Considering video game languages

Konstantin Dranch

Konstantin Dranch

A specialist market researcher in localization since 2012, Konstantin Dranch is the chief researcher at Nimdzi Insights. A linguist by education and a former business journalist, he provides coverage on the global language services and technology market, as well as regional research in the UK, France, Finland, Portugal, the Baltics and now in the US.


became a geek at the age of seven when my father bought our first PC.

My father’s office ran on electric typewriters, typists and endless file catalogs. There was a wind of change in the air: smart organizations turned to computers as a more efficient way to process documents, and my father decided for me to be among the first to understand this technology of the future. An entrepreneur to the bone, he, without any knowledge of computers whatsoever, procured a home PC, a bulky i386 model without a mouse, an enormously expensive and rare product for Perestroika Russia. Then, as the second step of his plan, he sent me to an extracurricular computer class, a semi-underground affair suitably run from an unmarked basement in a tenement house. The plan worked, with some side effects.

Soon, I learned how to copy files in MS-DOS and create simple programs in the obsolete GW-Basic. However, all I wanted to do with computers was to play video games. At the time, so few people had PCs that video games were fantasy stuff for a bespectacled minority, which I giddily joined. To get new games, boys like me had to copy them from someone else’s machine, or in a fit of daring foolishness, venture to acquire a copy from real pirates. Pirates came from the same stock as us, but they were a little older and snobbier, and they ran their ramshackle shops like enthusiasts, rather than business people. Games came in stacks of pen-labeled floppy disks held together with rubber bands. Data went corrupt 20% of the time, and due to limitations of older systems, newer games almost never worked right off the bat. Worse, they produced error messages about XMS and EMS, a foreign language that puzzled even the school teachers. On the upside, that’s how one gained a knack for fixing computer problems and, incidentally, learned English, in post-Soviet provinces.

Times have changed.

27 years later, video games have become anything but geeky. The gaming crowd has grown from acned millions to 2.5 billion, and this majority of the economically active population now spends more than 100 billion USD each year on virtual entertainment. Video games are bigger than music and radio, bigger even than cinema and TV. Surprisingly, games still lose to bread in sales, but we’re not in ancient Rome anymore, and time will correct the injustice. To sell bread, you bake it and ship it, distribute it physically from brick-and-mortar stores. Games can be sold instantly and immaterially, on any scale, everywhere in the world.

To go global as a game developer, simply tick a checkbox in the app store. To market globally, simply send free copies with compliments to YouTube and Twitch video bloggers, or place pay-per-click ads on Facebook. Going to market in a new country can be all-virtual, all-online. A game developer can be wildly successful in Peru or Australia without ever setting foot on their soil. Very few barriers still stand in the way of instant global distribution, and language is one of them.

Languages prioritized in game localization budgets

Most developers understand that to sell in key countries they should localize. If a title is popular in one country, spending $50,000-$250,000 to adapt it for the French, German, Russian, Spanish and Chinese consumers leads to millions in returns.

So, it’s a no-brainer to go for a few top languages spoken by hundreds of millions of wealthy consumers. Things get more difficult with smaller languages, where a careful calculation of returns on investment is required. Localization into Czech or Vietnamese costs the same as Russian and Chinese, but will it pay off?

To find out how game developers and publishers solve this puzzle, I turned to game shop data and acquired information about languages of top 240 games on the US App Store and 26,000 games on Steam, which is one of the biggest game ecommerce platforms worldwide. In this analysis, Steam data stands proxy for the way developers localize PC games for the Western world, and App Store stands proxy for mobile game localization.

PC games

The first discovery is that successful games are more often localized. In the overall pool of 26,000 games, 42% are available in multiple languages. The ratio increased to more than 77% of games with localization among the most popular 1,000 titles. And of the 100 most popular games a staggering 96% had localization. The missing 4% is probably a mistake: there are titles that do not list localization but may have it. For example, “English-only” DayZ is an expansion to Arma 3, which is translated into a number of languages.

Next, the more successful a game is, the more languages it is available in.

  • The top 10 games by user numbers are available in 20 languages on average
  • The top 11 through to top 100 are available in 12 languages on average
  • The top 101 through to top 1,000 are available in eight languages on average
Languages supported by popular games

There is a clear correlation between the number of languages and the number of gamers. It is unclear though whether localization led to the game’s success in each case, or whether the developer invested in adaptation after seeing that the game hit the spot.

It’s probably a chicken and egg problem.

