Localization tips for Game Developers

Whether you are an established developer with several titles under your belt or just getting ready to publish your very first game, there are important things to know when it comes to localization. After all, since you’ve most likely spent a lot of time carefully crafting each and every aspect of it, it would be a shame to just throw your master text at the first people you know who happen to speak a foreign language and hope for the best, right?

In this article, I’ve compiled a few tips aimed at game developers based on my experience working on dozens of titles ranging from expansive AAA MMORPGs to tiny mobile games.

1 – Context, context, context

By all means, you want to avoid this:

(Explanation: The original term was “miss” as in “missed [attack]”, it was translated in German as “Miss [young woman]”)

What might be obvious to you might not be so straightforward for the linguists you work with. Even if said linguists are familiar with the genre of your game, there is only so much context you can draw from single segments. That’s why it’s important to have references, such as:

  • Pictures (for items and other “descriptive” parts)
  • Menu screenshots (especially ambiguous verbs/nouns such as “Answer” or “Turn”)
  • Relationship charts (especially useful for languages that have multiple levels of politeness)
  • Any other data that can help your translators understand where/how the text will appear (even string IDs such as pleft_option_93 – you’d be surprised to know how many correct deductions experienced translators can make based on observation)

However, be aware that even if you provide all the possible reference materials, there will still be questions, and you might need to dig deep into your own code to find the right answers! Most of the teams I worked with used a simple Google doc to keep track of all the questions and avoid redundancy.

Of course, depending on the size of your game, answering those questions will be a job in itself, and the lack of answers might cause either a delay in the deadlines or poor quality on the final delivery.

2 – Proper layout

In order to deliver our best work, we first need to understand your master text – this should be very simple, but I’ve had the “privilege” of working on some games whose dialogues were completely out of order (because they were written in “scenes” by what I assume was a team of a dozen different writers), games whose item descriptions were in a different tab from the actual item list, and the list goes on.

You also want to avoid formatting your text in a way that one column represents more than one language, such as:

Always use 1 column per language, even if it’s just a few strings!

Ideally, you want something like this:

  • A – Number (if necessary, to create easy reference points)
  • B – Identifier/Reference
  • C – Source
  • D – Speaker (for dialogues)
  • E – Target 1
  • F – Target 2

Here’s what it will look like once imported into a CAT tool (in this case, MemoQ):

(Check out my Mock translation test for what I consider to be an “easy” format to work with)

Moreover, if your game uses tags (and it most likely will), for the love of everything holy, do not use the same bracket types for translatables and non-translatables. For example:

1: Hello! Happy to see you here, <sc=player_ID>!
2: <Special announcement> 50% off on all Diamond Packs!

Usually, tags can be “tagged out” in CAT tools so that they can be inserted within a translation without risking breaking anything. However because both segments contain <>, they cannot be tagged out safely as “Special announcement” is translatable.

Here’s what I personally recommend:

  • [] () for translatables
  • <> for tags/non translatables
  • /n for line breaks

3 – Never hardcode anything (if you must)!

Hardcoding has been known as one of the hardest localization obstacles to overcome in the early days of the games industry, and to this day, there are still lots of oversights in that regard. If you have graphics assets and other non-text materials that you wish to localize, this will obviously require a lot more work, so the more logographic imagery you can use, the better.

Here is a very insightful video on that matter from Tom Slattery, head of the Localization team for Bungie on Destiny:

(The part about localizing graphics starts at 8:20, but I highly recommend watching this entire GDC talk!)

4 – LQA (if you can afford it)

LQA, or “Localization quality assurance”, is a process that consists of testing the localized client with all the strings in context. Of course, this incurs an extra cost, but I can guarantee that having as little as 2 hours of “final review” can drastically improve the user experience for the first couple hours of gameplay (and you know what they say, first impressions matter most).

Ideally, you want to have someone different from the original translator for this task, as they can:

  • Give honest feedback on the overall quality of the translation
  • Spot potential errors that the original translator might have missed (we’re only human, after all!)
  • Provide suggestions to shorten certain strings that might be affected by character limits, make an achievement name more catchy…
And also to avoid those kinds of blunders. (credit: Legendsoflocalization.com)

The list goes on. If you are working with a network of established translators, they will be happy to provide you with a different person for LQA, as all good translators know that they are not infallible and are always happy to have a second pair of eyes to double-check their work.

By following some of these simple tips, you’ll already be one step ahead of many game developers out there who just don’t know where to start when it comes to localization. At the end of the day, this is a labor of love, and there is nothing better than sharing your creation with the rest of the world!

If you are a game developer, how can we, as translators, make your job easier? Is there anything you wish we knew but never got the chance to say? If you’re working in game localization, what other tips would you give to developers? That is a lot of questions, but I’m really looking forward to what you have to say!

Additional references

This topic is way too broad to discuss in just one article. Therefore, if you’re looking for some extra reading on the matter, I highly suggest you look into what those awesome people wrote!

That last one is rather long, but I believe it should be read by all developers and translators alike – it’s basically a bible!

2 thoughts on “Localization tips for Game Developers”

  1. Olivier DEBAUDRE

    I am a fellow translator (beginner). I worked on localization for softwares and also translated a game’s manual (from Japanese).
    I have to thank you for the tips. From my own experience, I already gave once a few of these advices to a customer before the real deal, but I think they did not care at all. Maybe they were not worth the effort.
    Did you encounter this kind of situation or always have “kind” customers? 😉
    I am surprised I cannot find offers for translation of video games from Japanese on the internet (excluding live translation). I suppose there is a network for this. How do you get in contact with these companies?
    Thank you for your insights.

    1. Lucile Danilov

      Hi Olivier,

      Clients (and translators) come in all shapes and sizes. They can have very different expectations based on whether they’re indie or not, if they have the time/budget to handle particular LOC-related issues (spoiler: most of the time, they don’t), etc. The tips I mentioned in the article are from a translator’s perspective, and this is obviously an “ideal scenario”. After spending enough time in this industry, you learn to work with what you have 🙂

      About JP>FR games translation, this is an extremely niche market as most games whose source language is not EN are usually translated into English, then into other languages (so effectively, you’re translating a translation). I’m not aware of any particular network since JP is not one of my source languages, but I know that you can find some renowed JP>FR translators on Twitter. Scour the credits of your favorite games, find their names and follow them – they’re usually awesome people!

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