Tips and Tricks to Localize Your Video Game To Japanese

Any gamer older than 15 years or so, would be familiar with the hundreds of screenshots that show how terrible the localization of Japanese games into English has been since the inception of the video game industry.

Yes, we are referring to gems such as:

– All your base are belong to us

Zero Wing. Taito Corporation

– A winner is you

Nintendo Pro-Wrestling

– This is not enough Golds

Faxanadu. Hudson Soft

We’ll leave it here because there are many more examples. However, as a video game developers and publishers, we feel it’s sad that this broken English infamy doesn’t come from indie developers, who cannot afford costly localization, but from publicly listed companies that in some cases have hundreds of millions in cash.

With that said, while the Western media and internet has always made fun, and even adopted, such poor video game localization examples, we have never been aware of how chucklesome Western games be when played in Japanese… And this is also something which more often happens in big-budgeted games, rather than indies (which often are localized into Japanese by fans who love the video game, or localization agencies like ourselves).

We’ll just leave a tiny gem that is still available on PlayStation 4 today:

-If you’re gonna drive, take a Shinagawa number car… Wait… Shinagawa!?

Destroy All Humans!

So yes… the Japanese internet also has good reason to make fun of youge (洋ゲー), as they like to call the Western games.

And now, let’s get straight to the point. In case your company doesn’t have a team of Japanese experts to localize your game, what steps should you follow in order to guarantee your game is going to be fully enjoyable by a Japanese player?

1. Start with the localization

Generally, game publishers tend to subject localization to a successful release in the main target country. Thus, if the game has made enough money in the United States or Europe, part of these funds will be used to launch a localized version. Another scenario is the opposite: when the game doesn’t make enough money in the target market and the company says, “hey, let’s localize into Japanese and see if we can recoup the investment there” …

In either case, localization starts after the game has been already published, and this is one of the main errors, for localization is better, faster and cheaper when planned for from the beginning. The reasoning behind this is that a scrupulous preparation of the text files is key to guarantee, if not a flavored localization (thing quality bar is usually set by the linguistic skills of the main translator working on the project), a good preparation of the files means the game will have higher chances to be glossary consistent.

Unfortunately, having three different terms for one single item (pistol, revolver and gun for the same weapon in Unchart… well, in an extremely famous game) is just an example of how basic mistakes can make the player feel absolutely lost and confused when playing poorly localized games.

The translations involved might be great, but poor preparation of files and assets can bring everything down.

2.  Understand and embrace the particularities of Japanese

“A successful localization”, usually means the player doesn’t even feel the game has been localized. No matter how good the base translation is, there are two points which are absolutely critical to making the game feel natural: the chosen font and the graphic text.

These two features absolutely need to be chosen (font) and designed (graphic) by a Japanese specialist.

Choices between different alphabets (Kanji, Hiragana and Katakana) can make a single sentence imply different meanings, so this must be always decided by a Japanese expert.

3.  Culturalize the game…but not too much

Culturalization is a mantra most of the localization gurus repeat, however selling a video game is not the same as selling a washing machine. It has to feel natural and unforced. Thus, unlike in the example above with Destroy All Humans!, geographical names or proper names should never be localized, and they should always remain in their original form.

The point we always recommend in culturalization is the use of slang or dialects. If one of the characters in the game talks in a peculiar way or uses slang, it’s always interesting to translate it into one of the many Japanese localisms. Most of the publishers like to introduce some Kansai dialect when necessary into their games, but there are many more options. Games localized to Japanese in the West still don’t fully utilize the current Japanese slang, which is so rich, and evolves at a faster pace due to the possibilities with the Katakana alphabet.

4.  Rely on a company which can handle the implementation of the Japanese into the source code

This is one of the most common mistakes: Western companies often expect non-Japanese speakers to implement Japanese text files into their games. At Active Gaming Media we’ve made similar mistakes in the past, but fortunately now we can do all the text implementation by experts that understand Japanese.

This means the staff implementing the Japanese text into the game can see if there are any major problems (overflows, garble characters, terminology inconsistencies…) in a glance.

5. UI matters!

Japan follows a different doctrine of aesthetics in almost any imaginable design field, but still video game is one of the most rigid genres when it comes to user interface. Japanese gamers simply won’t accept a UI they’re not used to. This is something which can’t be stressed enough, and we would even include the Tutorial system in here, but adapting the tutorial might be too costly for low-budget projects, so let’s just focus on the UI.

As much as Japanese players accept motley texts and crowded menus, they get stressed easily when the content of each menu is different from what they are acclimated to. Compare the inventory system of Dark Souls to that of Far Cry 3 and the difference is clear.

Indeed, the use of kanji characters will save us plenty of space in comparison to the English menu, so in some cases it’s worth blending menus and showing more in less space.

This is an important decision, which should always be made by a Japanese expert.

6. Tools matter too!

Do rely on translation technology in order to assure the terminology is consistent.

At Active Gaming Media we like to work with different versions of Trados, MemoQ, as well as in-house developed tools, however other localization companies have other preferences and all are acceptable… if they provide you to access to tools and glossary databases!

A translator is a craftsman, but the result of her job must be handled by technicians and secured by technology.

If you rely on technology from the beginning, all the text and game updates will be done safely, even as the staff working on the game changes.

7. Ask a Japan-based company to help with the Quality Assurance

Linguistic QA is the ultimate barrier which ensures high quality work. There are many QA and testing companies doing Japanese QA overseas, but you have to work with a company which puts Japan first, or a company which is based in Japan.

This can be extrapolated to any other market, and the reason for it is quite straightforward: The best Japanese QA testers are in Japan.

8. Give the boys a chance to familiarize

Being the last link in the video game development chain, localization often takes responsibility and bears the burden of the delays at other stages, such as development. Rather than delaying a release, any publisher will likely choose to shorten the localization schedule in an attempt to meet its deadline.

But the fact is, the same way a translator needs to read a novel until the end before attempting to translate it, the localization staff needs to clear the game they intend to localize. They need to know where every single hidden item is, as well as the background story and the characters. All the time spent in the familiarization process (3 or 4 days), will be saved during localization, and it is likely that the quality of the work will also be more satisfactory.

The above is not a guide to localize video games into Japanese, but as a video game localization vendor and game publisher, we feel these important tips are often ignored, and have big impacts on the final result.

For more information on video game localization, visit our website or send us an email!