Since their conception in the 1950s and their boom in the 1970s, people have been playing video games — console games, arcade games, Facebook applications, smartphone applications, mobile games and large-scale online games. The era of the internet allowed the games industry to take off and get to what we know now, where we can interact with other people in our games no matter where they are. The translation of any game or application is essential for any company that would like to reach top marks in worldwide sales.
But, as it happens in any business, the localization of any software, whether it be a computer program, video game or website, is not always up to the highest standards, not only because companies want to save on costs, but probably because they don’t really understand the importance of a localized product and how it can influence their sales.
So, what should we take into account when localizing a product? First, avoid translations too specific for a culture or a generation. Not long ago, Álvaro García wrote a post on his blog about Little King’s Story, a game that had been localized into Spanish following a parody on a famous Spanish comedian. The whole game was full of expressions used by this comedian in his jokes, as well as spelling and grammar mistakes. The problem with using that type of localization is that the career of this comedian was at its peak during the 1990s, so his jokes are currently somewhat out of vogue. The younger Spanish generations might not understand them, not to mention Spanish speakers in Latin America, North America or any other country.
Lack of interest from the developer or distributor to spend money on doing a proper localization might lead to unfinished or partly localized games. Take, for example, the Spanish version of Happy Aquarium (Figure 1). This is a very simple game in which the player has to keep and take care of an aquarium by buying fish and making sure they are fed and healthy at all times. But it seems the developers gave up too quickly in localizing the game, as they have left it half untranslated. The text highlighted in red is translated, whereas other items such as the Rescue/Ignore icons or even the ‘s after the name of the owner of the Aquarium aren’t localized.
The translation of any word without knowing the context may be difficult or even impossible. Translators always ask for context when they are given something to translate. In the case of games localization, knowing how the game works is crucial in order to get the most accurate translation for each term or sentence. For example, the word bat could be translated in different ways depending on if it’s referring to the animal, the stick used to bat a baseball or one used in a cricket game, a table tennis paddle, or even the verb to bat. Hence, there is only one out of five chances to get it right, and not only the context but possibly an image would be necessary to be able to solve this problem successfully.
Sometimes, however, translators may not be aware of their ignorance. If they don’t understand the source culture, jokes, background or, for example, when something is an idiom that should not be translated literally, the final translation cannot be made accurately.
Additionally, there are specific requirements for each market or culture. In many cases, the video game must be adapted to a certain culture, either because puns and jokes won’t be understood in the target culture or because certain parts of the source culture are not allowed or accepted by the target culture. For example, in Germany, it is forbidden to show explicit scenes of violence, such as slaughter, murder or bloodshed, or anything that is brutal and incites violence, such as blood or decapitation. Therefore, companies wanting to localize their products for German gamers must adapt their games. This process can sometimes be very creative. For example, something as easy as showing red blood splattering could be fixed by removing it or by changing its color so that it is not red anymore. But the options are infinite, and creativity can sometimes flourish within the design of the game. In one of the games of the famous Hitman saga, the player can either enable an option within the configuration menu so that there is no blood at all or even switch it to an option that will show flowers instead of blood. Yes, when Agent 47 kills someone in the German version, the dead person “bleeds” flowers. In this case the localization does not really mean an extra cost, as the floral version is included in all languages and the game is sold in just one storage keeping unit (SKU), which in video games is usually the format or formats the game is sold in — such as a DVD, game card or downloadable content.
Sometimes a video game may require the game developers to create a special version for a certain culture, which will be sold separately or in a separate SKU. While I was part of the Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures testing team, I was amazed to learn that the company had to do a special version of the ways to kill an enemy. Age of Conan is a saga translated into six languages, in which the main character — you, the gamer — has to gain status by killing, stealing, helping people and so on. Just imagine Conan the Barbarian (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character can be used in this case), slaying enemies with his sword, chopping heads and limbs off, and leaving the bodies on the floor bleeding to death. Something like that would never be allowed by the German censors. For this reason, Funcom, the developers, had to create a new version of the game in which the killings were “nonaggressive,” if we can say that. Besides this, the character would never chop off any heads or limbs. Blood was also nonexistent. Due to all those changes in the code itself, this version had to be sold in a different SKU (on a DVD), aimed only at the German market.
Context is key when localizing. Even though some context could be found within the text sent by the developer, sometimes translators may also need additional information. Therefore, it is important that the translator becomes familiar with the game — what the game is about, which characters are there and what menus they can use. The best way to achieve this is by using the software or game that needs to be localized because only by experimenting with something can one can really understand every detail of it.
For the same reason that a legal translator is used to translate a contract or a court document or a scientific translator is assigned a book on science, the game or software localization also needs translators specialized not only in games or software in general, but also in the type of game or software that is created. Some translators might feel more comfortable translating war games, whereas others prefer more creative games with amazing plotlines. Or maybe a weapons geek, a criminology expert, a Star Wars geek or a true fan of gymnastics is needed for your game. This can be compared to gamers themselves. Some prefer shooting games, others enjoy party games or puzzles, whereas others are amazing at playing sports games. As localizers, this same classification can be applied. Of course, localizers can also research and learn as they translate certain types of games, but it would be better if each project is given to the right translator with the corresponding experience and knowledge.
