Mobile-first development and localization

Top Eleven by Nordeus is the most popular online cross-platform sports game in the world, with 140 million registered players. Over a year ago, the company’s user experience team realized that over half of the users play the game on their phones. Nordeus decided to focus more on mobile-first development, and to completely rethink development and localization. By now, the share of mobile phone users of Top Eleven has increased significantly, and the localization team delivers the game with constant updates in 30 languages. 

Nordeus is a Serbian mobile games developer that develops and publishes Top Eleven, one of the most played mobile sports games. Founded in 2010, it currently has a team of 150 people and offices in Belgrade, Dublin and London. Top Eleven is a football (soccer) management game, primarily played on mobile devices.

The principle of mobile first means that the app is designed primarily from the point of view of a player with a mobile phone. Phones offer a vastly different experience than laptops and desktops. Mobile devices have small screens and come in a variety of sizes. Players touch the screens with their fingers instead of a mouse cursor, and they need large buttons that are easy to tap. Text has to grab attention and provide clear instructions with just a few lines.

To optimize interfaces, developers for mobile apps usually test and update their games often. For localization, this approach means that the text has to be brief and easy to change in all language versions.

At Nordeus there is a constant stream of small changes, and the company ships the product in 30 languages. When a developer changes one word on a button, such as changing goal to score, it spawns 29 translation jobs. Each job may look tiny, a minute of attention from a translator, but it needs coordination of a large team of people. And it takes trial and error to ensure that text in every language fits the size of the button. The word score might be translated into Italian with a two-word expression that won’t fit. The translator then has to be replace it with something shorter, but still very compelling, something that calls to the player to push it.

Managing localization in the mobile-first environment is all about automating small tasks and keeping a flexible infrastructure. If you don’t find a way to implement changes easily, you will drown under the rain of updates.

Pull localization in real time

The Top Eleven team at Nordeus came up with a solution to pull localization from the server every time a user logs in. Localization is no longer embedded in the app itself, but it is stored on the Nordeus’ servers. Users download it each time it changes. One language locale is about 70,000 words in size, and this is something that users can easily download with 3G or wifi.

In technical terms, when a player launches Top Eleven, the app searches for the newest locales through the Settings file and gathers those from the server. The game pulls language data to the user’s device.

On the backend, every time something changes in the main resource file, a script detects changes and opens translation requests. Once the localization into all languages and the testing processes are complete, the script rebuilds the localization, pushes it to the game server and adds +1 to the version. The next time a user signs in to the game, the login procedure will get the latest updates.

Nordeus uses only one master resource file in English. A multilingual language service provider (LSP) handles all translations and runs quality control.

There are four advantages to this model:

Nordeus can change localization at any time.

The latest version is always live.

The localization team owns the process and does not depend on the product team.

There is only one master file, instead of hundreds of small ones.

This approach is very similar to running a cloud application. However, Nordeus still keeps the Top Eleven game on the user’s phone for easy access and for larger assets.

Recycling content, reducing locale footprint

Players have to download the language data almost every time they log in, and that is why the master files must stay well-optimized and as small as possible. One of the ways to do it is to reuse content whenever possible.

The Nordeus localization team discovered that the developers sometimes used very similar strings of text on different screens. For example, there were three buttons to “Select all” players: for an exercise, to intensify training and for the match. In the code the button text was stored as three separate strings, although it was the same. So, every time someone wanted to change the button text, it turned into three jobs for testing and localization. There were several instances where the same keys were used twice or three times in the game.

The localization team developed a simple debug tool that showed all the keys in the game and allowed the search for duplicates. With this tool, the localization engineers replaced the duplicate keys with just one centralized key that was linked to from different screens.

This improved the size of the English text file and the footprint of every locale. This was something that was quite easy to do, and it produced a healthy long-term effect.

Hosting a dedicated server for localization testing 

Before going mobile first, Nordeus didn’t do localization testing. After the switch, the company merged developer teams for Flash, iOS and Android, and they started working together on a new mobile interface. It took hard work to optimize the player experience. The first versions were full of truncations, the buttons were tiny and could barely fit English although the fonts were pretty small. It fell to the localization team to correct many of the bugs with the text.

