Why do localizations end up so bad? The Cause: The Butterfly Effect

This is our “Localize Talk,” where we try to build understanding about our staff and what we do here at Active Gaming Media. For the second edition, we’re posting the lecture about the “butterfly effect of localization” given by Romain Bovery at the May overseas development seminar held in Kyoto. The pictures for this article were taken after the fact.


Hello everyone, I’m Romain Bovery.  My native country is France, and I’m 31 years old.  In France, I worked at the game company Ubisoft, and I came to Japan three years ago. Now I’m working as a localization project manager at Active Gaming Media. Basically, I’m a fan of games, and I’ve been playing them since I was a little kid. Back then, sometimes I’d play and think to myself “what’s up with this French? The translators need to step up their game.” Playing as a user, I’d get frustrated with the quality of localization, but now that I’m working in the industry, I’ve come to understand. Today I’d like to talk about what I think is the number one reason localizations get so bad.

The Butterfly Effect of Localization

A butterfly effect is, to put it simply, when an unexpected change happens from something that seems insignificant: a chain reaction from something trivial, like a butterfly flapping its wings. So how does this tie into localization?

Localization is the final step in a long development process. To break it down, game development comes first. Let’s include design, story, programming, etc, in that one term. Game development is influenced by the publisher. As a rule, the publisher has most of the power. They decide the budget, the length of development, things like that. Of course the publisher wants quality, but the highest priorities are two things: not going over budget, and releasing the game on time. Localization comes after that. That’s where localization makes its debut.

Localization isn’t usually done by the developer or publisher. That’s the sort of work our localization department at Active Gaming Media does. Localization companies take translation requests from developers and publishers. The localization process has two steps: Translation, an LQA. LQA is linguistic quality assurance. That’s when you check the translated text in the game itself to make sure there aren’t any issues, like display errors and such. Both translation and LQA are important. It generally takes us about two to three months to complete this process—much shorter than development, yes? When translation and LQA are complete, we deliver the finished product.  

After that, the games are tested for consoles. Console companies, as I’m sure you know, are companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. After the console company has tested the game, if there aren’t any issues, it’s ready to be released. That makes the publisher happy. But during this whole process, if there are issues in the early stages of development, that has an effect on localization too.

As an example, let’s talk about what influence a delay in development can have on localization. Generally, development is expected to take anywhere from two to three years. Say there’s a one month delay caused by problems implementing some feature. Everyone knows delays in development are very common. It is a problem for the publisher, but many will accept the delay if it will perfect a game they’ve devoted three years to, even with the increased cost.  

Results of a one Month Delay

However, even if development is stretched out another month, publishers still don’t want to miss the release date. If you can’t postpone the schedule without adding to the budget, somewhere, concessions have to be made. That’s usually localization. The localization process will begin with one month cut out of the allotted time, and the same deadline. That means the only way to get it done is to increase the number of people working on the project. In localization, adding more people into the mix does not always raise the quality. You’ll meet the deadline, but through sloppy work the quality goes way down.

Delaying development doesn’t just shorten the time we have to work; the necessary preparation just isn’t there. We need glossaries, character descriptions, style guides, displays, and we get none of them. We’ll get source texts (in excel files) without any other explanation. Because we have no idea what’s going on in the scene, and who’s talking to who, it’s really hard to figure out the nuances needed for a good localization. All we can do is translate while desperately trying to imagine what’s happening.

Games have text boxes, so if we don’t have preparation time, we don’t know how the translated language fits into the boxes. We have to try to cram long French or German sentences by somehow making them shorter, which makes things sound unnatural. Sometimes there’s code in the text, but if there isn’t any explanation of what the code does, we can only guess. More time guessing means less time translating. 

After somehow managing to finish translation, next is LQA. But due to the delays there’s not much time for that, either. Since LQA means checking the entire game, it takes time. And due to the delay, there isn’t much. We have to focus on the big problems, and just pray that there aren’t a lot of small ones. In the end, even though we’ve done everything we could, we end up with a final product of dubious quality.

As a result, it can’t meet the requirements of the console companies, and ends up needing to be submit again. So the game ends up postponing its release anyway, despite all the pains taken to avoid that. Even if it gets lucky and passes the tests, the trouble doesn’t end there. Since we’re in an era where most people have easy access to social media, complaints about the game get shared, throwing the problems into the spotlight. Then the publisher has to apologize and release an update patch. That means more money put into the project. Not to mention our reputation as a localization company is tarnished. In the end, no one is happy.

A simple one month delay can have a widespread influence. I think, therefore, “the butterfly effect” is a fitting name. The publishers focus on the budget and deadline, the developers and localizers focus on quality. Trying to achieve them all at the same time decreases the chances of success.  I don’t think it’s an individual problem, but rather everyone’s problem. If everyone understood the situation and took measures to prevent them things would turn out different. Everyone who’s working on a project should always be aware of the full state of affairs. I know that obvious, but it’s very important. If we keep this in mind, we can release high quality games everyone will love. Thank you for listening. 

This is a reposting of an article published on AUTOMATON on July 15, 2018. Read the original here.

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