It can be difficult to navigate global politics when all you want to be is a game designer. If you don’t localize, however, you can find yourself at the business end of some incredibly difficult and unprofitable situations.
Western game developers looking to crack Asian markets have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot. Paradox Interactive lost out on 173 million gamers in the Chinese market when its otherwise popular Hearts of Iron strategy game overlooked how its depiction of history might run afoul of the Chinese Ministry of Culture.
Red Storm Entertainment did not change the warmongering North Korean general character in its Ghost Recon 2 game before marketing to South Korea. As a result, the South Korean government refused to allow the game to be sold within its $2.5 billion market. Both of these situations (and so many more) could have been avoided with just a bit of localization to these markets.
So how should game developers localize games to maximize reach?
Converting into the Local Language
Southeast Asia has a $2.2 billion total gaming market with 126 million gamers and growing. Many of the gamers in those countries have low English proficiency, even though English may be an official language of the country.
Translating a game into the local language of the area is one of the most important ways to localize. Not only does translation allow the gamers to better understand the game, but it also helps to create an emotional connection that can only come from a mother tongue.
Translation into the local language should be a priority even in better developed countries such as Tokyo and China. More people in these nations may understand basic English, but the nuances of the language do not make the translation in many cases. With so many games now driven with emotional content, this means a less immersive and therefore less popular game.
Targeting the Proper Platform
Internet access in the Philippines increased by 800% between 2004 and 2014. Were you to venture into the poorest districts in the country, you might find a gaming cafe in the middle of otherwise Third World conditions. Targeting desktops and desktop experience gaming like MMORPG and FPS would work here.
In Japan, however, the number one game genre is puzzle, followed closely by strategy RPG. The majority of these games are played within the mobile environment. If you want to get the biggest piece of this $12.4 billion market, then you want to invest in marketing for smart phones. The Japanese market is also dominated by local publishers, so you will need to localize your language to even have a chance with Japan’s 69 million plus gamers.
In general, everything is moving into the mobile space, however. If you want to be safe, you can’t go wrong with a long term marketing program for smart phones.
Taking a translation from the US into Asia or Africa over literally will not earn you any brownie points in the modern gaming industry. You also need to culturalize the game to the area that is being marketed.
What is culturalization?
In order to really connect with an audience outside of the home market of a game, it must fundamentally connect with that audience. Leaving this out is the equivalent of trying to have an academic conversation with a Japanese scientist on analytical physics using Google Translate. It’s just not going to work.
Changing the culture of a game means looking deeply into the values of the target audience. Your gaming experiences must be familiar to them. For instance, if your war game vilifies Africans and you try to sell it in Addis Ababa, you will probably get your studio banned from the country.
Many games coming from the West have built in ethnic and cultural stereotypes. These stereotypes are so ingrained into Western culture that the developers do not even consider them offensive. For instance, if your heroes are Christian as in Castlevania Chronicles, you might want to stay out of Indonesia and the Southern Philippines where the primary religious culture is Islam.
Game producers must also consider their own geopolitical biases before pushing a game into another market. Automatically vilifying a certain race, religion or ethnic group even mistakenly can get your game banned in an area.
Finding Your Issues
So how do you find your problems if you have a natural blind spot for them (the “no one thinks he speaks with an accent” syndrome)?
The first step is usually indoctrinating yourself into your target culture. The number one way to build an understanding for a group of people is to experience life from their perspective. Many gaming studios now pay for international outreach trips on important games if they know those games will be marketed beyond national borders.
Use translators that come from the target country. Many studios will record audio in target languages at the same time so that a game can get a simultaneous rollout around the world while saving money on studio time.
Present your game in a way that is familiar to your target audience. Asian audiences are used to fonts that are very different from those in American games. Text boxes and fonts should be resized to account for the difference in the lengths of words in different languages.
Regardless of the precautions you take, remember that everything is a calculated risk. You must decide if a market is important enough to spend the time and the money to make cultural changes in a game. If you take this path of localization, you will probably find the international market more open to your efforts!