Localization of Square Enix video games
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The Japanese video game company Square Enix has been translating its games for North America and the PAL region since the late 1980s. They have not always released all games in all regions, and continues to selectively release games even today. The process of localization has changed from having a one person team with a short time and tight memory capacities to having a teams of translators preparing simultaneous launches in multiple languages.
Enix did not initially have a localization department and outsourced its Western releases to translators who had no close contact with the original development teams. Like Enix, Square did not initially have a localization department, though Kaoru Moriyama and Ted Woolsey worked with them regularly on a contractual basis. In the late 1990s, Richard Honeywood decided to create a localization team when he was recruited for Square. While there were only two members at first, including Honeywood, the staff grew to include more than 40 employees by 2007, four years after the merger between Square and Enix. The staff works mainly from Japanese to English and the other way around, and from American English to British English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish. Critically acclaimed translator Alexander O. Smith has also worked with Square Enix, notably on the Ivalice titles.
Honeywood described Xenogears, his first translation project at Square, as "pure hell". He stated that he started to change the company's approach to localization after that game, moving booths to always work very closely with the original development teams, improving communication with them, and introducing full-time editors. The localization process depends on factors such as the development teams' wishes, as well as budget and schedule. Translation usually starts late in development, although some titles, like Final Fantasy XI, are translated from Japanese to English during initial development, making the translators appear more like additional planners than actual translators. A few titles, like The Bouncer, have actually been developed in English first and only then translated to Japanese.
Before a translation is greenlighted and translators are allocated, the localization, QA and marketing staff play through a build of the game and sometimes do a focus group study. The localization team's playthrough can sometimes take over 100 hours of gameplay. Once the company greenlights a localization project, a period of brainstorming starts in which glossary, style, naming schemes, fonts, etc. are chosen. During the translation phase, voiced sections are translated first. Text files are cross-checked by multiple translators and editors. The text is then integrated along with any graphic and sound changes, and the game goes to quality assurance. During a period of several weeks to up to three months, Japanese QA teams look for bugs while Western QA teams check linguistic issues. The localization team often re-plays the game during this phase, translates the manuals and help out on the guidebooks if these are made. Finally, the game is sent to the hardware manufacturers to be approved.
Challenges for the localization teams include space limitation (due to data storage and/or on-screen space), achieving a natural dialogue flow despite multiple plot branches and script lines being stored out of order, and, when voiced footage is not re-recorded for lip movement, dealing with file length and lip-synch limitations.
When translating its video games, Square Enix tries to take into account the cultural differences between Japan and the Western countries. This sometimes involves rewriting dialogue or altering graphics, animations, and sounds. For instance, in Chocobo Racing, visual references to the Japanese folk heroes Momotarō and Kiji were changed to depict Hansel and Gretel instead, since the game was designed mainly for children, and Hansel and Gretel are better known to Western children than Momotarō and Kiji. According to Honeywood, trying to explain to the original development teams why some changes are needed can range from "frustrating to downright hilarious". Generally, older development teams trust the translators with making changes while newer teams can be more reluctant, though they usually build up trust gradually.
Censorship can also affect the localized versions of the games and require obscuring mature themes, altering graphics or removing parts of some scenes. This was common in the NES and SNES eras but less drastic later on once video game content rating systems were established. Less commonly, this also goes the other way, for instance with Final Fantasy XII, in which a sequence involving violence on a female character was censored in the Japanese version but restored in the American and European releases.
Gameplay may also be altered when it is felt that a game might be too easy or difficult for the Western audience. Some of the older Final Fantasy titles were altered to be more easy to play in the West than in Japan, though their remakes and ports have generally restored the difficulty. On the other hand, Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings was made more difficult in localized versions because the Western market was judged "more familiar" with the real-time strategy genre than the Japanese market.
The localized versions sometimes expand on the original games. For example, when Honeywood found contradictions in the story of Chrono Cross, he worked with Masato Kato, the director and scenario writer of the game, to rewrite sections and add explanatory dialogue which was not in the original version. For Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, voice-overs and orchestral music were recorded for the Western releases, while the original Japanese version did not have them. Generally, gameplay content left out of the original game due to time constraints may be completed and added in the localized versions. Sometimes, the expanded, localized games are re-released in Japan (usually based on a direct port of the North American releases, with only text translated back in Japanese and Japanese subtitles to English dialogue) and branded as "international versions," and if the North American release has been censored, the international version of the game might possibly get a lower content rating than the original Japanese version.
In 2008, Square Enix expressed willingness to make worldwide "simultaneous releases the norm". Concerning Final Fantasy XI, at the time of the original English-only European release in 2004, producer Hiromichi Tanaka had stated that while Japanese/North American/Australian simultaneous releases are possible due to translating only Japanese to English, it was not possible for European countries due to the difficulty of finding good Japanese-to-European-languages translators, and the fact that second-hand translations from the English would be akin to "Chinese whispers". However, the team later integrated full-fledged French and German localization teams, achieving simultaneous release from the Japanese for three different languages from 2007 on.
Square Enix has been noted for the high quality of its translations, especially as space allocated for text and dialogue was expanded with new and re-released versions of games.
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