future Ask GR Anything.