At first, every change the localization team wanted to implement, or test, had to go through the developers, which slowed the process down. Eventually the team introduced a dedicated testing server just for their needs. They gained autonomy from the developers, and greatly improved the speed for localization engineering.

Currently the server allows them to test new locales internally; create game builds for localization purposes; and run regression testing. In a mobile-first app, testing happens every day. And it probably takes more time than translating or managing translations. Having an independent infrastructure for localization is the only way to keep the pace along with agile development.

The takeaway is: if you’re localizing a fast-changing application, be sure to get your own testing server.

Optimizing for top phones

When trying to optimize text for mobile interfaces, the Nordeus localization team quickly found out that there are thousands of smartphone models on the market, and they come in hundreds of sizes. On some devices the truncated text was cut off, while other models displayed the full string. It was simply too complicated to adapt to every one. Instead of spreading themselves thin, the company needed to settle for one thing and do it right.

They ran an analysis of mobile device usage by the players and learned what the most commonly used devices at the time were. The team focused testing on devices that had similar screen resolution and DPI, and included them into the primary testing group.

This way the effort went into testing on devices that covered more than 70% of the player base. In a year, analytics showed a high rate of adoption of newer iPhone devices. These devices and their similarly priced Android counterparts are currently a good target for testing.

Reducing the range of devices to the models that dominate the market leaves the localization team more time to properly control translation quality.

Phone screens don’t offer much space to use for text, which is fine since players wouldn’t want to read War and Peace while playing a football manager. That makes the game on a phone completely different from the browser-based social network game, where you have a lot of space and wiggle room to invent phrases.

Writing and localizing for a mobile game is hard. For a reader, it’s difficult to get attached to very concise narrative on a small screen. Yet, stories on small screens simply must grab attention with just a few lines of text. Working under such constraints requires a lot of creativity from the translators.

And while the localization manager cannot provide the translators with the creativity they need, at least he or she can ensure that they understand the subject well, and have enough context to build upon.

Conveying context to translators via the CAT tool

During the creation and design phase of new features, localization at Nordeus works closely with a narrative designer to flesh out a story around these new features. We request as much context as possible.

For example, one title for a training session was “Use your head.” The phrase doesn’t mean “think” here, but literally refers to hitting the ball with the character’s head, with wordplay to keep the title catchy and fun. It’s important to convey the meaning to the translators. Localization engineers write this into the translation job description, and it shows as context when translators arrive at the relevant segment.

In addition to providing detailed written description, Nordeus holds kick-off meetings with the LSP when developing a feature, or especially when the translation and the testing start. The objective is to keep the LSP informed and give them as much context as possible. The meetings are usually limited to three or four people: the buyer’s team and their contact person at the LSP. Having a small group empowers the members and allows for a faster workflow.

Inserting quality assurance into the product

Nordeus employs a secondary agency to run occasional quality checks on the translations. They use the LISA QA model to evaluate and provide feedback, which helps rate the main vendor and develop a relationship with them.

However, a more useful approach is to listen to users on the quality of translations. One of the things the Nordeus localization team added is drawable notifications that appear in the game. These notifications appear when users log in and navigate to certain screens in the app. The Nordeus localization team can customize them to target different languages or countries or even a subset of users.

For example, they were used to gather feedback on a machine translation (MT) experiment that showed the MT quality was unacceptable. Recently, Nordeus launched a survey to check the human translation quality, to see how users estimate the football atmosphere in the game and if the translation sounds natural. Once they get the results, they will analyze them and determine how to improve.

The perks of an increased audience

After Nordeus switched to mobile-first development, the share of players logging in from their phones started growing. Within a year millions of users switched, and currently the majority of the total audience uses phones to play.

The biggest benefit for Nordeus from going mobile first was the improved internal organization. Instead of having three development teams, they were able to merge them into one. Production became more focused and significantly improved efficiency and the ability to ship quality content to players.

The new look and feel of the game appealed to both players and partners, and Top Eleven was featured on mobile stores multiple times, especially in the “best update” and hero banner sections, winning new players.

Another benefit was increased revenue from existing users. Nordeus is earning more from mobile users than from browser users, and as some of them migrated after the update, they increased their spend on the game.

The localization architecture evolved after the switch to mobile first, and became very adaptable. The team can now add languages easily, and scale better than before. No matter how fast the developers push updates, the translation process keeps up the pace.