From “Fortnite” to “Among Us”, video games are as much a part of our daily lives today as they ever have been. Not only have they made the jump from consoles to our phones and tablets, but they have crossed borders and entered into a new era of online multiplayer gaming.

As a result, communication and language services have become central within the video game industry, and the need for game localisation has only continued to skyrocket.

But what exactly is game localisation? What makes it different from simple translation and is it really necessary in an era when English predominates online?

In this blog post, we’re going to be looking at just those very questions.

“All Your Base Are Belong To Us”

The video game industry had its eyes opened to the consequences of sub-rate translations early on in its history with the US release of 2D scrolling shooter Zero Wing on the Sega Mega Drive back in 1992. A line of confusing and grammatically questionable text from the game’s opening cut scene, ‘all your base are belong to us’ (meaning: we have captured all of your bases), quickly developed notoriety and became an early Internet meme which endures to this day.

Constantly reappearing in tweets and even on T-shirts, the phrase became a pervasive reminder to the industry as to just how quickly a shoddy translation can torpedo a developer’s reputation.

Not only that, it cemented the idea that language matters. It’s part of the experience and not only needs to be intelligible, but immersive, entertaining and familiar.

In addition, another case from the same era taught developers that not only is language important, but so too are cultural and political considerations. Pac-Man, that most iconic of ravenous pixel blobs from the 1980s, was almost named Puck-Man for the American market, based on an initial transliteration from the original Japanese.

Marketing executives quickly recognised, however, that this name could easily be doctored into an English-language obscenity (think about it!). The decision was therefore taken not to simply translate Pac-Man’s name, but to more extensively change or to localise the product.

Game Localisation Today

Following on from these early lessons, game localisation (or gameloc as it’s sometimes known) today is an industry all to its own. Video game localisers not only create crisp and natural-sounding translations, but they scrutinise every aspect of a video game and make changes that will help it slot seamlessly into its new context.

This is often a very challenging and creative process, requiring a great deal of imagination and ingenuity.

Take the Pokémon series, for example. Translating these games has required localisers to come up with funny and inoffensive names, often based on puns, for hundreds upon hundreds of different pocket monsters. What’s more, localisers on the latest release for Nintendo Switch, Pokémon Sword and Shield, were tasked with developing a dialect of British English that would give the game a quirky flair, but without causing offense and while remaining broadly intelligible across all English-speaking markets.

Besides a creative mind, the process also requires an acute awareness of local laws and customs.

In Germany, for example, the video game regulator enacts strict policies against blood and gore, as well as culturally sensitive symbols such as Swastikas. This has posed a particular problem to video game manufacturers which make games set during World War II, such as Wolfenstein 3D, which was banned in Germany from its original release in 1992 until as recently as 2019. Similarly, EA Sports MMA was banned in Denmark because it featured in-game advertisements for energy drinks, which are illegal in the country.

Religious and geopolitical sensitivities are also important issues to consider, especially when it comes to larger non-Western markets such as India and China.

This is a particular part of the process sometimes referred to as game culturalisation – that is, the process of adapting the product to a particular culture. However, there is a balance to be struck here as well, with some fans complaining that excessive culturalisation strips video games of the quirks which make them appealing in the first place. The trick is often to remove potentially offensive or nonsensical content, but without diluting the original spirit or identity of the game.

Is Localisation Always Necessary?

As we have seen, localisation was born out of necessity and has grown into a central part of the video games industry today. However, many mobile developers and newcomers to the industry might be tempted into thinking that game localisation only enjoys such a stellar position because historically, video games were born in Japan yet sold widely in the West.

But what about games developed in the US or Europe?

English is the global franca and American culture predominates in the digital world – so surely games developed in English can be sent off to all four corners of the world exactly as they are?

The fact is, only 27% of the video game consumer market speaks English, and the Chinese mobile and online video game market alone is valued at €25 billion. What’s more, many of these consumers, not just in Asia but in Europe as well, have come to expect localisation and will often eschew video games which make no effort to speak their language. This was the case for action RPG game Nier: Automata, for example, which performed woefully in China after the developer failed to release a launch version with Chinese language support .

Also worth considering is that when developers fail to localise, pirates often step in and fill the void.

There have been increasing reports in recent years (and even a few arrests!) of pirate translators who illegally localise video game content, undermining developers and cutting into their profit margins. Often this occurs in cases where developers fail to recognise the demand until it’s too late and the pirate product has already gained a foothold in the market.

So there you have it!

Localisation often extends beyond simple translation, helping video games to navigate different cultural norms and rules, all while retaining their charm and connecting with gamers in new countries.

If you are in the process of developing a video game and would like to learn more about how we can help you to localise your product, please feel free to get in touch for a chat about the possibilities.