Lessons learned from a game translation competition

The success of mobile platforms and the casual game genre has radically transformed the game development scene in the last five years. Huge 200 or 300 employee studios have been joined (or, often, replaced) by an army of independent developers, teams of one or two people focusing on projects with reduced budgets and development times.

In a way it’s back-to-the-origins, a new millennium version of the phenomenon that saw hundreds of programmers committed to creating, from their desks at home, an endless series of masterpieces for the 8-bit and 16-bit computers that invaded our homes nearly 30 years ago. But there is a sharp distinction between the developers of that era and the current generation, embodied by the greater collaborative spirit of the latter ones — a spirit largely fueled by technologies that have spread from the 1990s. It’s the offline (or early online) generation versus the always-online one. It’s in this environment that game jams were born, virtual or real-life gatherings where developers plan, design and create a video game in a reduced period of time, sometimes as short as 24 hours. The Global Game Jam, an annual event born under the IGDA (International Game Developers Association, a professional association that brings together more than 12,000 members of the gaming industry) involving hundreds of teams of developers from around the world, is probably the most famous game jam.

LocJAM, the first nonprofit competition for game translators, was born in the same spirit. Conceived by Alan Dellepiane, an experienced video game translator and tester and launched by the IGDA Localization SIG (the Special Interest Group of game localization enthusiasts), LocJAM has a very simple modus operandi. During the ten days or so of competition, participants must visit the official competition website (www.locjam.org), where they find a game waiting to be localized and the English text of said game. Translators can choose whether to take part in the competition as professionals or amateurs, localizing the game into either French, German, Italian, Japanese, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, European Spanish or Latin American Spanish. A jury of game localization companies then picks the best translation, pros and amateurs, for each language. Simple as that.

Launched without much fanfare in March 2014, the first LocJAM was a success on every front. Over 500 translators grappled with the localization of The Republia Times, a Flash puzzle game with political connotations (Figure 1). Participants particularly enjoyed a series of LocJAM-related workshops, seminars by industry professionals arranged to prepare amateur translators to better face the competition. The workshops did the lion’s share in the second edition of LocJAM, which ended in March 2015. More than 300 people at LocJAM2 attended 17 workshops held on local university campuses and workspaces around the globe, from Montevideo to Tokyo, from Barcelona to San Diego. The workshops were an unquestionable success that allowed the competition, focused on adventure graphic Grandpa and based on the same formula of the previous year, to amass 623 entries, now spread across eight languages.

What conclusions have we collected from LocJAM? The most relevant one is that choosing a game for a competition like this requires a lot of effort, more than we could probably imagine. For LocJAM2 we went for Grandpa (Figure 2) in part because the game is built on Twine, a free platform that allows everyone to create simple adventure games. The biggest limit of this choice is that contents are very linear and book-like, so important skills like juggling variables and space limits can’t be tested. On the other hand, the main benefit is the format: Twine games are plain HTML. To make Republia Times playable for the first LocJAM, we had to fight for months in order to add all the necessary elements to the code, whereas recruiting a programmer allowed us to make Twine games translatable fairly quickly and with full Unicode support. In order to make the HTML file translatable by everybody, we had to add a localization library into the file able to swap string in real-time and create an external file in plain .txt with strings to be localized. This setup allowed translators to open the game in a browser in order to play it normally. Then, after editing the text file, they could refresh the page, select the translated version and see it right away. Once they were done, they could simply share their .txt file for others to play in their translation.

The second indication is that participants enjoyed the nonprofit nature of the event, but they wouldn’t mind a more commercial event in the future. When starting the LocJAM our goal was to promote video game translation, a profession that is often invisible. And to do so we reached out to its different realities, which usually cannot communicate due to non disclosure agreements, putting the same text in front of everyone and asking them: “What is good localization for you?” There are no real prizes other than studio tours with recording sessions at the specialist agencies that act as jurors. The game at the center of the competition has no commercial value: it has never been sold and never will in any form. And candidates don’t pay anything for the contest and for the workshops, which are usually held inside universities. Despite these factors, a survey we ran after the first LocJAM showed that about 60% of the participants would enjoy (or at least wouldn’t be against) a more commercial event, in which all entries are made accessible online and more promotional spaces lead to richer prizes. It’s an unlikely option, given the small amount of time and resources we have, but it definitely makes for an interesting “What if?” scenario.

The third point concerns the jurors. LocJAM was never intended as a best translator award; it’s not the Oscars of video game translators, and it doesn’t want to be. Making an award of that kind is a huge commitment the IGDA Localization SIG cannot really take on at this time. But the SIG’s mission helped in choosing how to build the judging process. The SIG aims “to provide a focal point and nexus for the growing number of game localization professionals in order to build community, draw together best practices and processes, and emphasize the requisite international dimension of game content development toward the goal of improving global game development processes and local end user experiences.” Inside the SIG we have all kinds of localization professionals: translators, of course, but also editors, project managers, audio engineers, programmers, language providers and so on. So, instead of having a single jury telling others what is right and what is wrong, we went for a jury made of multiple people simply choosing their favorite version and explaining their reasons, without any pretense of universality. Which people? A select few from translation agencies specialized in video games. Why? Because they manage a good 90% of the games we play daily on our consoles or smartphones. And while this doesn’t give them the right to dictate standards to everyone (something we already decided LocJAM doesn’t do), it does give weight to their word. Agencies also have the resources to review the high number of entries (a staggering 198 participants submitted their translation of Grandpa in Spanish).

The fourth observation: workshops are great. We built the LocJAM as an online event because we wanted it to be as inclusive as possible. But we soon wondered how to include some local events too. There was no pretense of offering thorough coverage everywhere, but the existing workshops were a nice extra for those who were interested. We had seven workshops before the first LocJAM, from London, to Barcelona, to Tokyo, with over 180 attendees. Those numbers doubled for LocJAM2. This turned out to be one of the most heart-warming parts of the event; even though “workshop” ended up being a bit of a misnomer as most events were more like conferences, and ended up involving a chat about localization more than a hands-on localization lab.There’s nothing quite like seeing people having a great time to remind us why we were handling the competition in the first place. And it’s important to mention that, again, we were operating without a budget. The workshop had to be free: it was acceptable to have attendees pay a mandatory drink or another small fee to cover room costs, but that was it. The workshop also had to be non-promotional: the aim of the seminar was to discuss game localization in general, not promote any speaker or any company.

The fifth and last conclusion is the overwhelming (and partially surprising) interest toward game localization, especially in the under-25 demographics. The nonexistent budget forced us to promote the event simply through word of mouth and social media. We created a simple promo video, a press release that got picked up by a fair amount of media (including Famitsu, one of the biggest gaming publications in the world, and the ATA Chronicle, published by the American Translator Association) and there was a development blog to update everybody on the progress of the competition. And that’s it. Yet despite a zero-dollar campaign, the locjam.org website amassed over 14,000 visits during LocJAM2. Some workshops had more than 80 attendees, all willing to learn the tricks of the trade from professionals such as Richard Mark Honeywood, who led the Tokyo seminar and has worked in the localization department of powerhouses like Square Enix and Blizzard. We definitely have room for improvement. A more extensive promotion, for example, could help us generate interest in territories that didn’t embrace the LocJAM like we hoped (Germany, for example). But with such a positive feedback from the community and with people already asking for LocJAM3, maybe we’d better start looking for a suitable game for next year.