Specific target languages preferred by PC game developers show a pattern of shopping in language packs. The most popular pack is FIGS: French, Italian, German and Spanish. Then comes a mix of Russian, Brazilian Portuguese and possibly Polish. The third is the CJK language pack with Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

So, if a game’s budget allows for eight languages, expect FIGS plus any three from the list above. With a budget for 12 languages, expect all of these plus Turkish. A game with a bigger budget may include Czech, Dutch, Hungarian and the languages of Nordic countries: Danish, Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian.

Everything else comes after.

Mobile games

Mobile games are relatively different from PC games. PC games are primarily for dedicated gamers who have the luxury to be able to sit down at home for some serious play. Mobile games are available to many different crowds: to those whiling time in a commute, to senior people who never had the habit of playing on a PC and discovered the guilty pleasure of Candy Crush in their twilight years, to people in poorer regions of the world who never owned a PC, and so on. Needless to say, growth comes primarily from mobile.

Localization of mobile games is very different from localization of PC games.

First, only about half of the top 240 mobile game titles are available in multiple languages, down from the respective two-thirds for PC games. Presumably, some of the mobile games are so casual and simple, they don’t need localization. The language pool with top 12 languages is similar to PC, but beyond that it differs quite a bit. After English and FIGS, CJK, Russian, Brazilian Portuguese, Turkish and Dutch, top mobile games add very economically important Arabic and Indonesian. Thai and Vietnamese, emerging languages of Southeast Asia, make an appearance in the top 20.

This sums up the practice of developers and publishers.

Potentially underserved languages

The theory paints a separate picture.

The game market is well researched, and hard facts are available because much of the selling is done through online shops that centralize data. Specialized analysts at Newzoo, SuperData and similar companies figured game revenues and market size per country long ago. Game localization specialists at All Correct Games have bundled it up in a per-language market sizing. I compared their figures to the language pool on Steam and the App Store to find languages whose potential has been unfairly overlooked.

Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Market sizing puts Asian languages far ahead in terms of game revenues. Chinese-speaking gamers bring in 167% more money than all English-speakers combined. Japanese speakers come next with 63% of the English-speaker market. This is reflected in the rankings: while China and Japan are #1 and #3 in revenue, they come after FIGS languages in localization programs of Western games. The reason not all games go Chinese immediately is that the markets in China, Japan and Korea are very competitive, with a specific culture to it, and local developers have an edge in adapting to Asian gamers. China has additional protectionist policies and restrictions. Why should an Asian gamer play a weird European game when they have a local counterpart? Few Western games have managed to find an answer to that question, but those that did, made a killing, including Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and StarCraft and Riot’s League of Legends.

Hindi: The largest official language in India is the top 10 global opportunity in revenue, but only eight App Store games out of the top 240 support it, and none of the top games on Steam support Hindi. Figures could be very different if we ever get similar figures on Google Play games since inexpensive Android phones are what hundreds of millions are using in India. India has been classified as “high potential” for years without ever realizing this potential — so far. The barrier is that while there are many gamers, few of them want to pay a good amount of USD for games. Perhaps a monetization strategy around collecting eyeballs through Android games might work differently there.

Southeast Asia: Indonesian, Malay, Thai and Vietnamese have not yet been tapped into sufficiently by game companies. Mobile game developers have noticed Indonesian already, which is reflected in a similar rank for the language in the economic analysis and in the App Store. Other Southeast Asian languages remain underserved.

MENA: Arabic and Persian so far didn’t get the attention from game developers they should get, probably due to right-to-left language localization challenge. Then there are cultural and legal adaptation requirements: bringing games often with gore and sex to Middle Eastern countries is a delicate matter. When developers do succeed in Arabic localization, they sometimes see poetic reviews from grateful players. “Your game is as beautiful as the moon and stars” is not something you might hear from a snobbish European crowd.

Regional variants of large languages: Steam has only recently added a distinction between Spanish for Spain and Latin American Spanish, and only 60 games out of 26,000 are tagged with Latam Spanish. Traditional Chinese is a growing second language variant available in a third of games with Chinese localization. Finally, modern Arabic is not a single language but a collection of regional variants. Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese are not always distinguished in application stores.

Bottom line: the numbers show that in practical scenarios game developers and publishers prioritize European languages for localization, while they may theoretically get a better ROI investing in Asian and MENA languages. The EU offers great markets, an easier experience in language, age restriction and cultural adaptation, and established supply chains. However, a more daring and experimental localization program should try to drop some of the ailing European mainstays like Italian for the promise of better returns in the East.