Making your game localisation-friendly

Once upon a time, before I became the almighty BeefJack Creative Producer, I started in the game industry through localisation – as a Japanese and English to French translator. Localisation can become crucial – and daunting! – at a certain point of game development, so here are a couple of easy tricks to think about early in your project, to spread the love in many languages!

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Make all the text in your game data-driven

Make sure none of the text in your game lives only in the engine you’re using. By having everything in Excel documents, you can make both your life and that of translators easier: each language can simply have its own column!
I’ve seen developers who realized their text-heavy game had all its dialogues solely in their engine, and it was just too late in development to spend the time to sort everything out to localize it… Avoid this with a bit of organization!

Make sure the size of your text boxes are modulable or big enough

Quite a few languages require more space than English: as a rule of thumb, consider that German usually takes twice as much, while French, Italian or Spanish often about 50% more. By having double the space in every written part of your game, you should be good to go. When you have no choice but to impose a character limit, do notify your translators, it will prevent quite a few overflows!

Be mindful of your font choice

Some languages use special characters, such as accents on letters, which do not exist in some rarer fonts… And yes, all these exotic scribbles such as our dozens of French accents ARE usually necessary! I’ve seen even quite big studios realize too late their font did not take these into account, which made some languages look odd.

Avoid sentences with code in the middle

Sentences like “You found the (insert item)!”, rather common in RPGs, are generally a localisation nightmare.
Because of the grammatical differences between languages – especially those heavy on genders, like latin or germanic languages – it is often very hard to make such sentences feel natural, and it is even worse when you have several instances of code in a row. One way around this problem is to make specific lists of items for each code, bespoke for each language that needs it, but I would suggest to try and avoid it all together.
I remember pulling my hair working around sentences such as “You can find the [ITEM] in [LOCATION]” in French, as “the” changes depending on the noun’s gender – and also different ways of translating “in”…

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Avoid chopping sentences in several strings

Something that can be found in a lot of free-to-play games is sentences cut in several strings, such as:

String 1: You got
String 2: [amount]
String 3: of gold!

This is problematic for languages with completely different grammar from English, such as Asian languages: it means you’d have to change the order of strings depending on the case. For instance, the Japanese translation of this sentence would be literally:

String 3: Gold
String 2: [amount]
String 1: You got! (Or rather, “was obtained”.)

Try to at least leave a comment to your translator if you have chopped sentences, so they can swap their translation! Which brings me to my next tip…

Be nice to your translators: give us context, and ideally, a build of your game!

It goes without saying, but the biggest help you can give your translators is providing them with a build of your game – and it will prevent them from having to pester you about the context of every sentence. If you cannot give out a build, at the very least try to add comments regarding context of your text in your files to translate: even when something can seem obvious to you, it may not be to a translator, or there may be terms that could be translated in different ways in some languages!

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Bonus: on working with translators

A translator (almost) ALWAYS ONLY translates in their mother tongue! You will need a different person per language if you want your translation done correctly.
On top of this, you’ll have to remember some languages have variations which need different treatment… i.e. you’ll need different translators for each. The most common ones in games are:

  • Simplified and traditional Chinese (China for the former, Taiwan for the latter), which use very different alphabets
  • Spanish from Spain and Latin America (and my Latin American colleagues would argue every Latin American country has its subtleties, but a separation between these two is the most important!)
  • Portuguese from Brazil and Portugal
  • Note: the only differences between French from France and Canada are accents and colloquialisms, so it is usually not considered paramount to make Canadian versions of French translations. (Sorry, Canada!)

I could go on in many different directions on the topic of localisation, such as the cases of audio or cultural issues you may encounter, but I think that by remembering these tips, you’ll avoid the bulk of the problems related to this field of our fine industry! And in the meanwhile, feel free to come chat on Twitter.