Q&A with Johnson Lin of IGDA Taiwan

Fresh advice on game approval process, past mishaps & comical mistakes, devs’ shortcuts to avoid, and indie-friendly localization options

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INTRO

Half-through Johnson’s fact-packed, well-researched hell of a GDC talk, I knew I had to reiterate that essential advice and publish it on our team’s blog— now in a readable form. This post has been in works for a long time, but it still presents a pack of fresh and valuable insights into the business, making, and localization of video games for the Chinese-speaking gamer

Interview outline:

  • Taiwan+China=Soft-launch sandbox+a lucrative market

  • Chinese game approval process & censorship

  • Political mishaps in previous games

  • Unique pitfalls of game localization into Chinese

  • Gamer sentiments and expectations

  • Devs’ shortcuts to avoid and comical mistakes

  • How to get budget-friendly Chinese localization

  • Tech tips (fonts, encoding)

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# Hi Lin. Could you briefly outline what opportunities China and Taiwan offer game devs today? And how Taiwan can be used as a soft-launch sandbox for games?

While I don’t have first-hand data, but recently there are more and more posts from developers on their social media or professional blogs such as Gamasutra, explaining the market potential of Chinese and Asian markets in general. This tweet is fairly recent:

Which explains that the localization of a few key Asian languages, Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese included, can net you significant boost in sales. Simplified Chinese accounts for the huge market in China and also Singapore, while Traditional Chinese is mainly for Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong. And Taiwan by itself is a pretty significant market, comparable to some of the largest European countries in gaming.

In terms of soft-launch opportunities, Taiwan’s market is known for very accepting of foreign products and culture. We are influenced majorly by the US, Japan, China and more recently South Korea in all kinds of media exposure, not to mention our history is intertwined with China and Japan. And if you want to go into China, there is the approval process that I think we’ll be talking about down the line in this interview. As a result, Taiwan becomes a very good place to gather preliminary user feedback and gauge market potential for those bigger regions.

# What should Western devs know about the Chinese game approval process, to be better prepared? What are some regulations that can raise eyebrows of a regular Western dev?

TL;DR version: Get a publisher/representative in China to help you with that, end of story.

There is currently no sensible way for anyone outside of China to get through the approval process all by themselves, due to numerous paperwork and back-and-forth communication required with the government, and this communication is exclusively in Simplified Chinese / Mandarin. There are ways to sort of “workaround” this, such as tapping into the Steam users from China in some fashion (and of course most the the games on Steam are not “approved” as of now). But this goes way beyond the scope of this interview.

On the other hand, getting yourself prepared for the approval process is crucial, even if you’ve already got help with it. The approval process typically lasts 3 months, sometimes even 6 months if there are more complicated issues and thus more back-and-forth, but as far as I know most of this is queuing time, since it’s not just your game that’s being approved.

In terms of things that are immediately related to localization, the no-foreign-language policy, which is being enforced on games that are officially published in China since late-2016, definitely is the biggest one. Make sure you are prepared to make a lot of UI adjustments. Sometimes we choose to leave words that are already nearly universal to gamers in the UI design, often in an image form (and not dynamic texts), such as “LV,” “Win,” “Lose,” and “Ready? Go!” — all these have to be translated into Simplified Chinese as well. Only text elements that are purely decorative can be left out.

The PSVita version of Deemo, a rhythm game made by a Taiwanese company Rayark, was sent to the approval process with the help from Sony. At one point, even the song names and composer names (upper left in this case) were asked to be translated. After some back-and-forth, they finally understood that composer names are often untranslatable and effectively constitute the branding of the composers, translating that would cause major issues. But the translations of song names were still enforced in a way: Rayark devs had to add the translated names in the upper right corner, because changing hand-made textures for all the song names at that point would be too costly.

 Rayark devs had to add translations of the song names in the upper right corner

Rayark devs had to add translations of the song names in the upper right corner

Another big topic is related to censorship.

This is also very much out of the scope of this interview, but crudely put, you have to understand the fact that in the eyes of China government, all video games are essentially “ESRB Everyone”. There is currently no established rating system for publishing video games in China. So when one wonders why the approval process feedback says blood splash in red and skeletons need to be changed in your game, this is why. Also, try to remember that this approval process is a manual process that’s based on previously established cases, with the human involved who is not fluent in game culture. There are advocacy groups in China trying to push forward changes, but things are moving slowly, understandably.

