Perspectives: Social games localization

With the onslaught of social media and the accompanying burst of economic activity seeking to capitalize on its potential, the games industry has seen a precipitous shift away from traditional models of game publishing. Certainly, console and PC games will continue to exist and thrive for the foreseeable future. Their long-term potential, however, pales in comparison to the prospects for fast and easy profit to be squeezed from users such as the middle-aged Atari veteran who is happy to part with $20 in order to feed his Mafia fantasies or have the prettiest virtual garden among the Montessori parents. The fertile ground includes a new generation of youthful consumers, with voracious appetite for web media and unprecedented access to their parents’ disposable income.

What makes social games such an attractive target for games publishers is the same thing that makes any new opportunity interesting to the entrepreneur: low barriers to entry; rapidly evolving dynamics that open new doors to competitive positioning; a huge growing global customer base; easy monetization mechanics; and efficient and trackable word-of-mouth and peer-pressure marketing.

 Given the obvious benefits of producing social games — see Zynga’s 2011 first quarter revenue of $234.5 million, net profit of $11.8 million and expectations of raising $1 billion in its initial public offering — it is fair to assume that all major games publishers and most new players in the market will continue to pursue social games development as a core revenue stream and source of profitability. One need only look at breaking news as of the writing of this article — Ubisoft’s purchase of Owlient, EA’s acquisition of PopCap and potentially of ohai, even the buzz about Amazon’s potential move into social gaming — to see that we are not simply witnessing a fad.

As is always the case with our truffle-hunting industry, localization companies seeking to increase their market share in the games vertical will need to evolve their service delivery to fit the unique needs of the social games market. With several years’ experience working in this sector with leading companies such as Playdom (Disney), Game Show Network, Arkadium and Raptr, I have discovered what distinguishes the social games localization sector from traditional games and software localization in general.

Publishers of social games face pressure to produce fun new games that have the potential to top the Facebook charts. Many titles are created by internal development teams, but often publishers are keen to supplement their internal supply or, indeed, source their games pipeline entirely, with the internet protocol of independent development studios. Some studios are one-hit wonders while others eventually are acquired by the publisher. 

The fragmentation of development and the constant pressure to produce hits have negative consequences for localization. First, independent studios rarely have an incentive to consider internationalization during the development process. Their priority is to make gameplay fun and cool, not ensure that the game can be localized in a cost-effective and timely fashion. Even when independent developers are conscious of the value of internationalization, it can be impossible to know which publisher will ultimately pick up their games and, consequently, toward what sort of localization pipeline their internationalization implementation should be aimed. The games industry would do well to extol the virtues of internationalization more broadly and, more importantly, provide financial incentives for developers to implement common best practices such as externalization of localizable content. 


Agile localization workflow

The goal of social games, and social media for that matter, is to maximize the frequency of user engagement with the platform and capitalize on user activity to motivate a cascade of further engagement among peers. To fuel growth, social games must produce viral content, new adventures, innovative virtual goods and, increasingly, nonviral marketing content that will keep their DAU/MAU (the percentage of players showing up every day) bubbling. This can be a breakneck task in the source language alone. Producing daily or weekly content across multiple languages can be maddening and, if not handled effectively, unnecessarily expensive. Most localization vendors have not developed effective production and pricing models to allow for localization of a five-word string into 20 languages with same-day turnaround. As a result, social games publishers, along with all content providers who cater to the emergent global appetite for “tweetable” information and entertainment, reach the conclusion that hiring internal translation teams is the best option for maintaining quality while ensuring cost-effective availability of translators for fast-turnaround deliveries. I have found, however, especially among European games publishers, that this model starts to fall apart as game companies grow. Internal resources face the burgeoning demand to deliver translations for internal administrative content, and as a result product-related delivery finds itself on the back burner. 

Social gamers are a fickle lot. Often one cannot know what the masses will find entertaining or worthy of friend-pestering and micro purchases in advance of release. As a result, publishers are incentivized to build many titles and push them out onto the social sea to see what will float. Despite calls to action on the part of some developers to invest more in game quality as a driver of user acquisition, the pervasive mentality is to flood the market with titles, capitalizing on the themes, gameplay mechanics and monetization strategies that are working for others — the US breakfast cereal market on animated steroids. Social games publishers track DAU/MAU the way a new parent might monitor a preemie’s heart rate monitor. The consequences for localization planning are significant. Only the largest publishers have the luxury of simshipping localized properties upon product launch. The majority of publishers adopt a wait-and-see attitude, monitoring user activity in local markets and the overall success of the title globally to decide whether to localize or not and into which languages. To illustrate the point, below is a dramatization of communications I have had with games publishers regarding localization planning:

Day 1: We’re probably not going to do localization on this title.

Day 2: Forget what I said yesterday — sorry. Get ready, guys; we just got word we are going all out with this one — 25 languages! — not sure which ones yet.

Day 3: Hold up, the VP wants to see what kind of results we get in FIGS first.

Day 4: Can you add Turkish to the quote?

Day 5: Indonesian too! We’re close to launch. Can your folks be ready to launch tomorrow and deliver by tomorrow afternoon?

Day 6: Scratch Indonesian, but we’re getting traction in Arabic-speaking markets. Wait, can we even do Arabic? Let me check with the games team. They are in Korea, so we might not know anything until tomorrow.

Day 7: Everything is on hold for now. Do you have people for Swahili, Yoruba and Xhosa? We’ve got a new game that is topping the charts all over Africa as of ten minutes ago.


Working with prima donnas

Although it is not exclusive to the social games sector, I think it is worth mentioning the rock star complex as another factor that makes localization more challenging for the games industry in general. In the mainstream software development industry, it is common for companies to enforce developer compliance with norms and standards as they relate to internationalization. The games industry tends not to enforce or even impose such restrictions, justifying its lack of discipline on a perception that games designers and developers are artists whose creative energy might be somehow short-circuited if they are asked to avoid concatenated strings or make use of translation management system-friendly content repositories. Similarly, since games studios are popping up all over the globe, from Buenos Aires to Kiev, many games are acquired with manually integrated localization from the start. The native-speaker developers just plugged in their local language while they were designing the game because it was “easy.” Often, however, this simply means you now have two sets of unaligned hard-coded content, a developer who resists pressure to internationalize because the company has “already done it” and, perhaps the most difficult challenge to overcome, a potentially poorly done translation. This is a challenge in particular when dealing with multiflavor languages such as Spanish. Argentinean developers may create the Spanish-language version of their game in perfect porteño, but these particular idiosyncrasies may not fly in the US Spanish market. Furthermore, there is a good amount of content being developed in English by nonnative speakers — not exactly the best recipe for linguistic success.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree that the level of artistic freedom required for great games development surpasses that which is required for other kinds of software creation. Nonetheless, succumbing to the prima donna mentality of some developers is simply not an effective business strategy. I don’t argue for imposing restrictions on developers; I just think publishers need to be more creative themselves in creating incentives for internationalization and ensuring that developers are aware of these. Just as importantly, knowledge of effective internationalization techniques should become part and parcel of the game developer’s formative experience, whether formally via institutions or informally by seeding the games development ether with good information. We are making progress on this front due to the work of pioneers such as Miguel Á. Bernal-Merino, Kate Edwards and the inspiring crew from the IGDA Games Loc SIG, but much work still needs to be done to move beyond preaching to the choir, to the point where games developers and publishers are singing the localization tune from the Babel bell-tower.