It is extremely difficult to be successful in the video game industry – around 10% of games make up about 90% of sales revenue. The biggest consumers per capita of computer games and consoles are the U.S., Japan, the U.K. and Canada, as well as smaller but significant markets in Italy, South Korea, Sweden, France and Australia. The U.S., Canada and Japan are the biggest producers of video games, significantly surpassing production in any other country.
Japan and its English-speaking counterparts in the industry could not be further apart linguistically, but while translation is a core part of producing video games for distribution in different markets, a number of cultural differences must also be considered. Localisation is the process by which linguistic and cultural elements are translated for a given target market. As in any industry, good localisation is essential for global success and with the ever-increasing importance of non English speaking markets like South Korea and China, proper localisation has become essential in the videogame sector, no matter what language the game is developed in.
In 1989 the game ‘Zero Wing’ became infamous, rather than famous, for a series of poor English translations. Its Japanese developers Toaplan (now defunct) are to this day reminded of this embarrassing mistake as the most famous mistranslation “all your base are belong to us” has been immortalised in memes, gifs, emblazoned on t-shirts, and has a cult following in the gaming community. Not the type of publicity you want for your product!
In 2009, the hugely successful Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 broke records as the highest ever grossing video game, with first-day sales taking in $310m in the U.S. and U.K. markets alone. However, the game performed very badly in the Japanese market because of poor localisation, selling only 14,194 copies.. The poor reception of the game in Japan was due to the use of dubbing instead of subtitles, which users complained lessened the overall experience of the game. To make matters worse, there were also mistakes in the in-game subtitles.
Certain elements of games that are appropriate in one culture may be inappropriate in another, or even at times offensive, which can be costly in both terms of wasted resources and damage to a company’s international reputation. In 2004, Microsoft was advised to recall 75,000 copies of a fighting game which featured chants of the Qur’an as background music in one scene. However, the company did not follow the recommendation and the game was subsequently banned in Saudi Arabia and an apology demanded by authorities there. Even simple things like maps and language selection can be a hotbed of controversy, for example, the listing of Kurdistan (which considers itself to be independent) as part of Turkey in Microsoft program from 2004.
However, such serious blunders are rare and censorship laws exist in many countries to prevent incidents like these from occurring. In Germany, blood (sometimes shown in green) and gore are only allowed to appear on screen for a few seconds. In China, skeletons and dead bodies are not allowed to appear at all, with fallen characters represented by headstones. Until 2011 there was no 18+ rating for video games in Australia, meaning that any game exceeding the 15+ rating was automatically banned. The appearance of characters and background settings are also often changed in games localised from Japanese for American audiences, tending towards a more macho and serious tone.
Localisation has been come an increasingly complex process as technology becomes more sophisticated and users demand more from their gaming experiences. Another added pressure is the increase in demand for sim-ship (simultaneous shipment) to all markets. As changes may be made to the final product up to the last minute, this means that localisers may be forced to translate something without the context it will be used in. This is an especially difficult process for stand-alone terms which may have different meanings depending on their context.