A lot of videogame history is lost in translation. Due to dubious localisation, some of the greatest games were afforded lines like “This guy are sick”, or asked questions such as “But do you really are?” Who can forget Resident Evil’s pièce de résistance: “Jill, you the master of lock-picking”. Meanwhile, “All your base are belong to us”, a moment of surreal nonsense in an English translation of Japanese game Zero Wing (1989), became an Internet phenomenon, spawning a catchphrase and even merchandise. In the past, incomprehensible dialogue in games – hand grenades described as “throwing-stick exploding bombs”, etc – was excusable. In 2007, when international markets command around 40% of total videogame sales, publishers and developers know that car-boot translations will simply not cut the mustard.

Localisation has become priority for all major releases, affording gamers in Prague the same enjoyment from a title as those in Philadelphia, and Ireland is renowned as an ideal base for this business. In 1995, Vivendi Publishing Games (Warcraft, Diablo, Spyro, etc.) established its worldwide localisation centre in Dublin. Vivendi Games Ireland is involved in the organisation and adaptation of content, translation, graphics, audio recording, engineering, and Quality Assurance (QA). Activision recently established its localisation division in Ireland, GALA networks have a European base in Dublin’s Digital Hub, while Goa Games Services (a subsidiary of France Telecom) is involved in localisation of titles such as Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, from its Dublin office. Game Localization Network (gamelocalisation.net) also works from Dublin, providing services such as voice-over recording and graphics localisation.

Microsoft Game Studios (Ireland) – based in Microsoft’s European Development Centre Sandyford, Dublin – undertakes localisation services for Xbox 360 and PC titles across the EU countries, Central and Eastern Europe and Russia. The division also provides support for various Microsoft teams around Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and (to a lesser degree) Asia. Peter Fitzpatrick, Senior Programme Manager, recognises the prevalence of localisation companies in Ireland and the advantages to an Irish base. “When Microsoft executives – from the Visual Vice President right up to Steve Ballmer or Bill Gates – visit Ireland they cite our time zone and the calibre of our employees. We have a strong workforce with good IT skills – historically that has always been the case. Also, the Irish workforce has the ability to work within the EU. We are no strangers to negotiating and partnering with bodies – whether government or businesses – in any EU state. We are familiar with the work required to be successful in the EU.”

Economics also nurture a localisation-friendly environment in Ireland, says Peter. “There is a very encouraging tax regime for multinationals in this country. On more than one occasion, people like Steve Ballmer have said that doing business with the Irish state is very easy because the state goes out of its way to accommodate companies like Microsoft. We Irish can be very cynical, but it is fascinating to hear this.”

Peter has worked with the Bungie franchise and their blockbuster Halo series over the last few years. Firstly in an audio capacity for Halo 1, then as project manager for Halo 2’s localisation. His role further expanded for Halo 3. As part of his job, Peter manages an internal team and a number of outside partners. In-house, the work consists of liasing with software engineers, packaging managers and documentation managers; externally, he deals with vendor companies that provide localisation services and audio production. “We use an outsource model for a lot of our work,” he explains. “Our policy is to only use experienced game localisers in-country. A professional translator can translate a contract but you need a localiser to adapt, as well as translate, a game. A flat translation of a game like Halo would not work.”

Halo 3 is a case in point for the importance of localisation. In early 2007, the game’s Global Marketing Manager informed Microsoft Game Studios (Ireland) that Bungie wanted to include cameos from local celebrities for each region. Thus, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, and Mexico, all featured indigenous stars helping out on voiceover duties. For the English version, which shipped to Ireland and beyond, the Dublin division secured the services of TV and radio celeb Jonathan Ross.

Why Jonathan Ross? “I knew that he was a gadget freak and he has a profile that is not inconsistent with a Halo gamer. A Halo gamer will stay up watching TV at night, then play some games – they know who he is. Jonathan is into culture. He’s a big fan of Japanese gaming in particular, so it was a bit of a no-brainer.” In June 2007, the team travelled to London to supervise Ross’s recording session. What exactly did Ross do for Halo 3? “He ad-libbed and brought a character and humour to the game. He voice-acts in a couple of cut scenes – for example, he’s a pilot in a craft that crashes – and he also appears in a couple of Easter Eggs. He plays a couple of marines, so if you stall and do nothing for a while, he will start talking to you.” The localisation team recorded Ross for around three hours and their audio lead, who worked in Bungie’s studio in Washington for two months on audio mixes of the game, used around 80% of Ross’s content.

