Have you ever been playing one of your favorite games, potentially developed in a foreign land, and felt an "off" feeling of oddness and wonder at word choice, phrasing, or character identity? Something within the core experience feels out of place or foreign, and you just can't put your finger on it? Welcome to the world of game localization.
You've all experienced good, bad, and everything in between in terms of game localization quality. Maybe you didn't notice it. Maybe you did. Were you the kind of person taken back when wise and sage Tellah insults Edward in Final Fantasy 2/4 by calling him a "spoony" bard? Who could forget the epic spell casts of Final Fantasy Tactics -- "Life's refreshing breeze, blow in energy! Cure!" And we all remember gaming's great master of unlocking...
Localization is more than changing phrases and dubbing voices. The world of localization exists to shape, mold, and conform a game and an experience to a completely new market filled with new and different expectations about the product. You also have a bevy of rules to follow and interpret, using deductive reasoning and precedent to figure out what changes need to be made to a game in order for it to pass the tests of foreign markets. You'd be surprised at the similarities between conforming a product to a foreign set of standards and the research and interpretation needed for legal reasoning.
What is localization?
Game localization at its core is about taking a product and conforming it, molding it, and changing it to meet a different set of cultural stigmas, criteria, agreed-upon rules, and language issues. There's more to it than that, of course, but the basics are taking one thing and making it acceptable for someone else. A game localized for Germany isn't going to have the same wording as a game localized for the United States; words and syntax are different, the language barrier is ever-present, and the game's coding needs to allow for and fit various spellings for each element.
Then there is the macro-localization of making sure each and every facet of the game's content, from box to bad guys, meet the local market standards. Is your game about the Nazis and Hitler? Better think again if you want to release in Germany. Excessive sex or sexual themes, as well as graphic depiction? Hope you've got a version saved without that stuff to get past the ESRB in the United States. Is your main character a junkie with segments of the game showing drug use? Australia isn't going to like it. Is your Oktoberfest spoof holiday going to require players to drink virtual alcohol to complete quests? It may get removed in the EU.
Yes, that last one was WoW. You remember that, don't you?
What gets localized in World of Warcraft? Practically everything. Game menus, documentation, manuals and instruction booklets, interface elements, creatures' names, items, voiceover work, ability names, boss attacks, the box the game comes in, and more. Now do it for every language supported. A word too large for the interface box ruins the look, feel, and cohesiveness of the experience. Poorly translated items, idioms, words, and phrases turn off an otherwise on board playerbase. You have to care about good localization to keep said local players interested and happy.
Good research makes good localization
Let me pose a question: How do you say "addons" in German? Do you go for the literal translation of addons, to mean something like interface additions? Do you leave the English version of addons intact, letting the international audience use this non-translation because there is no better way to say addons that's not 30 characters over your addon button's width?
Research is key to understanding what pieces of culture and language work well enough on their own to be left alone in localized versions of games versus what needs to be changed, rewritten, or accounted for. Did you know that there were multiple dialects of Portuguese? Which dialect will the Brazilian localized version of WoW use and why? Who do you even ask that question to? What color can the Cataclysm box be in France to avoid regulatory issues, if that is even a concern? Is it?!
That's where research comes in. Finding every possible answer to a simple question such as "does this word fit into the box that we've created for it in every language we are supporting" is imperative.
Here's where the rules interpretation comes in. Legal work, in many respects, is all about making facts fit the rules. Barring that, make the rules fit the facts. When push comes to shove, you bring up precedent to make your case for you.
Rules interpretation is a tough spot to be in, especially with government-run or non-governmental entity rating boards deciding the fate of the product you've spent tons of money and man hours on. When China says "no depictions of skeletons or human bones," as it did with Wrath of the Lich King, where does the interpretation of that rule begin and end? Who possibly makes the judgment call necessary to start down a design path that may or may not be seen as worthy or fit for publication and release in China? Rules interpretation is about gathering facts and making judgment calls.
So gather the facts. What pieces of The Burning Crusade, which was released in China successfully with some added tweaks, seemed to have skirted the line or conformed to the Ministry of Culture's rules? Are there any other U.S.-created games that got the seal of approval for release that might have content similar to that which is at issue? It's all detective work that is one part legal argument and one part predictive butt-covering. And it's exciting.
Every country and market has different rules to follow and interpret. Some require less interpretation that others. Limits and prediction are key.
Don't risk it
Risking the horrible outcome of not connecting with your audience is just one of the pitfalls of poor localization. And, believe me, if you've played video games in the last 10 years, you've been exposed to some pretty awful localization. World of Warcraft's stalwart approach to localization is widely regarded as pretty damn good, with every aspect of the monolithic game being finely tuned and worked on to provide a solid experience for supported languages and cultures. You don't get to 11.4 million subscribers by making shoddy versions of your game for foreign markets.
Maybe thinking about localization from a legal and rules-dominated standpoint is a good thing. Research, dedication, and cultural savvy can be the crucial difference between saying the right thing in a different language or losing your audience altogether.
This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at firstname.lastname@example.org.