Cross-cultural Video Gaming

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The video game industry might have a market that spans the globe, but that’s not to say that the same game will sell in the same form in, say, Germany and Malaysia. There’s a lot that goes into localizing a game for foreign audiences – from translation and rewiring hotkeys, to cultural preferences and visual understanding.

Localization is increasingly becoming the norm as developers and publishers realise that foreign markets do not simply represent an ‘icing on the cake’ bonus to core revenues but can potentially yield major sources of income in their own right.

Broadly speaking, the electronic gaming industry was established in America and re- born in Japan in the ‘80s, and as far as cultural differences go, these two heavy-weights dominate the discussion (as well as the market). Although somewhat oversimplified, the cultural differences of the gaming industry therefore tend to be pitched on an East vs West basis.

Below are a few challenges worth considering when thinking about localization.

Cultural Preferences

Different cultures may have different preferences when it comes to aspects such as story, gameplay and graphics. American games, for instance, have a notoriously hard time attracting the Japanese gaming audience, and vice versa. In Japan gameplay is likely to be more linear, and there’s a tendency for characters to be stylised, cute and cartoon- ish, reflecting the manga and anime styles that are such a big part of Japanese popular culture. In the US and Europe, characters are more likely to be realistic in form and gameplay has tended over recent years toward the open-ended, go-anywhere, ‘sandbox’ style of play.

These are generalizations of course and not applicable in every case. It may also be more trouble than it’s worth to radically alter the structure of a game but visual and stylistic tweaks can sometimes make the game more cross-culturally attractive.

Grand Theft Auto III notably sold 400,000 copies in Japan, an unexpectedly high number, yet this pales in comparison to the 9 million sold in the US and Europe. It may nonetheless point to the fact that cultural differences are becoming more diffused, however Microsoft’s Mike Fischer still thinks “it becomes more and more important to have development that is local and unique to each culture.”

Thought should also be given to aspects such as sex, violence and the portrayal of drug use that may cause offence. The very presence of any such elements, the degrees to which they are present and the way in which they’re portrayed may also have a practical bearing on legal requirements and age-restrictions that might apply within a certain territory.

Getting the translation right

Once you have the cultural tweaks down, there’s another aspect to consider: language.

Pretty much everything inside and outside the game, from dialogue to menus to the player manual and back-of-the-box blurb must be translated or, in some cases, partially rewritten. Menus and dialogue boxes have fixed dimensions but some scripts or written languages have a tendency to take up more or less space than others. German, for example, has a tendency to use longer words than English and so the same information may sometimes have to be expressed differently. If dialogue is dubbed, this will also have to match the timing of the graphics.

If subtitles are used instead of dubbing this is less of an issue. Subtitling cuts out the necessity for extra voice actors but can detract from the gameplay experience, the preservation of which is after all of paramount important to the localization process. Whichever method is used, quality translation and interpretation is essential and native language speaking professionals should always be used where possible.

There are many challenges involved in localizing video games but the potential benefits make the process more than worth all the effort. And if you’re a game designer, it’s worth taking into account these considerations before you get started with even the brainstorming stage of your game creation process. To ensure that your game has the potential for a global audience, it will help to build these cross-cultural internationalized elements into your game structure and design from the outset, to allow for easy localization further down the track.

About the author: Christian Arno is the founder and Managing Director of global translations service Lingo24, specialists in website translation and creative localization. Launched in 2001, Lingo24 now has over 150 employees across three continents and clients in over sixty countries. Follow Lingo24 on Twitter: @Lingo24

Image by: Adam Mulligan

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