The global video games industry is not bigger than Hollywood. But it's not far behind. More money will be spent on video games than on music this year, and the gaming market is projected to be worth 48.9 billion dollars by 2011, according to consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Many games are written by Japanese game producers, then translated and adapted for the large gaming markets of North America, Britain and the FIGS countries (France, Italy, Germany and Spain), in a process known as localization, a process that has to please the notoriously persnickety creature known as the gamer.
"Localization isn't just about the translation of words, its about the other elements that make up the game: the difficulty level, any cultural references," explains Richard Honeywood, localization director at Square Enix Co. "All these factors have to be changed from one culture to another."
An example of this would be the skirts of the female characters in a popular tennis game that were shortened for the Japanese version of the game--no doubt pleasing the kind of gentleman you could find frequenting the less family-oriented areas of Akihabara.
Square Enix, producer of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, uses teams of localizers, in-house and freelance translators, on such games--even flying them to Japan to work alongside the development team. They play the game for several weeks to become completely familiar with it and create glossaries and style guides. The team has to work out every element that needs to be changed, including what to name each character and how they will speak.
Only then can they get their teeth into the translation.
"In the translation step we also cross-check and edit to fine-tune the text to make sure everything is correct, in a nice style and free of bugs," Honeywood said. "Then we have integration--putting all the text into the final game--and QA [quality assurance, also known as linguistic testing or debugging]."
A small game can be fully localized in a month or two, but a game such as Final Fantasy XI--a huge online multiplayer role playing game with more than 500,000 subscribers worldwide and 1.7 million player characters--is simultaneously translated daily and has continued for years.
"FFXI was a huge game. By the time I left it, [the script] was two-thirds the size of the Bible--since then its gone beyond that," Honeywood said. It currently stands at about 1,255,000 words and counting.
The localization budget of some games runs into millions of dollars, especially when movie stars are cast in starring roles. One of the better-known actors to star in a video game is Jean Reno, who sped around Paris on his motorcycle slaying monsters from 16th-century Japan in Onimusha 3: Demon Siege by Capcom Co.
According to Ben Judd, a producer at Capcom in Osaka, there are three options when choosing voice actors for a game. "The worst option is a voice studio out of Tokyo--the cheapest. Or you can use native-speaking nonunion actors. You may find some gems in the whole pool, but in general they aren't going to be as seasoned as the union actors. You can also go to a proper big-name studio, get union actors, and the odds of getting closer to the Disney model of voice will be a lot larger," Judd said.
Words and pictures
Every video game comes with its own linguistic and cultural conundrums.
Capcom really had to struggle to make its Japanese lawyer games series Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney successful overseas.
"First and foremost there is a text letter limit. A single kanji can mean an entire word or phrase [in English], so your creativity is limited. This was tough in the [Phoenix Wright] series because it's about how clever or witty you can be. You have to set the joke up and explain it," Ohio native Judd said.
In localizing Phoenix Wright, Capcom also faced the problem of legal systems differing from country to country. "We ignored the fact that jurors were not the ones who necessarily made the decisions [in Japan]. We used words such as jury, but got away with them as they are not flashed to with the same frequency [as would happen in a U.S.-based trial game]," Judd explained. "You have a certain area in which people will give you suspension of disbelief because it's a game."
"Most of the characters were very unique, with eccentric personalities. One character speaks in an Osaka dialect, of which there is no real equivalent [in American English]. That dialect is synonymous with humor, but in the case of the States, it's personality that determines humor. In the end we went with a Southern accent, because it's unique and stands out," said Judd, who was once the only foreigner in a staff of more than 1,000 at the firm.
Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCE) differs from Capcom and Square Enix in that its products mainly come from Britain, the United States or the European Union.
The firm changed the appearance of characters in the Japanese version of its Rachet and Clank series.
"We just changed the eyebrows, we made them thicker to skew it for a younger audience," SCE associate producer Jonah Masaru Nagai said. "If you look at Koro Koro [a popular Japanese children's comic] characters, they have huge thick eyebrows which look ridiculous to adults, but kids love them."
Going the other way, SCE "deformed" characters in the golf game series Minna no Golf (Everybody's Golf, or Hot Shots Golf in North America) for the U.S. version.
"They were completely redesigned because there is a gap in the understanding of the cultures," said SCE producer Yeon Kyung Kim. "The Japanese characters are cartoony, but the U.S. characters are like 'fat old guy,' 'pretty Texas gal' and 'baldy.' They are a little more exposed, more on the strong side and easier to understand. A little more like The Simpsons."
Europe, however, given the choice, plumped for the Japanese characters. "I think Japanese products can become very niche in foreign markets, very otaku," Kim said.
Imagine if the person you love is leaving you to go to a faraway land and it's your last chance to say what you've been bottling up inside. Would you just turn and say, "Thank you"?
This is exactly what the heroine tells the hero in the Japanese version of one of the final scenes of a well known Square Enix fantasy game, when she tells him, "Arigato," just before he takes flight, unsure if she will ever see him again.
"When the person you love is leaving, but you had never actually confessed your love and just turn and say, 'Thanks,' it's cold and almost farcical," Square Enix's Honeywood said. "You've just spent 100 hours going through the game, and you are obviously in love with each other, so we replaced that in the English version with 'I love you.'"
Now that's Hollywood.
(Nov. 2, 2007 - The Daily Yomiuri)