Five guidelines for success in Asian gaming markets

Ensuring that audiences in various parts of East and Southeast Asia fall in love with the games you create means adapting the characters — and the dialects they speak — appropriately for the region. Your goal is to avoid comical (at best) or disastrous (at worst) results for your gaming franchise.

What do we mean? Try imagining a version of Grand Theft Auto in which characters speak the Queen’s English. “English” can refer to the upper-class standard British English of the Queen as well as the language of American rap videos, or a thousand other geographical or sociological varieties, each with its own legitimate and appropriate usage scenarios. The languages in Asia also exhibit such variation. However, in the case of Chinese, the variation is on the order of English, Dutch, Norwegian and German combined.

Based on interviews with global game developers by analysts at independent market research firm CSA Research, here are five guidelines to enable your company to realize higher levels of success in East and Southeast Asia when entering the following markets for the first time or recalibrating its local strategy: China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

1. Develop a globalization and local-language strategy using input from the region, rather than one generated by headquarters based solely on expected game ROI.

Gaining buy-in for a framework that explicitly lays out what parts of which games should be translated into what flavors of which languages will go a long way to ensuring that designers, coders, testers, localizers, marketers and support communities row the boat in the same direction.

Why should this be one of your top priorities? Because a seismic shift in localization requirements is happening in this region. East and Southeast Asian markets are growing by leaps and bounds, new countries are becoming tier 1 markets, and customers are now more demanding when it comes to playing games in their own language.

2. Flesh out detailed gamer profiles for each audience under consideration.

Begin with the personas that you cater to in your domestic market. Sketch out their profiles based on app store and your own analytics. For example, review game types downloaded, length of time played each day and inline purchases. Then analyze how these characteristics may differ for gamers in Thailand, Malaysia or the Philippines. Don’t forget to check out analytics on mobile websites and third-party app stores run by handset manufacturers and companies such as Baidu, Huawei and Xiaomi. You can also gain great insights from across the entire region by paying for a few hours of consulting expertise from language service providers that specialize in game localization.

You’ll discover that some audiences resist shelling out for premium games but are open to paying for games as a service. In other markets, female gamers are willing to pay more than their male counterparts. Make sure you understand local payment systems, including mobile payments and game cards in markets in which credit and debit cards are less popular.

3. Don’t be distracted by the false choice of all or nothing.

Even if you’re a major games developer and publisher, you still cannot localize all products into all languages. Explore the alternatives based on what you can reasonably deliver without degrading the value of your brand or creating unacceptable levels of customer dissatisfaction.

Take Malay, for example — also known as Malaysian, Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Melayu. It is the official language of Malaysia and one of four official languages in Singapore. It is spoken by almost the entire population, including other ethnolinguistic groups such as the Chinese, in Malaysia. As it turns out, Indonesian, the official language of Indonesia, is a very closely related standardized form of Malay. The differences are about the same as between the Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian and Swedish), thus allowing a certain degree of asymmetrical intelligibility. This offers the possibility of translating game content from Malay to Indonesian using machine translation, followed by post-editing. This may result in quicker and cheaper localization than going from English directly into Indonesian.

4. Deliver products in the languages that real people speak, not the ones you assume they use.

Expand beyond the official tongues assigned to target audiences. For example, English is one of the primary languages of East Asia, especially Southeast Asia. It is not only used in standard forms, such as Standard Singaporean English, which are similar to standard British or American English, but it is also used in newer nativized forms. The latter often include code mixing and code switching in which people speak in one language but include many words or phrases from other languages, or go back and forth between languages.

This switching can have implications for localization choices. Singapore’s Singlish, based on vocabulary from local languages such as Hokkien and Malay, is a prime example. Even though it is criticized as being “bad” English and discouraged by authorities, it has become ubiquitous. However unofficial or non-standardized, Singlish can be effectively employed for realistic colloquial speech in high-quality video games. For example, if the characters in a game set in Singapore are street thugs, they certainly should not be speaking the Queen’s English! They should not even be conversing in Standard Singaporean English or Mandarin; rather, gamers should hear them speaking a combination of Singlish and Hokkien, along with perhaps a few other dialects.

5. Explore speech synthesis for generating audio.

Consider the use of new text-to-speech systems (TTS) for Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, and English audio when it is not affordable or practical (because of space limitations on mobile devices, for example) to use digital recordings of human speech. This strategy may also be useful when the exact text to be spoken can’t be determined ahead of time.