Emerging trends and developments in game localization

Ally Gilboa, CEO of AQ Group – Language Solutions, is a speaker, translator and author. She has over 20 years of experience in the translation industry.

Ally Gilboa

Ally Gilboa

Ally Gilboa

Ally Gilboa, CEO of AQ Group – Language Solutions, is a speaker, translator and author. She has over 20 years of experience in the translation industry.


he gaming industry is dynamic and highly competitive. Video game companies that want to reach more gamers and make more sales worldwide must keep in mind that game players are a smart and demanding group who expect the best, and believe that localization is essential to enjoy their game to its fullest.

Since the early 1990s and the advent of the first cheap game consoles, when titles began reaching a broader audience, localization became a must in order to ensure idiomatic correctness, as well as the full implementation of the translated text within the finished product.

Game localization

Game localization is about adapting a video game for different languages, different cultures, different audiences that have different content and censorship laws.

Game localization enables developers to customize and match the game experience to their target audience. It involves everything from the obvious, like translating the game into new languages, to removing elements that other cultures might not tolerate in their entertainment content.

Localization is a massive collaborative effort between developers and localizers. A good localization does not draw attention only to the fact that the game has been translated, it just works seamlessly and elegantly in another language when the main goal is to immerse players in the game, no matter what language they speak.

Before starting with the localization process, decisions have to be made regarding the scope of the project. The production team has to determine if the game will have a full or partial localization, as well as to decide which languages the game will be localized in. There are three types of game localization:

Basic localization. Only the text is translated and graphical user interface (GUI) and icons remain as in the original.

Complex localization. Everything, including GUI, icons and text, must be translated.

Blending localization. The story should be rewritten, and the graphics should be recreated in order to match the requirements of the target audience’s culture.

Main aspects of video game localization

Video games have unique features that differentiate them from other media. The main one is player interaction, which sets this localization apart from novel or movie translation.

Game localization is a linguistic and cultural adaptation that should guarantee that every aspect of a video game, from packaging to software, will fit the local market. Therefore, from a programming point of view, the source code must be localization-friendly. To alter the code afterward is not recommended since it takes time and may cause new bugs.

Furthermore, developers must remember that the quality of the source content has a significant impact on the quality of its translation and localization.

In reviewing the research literature accumulated in the field of game localization, the Game Localization Special Interest Group (SIG) and International Game Developers Association (IDGA) indicate initial aspects in the process of video game localization.

Game culturalization. Culturalization allows gamers to engage with the game’s content and takes your localization to the next level; well-executed culturalization will prove a valuable long-term investment.

Internationalization. Internationalization (i18n) significantly affects the ease of the game’s localization. After internationalization, a product’s code base, architecture and user interface are capable of processing and displaying game content in multiple languages.

Localization and translation

Great video game translators may need to play the game first and read the content before they begin translation in order to be familiar with the topic and gain confidence with the subject matter. There are a few different elements that must be translated in video games.

User interface (UI). Text space in the UI is limited and this might be a problem when translating. Consider the length of German words compared to those in other European languages.

Localization and translation

Source: IBM Globalization

Abbreviations. These are often used in the UI, usually abbreviated forms of English names, so the localizer needs to be highly creative to know how to solve that. The best solution is to translate their full forms, or leave them as they are if they are well known.

Conversations. Most conversations in video games happen through text dialogs and that’s where the translator’s creativity can shine.

Other text. In addition, app store descriptions, ads, Google Ads and social media ads need to be translated.

There is more material that should also be localized: the game’s story elements (the names of characters, places, weapons), technical elements (code, text operations) and marketing elements (packaging, posters, brochures, landing pages or website).

Characters with strange names that don’t fit the script can discourage the player. Translation alone, on the other hand, may end up losing hidden meanings or metaphors — hence the need for localization.

Overcoming unique challenges

Video games present their own unique challenges during translation in the form of interactivity, technology, nontextual and extratextual elements, audience involvement and new business practices.

