Off the Map: Levels of game culturalization

The need for game localization is a well-known necessity in the game industry, particularly with the reality that roughly 50% of the industry’s global revenue is generated from localized versions. For individual companies, the percentage of annual revenue derived from localized versions of games can vary widely, from 25% to as much as 70%. Also, some companies are discovering the value of localization to the point of reviving older game titles and spending a nominal amount on localization for emerging markets. In some cases, the return on investment (ROI) has been staggering — as much as 400%.

Thus, there’s no question that localization is critical and necessary. However, the need for culturalization, as I’ve discussed here in this column numerous times before, is still an often overlooked yet much-needed reality. In fact, from my perspective, what we understand currently as localization is actually just one aspect of a broader scale of culturalization. In its most rudimentary form, I would break down content culturalization into three phases: avoiding disruptive issues, performing “typical” localization and providing locale-specific options. Perhaps a simpler and more straightforward way to view these three phases is, first, make the content viable; second, make the content legible; and, third, make the content meaningful.

What do I mean by this? Let me elaborate further. Making content viable essentially means allowing the content — and by implication, the product or service that contains it — to remain in the target locale. This means that there isn’t any issue in the content that would cause a local government or local consumers to react negatively and initiate a potentially costly and embarrassing backlash episode. This step, which could be alternatively labeled as “negative culturalization,” is culturalization at its most fundamental level — simply flagging and removing potentially problematic issues from the risk equation. As a culturalization strategist, I can attest that this is the task for which I’m most often called upon to perform.

A good example of the viability issue would be Fallout 3, released in 2009. In its post-apocalyptic landscape around Washington, D.C., the game included a creature that was called a “brahmin” (Figure 1), which was a mutated, two-headed Brahman bull. The animal could be used for carrying loads, or it could be killed and consumed, even if radioactive. The presence of this one issue made the title inaccessible to the gaming markets in India because Brahman cattle are sacred to the Hindu religion and India actually maintains laws that protect the animals — the real ones, anyway — from harm. Revising this one character would have made the game viable for the Indian market.

Enabling legibility is more straightforward, as this usually falls within the realm of common localization practices. Of course, this notably entails the process of text and audio translation and providing proper tools for translators so that the content is better understood by local players. This also includes all the other internationalization aspects that must be implemented for local compatibility — things such as field size considerations in the user interface, ensuring the use of Unicode to accommodate various scripts and so on.

Perhaps one of the best negative examples of the need for legibility comes from the 1991 game Zero Wing (Figure 2), in which an opening cutscene declares “All your base are belong to us.” The poor translation has taken a life of its own in popular culture and has been replicated in many contexts as a classic translation error.  In a more positive light, some localization efforts are monumental and very successful. In 2008, CD Projekt’s Polish edition of Mass Effect proved to be the largest localization project in the history of Polish media of any type. It received wide acclaim for its high quality, aided by famous actors from Polish cinema who contributed to the effort.

The phase of making content more meaningful for local gamers is a step that many developers are only starting to grasp and implement. It’s arguably a more time-intensive and research-dependent aspect of content development, yet the ROI can potentially be significant. Obviously, we’re not talking about language here, but about tailoring at a more fundamental level so that gamers perceive the game as something “local” in nature or at least very locally relevant. From a game community aspect, adding more local meaning to a game enhances the reputation of the game developer as it becomes known as a studio that truly cares about locally-specific expectations.

There have been several good examples of adding local meaning, in a step that could also be labeled as “positive culturalization.” In some car racing games such as Forza Motorsports, care has been taken in localized versions to add culturally relevant automobiles so that the gamers can enjoy the types of cars with which they’re more familiar. Another example entails the card game basra, which is very popular throughout the Middle East. The game was re-created in a mobile version, and then the artwork was culturalized for individual Middle Eastern locales. The appearance of the Saudi Arabian version was accurate for that country, as was the version for the United Arab Emirates and so on. This simple investment in additional artwork paid off as the company saw a positive response and thus increased revenues.

I should elaborate on three crucial aspects of these phases of culturalization. First, under this framework it should be clear that the common practice of localization that we know so well is viewed as a component part of a broader practice of culturalization. As important as we recognize localization to be, the process of achieving legibility in other locales through translation is not the only step required in preparing content for consumption in other cultures. This is true for video games as much as it’s true for every other type of content. Granted, there is a divergent perception of what localization entails, but I’m focusing primarily on the translation aspect.

Secondly, it can be argued that a game title should be legible before it is viable because the product needs to be understood by local players, right? However, I can relate from experience that the issues preventing a game from remaining viable almost always supersede the need for linguistic understanding. The basic logic is that a government will ban or restrict a game based on a sensitive content issue whether or not it’s localized. Before providing a game in the local language, it’s critical that the game is allowed within the borders of the target market. The reality is that many games can in fact be played perfectly well with little or no localization effort; this doesn’t downplay the importance of localization but rather it emphasizes one of the unique aspects of game content: There is a logic to most games that transcends language and appeals to a broad toolkit of game mechanics, with which most gamers are extremely familiar.

And thirdly, even though these phases are introduced as a type of hierarchy of how deep the content delves into local adaptation, these steps by no means happen sequentially. As we know, even localization takes place in various stages within the typical game development cycle, so culturalization is a coordination of various tasks and priorities being orchestrated across the entire development process. While we continue to strive to get game developers to perceive localization as a core and integral aspect to development instead of something tacked on at the end, culturalization demands that international considerations start on day one of the project. The most effective culturalization happens at the beginning, with a review and consideration of the game’s overall design, direction, theme and so on, so that any potential concerns for a local market might be addressed. In my experience, at least 75% of any potential issues can be easily managed in these early stages, which is advantageous considering that any changes late in the process become very costly.

The core idea is that we’d like to see game developers and publishers adopt global game development as their modus operandi for the entire process so that culturalization is as fundamental and implicit as game design, art, writing and so on. Content is no longer easily limited to specific locales and contained by hardcopy media such as DVDs. In today’s online environments and digital delivery, everything is everywhere, so we have to be conscious of the negative impacts of cultural issues but also leverage the positive aspects and see how content can be made locally relevant. With English becoming more and more ubiquitous, particularly among the gamer crowds, language alone — and thus localization — isn’t enough to differentiate the gaming experience.