The challenge of video game localization: Why one does not simply walk into the loc industry

Bartłomiej Piątkiewicz

“Translation is about replacing words with their equivalents: you just need to know the language” is my favourite misconception about translating or localizing any kind of content. While advanced knowledge of a given language is indeed necessary, video game localization definitely requires a broader set of skills and knowledge due to the complex nature of the medium.

According to a study by DFC Intelligence, there are currently 3.2 billion gamers spread across countries all over the world, which gives us more than 40% of the population in total. In order to reach as many of them as possible, adjusting products for international recipients is a necessary step, thus video game developers began to care not only about localizing their content, but also about searching for the most optimal and correct ways to do it.

What’s this all about, and who the heck is Puck Man?

The beginning of the search for proper localization practices goes back to the 1980s, when the video games industry started gaining momentum, and when the Japanese game Puck Man1 was being prepared for the US market. Even though the translation was limited to the title, single words or phrases, it was enough to cause localization problems, as described by Chris Kohler2. The title for the original version was inspired by the Japanese onomatopoeia pakku pakku, which imitates the sound of opening and closing mouth – a movement similar to the one made by the creature controlled by the player. If you do not see any problem with releasing a game with such a title in an English-speaking country, the picture below may give you a slight hint.

Imagine seeing the logo in a dim amusement arcade, illuminated primarily by the colourful lights of arcade machines; there is a huge chance that the game would soon be known as “Fuck Man” among players.

To prevent players from misreading the game title, Puck Man underwent a transformation into Pac-Man, as the pronunciation (and the onomatopoeic character) of the title remained similar, while the title did not invoke any irrelevant associations. The additional challenge in the case of the game was caused by the ghosts – the main danger bothering the eponymous yellow creature. Each of them had a meaningful name that reflected their behaviour, so translations had to sound natural to English speakers, and also convey the meaning of the original. Oikake (Japanese: ‘chaser’) was mostly focused on following the player, so the name was localized into Shadow; similarly, Machibuse (Japanese: ‘ambusher’) was replaced with Speedy, Kimagure (Japanese: ‘fickle’) with Bashful, and Otoboke (Japanese: ‘stupid’) with Pokey.        

And it’s not getting any easier

Video games nowadays are much more developed and tend to be extremely complex not only in terms of visual layer, but also in general, so they often cause a significant number of translation issues present within various parts of a game. Gameplay, formerly the most critical element, is now regarded on par with story and other localization-dependent aspects. 

This diversity, i.e. the number of different elements creating various challenges that a translator may face within one game, is what makes the whole task so demanding. 

Localization specialists need knowledge that will allow them not only to differentiate between certain parts of a game, but also to adopt a proper approach. When referring to particular video game materials that need to be taken into consideration during the localization process, Bernal-Merino, a great author of localization-related books and articles, uses the term translatable assets. Just to give you a better understanding of the concept, categories of the assets within a video game, classified by nature and problems they pose for translators, may be formed as follows: 

  • narrative elements, i.e. dialogue or narration in cutscenes, in the case of which style and tone play a crucial role; 
  • names, which besides being used for the identification of certain game world elements may frequently carry some information and additional meaning; 
  • in-game instructions, which strongly influence the whole gaming experience, and should clearly and fully convey the information present in the source text;
  • user interface, being a constant source of information necessary to make full use of the game mechanics and, at the same time, being one of the most characteristic elements of video games and generally interactive media. 

As you can see, different assets require different solutions and approaches. 

From a translator’s point of view, a video game can be perceived as a complex medium composed of blocks being separate yet closely-connected parts of a whole. 

This creates a challenge of a relatively strange nature, as until now, single translation tasks mostly involved one kind of text type; for instance, to translate a novel, besides foreign language knowledge, one needs a literary talent and excellent command of the target language’s intricacies, whereas to translate a complex home appliance manual, technical knowledge is necessary rather than the ability to write in a creative and colourful way (with all due respect to Technical Writers, who do a fantastic job). In those and other similar situations, the focus is on one type of skill and text. Video games require a variety of different skills and a more detailed approach to respective parts within a single translation task because each of these parts plays a different role in creating the whole experience.

Not-so-generic genres       

An additional trap that awaits localization specialists and translators is that video games differ in terms of genre, but contrary to, for example, films, they most frequently make full use of it. For example, there are a number of films about motor racing, but how much technical vocabulary do you remember from Fast & Furious? Unless a film is a documentary, references to actual technical aspects do not constitute a large percentage of the whole text. Games, on the other hand, generally contain much more specialized terminology, as in order to merely introduce the player to game mechanics by, for example, describing the tuning process, developers must include all the names of mechanical elements and modifications. 

This is how one of the tuning windows looks in Need For Speed: Shift.