As with any other translation, proofreading is the best way to make sure the translation is fluid and consistent throughout. This is especially recommended in those games with a high volume of words or tight deadlines. Once the translation process is finished and the translation is sent back to the developer, the text will be included in the game, and then the second step of a quality game localization may start.
Requirements for QA testers
Quality assurance (QA) is a planned and systematic pattern of all actions necessary to provide adequate confidence that the product optimally fulfills customers’ expectations.
QA is not just spending hours playing a video game until you finish it . . . 20 times. It is not simple, and it should not be taken lightly. Both localization and functionality testers need more than gaming skills in order to perform their work easily and with the best results. Thus, it is important to list some of the competencies and skills a good tester needs.
First is the ability to perform repetitive tasks, since the testing process can take from a whole day to several weeks. It works in a different way if you are a functionality tester or a localization tester, but the basics are the same. The process starts when a new full-of-errors version of the game is received. In the case of functionality testers, the lead tester might ask one of the other testers to focus on one level. However, this level crashes right at the beginning when the player tries to kill enemy number two with a machine gun. The tester does not realize this until the console has crashed at least ten times. When the tester can be sure about the process crashing the game, a bug is reported onto a database. Rest assured that now the tester needs to use the knife to kill the enemy to continue any further.
Most software companies have a QA department charged with finding programming bugs while the program is in development; bugs are also often detected by means of beta testing, which is testing of a product, often by potential consumers, before it is placed on the market. In the case of the QA department, those errors are reported by the tester into a database so that the development team can track all the errors and then fix them. This bug database is usually the way the testers and developers speak to each other.
Continuing with the previous example: after reporting the bug, the tester continues working on the game, spending eight hours a day playing the same level in search of bugs, un-equipping the machine gun, taking the knife when seeing enemy number two, sneaking up from behind to kill him, grabbing the machine gun and playing until the level is finished. And then, back to the beginning. Observation is also important in any QA process. However, when the same game or level has been played several times, the mechanical part of the brain starts getting used to it. The ability to realize when something is not how it should be or is not correct declines, so the tester starts playing like a machine and stops spotting many of the errors. Part of this attention to detail is having a great visual memory in order to realize what things have changed or are not shown in the correct place.
Even if the tester can speak only one language and is a functionality tester, having good writing skills in this language is crucial. People writing the original texts might not be the most skillful writers, since they are programmers and coders and are not employed to write a novel. Thus, the tester will have to make sure the source text within the game is accurate and does not confuse the gamer. In the case of localization testers, this skill is even more crucial, as they will be the last link in the localization chain, making sure the translated text is correct, accurate and, of course, in the corresponding language throughout the game.
Being skillful in playing games helps a lot, as testers need to spend eight hours a day with games, which will test their gaming skills. The more games testers play, the better and faster they will be. However, most people can learn to play a video game in a short period of time. Teaching them how to use and write a language correctly is much more difficult.
Communication is about the transfer of information — not just talking, but making sure the right message is sent to and received by the right person. As in any company, communication among the employees is very important. Good communication between testers and other people involved in the creation of a game is key. In some cases, a tester might find an important error or a bug that might break the whole game, and, therefore, the testing process might be finished and developers would have to send a new version. In other cases, the whole game or parts of it might be in a different language from that of the localization testers, so it would be completely pointless for any tester to continue testing. In those cases, it is better, quicker and more efficient to speak to the supervisor, call the developers and ask them to send a new version. If the tester is not a good communicator, this could delay the whole testing process.
Who knows best what the end user of a video game or software wants? Possibly the person who spends eight hours a day playing the game or trying out the software. Testers have to turn the game inside-out when testing; they have to be familiar with every nook and cranny; and they have to know where all the prizes are. Sometimes it might not be obvious that certain types of commands for a game do not work. For example, it might seem like a good idea to use the Wii remote to shoot enemies, but if there is no “lock-on target” option activated, this would probably be a hard task for anybody, as enemies tend to be moving at all times. Nobody can know if what he or she is creating will be good for the end user unless he or she tries it out.
Good knowledge of platform holders’ standards is also important. This is more specific to console video games, but it can also be seen in a parallel way in other games such as betting games, iPhone or even online games. The last one is a bit more flexible, as it is enough knowing the basics of website commands. In the case of the consoles and PC, those standards are basic and compulsory and probably the most important part of a game. If a game is more or less playable, the companies will often approve it even if it is not a great game. On the other hand, if the most amazing game is sent to the platform holders, but the standards within the game are not up to what they request, they will not approve the game, and the developer or publisher may spend a lot of time and money trying to fix the problem. It is important that testers, producers, coders and developers learn those standards, not only for themselves, but also to make it easier for translators to do their job well.
In sum, the localizer and the developer or client should work closely, helping each other in terms of context, standards, providing screenshots, guides and so on. It is also important that proper QA is carried out, as it is the last step in the localization of any game and the last chance to change whatever mistakes or inconsistencies the translator or proofreader didn’t notice.