Localizing a game is a team effort; therefore, developers need to communicate and be a part of the localization process. They also have to deliver as much background and information as possible to the translator or localizer and be available to answer their queries during the translation process.

It’s important to give the translator a working glossary and style guide in order to deliver consistent work. Also, they should discuss the style, the tone of the game and a reasonable delivery time.

The more context and answers the original creators supply, the better their work will be rendered into the target languages.

Another challenge is the number of new words invented by video game developers every year. Not only do writers establish new creatures and races (such as Moogles in Final Fantasy and Draenei in World of Warcraft), but they also create names for equipment and items unique to a game. Thus, video game translators need to know enough about gaming to make appropriate decisions for the target market.

Loss of meaning and compensation strategies

The creativity and current narrative techniques used in video games can pose additional challenges in the translation of certain titles. When there is a partial or total loss when translating the text, translators may engage in partial rewriting that will allow them to compensate for the loss of meaning.

The adaptation of humor is particularly difficult to achieve, as the use of wordplays or puns is becoming more and more common in video games and they may be extremely difficult to translate from the source into the target culture. This may be observed, for instance, in the adaptation of Batman: Arkham Asylum translated into Spanish, where there are a number of puns and riddles that cannot be effectively transferred into the target language without suffering a partial or a total loss in meaning.

The localization process is about a lot more than just translating a game’s text. It also involves quality assurance, testing the integration of the translated text into the game, and adapting the text to the requirements of specific regions. If developers are looking to release games internationally, they need to be aware of the censorship and nuanced content rules for the global markets they want to target.

Gaming market

Video game localization and mobile app localization are in an era of glory. More video games than ever are being consumed. In fact, the largest consumer platform is mobile devices. No wonder the mobile video game Pokémon GO (2016) achieved a revenue of $470 million within only 80 days of its release, even though it was not a simultaneous release in all regions.

The expanding localization revenue is due, at least in part, to games. A recent report from GALA shows that the localization and language services market is approaching $40 billion and is growing at a rate of more than 7% annually. It is the fourth-fastest growing industry in the US and is highly ranked for startup opportunities.

The 2018 Global Games Market Report by Newzoo showed that the games market reached $137.9 billion in 2018 and that one-third of mobile gamers spend money on their games. Amazon is best in reaching mobile spenders and their share of mobile spenders is on the rise. The 2018 Top 100 Countries/Markets by Game Revenues by Newzoo is another valuable report where one can see the top 100 countries and markets by game revenues.

One surprising prediction is that Portuguese (Brazil) is growing as it becomes the world’s 13th biggest gaming market. Brazil is also the fifth largest population in the world with more than 66 million gamers. This rise has absolutely been noticed by key actors of the gaming industry, such as Sony, Ubisoft or Activision, and big things are going to happen over the next few years.

Six stages in video game localization

Bear in mind that this is a multistage process, and will involve more than just the translator.

  • 1. Familiarization

The video game translator needs to be at least somewhat familiar with the game before translation, and the best way is to let them play the whole game.

  • 2. Glossary and style guide creation

A glossary containing categories such as weapons, as well as a style guide, are required in order to fine-tune the translation into the target language and make it as accurate and consistent as possible.

  • 3. Translation

With the style guides and glossaries completed, it is time to actually start translating. Noted game localizer Richard Honeywood recommends having specialized editors and proofreaders that regularly check on the translation, and a linguist as the team leader who takes care of any necessary decision-making.

The translation time varies, inevitably, as video games have different lengths and every translator has their own pace. It is highly advisable, if the schedule allows, that the translator will see the translated text in the game to check if anything needs to be tweaked due to lack of screen space or other issues.

Six stages in video game localization
  • 4. Voiceover production

It is recommended that a translator is present during recording in order to clarify any doubts that arise or make any necessary on-the-spot changes in case there are issues with timing or other factors. In that context, Honeywood also states that “It is more important to adapt a character’s voice to what would suit the target language.” For example, while Asian languages such as Japanese may prefer higher-pitched female voices, Western audiences may prefer deeper ones.

