Please don't localize my games

Even though a queque of topics I wanted to cover is growing longer, this issue has cut the line as I bought my copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown a few days back. Five minutes into the game I was in the WTF mode, an hour into the game I was in full rage, wanting to write a purely dismissive article how localization of games is a modern day tragedy comparable to Holocaust. Luckily, it was nothing several days of calming down wouldn't manage to channel into a more useful article.

Okay, okay, so what happened?
The game I bought was in Polish. No, it's not an exotic language for me. Still, the disc I got has no option to change the language. I bought an original game that I can't play in the original language it was created for. The biggest problem though is the quality of the localization. The big world clock in the game keeps showing a spelling error. The models move their lips completely out of sync with the voiceovers. They even keep moving their lips long after the voice is gone. The actors stagger with an intonation of people who read the text for the first time. And I checked - those were real actors, not just some random guys dragged away from their desks in the studio. Don't get me started on the times when they are struggling to say a sentence in German... To top that off, the player can actually hear the audio tracks switching, a second-long silences, where even the background music stops.

Summing up: not only was I unable to play my game in the original language it was designed for, the game I bought was made barely playable by the quality of localized audio. 

How did they manage to break my game so badly?
The company responsible for that rape on XCOM is actually a publisher with a long tradition of localization. The work they did with the first Dungeon Keeper was amazing and it truely outclassed the original. It can't be that in the last 15 years they suddenly became a bunch of newbs - while I still prefer the original version, they did a decent job on localizing Starcraft II, which means the skill is still there. If you don't know what's the reason behind something, it's probably cash. In this case, that statement couldn't be more true.

The sad truth is that the localization is rarely treated like a proper part of a production. In many cases the local publishers are in charge of it, as a part of the publishing deal. This means that the developer delivers the game and then it is someone else's responsibility to finish the job in some other language. This has a lot of implications.

On the developer's side, it leads to all kinds of limited support. Many localization teams don't get a chance to play a game or even see the cutscenes they are working on. Many only get some basic kit or even plain excel sheets with all dialogue lines listed, translating it out of context and presenting it to the actors, out of context as well.

On the publisher's side it often leads to using advanced cost-cutting techniques to deal with the localization duty as quickly and cheaply as possible. Of course, it's not always the publisher's fault that their language version is more of a quick fix than an actual translation. Often, they get all the stuff that is needed way too late before the publishing deadline.

If the localization process gets planned decently, we get an acceptable local version that doesn't make the player cry. If all these problems I mentioned pile up, we get a version that got translated overnight, recorded in the first takes and directed by some deaf marketing assistant.

Why localize in the first place?
Even though I personally have the luck of not needing any translations, I know there are people who - for various reasons - don't have the necessary language skills. And even if they do, there are various cultural and pop-cultural aspects that are just not understandable for people of different cultures. Also, I've seen some really great localizations that not only didn't make me cry over the skill of the translators, but actually made the game or movie much tastier.

Math time
The BluRay discs are quite roomy. They can fit at least two language versions in vast majority of the cases. And don't tell me that adding an option to choose your language is an additional work - depending on the way the game is built it is somewhere between 15 minutes and 3 hours work of a guy that is able to change one or a few filepaths in the code - you don't even need a real programmer for that. If there's only one language pack file or folder, testing isn't even required. In the worst case scenario, where all the files need to be pointed to, testing still doesn't have to be thorough, as the original version was already tested and approved. It's just about rushing through the game in godmode once (or maximum twice) and checking if all the text and audio is in one language. With the current average length of a game it is one day of work of a Junior Tester. To sum up - in most cases leaving the original language on the disc requires an additional one day of work and is a cost of at most $100 - that's hardly a reason for neglecting it.

Dear local publisher! Think of all these players that still like boxed games, but would rather buy your game from PSN, XBLA, Steam or Origin rather than getting a one-language box. They are the cost of your bad business decision. Think of all the commission money you have lost, because you decided to save $100. So if you really have to strip the kids of one of few opportunities to learn a foreign language and you really think that this is what the market is expecting from you. If you really have to localize the game I want to buy in a box without shipping it from UK or US, please leave the original language on the disc. You will make the game world a so-much-better place.

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  1. I don't hold a grudge against localized games. In fact I usually prefer them over original. Sometimes however monstrosities come up. I remember importing a PC version of Beyond Good & Evil from UK, after seeing "service elevator" on one wall texture translated to "obsługa winda" (two words translated separately with an automatic translator I suppose). From recent memory - Dark Souls made me change language from polish to english. I should have probably expected it since PC port without DSFix is utter crap.

  2. In fact there is another reason why games are localised and sometime without some other languages.
    It's piracy.

    A good things is that now big games are localized into more language because statistics prove that adding a local language reduce piracy in this country, simply because the game is "available".

    A bad things is that some games don't go with some languages, like english or some other languages, just because of taxes and selling prices between countries.
    When you buy in UK, you can have almost only english now, because english games a cheaper than in other european country.
    If you want Italian sub or vocals ? you have to take the Italian version, because the other EU version don't go with Italian.

    And other things like that. So if the delevopper don't anticipate funny stuff for localisation, it could be realy a mess to give a correct version.
    Asian versions are really painfull if you don't anticipate that their characters are not ASCII coded...

    Big AAA games in general are well localized, because they have to be sold in a lot of countries, so experienced devs know how to make goods localisation (give US soundtracks or game videos)
    A lot of small games don't anticipate that.

    1. I have never seen any data linking the fact of localization of a game and the piracy rate in a given country. Since a localized version can indeed be a bit harder to find on torrents, there might be something to it. I'll look into that - it might be interesting.

      Yes, finding a boxed game in chinese in the middle of Switzerland can certainly be tricky, but I would rather be worried it it was easy. It would mean that there's something really weird going on that I don't quite understand :)

      One thing I find particularly interesting is a statement, that "big AAA games in general are well localized". I do know that non-english speaking countries of Western Europe have been dubbing movies for decades, so maybe they are also doing better job with localizing games. Might also be that these countries, having higher purchasing power, also get some more attention when it comes to QA of the local version. Seeing as the whole article is based almost exclusively on the experience I had with AAA titles, there is either a tremendous gap between localizing for Poland and localizing for France, or I am just a much more demanding customer, that likes his games without spelling errors and terrible voice acting. I wouldn't be surprised if it was the first one.


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