# What do game devs need to know to avoid any political mishaps?

Disclaimer: I am a Taiwanese, and I can only promise I will try to answer as neutral as possible.

If your game doesn’t have sensitive content, generally it will be fine. However, sometimes you don’t realize what could be actually sensitive in your game.

Take Street Fighter V as an example.

As an esports game, it’s fairly common to have a national flag system that goes along with your in-game user profile.

But if you want to release the same game into both China and Taiwan (or other countries that have a similar issue), this inevitably creates a problem.

 Taiwanese sports players/teams are forced to use the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee flag, not the country flag

Taiwanese sports players/teams are forced to use the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee flag, not the country flag

Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee flag is essentially what Taiwanese players/teams are forced to use in formal international sports events, like Olympics. Capcom used the CTOC flag and mashup with Capcom ProTour logo in Street Fighter V.

The most recent similar incident is Overwatch World Cup.

 Overwatch World Cup 2016 and 2017 also attribute Taiwan as “Chinese Taipei,” just it’s not even a flag of anything

Overwatch World Cup 2016 and 2017 also attribute Taiwan as “Chinese Taipei,” just it’s not even a flag of anything

In the case of Yakuza 6, it’s a bit more interesting. The series of Yakuza actually has never been officially released in China, due the content of the game depict the underground world of Japan and the gangster life vividly, granting an “ESRB Mature” rating to most games in the series. Like what I said just a few paragraphs ago, this is not going to fly for the China approval process. However, due to the online feedback from the netizens in China after they saw the reactions of Taiwanese people celebrating SEGA initially for using “the country of Taiwan” line in the game, SEGA had to go and “fix” the content for a game that’s not being officially released there.

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Ignoring the obvious self-censorship and protecting SEGA’s own reputation in China by “fixing” it, in hindsight, if they just mentioned Taiwan as “Taiwan” in the game initially, I would imagine there wouldn’t have been any fuss about it at all on either Taiwan’s or China’s side. But, on the other hand, if your game absolutely requires a national flag system, well, I have no suitable suggestion for you from a purely neutral perspective.

# You must have seen a lot of localized games. What comical or interesting mistakes have you seen and how they could’ve been avoided?

The most famous example we all know in Taiwan is the Traditional Chinese version of Neverwinter Nights 1. The localization of NWN1 was a very rushed project, to begin with, and they end up using a lot of machine translation. The most memorable error happened in this dialogue:

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Neverwinter Nights 1’s most famous translation mishap in Traditional Chinese version

“I didn’t know what to do, but I had to stop it. I ran forward into the crowd, yelling for them to stop, but… I… I tripped and fell in the mud. I looked up and saw the face of a kindly grandmother. I reached for her hand and…she kicked me right in the teeth.”

The Traditional Chinese version literally translated that into “the grandmother kicked the person’s teeth”, not only that, this whole paragraph was erroneously copy-pasted into a few dozen more dialogues in the game. Thus the Teeth-Kicking Old Woman (踢牙老奶奶) was born.

Of course, the root of these problems are probably just project management issues and/or underestimating the effort needed.

For AAA games, the ecosystem and the best practices for localization is quite mature nowadays, but with the current rise of indie games, it is going to be a lot harder when you consider the budget restrictions that indie devs usually have, and also the general inexperience towards localization.

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In The Witness’ Trad. Chinese version, “Load a game” became “Download a game”

# What are some unique difficulties of game localization into Chinese?

Localization process is always non-trivial. But for the target audience of this article, there are probably 2 major factors which contribute to the difficulty of Chinese localization.

Firstly, roughly speaking, because of the cultural and social “distance” from Chinese speaking regions to “the West”, you are dealing with a very different language system, hence it’s harder to find corresponding vocabularies, harder to make a sentence that reads like it’s coming from a native speaker, and sometimes you just don’t know where to look for localization services. Of course this by no means only occurs to Chinese localization, but secondly, you also need to understand the fact that “Chinese” is a lot of times a vague designation: for the writing system, you have to account for at least Simplified and Traditional Chinese, not to mention regional and national differences; there are also a few prominent spoken languages, such as Mandarin and Cantonese to say the least. Some people would categorize these as “dialects”, while it’s actually more suitable to treat them as individual languages.

