Monday, March 19, 2012

The Video Game Localization Process

We've put together a quick & simplified guide to the process of video game localization. But don't get too pumped up after reading this article - the localization process isn't always as glamorous and exciting as it sounds.

It is well known that video games developed in Japan take a long time to reach European, American, and Asian markets. Apart from the publishers' scheduling strategies, this delay can sometimes also be explained by the process of translating and localizing software. 

This is a very basic guideline of the steps that 90% of our clients follow when localizing a video game.

 Stage 1: Familiarization (Req. time: approx. 2 weeks)

It is necessary to have knowledge of what exactly it is that you are dealing with before actually starting work on a game. This would be done after the game has already been published in the Japanese market when working with a game that has been licensed from an unrelated company, and when working with a game that is currently still in the development stages (but after an approved master version has been produced) if the game is a product of the parent company. At this stage in the process, the head of the project team handles administration of any materials which are to be localized, including but not limited to text files and graphic materials received from the developers, while the translators involved in the localization play the game extensively to get a good feel for the mood, subject matter, and themes.

Being familiar with the in-game context of all aspects of a game is very important when translating and localizing a game, including any dialogue, menus, and any other type of text which may be found in bonus levels, extra material, and locked content. Sometimes visual clues contained solely in graphics – i.e., not in the text – can be extremely important in understanding the context of a certain piece of storyline or dialogue. For example, a character might make what seems to be a joyful exclamation when read in text form, but the onscreen graphic may reveal that it was obviously a sarcastic remark; in this particular instance, this could make an entire conversation sound completely nonsensical when localizing, say, an English game to the market, in a culture where sarcasm is not usually easily recognized and understood.

Stage 2: Localization (Req. time: approx. 1-8 weeks)

Depending on the project, this phase of the process can take vastly different amounts of time. A lot of this can be platform-related, with some games taking not much more than a week, and others – in extreme cases – taking almost half a year. Some of the main contributing factors to this can be the number of translators/localizers/editors involved, volume of text, and the types of files used. Another factor that can cause the required translation time to extend almost exponentially is the fact that many games have dialogue and texts which are split up in completely nonlinear ways, which can cause confusion and require extra familiarization time – as opposed to text which is lined up from “start to finish”. Also, games which include dialogue which is not just displayed on-screen but also vocalized by voice actors can take extra time to deal with.

Stage 3: Programming (Req. time: approx. 4-6 weeks)

Many publishers have no programmers actually on staff, and leave the implementation of text that has been translated/edited/finalized to the original developer of a game. This process usually takes under a month to complete, and includes reworking graphic files that require changes and movies that require new voice tracks, as well as making necessary adjustments for regional technical standards of the local market for which the game is being localized.

Stage 4: Quality Assurance (Req. time: approx. 5-8 weeks)

The quality assurance (usually known as QA) phase of a project commences after the developers have created a playable version of the game in question. Programming involved in the localization process generally produces a number of bugs in virtually any game, which is completely normal. These bugs – all of which are dealt with in this phase of localization - can include text-related problems such as misspellings and grammatical errors, inconsistencies, and nonsensical texts, as well as system-related glitches such as sound- and graphic-related bugs, crashes, and standards-related incompatibilities. All of these bugs must be thoroughly checked and fixed for a proper localization, and even the most simple and short games can take up to two or three months for a proper debugging, as any issues discovered must be double- and sometimes triple-checked in order to confirm that all issues have been solved and erased.

Stage 5: Manufacturer Approval (Req. time: approx. 3-8 weeks)

All manufacturers put games through a process of approval, in which in-house checkers review the master version that has been submitted by the localizers. This process is to confirm that the game content matches the manufacturer’s specific requirements and needs, and usually takes just under a month, but can take much longer if there are significant problems with the submitted content. In the event that serious issues arise, the developer is notified and Stages 3, 4, and 5 are repeated, albeit usually in a somewhat abbreviated form.

Stage 6: Physical Production (Req. time: approx. 3-5 weeks)

A game is not completely finished I i.e.: ready for sale – once a master version has been checked and approved by the manufacturer. First, replication houses – which produce a number of copies of a game to meet the needs of the manufacturer – receive a copy of the master version and start printing. This process can take varying amounts of time, depending on the type of physical media required (that is, whether the game is on a DVD or contained in a cartridge). The game is shipped to distributors after it has been printed and packaged at the manufacturer, and is then dispersed among various retail outlets such as game shops, Internet retailers, and companies with product tie-ins.

On top of all of the steps mentioned above, there are other factors which can also take time. These factors can include package and manual design (and printing), website production/debugging, and product tie-ins. Depending on the manufacturer and/or developer, these factors may be (and are usually) handled at the same time as the steps mentioned above, or they may be done afterward.

In order for the end user to finally be able to enjoy the game, all of the above steps must be completed (and completed properly, which unfortunately is not always the case, although I won’t mention any names...). Importing a game from one market to another is not as simple as “translate the text, redo any voice acting in the game, and maybe think up a new name”. Which is a good thing, as if it were that simple, then many of us would be out of a job.