Friday, March 8, 2019

Why you should almost always localize your games

screenshot from my game Rinse And Repeat, with a sexy shower hunk speaking in Russian subtitles
This post is adapted from a talk I gave at WordHack on February 21, 2019 in New York City.

It's hard to feel validated and respected as an artist or creator on the internet. One common (and unhealthy) barometer of "success" is to measure how many people play your game or look at your work -- did you find an audience and are you reaching that audience? I argue that localizing your project into other languages will help you find your audience. It might not be an audience you necessarily understand or communicate directly to, but for example, a large Russian or Chinese fan base might help offset the hurt of being ignored in English-speaking media, and so on.

If you believe these random stats I found, about ~80% of Steam users live in countries where English is not the main language. This roughly corresponds to the worldwide average, where it is estimated that only about ~20% of the world (native and non-native speakers combined) uses English, and about ~25% of all internet users use English. Note that these are all very generalized numbers with lots of assumptions, but let's assume they're in the right ballpark -- that means English-only games basically ignore 75-80% of the world.

screenshot of Noserudake 2, with a bunch of trash cans piled on a pedestal; in both English and Japanese text
Back in 2014, a small Japanese webgame called Noserudake 2 changed a lot of my thinking about this issue. It was a Unity Web Player game (RIP) about piling garbage on a pedestal, and it was extremely charming and interesting when it still functioned in web browsers, just take my word for it.

Now, I was only able to play Noserudake 2 because it had an English localization. It was not a great translation and it had lots of fluency errors, but it was functional enough for me to play and enjoy the game. It would've been impossible for me to copy-and-paste the in-game Japanese text into Google Translate.

"But I'm just making a small little thing, surely I shouldn't bother to localize it?"

Well, if this lone Japanese indie developer bothered to localize their short little arcade game about piling literal garbage on a pedestal, then maybe we should bother too!

There's a lot of politics about language and technology, especially in game development. Rami Ismail has spoken a lot about the privilege of English, and he's even helping to run a conference called Game Dev World which seeks to present design talks in many languages simultaneously. Ramsey Nasser has also worked a lot on the problems of English as the dominant language in computer programming, to the extent that modern software still has trouble simply displaying Arabic characters. All those politics are important and they inform my personal experience and approach with localizing my games:

My free game Radiator 2 has "sold" over 200,000+ units on Steam. ~75% of those activations were outside of the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. In fact, according to my internal Steam stats, my single biggest national market is actually China, which has contributed to 24.1% of my downloads... trailed far by the United States, at 17.4%.

a pie chart showing my Steam activation statistics from the top 30 countries; Russia is 3rd place with 8.2%
(There are several case studies of commercial game localization floating around out there too, e.g. the indie strategy RPG Kenshi had ~40-50% of their total downloads come from non-Anglophone countries.)

I wouldn't necessarily promise this result to anyone else. Maybe I depleted some of my US audience with my releases already, or maybe China was just feeling especially gay and horny one day, and most importantly my game is free. But still, look at that pie graph above, and imagine a terrible universe where I had never offered my games in Simplified Chinese, Russian, or any other non-English language. It would've remained inaccessible to so many people.

If I can localize my short weird free gay sex game, then so can you.

Yes, localization is often a complex process that goes way beyond just swapping out words in your user interface. It requires a lot of coordination with multiple people, just by the nature of the work. I'm actually pretty bad at organizing localization for my games, but I still force myself to do it because I know it's necessary.

The first big step is to start treating localization differently. Don't leave it to the last minute, don't neglect it as an after-thought months after your release. Language accessibility is as important as an evocative visual style or fixing crash bugs in your code. Coordinate the volunteers or spend the money to get a more professional localization. It'll almost always be worth it.