This creates an additional challenge – before localizing a game of a given genre for the first time, translators have to make certain preparations like finding reliable sources of specialist vocabulary in the area, learning how certain systems, features or mechanics work, both in real life and in the game, and, in a perfect scenario, play multiple games of the same genre so that they can familiarize themselves with the gameplay and style of a given type. I remember my preparation for translating one famous racing game – I spent hours trying to find out how car parts interact and depend on each other, not to mention searching for their correct names both in Polish and English. I’m hardly a petrolhead, so this was no easy task, but there was something exciting about learning a completely new thing and experiencing the “aha!” moments in the middle of reading, when I finally understood a complicated concept or system. 

But specializing in one genre is not always so simple, as it is nearly impossible to precisely specify the genre of video games nowadays. Game categories became blurred to the extent that modern productions are combinations of different types rather than any particular texts that can be categorized by themes. This is what makes our job unpredictable – while The SimsFootball Manager and Euro Truck Simulator are all classified as simulators, their localization requires quite a different set of skills and knowledge. 

It is then impossible to specialize in one genre and localize all the productions that fall within it; we need to further educate ourselves each time we start working on a new project.          

The way of the Localization Specialist

In view of the aforementioned challenges, it is most appropriate to say that video games need to be regarded as a separate medium in the context of translation studies, maybe even more than other media, because their complexity, and the diversity of their assets and genres in general, may exceed those of any other medium. Speaking of translation studies, one roadblock that translators encounter is the limited opportunity for education. In the beginning, a path to becoming a video game translator or localization specialist is more or less the same as in the case of any other translator. I can tell you how this path looked for me and many of my colleagues – you learn a language through different means (video games being one of them, if not the primary one), go to linguistic or related studies or possibly some courses, take your first steps as a translator, typically translating general and easy texts. Then, the time comes in the life of nearly every translator, when one needs to specialize in a particular field. This step is like an unskippable cutscene – it takes time, it is not always the most enjoyable experience ever, but you have to go through this if you want to proceed and develop. Fortunately for other specializations, there are plenty of courses and study programs that allow translators to obtain particular and specialized knowledge necessary to become marketing translators, literary translators or technical translators. There are even special exams and certificates if one wishes to become a sworn translator dealing with legal documents. Yet, it is no use to browse universities for similar paths if you plan on pursuing a career in video game localization (except some single classes in the whole curriculum, where only the very basics are discussed).

Light at the end of the tunnel

Yet, what I see really promising about the industry is that more and more professionals publish materials that may help aspiring localization specialists reach their goals. BooksblogsYouTube videosbeginner-level courses, workshops, or articles just like this one start to appear and open new development paths for those who are willing to study the subject themselves. There are even online conferences focused on localization, e.g., LocFromHome held up to three times a year. So we can say that the state of localization-related education is constantly changing, and the situation of localization adepts will only get better. 

LocFromHome is one of the most renowned conferences in the localization industry.

Additionally, there is one thing that needs to be observed in this context – knowledge that may seem irrelevant at first glance happens to be a powerful asset in video game localization, and we often can use knowledge acquired outside of school, university or work. For example, an aviation enthusiast with some technical knowledge gained when assembling model planes would do well in localizing flight simulators, a Tolkien fan occasionally taking parts in LARP events has a great base for translating RPGs, and a sports fanatic active on football-related Facebook groups might try their hand at games like FIFA or PES. Going down this path, i.e., taking part in localization projects related to one’s hobbies, has two enormous advantages. First, hobbyists already have some specialist knowledge and are up to date with specific vocabulary used by experts and those “in the know”, which drastically decreases the time needed for education and increases the chances of target text being properly localized. Second, localizing materials and writing about things you like is just fun – you find the process itself entertaining, you try (and often find it easy) to put yourself in a player’s shoes to see what they feel, and you experience a huge wave of satisfaction when you first launch a game featuring words you’ve written with engagement and passion.      
For me, as an RPG fan, Gothic maniac and Skyrim addict, a moment of the biggest joy in my localization adventure happened whenever I saw an exciting storyline in a game, and I translated chapter by chapter, following the events, feeling as if I was playing the game. It is hard to take breaks and stop working at a given time when you want to know so badly what is going to happen on the next page. 

All in all, working in localization is not a piece of cake, and neither is acquiring the relevant knowledge, but it is definitely worth it if you are passionate about writing, languages and games.

I know that if I could go back in time a few years and have a second chance to choose my career path, I really wouldn’t change much.

Bartłomiej Piątkiewicz, Translation & Localization Specialist at Ten Square Games. He cooperates with Hunting Clash and Rortos teams to make sure that players from all over the world can enjoy a quality experience. Bartek is a graduate of English Studies at the University of Wroclaw, with both BA and MA theses on video game localization. As an avid gamer, he claims that passion is what motivates him most. While not working or gaming, he plays guitar, cooks, and occasionally practices rock climbing.

  1. When the original Japanese game was released, arcade machines would not display Japanese characters, so players in Japan saw the in-game text written in the English alphabet. []
  2. The author of Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life – an excellent book about Japanese video games history and their influence on gaming in general. []