Final Destination: Localizing Games

I close my eyes, and I’m in Sicily again, oh childhood memories. The air is stifling on that summer day, filled with the sweetly-pungent smell of pine, wild rosemary, and plum tomatoes soaking in the rays of a cruel Sicilian sun; in the distance, in defiance of the arid soil, the ancient olive grove; crickets chirping stridently in concert, and the sad sound of a mandolin barely audible from afar. A rare afternoon of playtime with my father, a Cosa Nostra pioneer and leading light in the nascent field of organized crime, who’s sounding strangely muffled though as if he’s got cotton balls stuffed inside his cheeks; he’s not croaking down the clothes line, is he? My father, if there ever was a wise guy, taught me (among many other things): keep your friends close but your enemies closer. But, I say, who needs enemies with friends like the ones I have on Facebook? Listen paisano, don’t you mess with the Kolbone family!

I open my eyes, and I’m back to playing Mafia Wars, the Webby Awards-winning multiplayer browser game from Zynga, the most fun, addictive, and outright wicked game I’ve played online (bringing back fond memories of the fishing trip I took to Lake Tahoe with my older, slightly useless brother). As far as the game’s character ‘builds’ go, I’ve stared down the face of fear (Fearless), thrown fits of maniacal rage (Maniac), and experienced the joys of moguldom (Mogul). Ever since Tony Soprano, Sr. went off the air, there’s been little public excitement around criminal empire building and thanks to the good folks at Zynga, I – the aspiring delinquent and social gaming novice – am now headquartered in Little Italy (trust me, a lot more scenic and authentic than New Jersey, and you spare yourself the Turnpike hassle).

On my pleasantly rapid ascent to criminal mastermind, Mafia Wars had me passing through such helpfully formative stages as: Street Thug, Associate, Soldier, Enforcer, Hitman, Capo, Consigliere, Underboss, and Boss – yes, capo di tutti capi to all my fellow social-networking-site mafiosos – having attained my rightful standing by virtue of various acts of racketeering, grand larceny (stealing other player’s virtual currency), “robbing,” “icing” as well as further assorted felonies (although I understand that spading, polonium poisoning, and all manners of eye-gouging are frowned upon unless, of course, you’ve managed to move onto Moscow station to join the Russkaya Mafiya or Bratva, as these hoodlums are known). There’s a strong educational element that reinforces basic household economics, such as saving money or collecting your “take” and always paying the piper (i.e., making lots and lots of micropayments to “the Godfather,” that is Zynga’s exchequer).

If you haven’t tried out Mafia Wars, do yourself a favor and play it today ( – and as far as this blogger’s opinion is concerned, and in keeping with popular phraseology, “Zynga rules”!

Homo Ludens (the Playing Man) is a remarkable account of the societal and global pervasiveness of gaming by noted medievalists and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, written back in 1938, asserting that things like Mafia Wars are necessary (though not sufficient) conditions to our cultural evolution. Chess is neither an Indian nor a Persian game but rather a global one. Similarly, Zynga has vaulted onto the world stage with a portfolio of social games which the company “localizes” for universal adoption. And since Facebook, everyone’s main artery of social media reach, is now available in: Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Azeri, Basque, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Estonian, Faroese, Filipino, Finnish, French, Galician, Georgian, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Latvian Lithuanian, Macedonian, Malay, Malayalam, Maltese, Nepali, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Persian, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Welsh, Zynga and other gaming companies have their hands full with localization work.

Localization is about a lot more than translating the language-of-origin (mostly English) to the language-of-destination. It requires an understanding of (and really a passion for) the game to be localized, a sound familiarity with the destination culture, and above all some storytelling ability (yes, as in “once upon a time,” “boy meets girl at a dance,” character, dialogue, plot, and story arc). What’s compelling about games like Mafia Wars is that you enter an online fantasy world together with your friends as willing participants in the suspension of disbelief, and even the slightest disruption at the game level such as a botched translation will ruin the effect of the immersion. I’m not sure Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero would be buying his knuckle rings at “A store for murder tools of all kinds” but rather at “A store selling weapons of all kinds.” Or, in another example of localization gone awry (though mind you, not at Zynga which does an excellent job localizing their games!), players would surely raise a brow at the “Prick of death,” thinking that they just acquired in that charming aforementioned store an instrument called the “Spike of death.”

The subtlety with which a narrative must be translated to reach the player on an emotional basis far exceeds the minimum level of linguistic competency. To achieve success in game localization I recommend splitting the process into translation, adding contextual meaning, quality assurance of language and meaning, as well as having regular and collaborative “check-ins” with the game publisher. Since speed-to-market and cost control are close second and third considerations right after player delight, game creators should look at a distributed team configuration with broad access to diverse talent in all their target destination countries in addition to tight workflow control to optimize turnaround. In fact, multi-country localization at breakneck-speed is a perfect application for remote staff augmentation. With access to multiple offshore talent pools and a tight communication link between onshore and offshore teams, social gaming firms can be on their way to pan-planetary domination with remote staffing as a high-quality, low-cost, and variable-expense solution.

About Christophe Kolb
Christophe Kolb is Executive Chairman and co-founder of Talent Trust. Headquartered in San Francisco, Talent Trust employs mobile experts at our own development centers in Córdoba, Argentina and Lima, Peru. Our talented people are seasoned technologists with solid backgrounds in software engineering and cutting-edge skills in mobile web / HTML5, Android, iPhone / iPad, and BlackBerry. We have the technical expertise, industry knowledge, and proven capability to deliver winning mobile solutions, and have done so for some of the world’s greatest companies. Our mission is to help our enterprise clients win in mobility, with: • Captive development centers in Córdoba, Argentina and Lima, Peru • Same time zone advantage for U.S. clients, enabling real time communication • Cost-effective offshore development solutions for mobile • Focus on mobile for enterprise clients • 10-year track record of successfully servicing a blue-chip client base in predominantly multi-year relations • Agile development methodology (Scrum and Kanban) • Close collaboration with clients / Product Owners (daily stand-up meetings) • Excellent English communication skills

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