  • 5. Linguistic quality assurance

At this stage, all preparations and planning are put to the test and testers ensure that the game’s translation fits the industry standards.

  • 6. Sign off

Lastly, the sign-off phase is essentially clean-up work.

Additionally, there may still be promotional content and guide books that need to be translated, as well as the translation of the game’s box and documents.

Case studies

Sony’s Siren Series

Sony’s Siren Series

Siren (サイレン Sairen), known as Forbidden Siren in Europe, is a survival horror stealth game developed by SCE Japan Studio and Project Siren, and published by Sony Computer Entertainment for the PlayStation 2 in 2003.

Difficulties found in this game localization were that many of the items at the player’s disposal reference local Japanese culture, like references to well-known TV shows in Japan. As the reference is in collective knowledge of the Japanese society, even a localization process wouldn’t be enough to make it understandable without additional information, which was nonexistent in the original work.

The best working solution is to focus only on the most important content, and disregard the less important stuff. This avoids presenting extraneous subtitles. To convey the meaning of the game, a minimal localization is more suitable than one that covers everything.

Ni no Kuni

Wrath of the White Witch is a role-playing video game, developed by Level-5 and was released for the PlayStation 3 in Japan in November 2011, and was published in Western regions by Namco Bandai Games in January 2013. It is part of the Ni no Kuni franchise.

Ni no Kuni

Players control Oliver, a young boy who sets out on a journey to save his mother. The game is played from a third-person perspective and its world is navigated on foot, by boat or on a dragon. While players navigate Oliver throughout the game’s world, other characters can be controlled during battles against enemies; during these battles, players use magic abilities and creatures known as familiars, which can be captured and tamed.

The story of the game develops in two parallel worlds, in one where human beings live and another inhabited by fantasy characters like fairies and talking animals. Through different behaviors, ways of talking and uses of the languages, the characters take life, giving the player a more vivid experience. For example, Mr. Drippy, the fairy who accompanies the protagonist, uses language in a way that conveys a comic relief character.

In the Japanese version, this was accomplished by using the Osaka dialect, which is considered funny and chatty. The English version used a Welsh accent in order to preserve this comic relief role, and Romanesco for the Italian version.

Humor in Discworld

Humor in Discworld

Discworld is a 1995 point-and-click adventure game developed by Teeny Weeny Games and Perfect 10 Productions for MS-DOS, Macintosh and the Sony PlayStation. The plot is based roughly around the events in the fantasy novel Guards! Guards! written by Terry Pratchett, but also borrows elements from other Discworld novels. It involves Rincewind attempting to stop a dragon terrorizing the inhabitants of Ankh-Morpork.

In the Discworld novels, Pratchett parodies both traditional fantasy and general literary tropes and conventions, while at the same time using them for a satire of real-world figures and current social and political issues. The same themes are presented in the game, but Discworld also jokes on the conventions of video games and of graphic adventures. Furthermore, there is a high prevalence in the game of puns and play on words, just like in the books it is based on.

The popularity of the Discworld novels led to converting the plot to video games. A transmedia franchise is liable to limit the freedom given to game translators; this can be because the players already have expectations regarding a canon they are familiar with. However, such franchises give game companies the chance of rewriting familiar stories across different media.

The translator of the Discworld game did not always follow the translation of the books. Some names remained the same as in the books. For example, the main character Rincewind became Scuotivento in both the Italian game and books, while other names did not match, such as the Unseen University, which is Università Invisibile (Invisible University) in the books and Università Occulta (Occult University) in the game. The game handled one pun particularly well:

Rincewind: You are ladies of the night, aren’t you?

Lady of the night: Dunno. What time is it now?

In this exchange, a lexical pun is obtained from the contrast between the literal meaning of the word night and lady of the night, an idiomatic expression used to indicate a prostitute. A literal translation would not recreate the pun in the target language. However, an idiomatic expression exists in Italian that is similar at a semantic level and has the same connotative meaning: bella di notte.