Video game localization guide

Introduction

We often receive questions from new and experienced video game developers about the localization process. From questions trying to understand the big-picture to those looking at the fine details and best practices, it's clear localization is a field with depth that often exists at the periphery of game development.

We think having this information early on and readily available is important so we've created this page to help those in the video game industry better understand this process. In this guide, we'll cover all the major characteristics of localization including what it is, how it can help grow your game, and important information to keep in mind when developing a video game.

What is video game localization?

Localization – a task that can include many bells and whistles – is best described as a process. More specifically, it's the process that will make your video game more visible to everyone and more palatable to international users. The process includes translation and cultural adaptation. It also includes rethinking distribution methods and pricing. On the international stage, localization is a sign of legitimacy and can help your game gain more attention simply for being available in many languages and regions. Localizing your game will increase it's exposure and by extension, your revenue.

Localization is the process that will make your game more visible to everyone and more palatable to international users.

What are the benefits of localizing my game?

There are a number of benefits to localizing your video game. Localization will make some benefits immediately available to you while for others, it may simply open the door to those opportunities. Here are the main reasons indie game developers and game publishers alike look to localize a video game.

The first reason comes from marketing with the goal of increasing visibility. Many game platforms like Apple's App Store and Steam include localization as a metric in their search results. A game that's been localized into a few languages will rank higher than a game with no localization. Similarly, these platforms may require localization into a set list of languages before they include the game in a curated list or on recommended pages.

The second reason is availability and focuses on sales. There are many gamers who will be interested in your game but will not be able to play in English. Even those who can might prefer to play in their native language. Regardless of their situation, a competing game that caters to them by being available in their language will provide more value and they're likely to choose that one over yours. Localizing your game will give you access to more markets and more users, but only if you do it right. Catering content to players in other regions will make your game feel more local and convince them that you're a developer worth their time and money.

The third reason focuses on legitimacy and acclaim. Localization is the starting line for global success. A competent and professional game development studio is expected to localize their game to all the major markets. It's an unspoken expectation by game enthusiasts and basic requirement to reach sales goals. Localization affects ratings and visibility in various ways which create the conditions for a game to gain traction globally and reach international acclaim.

What is the localization process like?

The localization process for video games is not as complicated as its made out to be. Like with all projects, you plan, execute, and review. No matter which localization partner you choose, you'll go through the following steps in some form.

  1. Plan your localization

    The first step is the planning phase. The main items you need to figure out at this point are the cost of localization and the timeline. The easiest way to get an idea on both is simply to ask. Reach out to localization vendors and ask them for estimates. You'll need to share details about your game to get an accurate estimate, but it's well worth it.

    Beyond cost and scope, you will also need to prepare your game for localization. You can view the tips section of this guide to get an idea, but consulting a localization project manager about your specific case is the best way to go.

  2. Enable Your Translators: The Localization Kit

    The next step is preparing the localization kit or "loc kit" as it's often called. This kit will include contextual information on your game and the strings you send for translation. Context can include a summary of your game's plot, bio on various characters, a glossary with key game terms, and most importantly, visuals. More than anything else, the translators and project manager localizing your game will benefit the most from seeing screenshots of text in context. Like all localization projects, the project managers and translators will need context to translate everything correctly. It's even more important with video games to provide as much information upfront as possible.

    Preparing a loc kit may seem like a daunting task and you may be wondering whether the localization team really needs all this material upfront. In truth, they may not. The more complex your game, the more you'll need to prepare. Providing context will only help your localization team and make the process smother for you so it's always best to provide more.

  3. Export Your Strings

    This step is the most technical. You will need to decide on a file format that works for you and export all of your game's text in that form. Once the translation phase is complete, the translations will be delivered in that format and you'll import all of it into your game. This could involve writing your own script to export and import strings. Keeping that in mind, any competent localization vendor will be able to work with any file type.

    During the translation phase, they will use a dedicated translation management system (or TMS for short) which is a translation platform that streamlines and optimizes many aspects of the process. For one, a TMS ensures that translators will never touch any code or break any variables. They will always work within the TMS and never directly in the file you send. You may be tempted to copy & paste your strings to an .xlsx file, color-code it and add comments about what precisely you need translated. Don't do this. It's inefficient and poor use of your time as your localization partner will re-work the file and upload it to the TMS.

  4. Localization is Underway

    Linguists are localizing your dialogue. Puns are being re-written. References are being culturally adapted. Assuming you prepared an amazing loc kit, you will need to do very little during this step. All you need to do during this phase is be available for questions and unforeseen issues that will require your creative direction.

