Massively Overthinking: When is localization itself the kiss of death for an imported MMORPG?


Last week, when I was poking around the internet trying to understand why Amazon was still making excuses for de-sexualizing some Lost Ark characters for the western audience as if the game hasn’t been undergoing identical localization already for over a year now, I stumbled into the Blue Protocol subreddit, where a vocal segment of MMO players are extremely enraged over basically the same thing for the upcoming game.

These players are claiming that publisher Amazon is “censoring” the Japanese Blue Protocol for de-sexualizing the outfits of little girl characters. “Dead on arrival,” one thread with hundreds of upvotes shrieked. The changes look pretty minor to me – swapping bare-midriffs for shirts and miniskirts for shorts. If people weren’t calling attention to it, I wouldn’t even notice it at all since the form factor is essentially the same. Even putting aside my personal opinion about the sexualization of MMO characters, I’m genuinely baffled that anybody thinks changes like this will have a material impact on the game’s performance with a general western audience at all.

Without devolving into a fight over the specifics of the portrayal of minors in MMOs (ugggg), let’s tackle this for Massively Overthinking this week as the idea of localization spelling certain doom for a title is certainly something worth discussing. I suspect we can all think of ways that localization has gone or could go wrong. When is localization itself the kiss of death for an imported MMORPG? How could a publisher go too far when localizing a game for a new region?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): As always, I think it really varies. Localization can be tricky. It can involve massive changes (such the drastic ones Chrono Trigger is known for), or more minor ones (see most pokemon names). For me, I enjoy seeing what the localization process is like, and if I dislike it, well, there’s always the original or fan translations. The only part that really concerns me is the mechanics. I’m totally going to ignore the whole “censorship” “arguments” surrounding what is essentially hyper-sexualization. Just go watch some actual porn, folks; you need both hands on the keyboard when grouped with me, thanks.

No, game mechanics are where I think not only I but the bulk of consumers can be gained or lost. We’ve talked about this before, and Carlo covered it really well a couple of years ago. The difference between how certain mechanics work for the PC bang crowd vs. how they work for western players on home PCs is much tougher to balance out. Give too generously and western players may outpace the original audience in content consumption, which is obviously a problem because new content will not only need to be translated but possibly have localized voice acting, graphics, and more. And then you have to worry about the consumer costs: what’s the power difference between the F2P and the high-spending crowd? How much is P2W and how much is acceptable to the bulk of the target audience?

You can change a lot in terms of graphical representation. The Chinese version of World of Warcraft (RIP) had the Undead changed drastically, but not only did it work for locals, I actually think I would have preferred some of them myself. I think the people most vocal about visuals, especially in terms of sexualization, are a vast but vocal minority. But for me – and I think most devs – broad audience appeal is preferable, so aiming for something that’s acceptable to more mainstream tastes simply makes more financial sense, and I say this as someone who really wants a new Chrono game.

Andy McAdams: It’s hard to point to good localization because you don’t notice it and really easy to point to bad localization because it’s so over-the-top apparent. To answer the question Bree didn’t want to ask about, I think hypersexualized portrayals in video games being “toned down” in the west isn’t censorship. The developers and publishers have no qualms about feeding folks whatever their depravity du jour might be as long as the cash keeps flowing in. But the reality is that they tone it down in the west because it wouldn’t sell otherwise. More people are uncomfortable with the hypersexualized portrayals than there are people who find some value in it. It is pure economics in the west. I have to agree with Andrew here: “You need both hands on the keyboard when grouped with me, thanks.”

An example for me was TERA. I really liked TERA as a game. The combat was fun; the Mystic class was great and unique and a blast to play. I like the politics system too. But seeing all the hypersexualized characters, male and female, made me uncomfortable to the point that I didn’t want to play. I’m not the only one either, as TERA is dead and gone now. (Yes yes, I know TERA had other problems that led to its untimely demise.)

Age of Wushu was a game that I wanted to love, but the localization was egregiously bad to the point that on more than one occasion I couldn’t actually understand the English translation. I’m good with languages, so the fact that I couldn’t figure it out is saying something. ArcheAge is another that jumps to mind as an import whose failure people blamed on the localization; some folks still insist that the game would have been a hit if they’d just copy-pasta’d from the original version. I liked ArcheAge but couldn’t get past the exploitation to really dig in, so I don’t know how much the localization theoretically hurt the game or not.

I often struggle to really enjoy imported and localized games. Something about how Korean games generally play really just doesn’t resonate with me. So many come in with the “grind until your eyes melt out of your head and fry your keyboard,” mentality, or the “Why play the game when the game can play itself for you?” I personally would play more imports if the gameplay were changed to do less of that, but then that raises a new question: If it’s localized and the gameplay changes, is it even the same game?

