In the entire process of game development there’s sufficient praise and spotlight for the rendering gurus, concept artists, character modellers, writers, voice actors, and score composers. In lesser measure are the sound effects people or the translation/localisation experts acknowledged. This latter category is what I want to write about. As it is a rather broad topic to address, it will be spread out over the course of several articles. As such I also have to establish a baseline first and foremost before moving forward and deeper.

“Language is the picture and counterpart of thought.” — Mark Hopkins

For a very long time we have expressed ourselves in many ways. Of these ways language is one of the primary methods with which we do so. Before we even learn to read or write, we are taught to speak one or more languages by our parents and whatever our environment influences us with.

Language shapes us as much as we shape language. But language is only one aspect of a larger cultural identity. This cultural identity influences how we perceive reality in various ways .

Take, for example, some gestures or sayings that you might use on a daily basis. There is a good chance that a lot of these gestures and sayings are perceived quite differently in another cultural environment. At best they would mean the same, maybe it has no meaning at all, but at worst you could just have greatly offended someone with an, for you, innocuous gesture or saying.

Next to language and gestures, some other areas that are affected by the cultural identity are dates and time, symbols, seasons, weather, holidays, stereotypes, humour, political references, measurements, and law. Many of these areas have direct or indirect ramifications for game development, publishing, marketing, and support.

“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” — Frantz Fanon

The quote above really emphasises what it is all about. In the simplest case, you would design and develop a game in either your native language or English because it generally is the easiest or safe thing to do. Once done it would be published and marketed in either your native language or English as well. This was the case with many video games that were released in the 1970s up to a large part of the 1990s. Whether simply for profit or for wanting to entertain people, we all want our games to have a very wide reach. A game in a particular language would reach a certain percentage of the speakers of said language as well as a number of non-native speakers of the language. But that leaves a lot of people who either do not speak your language at all or are not at a comfortable, proficient level. So in order to reach wider than this, the game will need to be translated into another language.

“Translation is the art of failure.” — Umberto Eco

Translating a game into another language sounds simple, but it is only one aspect of the larger process called globalisation. Globalisation (abbreviated using a numeronym to g11n) is, simply put, the process of adapting your product and everything associated with it to the language and culture of a targeted country.

For the developers this means making adjustments in the game source code itself, a process called internationalisation (i18n), in order to provide the framework to support such things as proper font display (including writing direction), number and string formatting, keyboard shortcuts, text input, and many other aspects. In essence you are making it more generic to get rid off any cultural assumptions. Only once such a proper framework for internationalisation is in place can integration of localisation (L10n) be worked on.

Localisation focuses on areas such as text translation for in-game text, subtitles or manuals, voice acting in various languages, or other, more specific cultural changes. The term itself is based on the word locale, which nowadays refers to a combination of region or territory, the language and ortography used and sometimes the encoding used. The encoding aspect is becoming less and less important, especially for game development, now that Unicode is widely used and supported. An example of a locale would be Spanish in Spain and Spanish in Chile. At first glance they are liable to be shared under Spanish, but the specific vocabulary used in Chile as well as speed, intonation and accentuation of spoken Spanish would clearly separate these into two different locales.

When internationalisation and localisation are handled it means that the game itself is more or less customised for various territories. But that’s only part of the entire globalisation effort. The entire support framework for your game also needs to be changed.

In the upcoming articles I will look at the different areas of i18n, L10n, and g11n and talk in-depth about the aspects of specific areas. This includes best practices, general advice, potential pitfalls, as well as providing insight into the workflow of the various people involved in the entire process of globalisation for a title.