Should I localize my mobile app?

David Marino

       David Marino

When starting a new project, an independent developer has one thing on his mind: "'I need to make a good game."

If the game is good, the hope is that people will play it, buy it, enjoy it and tell others about it. It seems like a simple enough recipe for success, but this kind of thinking is a trap. You can always do more for your product; if your only goal is making a great game, you are doing yourself a major disservice. Littered along the road to success are countless video game development studios that succeeded in their goal to make a great game, yet failed to make a sustaining product. Some of the "extra" things that game developers commonly focus on are marketing, community building and porting their games to other platforms, but one of the most neglected aspects of game development is localization.

When we started development on Bag It, we weren't sure if we were going to localize the game. Coming from a console background, localizing games was the norm, but even a cursory glance at the App Store and Android Markets will tell you that this isn't the case on mobile platforms. Only the giant companies of the world-- Disney, Electronic Arts and Zynga--bother to localize their games significantly. Do they know something that most other developers don't know, or are they merely capitalizing their resources and infrastructure in a way smaller developers cannot?

One Small Step

Localization can be costly, ranging in price dramatically depending on how much text or dialogue there is in your game. Before we undertook this significant step at Hidden Variable, we opted to research and analyze the various pros and cons.

Crusteau the Bread

Developers should ensure content is culturally relevant outside of its local market.

After spending weeks going back and forth with our contacts and sources, we just could not deny the many benefits that localization could bring to our game.

It is no major secret that gamers prefer to play games in their native language. Localization also helps reinforce the impression that the game was carefully crafted and tailored for each market, rather than simply "mass-produced" for worldwide consumption. Finally, it allows your game to build credibility by demonstrating that you care about the customs and sensitivities of other cultures.  This still ignores a major question, though: "Does localization lead to increased sales?"

According to the U.S. State Department, it does. They estimate that U.S. firms alone lose $50 billion in potential sales each year because of problems with translation and localization. If you want your game or company to move beyond being a local product, you need to think global, and if you want your product to compete successfully with other native products, you need to localize it.

This goes beyond simple translating. Many games actually have content that is not culturally relevant outside of their local market. This was something we struggled with in Bag It! Our game primarily focuses on popular US supermarket products. It doesn't take a great leap in thinking to realize that products in the US might not make as much sense to users playing in China. How much should you change in your game and at what point does it not make economic sense to change it? The answer for every product is different, but you need to consider all of the possible implications when distributing your product in foreign markets.

Preparing for Success

Regardless of the extent of the changes you make, there are a few straightforward guidelines that you should absolutely consider when preparing for localization. There are many books, articles and sources out there for localization, so I won't be going into a whole list, but here are a few guidelines to follow:

  • Set up your text so it can be changed dynamically. You don't want to have an artist painstakingly creating art pieces with text built in it. When it comes time to translate it, they'll have to do it all over again for each language. Not a good use of their time.
  • Arrange a build pipeline that enables you to easily produce different builds and keep them organized. When one build morphs into five builds, things get more complex. You need to ensure that you can easily change, create, and publish content in all different languages.
  • Be careful when picking a font. Unless you plan on recreating thousands of Chinese characters, you will probably want to find a free font or buy one. Before you go out and grab one, make sure it has all the characters you'll need (many Chinese fonts don't), is legible and isn't going to have you paying costly licensing fees.
  • Pick a good localization partner!

The localization partner is probably the most important item on this list. This is a partner, and before you sign a contract, you need to make sure they are going to meet your needs. They are going to be the ones who are responsible for quality translations and should also check that your text is being displayed properly. In particular for us, we knew our localization partner would have to do quite a bit of "trans-creating." Much of our game is filled with puns that would make sense only to English-speaking audiences. Our localization partner re-wrote these puns making them appropriate for various cultures. This is definitely not something we could have managed and verified on our own.

At the end of the day, we feel we did a good job researching, preparing and executing our localization strategy. Our game comes out worldwide in December, so we have to wait to see if it truly paid dividends, but we already have players who have been eagerly asking for a localized version of the game. If you haven't considered localizing your product yet, think about it. It could mean all the difference in the world.

David Marino is the CFO and Co-Founder of Hidden Variable Studios. The new game he worked on is Bag It!, available on iOS and Android. Oh, and the marketing guy also told him to mention that you can "Like" it on Facebook or "Follow" it on Twitter @Hidden_Variable.