  5. Linguistic Quality Assurance

    Generally, quality assurance and testing will be the last step. For video game quality assurance, the tasks and scope of this step can vary greatly. The size of your game, its complexity, and your budget will decide how much you spend here, both in money and resources. You'll want to discuss with your localization partner what precisely you would like to do. This step can be as simple as a standard linguistic review or as elaborate as an in-context review where the linguists meticulously check the translations in-game.

  6. How much time to budget for localization

    Typically, the localization phase will come towards the end of your development timeline and being so close to launch, you may be tempted to save on time by rushing this process. Avoid this as much as you can and budget as much time as possible for localization. To have a good idea of how much time to set aside, you'll need to figure out how long it will take you to plan a strategy, prepare your loc kit, and exporting your strings strings. Although the translation phase will take the longest, these initial steps as well as QA and integrating your translations also take time so don't neglect them.

    Naturally, you should budget more time for particularly new tasks like learning how to efficiently export and import your game texts. It's always safer to miscalculate and have extra time than having to rush the translators to meet a certain deadline. Like other arts, rushing translations will result in taking shortcuts, errors, and sloppy work. The majority of the time required will be taken up by the actual translation stage and the quality assurance stage. The translation phase is typically calculated at words per day with extra days set aside for processing feedback and making corrections after the translations have been integrated.

What about marketing?

Don't forget the marketing! You're only doing half the work if you localize your game and skip the marketing material. You need to make international users feel like this game was made for them. Localizing your game will make it available to new markets, but it’s the marketing material that will convince them to try it out. There are two main things to consider when localizing your marketing strategy.

The first is your actual marketing content such as graphics, ad copy, and app store descriptions. Given that most of this text is creative, you'll probably start seeing the word "transcreation" when conducting research and talking to vendors. Transcreation is the process of creatively re-writing content in translation. Most marketing copy will need to be adapted and rewritten entirely to match the target market's tastes. Visuals might need to be reworked and even the specific channels of communication might need to rethought.

The second has to do with pricing. This one will apply more to mobile and free-to-play games than any other type. Gaining revenue in markets where the currency has less value than that of your source currency will require you to adjust the price of your in-app purchases to match the value of the local currency. If you don't do this, you are likely to see that users from those markets are spending less, if anything at all, than users in wealthier markets.. The difference in currency means that the same offers will provide less value to these users and they'll see your game as too expensive and not worth engaging.

Tips to enable game localization

Regional differences

In 2021, it's unlikely any major aspects of your game will need to change from region to region. For the few exceptions there are, your publisher will likely require you to make hard adjustments before the game can launch. Outside of that, the most common changes solely affect the flavor. They revolve around subtle characteristics like character, place, and item names as well as in-game descriptions.

Internationalize your code

Internationalize your code from the start of development. This means writing your code to accommodate for text expansion. Text length varies greatly between languages and many languages (namely European ones) tend to be considerably longer than English. Not accounting for text expansion in your code will make the game look broken and even unplayable in other languages. Additionally, certain languages like Arabic or Hebrew have unique requirements in that they read right-to-left which your game will need to be able to accommodate.

Do variables right

Whenever you use variables, they need to be written to include accompanying words in order to follow grammar rules in other languages. For example, in the message "You picked up {item_amount} items.", the word "items" needs to be part of the variable so languages with multiple plurals like Russian can translate the string for every version of "items". Similarly, if the variable took object names as parameters, accompanying articles like "at", "to", and "the" would need to be included within the {variable} so they can modified individually for languages with gender and cases.

Use frameworks for numbers and dates

Another component of internationalization is automating formatting for different locales. This includes, currency type, units, measurements, and formatting for dates and numbers. Typically, the best practice here is to use fictional equivalents that make sense within the lore of your game. However, if your game is based in the real world, this won't always be possible.

Keep text out of graphics

Don't place text in your graphics. Localizing text in artwork is costly, difficult, and complicated. Avoid it unless it's absolute necessary, relevant, or harmless. Anything that the player needs to understand to progress – and thus require localization – should not be included in your graphics. In contrast, including a developer's last name as an easter egg on a background wall is fun and problem-free. A popular solution to this is creating made-up set alphabet to simulate language in visual assets.

How to choose a Video Game Localization Vendor

So you've decided it's time to localize your game and you have an understanding of how the process will go. From here, choosing the right vendor is the next move in getting started. In fact, it may even be the best way to continue learning about localization.

Pick a vendor that is open, friendly, and helpful when you ask questions. Having a good rapport from the start is super important to ensuring the project goes well. Find someone who is going to care about your game and its future success. Localization vendors that specialize in video game localization should know about the video game industry and will likely play video games themselves.

The best part of working with a localization vendor is being able to consult an expert. The process of finding a vendor will involve back and forth emails with various questions about their services and their prices. This is a great opportunity to voice your doubts about localization or ask specific questions about your game.

How about you
You know that feeling when you're waiting for the game to download before you play the first time?
That's how we feel right now.