Considering the reasons mentioned, it’s not hard to imagine there are many subtleties and nuances got mixed up or simply neglected, when you naively talk about the term “Chinese”, and subsequently all sorts of confusion when it comes to localization.

  Source: The Language Subtag Registry maintained by iana.org

Source: The Language Subtag Registry maintained by iana.org

# Could you share gamer sentiments/reactions when the game simply states Chinese without stating Simplified or Traditional?

I mean, by nature we will feel uncomfortable when we see one labeling itself as one thing, but when actually it is another. As a Traditional Chinese user, of course I will think my Chinese writing system is the default one, when not labeled otherwise, and vice versa. The easiest way to avoid confusion and potential complaint is to simply understand what version of Chinese localization you have, and state it as such.

While people who read one version of Chinese probably also can understand things written in the other version, there are still cultural, aesthetic (typography) and vocabulary differences, and those are by no means small. People usually ask how big the difference is when comparing to English in the US and the UK — although it’s hard to precisely put down a number, in my opinion, the difference is easily 10 times as big.

# What are some shortcuts devs like to take when localizing for the Chinese market? I know some use S to T converters? And how big is the difference between the two languages?

Continuing my point from the last paragraph, due to the differences between Simplified and Traditional Chinese, the auto-converters are just not the way to go.

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Since we all are familiar with the word “Game,” let’s break it down in its Chinese form. In both Traditional and Simplified Chinese versions, it has 2 Chinese characters. The idea of the second character here is easier, which just means “Drama”, and just a one-to-one mapping between Traditional and Simplified.

But for the first character, both “Play” and “Swim” characters are used in Traditional Chinese, and they have totally different meanings. But in Simplified, the two characters become one. So the mapping is many-to-one in this case, which is not viable if you want to do a Simplified to Traditional conversion.

Next when you consider the fact that a lot of daily vocabularies between China and Taiwan (also Hong Kong to an extent, and I am not talking about Cantonese in written form) are different, the character / word mapping between Simplified and Traditional easily becomes many-to-many, rendering conversion totally not viable both ways.

# Could you share your insights on choosing the right game name that will work for Chinese gamers? Or how to go about translating names?

Frankly speaking, I think this is very hard to do well. Sometimes it’s very easy due to the straightforwardness of the content of the game or the original name of it, but sometimes there is simply no good solution (to a point that leaving the name of the game alone may be a better option, just that this option is not really available for China).

But be sure to ask your translator to come up with multiple suggestions, and explanations for each suggested names. If you happen to know anyone from Chinese-speaking regions, try to get opinions from them. Moreover, the opinion may very well be different based on where they come from. In terms of movies, TV, and to some extent video games, usually, China’s naming is more straightforward, while Hong Kong and Taiwan tend to utilize local references, the summarizable and marketable idea of the actual content, or make it sound like a specific phrase or idiom if possible. And of course, HK/TW’s takes are usually different to each other.

These nuances are impossible to explain briefly — there are actual academic papers on this topic! So I’ll simply suggest you to try the most straightforward one when in doubt. One thing I’d like to add is, considering the fact that gamer demographic is continually widening in Chinese-speaking regions, and also the potential mishap of fans or gaming press choose a name that misses the point of your game — it’s best if the developers themselves decide an officially translated name before launch. There’s still a good chance you can find a name that can be well-received in all Chinese-speaking regions. But if you (or your translator) really can’t do that, at least it’s still OK for regions outside of China.

# Professional localization can be out of question for many smaller teams due to a limited budget, so many resort to their fans and end up with negative forum comments from the same community… Any tips on how to do budget-friendly localization into Chinese and still get the quality?

I think it may be possible to let the fans do the first pass if there are volunteers, and then find a professional to proofread it. At least from what I know translators usually charge less for proofreading. Some even distinguish both “editing” and “proofreading” from “translation” works. Pick the option that’s most suitable to you.