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I don’t know if I’ve ever noticed localization going “too far” for a Western audience. Removing a swastika from a WWII battleship is hardly a controversial move anywhere in the world. Gaming isn’t the only industry where localization exists, either. McDonald’s sells grits for breakfast in the southern US and Walmart sells apparel for nearby universities and professional sports teams. I guess I just don’t see what the big deal is, unless the game is being mandated to exclude criticisms of the state, anyway. When localization crosses the line into censorship is when I start to pay attention.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I can’t think of any good clear examples of when a localizer went too far. All the examples that run through my head are 1) MMOs that twisted themselves into knots trying to localize their mechanics and monetization for the west but had too many other problems to survive the climate here (Astellia, anyone?) or 2) MMOs that didn’t go far enough in reading the room when it comes to western tolerance for things like grind, ganking, and greed. There is no way an edited miniskirt makes the top 100 issues with localization.

The frustrating part for me is that we actually do have clear examples of genuine political censorship in gaming (the Blitzchung incident being the most obvious one), so complaining about these insignificant little outfit changes (which are completely the decision of the developer and publisher) seems very… mundane by comparison.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): If we’re talking localization from a visuals standpoint in order to make a game acceptable across borders and cultures, then no, I don’t know that really spells doom for a game overall. I mean, we still have Lost Ark and we still have TERA (mostly); those are two sides of a similar coin in that aspect that are still operating.

However, that dramatically changes for me when it comes to localization in terms of translating/localizing to English. For instance, I cannot bring myself to take Mad World, Chimeraland, or Craftopia seriously at all because all three games appear to have been run through auto-translation rather than a localization team. And while it’s still not a kiss of death, it is most definitely a very grievous wound.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Sometimes localization tweaks make sense and sometimes they don’t, but I can’t think of many ways that — small pockets of hysterical overreactors aside — that it can truly tank a game. I guess my main concern would be if localization went so far as to create a vastly superior and inferior version of a title, sentencing some gamers to existing in the lesser of the two. Are there any examples of this that come to mind? Not at the moment, but I’d be open to hearing opinions on this.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I don’t know if localization in the form of edits or changes ruined the game, but it’s clear that the game is poorly localized. If the text reads like the direct output of Google Translate, it’s rough. In such cases, you can definitely feel the lack of cohesion. It’s a double whammy when dialogue is dubbed quickly or by a non-native speaker. Therefore, it takes a very long time to perform its work. You really want it done properly.

Excessiveness is probably not what I see as an issue as East to West ports are such an issue, but I do think censoring content to align with the wishes of some governments is an issue. I think the emoji of one country’s flag is sometimes transformed to look like another’s flag so as not to confuse the government. I’m sticking strictly to the game, but I don’t understand. There’s something about removing skulls in some games, right? I’m kind of rambling about this, but there aren’t many obvious moments I remember that really bothered me.

Tyler Edwards (blog): There’s a phenomenon in the gaming community where people like to blame everything on the publisher, rather than the developer. Everything would be perfect if it weren’t for those dastardly, meddling suits. In reality it’s rarely that simple, of course. I think this is an extension of that mentality — blaming the localization for any problems while idolizing the supposedly perfect original incarnation of the game. I know I’ve seen lots of people blaming Amazon for every grievance they have with Lost Ark despite the well-documented fact that Amazon has very little decision-making power over the game beyond minor tweaks like the artist outfits.

Personally I can’t say I’ve ever seen heavy-handed localization harm a game, though I will admit I don’t play a lot of import titles. Usually I find the opposite problem — lazy localization that didn’t go nearly far enough. Soulworker comes to mind as an extreme example. I think it could have been a lot more successful with a decent localization. It had beautiful graphics, excellent combat, and what little of the story I could parse seemed interesting, but it was far too grindy for Western audiences, and the translations were so poor as to render the game’s text and dialogue virtually incomprehensible.

It’s baffling that so few games bother to ensure their text is translated into idiomatically correct English. Even when they’re not the Google Translate gibberish of a game like Soulworker, the translations rarely sound quite right. Even in Lost Ark, all the text and dialogue just feels… off. The effect is subtle, but it’s odd enough to frequently break my immersion in the story or have me scratching my head over an unclear ability tooltip.

I’m not a big fan of Final Fantasy XIV, but I’ll at least give it credit for having a quality translation that actually feels like it was done by native English speakers.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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