Saturday, November 20, 2010

Get Local: Accessibility and Familiarity Matter More Than Ever

This article was originally published in the November issue of Tek Lado Magazine

In the last 20 years, videogames have moved beyond the toy shelf into a global market surpassing the movie industry in annual sales. Some investors have even estimated the annual worth of the industry at more than $100 billion worldwide. Whether it's that 99-cent iPhone game you can't put down (we're looking at you, Angry Birds), the hours you've spent farming computerized cauliflower on Facebook or this year's top-tier shooter, gaming is everywhere and it's bigger than ever. With this added growth comes added responsibility, as the industry must constantly adapt for changing markets.

In 2007, the United States Census identified 3.4 million households as Spanish-speaking and the results of the latest census are expected to see this number grow. Game developers should take note of this growing demographic when localizing titles for North America. Localization includes everything from translation to, in some cases, changing cultural references or differences to suit the territory.

In recent years, however, language options have increased. Menus, in-game text and subtitles are often available in several languages. But a game offering multiple language tracks, a complete localization, is difficult to find. More than 75 million Wii consoles later, Nintendo's blue-oceans strategy of appealing to non-gamers has certainly paid off, but the issue of accessibility, especially in terms of language, remains.

Localization is a costly and laborious process. The idea of providing multiple audio tracks with several spoken languages is something many smaller studios might not be able to afford.
Take publisher Atlus, for example. The company's catalogue is a Japanophile's dream. Quirky Japanese games such as the Shin Megami Tensei series server a loyal audience and do it well. The company's focus on bringing Japanese games and offering them to an American audience with sharp, oddball localization has paid off. But Atlus isn't the biggest kid on the block. Can a company like Atlus afford to offer bilingual localizations for these games? Added to that, has the demand gotten high enough?

This fall, EA is working with Shinji Mikami (of Resident Evil fame) to bring Vanquish to gamers worldwide. Vanquish is a third-person shooter like Gears of War with an insane sense of speed and a delightfully high level of Japanese quirk. The game features several spoken language tracks, including English, French, Spanish, and Japanese.

In 2009, Ubisoft's holiday blockbuster, Assassin's Creed 2, offered similar language features. In fact, many gamers preferred playing the game, set in 15th-century Italty, with the Italian dialogue with English subtitles. (When in Rome...) But these are marquee titles with large budgets and the power of the EA and Ubisoft machine behind them.

Gone are the days when games could get by with bad translation as in the 8-bit era of "A winner is you," "I feel asleep" or "all your base are belong to us." The move from East to West is more thoughtful and the work being done in English localization continues to improve.
But the Spanish-speaking market is booming, and game makers and publishers who want to appeal to these gamers should do what they can to make titles accessible.


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