But I don’t deny how costly it can be for a good Chinese (either Simplified or Traditional) localization can be when it comes to video games. Other potential costs including fonts and UI adjustments, etc. It is just not a cheap thing to do when your game is text heavy.

# So, in your opinion, how can a regular dev folk find quality game localizers and not feel like “the translation sucks and always just a waste of money, and I’d better used Google/fans and spent that money on marketing?”

First of all, I think you should be aware of who you are actually working with. Be aware when a translation agency say they can do both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. Do they actually have different people on this? Be sure to ask this question.

Secondly, I understand the practice when working with a bigger localization studio, you’ll be talking to a studio rep but not the actual translator (since if you are going to do a bunch of languages at the same time, it’s may seem non-sensible to talk to all the translators). But when I am doing translation works for fellow indie devs, I always find direct communication a lot more productive. There are a lot nuances, when it comes to game localizations, that you really can’t relay through a third party and just by a google spreadsheet. I always keep the communication going, asking for references, knowing the contexts, understanding the devs what they want to achieve at certain points in the game. With a studio middle-person I don’t know how to keep this as effective.

Last but not least, it’s pretty important that the devs do their ‘homework’ on their end. If you invented a lot of made-up words for your game, put the explanation down for the translator. Use visuals to supplement some of the more unique parts of your game. Things like that. This extends to all kinds of translation works and not just for Chinese. Dumping a text file to your translator without any additional context and expecting the end result would be good? The fault is totally yours.

# Could you briefly share some tech tips on encoding, fonts, space issues?

For encoding issues, the answer is very short: UTF-8. In almost all cases there’s no legitimate reason not to use UTF-8 in your game, even if devs themselves don’t plan to localize it! One thing I would like to bring up is that game development, as we all know, is a very complicated and multifaceted process. There are many people with different talents and a lot of tools and editors involved. Once in a while there may be an in-house tool or other 3rd party stuff in your toolchain that does NOT support UTF-8, not use it by default, or you forget to choose UTF-8 — and fuck everything up. Just be very careful with double checking it.

About fonts, the first thing any developer should understand is, for either Simplified or Traditional Chinese, font designs are expensive for a reason — the characters (or glyphs) count we need for daily usage is in the thousands, with each character design more complicated than ASCII characters on average. So a general purpose font in Chinese is easily hundreds of times, if not more, costly than ASCII or Latin-only fonts. Free fonts are almost non-existent, and overall you have less choice of style.

Fortunately, there are some notable free font resources (legally) available:

  • For sans-serif style, Google Noto Sans CJK (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) font family is an excellent choice for most usages. You can also investigate WenQuanYi, a very long standing open source font project for both Simplified and Traditional Chinese.
  • For serif style, Hanazono Mincho is a font that originally designed for Buddhism research by a university in Japan, which covers Traditional, Simplified Chinese and Japanese Hanzi and other more general usages. Google also released Noto Serif CJK series more recently, providing a slightly different looking and very good serif choice.

Another common issue is that Chinese characters’ stroke-density, especially for Traditional Chinese, is higher than English (and lots of other languages), meaning you can read texts in small font size in English more so than in Chinese. Also, 10pt texts in Font-A may not appear as the same size as 10pt texts in Font-B, so all the UI texts after localization needs to be checked visually, to prevent situations similar to what’s being shown in the image here.

 The Simpl. Chinese / English version comparison of Skulls of the Shogun Android version

The Simpl. Chinese / English version comparison of Skulls of the Shogun Android version

# Are there any resources on the web with tips for devs looking to localize into Chinese?

In fact, when it comes to video game localization, there really aren’t much resources/tutorials/explanations online for English-speaking developers looking into Chinese, which is part of the reason why I submitted my talk to GDC17. However, of course, most of the general localization rules and best practices are still required, and there are plenty of those posts you can search for online.

Lastly, thank you a lot for this opportunity. I am also going to revise and make some additions to my original GDC17 talk about Chinese localization as a Gamasutra post. Some of them are already incorporated into this interview, but for more details covering all other stuff that was in my talk, please check out the post when it is online. : )

# Thanks a lot, Johnson, for sharing a ton of useful advice!