Team Halo Dublin. From left-to-right: Jamie O’Connell [Packaging
Manager], Mick Ivory [Software Development Engineer], Master Chief
[Hero], Michel Buch-Andersen [Group Manager MGS Ireland], Jason Shirley
[Audio Lead], Peter Fitzpatrick [Senior Program Manager], Not pictured :
Niamh Marsh [Documentation Manager]

Other Dublin-based game multinationals cater toward the needs of individual territories. Gala Networks Europe (GNE), part of the Gala Group, publishes online games such as Flyff, Space Cowboy Online, Rappelz, Corum Online and Upshift StrikeRacer. Gala’s group company is headquartered in Tokyo; it has a development company in Korea and a publisher in the United States. GNE is a subsidiary of the U.S. publisher. “We set up our company via IDA Ireland,” explains Gus Hur, Chief Operating Officer at GNE, at his office in Dublin’s Digital Hub. “Our mother company in the U.S. publishes games for English language speakers, but there are many European users, so we decided to set up a European service.”

What localisation duties does GNE undertake? “We translate from English to German. We customise the game for European people. Sometimes we sell special items for users – European people love soccer, so we sell soccer-related items with big games. We don’t spend much time on translation – our main job is customer support. We employ 11 people here. Around half of them work in customer support.”

Localisation is often a necessity. In the past, strict censoring laws in countries like Germany meant that Quake, Soldier of Fortune, Carmageddon, Grand Theft Auto, and other such games, removed blood in favour of greenish gunk. In Germany’s version of Command & Conquer, enemy soldiers were turned into robotic ‘droids’. In this respect, localisation often involves the manipulation of graphical content. Microsoft’s Peter Fitzpatrick explains: “We’ll only do this if it is required. A practical example would be Project Gotham 4. Let’s say you are driving through a city that has road signs. Logically, the signs would be in the language of that city so we would not change them. However, in a game like Fable, we make sure that signs are localised otherwise it impacts the user’s ability to play the game.”

This process requires close partnership with the game’s developers. The history of localisation features horror stories of text scattered throughout a game’s code, or unorganised voiceover files, making the localiser’s task a nightmare. These days, most developers create games with localisation in mind. So, when a developer introduces text to a game, they either separately resource the text or embed it in the graphics. In the latter case, a developer must ensure that the files are layered so the localiser may replace them. The developer must also ensure that the code and content is structured in such a way that the localisation of the game does not require compiling. Thereby, a localiser can drop assets for, say, an Italian version of the game, straight into a flat-build structure and immediately execute that version. The game’s memory and runtime must also support non-Western or accented characters, ensuring that players in various regions may use their Xbox Live Gamertags.

A localiser must also create regional manuals and packaging, continues Peter. “We released 42 different product variations of Halo 3. There is the Legendary Edition with the helmet, the Limited Edition with the tin, and the regular package of the game. To cover all the different markets, the promotional copies and bundle copies, each variation required a slightly different mix. We provide a fully localised manual so that the experience for the end user in Germany is as good as in France, Germany, the UK, Ireland, the U.S., etc. Our documentation people are faced with a real challenge when dealing with areas like Central and Eastern Europe. We give them a manual containing multiple languages. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Russia, receive the same basic package with all the languages on the packaging, then a manual with each of the languages inside it. This is a logistical challenge because you are limited as to how many pages you can put in a box. We try to balance the expense of catering for these markets, versus making sure that the gamers get what they need.”

Localisers are constantly recruiting and they offer plenty of opportunity. Peter Fitzpatrick initially worked for Music Pen, a game developer in the U.S., before he came to Microsoft Game Studios (Ireland) as an audio manager some 13 years ago. Since then, he has progressed through a series of different jobs. “You can come into this company as a tester and end up a software engineer,” he says. By way of example, a graduate from the Waterford Institute of Technology started in the division as a game tester; he is now one of the Senior Engineers, and worked closely with Bungie on Halo 3. There are opportunities for game testers, although anyone with an easy ride in mind need not apply, notes Peter. “Great testers must understand the process of development and bug fixing; they need the discipline to work within a schedule and a team. We do some testing in-house, but we also have external vendors.” GNE recruit around three or four staff every month, adds Gus Hur. For the most part, these are customer support staff, but game producers are also taken on board.

The Irish localisation industry has already experienced a degree of cross-pollination, with employees skipping from one company to another, but having so many people in one vicinity, engaged in a single goal, can only be beneficial for Ireland’s development community and its college graduates. Hopefully, the industry is also helping to assign shoddy game localisation to history. “Developers are acknowledging and delivering on local content to help drive interest in games,” concludes Peter. “Localisation used to have a very bad reputation, but now teams like ours are demonstrating that it is a great job with real results. From a game’s point of view, localisation in Ireland has never been more exciting or had more potential.”

More info:

Microsoft Ireland – http://www.microsoft.com/ireland/

Gala Networks Europe – http://www.thedigitalhub.com/enterprise_research/company_directory.php?action=view&id=106 and http://flyffde.gpotato.eu/ (in German)