Who doesn't know Chinese takeaway food? It's available and well-loved throughout the world. However, anyone who's been to China will be quick to point out that it doesn't taste quite like the real thing. That may be true, but is it necessarily bad? The food has most likely been adjusted to match the local tastes; a process familiar to anyone involved in game localization.
On April 2-3, Andovar attended Global Game Conference in Beijing, one of the largest game events in China. Over a thousand attendees met to discuss the current state of the industry and the risks and opportunities it faces. Over the past few years, the domestic market has saturated quickly, and international publishing and localization are now high on the agenda. I had an opportunity to speak on a panel titled "New Opportunities for Globalization of Chinese Enterprises" and all participants agreed that:
Let's see why this is the case.
Why is Game Localization Hard?
- Software: Games are software, which means issues with concatenation, hard-coded strings, lack of context, complex UI and relationships between strings, a plethora of programming languages, platforms, operating systems, devices, screen sizes, and more. All of this can cause problems when localizing.
- Literary: Games can be like literature. They try to take the player into an imaginary world full of lore, and teeming with life and engaging stories. Making all this work smoothly in a new language requires creativity and a deep understanding of both the source and target cultures.
Game localizers often face tight deadlines caused by plans to simultaneously ship (sim-ship) the game in many languages. Additionally, the product is often not finalized until the last moment and zero-day patches are common. This means that translators work with text that can change unexpectedly at any moment.
Why is Game Localization from Chinese Especially Hard?
The game industry started in the 1970s with two countries taking the lead: USA and Japan. Both remain dominant players to this day, but have been joined by competition from other countries. That includes China, which is now the largest gaming market in the world.
Game localization arguably started with Japanese arcade cabinets distributed in the United States and Europe. Pac-Man (Namco/Midway, 1980) can be considered one of the first examples of successful game localization. It adapted its title from Japanese "pakkuman" and changed the names of in-game monsters for the US release. China's strengths are player numbers and game revenue, but it is a latecomer in international publishing and localization.
Chinese companies have only started taking localization seriously recently and there are problems typical to any new challenge:
- Understanding and appreciation of localization has been rather low and it tends to suffer from restricted budgets and deadline pressure.
- Game localization is a new profession in China which limits the pool of experienced translators and editors. Those who can translate from Chinese into languages other than English are in even shorter supply.
- Chinese language has been changing rapidly which means the young generations speak differently from their parents; especially about entertainment products like games. This further limits the supply of translators and often means disagreements about terminology.
- Due to the long economic and cultural isolation of China, business obstacles and misunderstandings are common when dealing with foreign markets and international partners.
The above issues should gradually disappear, however there are also more permanent challenges related to Chinese language, culture and business environment:
Chinese grammar is very simple which causes problems when localizing into more complex languages with tenses, genders, verb conjugation and noun declension. Chinese script packs a lot of possible meaning into each character which must be clarified in translation. A direct translation from Chinese to English often comes out as two or three nouns glued together and reads unnaturally. This is most commonly a problem with game inventory lists: weapons, spells, power-ups. Contextual information is needed to translate them correctly, such as images or descriptions of what the weapon or spell does.
Use of wordplay is easy and common in Chinese, but rarely translates well into other languages. Additionally, text expansion issues are huge when going into a Latin-based script, and the area used by text is shaped differently: short and blocky in Chinese, long and thin in Latin-based alphabets. Chinese can be written top-down, while most other languages can't. Icons and images with embedded text often need to be redesigned to accommodate for the different area text occupies in other languages.
Cultural preferences apply to game features preferred in China vs the West. Here are some examples:
- Chinese players prefer perfectly beautiful and handsome characters in games, while cartoony and realistic art styles are more popular in the West.
- Voice acting and opening trailers are very popular in the Chinese market, which leads to massive bundle sizes frowned upon in the West.
- Chinese players are used to multi-touch and free character movement, while Western ones prefer single-touch controls.
- Auto-battling or auto-looting in games are common in China, not so in the West.
- Western games restrict session length directly, Chinese ones tend to slow down progress but not restrict it completely.
- More Chinese games are subscription-based vs pay-per-item.
- Top Chinese games integrate deep social mechanics (PvP, direct trading, guilds, co-op, etc.) that are not as critical in the more individualistic West.
For a Chinese game to be successful in the West game features like the above may need to be adjusted. Localization is more than just translation!
The cultural differences are vast. Games set in China-specific settings are very tricky to localize. The lexical and cultural distance to other Asian markets is less pronounced and players there may be familiar with Chinese themes like Journey to the West or Three Kingdoms. However, the differences tend to increase along with geographical distance. This means that it is increasingly possible to localize directly into other Asian markets with minor changes to the game, but it is better to start with an English version before going into other Western languages. This is known as "pivoting".
Finally, there are significant differences in how business is done in China vs the West. China is a rapidly changing country with a growing economy and a government controlling the development to an extent not seen in the West. Censorship and the Great Firewall of China mean that many services taken for granted in other countries are not available. A well-known example is the lack of one dominant Play Store for Android apps, replaced by an ecosystem of smaller, competing ones. Game consoles like XBOX or PlayStation have never been officially launched in the country, which means that the console gaming market segment is almost non-existent.
Other types of challenges abound. Western payment networks like VISA and MasterCard commonly used for buying games and in-game purchases are not popular in China. Similarly, advertising and cross-selling platforms are completely different. The approach to IP protection is also not the same. Some Chinese games would risk being considered clones in the West or need to remove references to copyrighted brand names before publishing abroad.
Making the Exotic Dish Palatable
In my closing comment I'd like to make a prediction for the future.
Long time ago, Chinese cuisine used to be exotic and unknown in the West. Few ventured into the red-lanterned pavilions to try to make sense of the poorly-translated menus and taste the strange dishes. Over time, the word spread that the food was actually tasty and an exciting alternative to the boring burger-and-fries they were used to. The restaurants started to put more effort into translating their menus properly, worked on the language skills of the waiting staff and adjusted the flavors for the new clientele.
In the end, both sides won.