When you have two million words worth of Eastern fantasy adventure to translate - and make accessible - to English-speaking gamers, where the hell do you start? The NCSoft team sounds off on the monumental task of localizing a game like Aion.
WC: First of all, would you care to introduce yourselves?
Marti: Marti McKenna, Creative Writing Lead and game industry vet.
Fran: I'm Fran Stewart. I've only been paid to write for a little while, but I've always been a storyteller.
Dave: I'm David Noonan. In a previous life, I played Dungeons & Dragons for a living.
Bridget: Bridget McKenna here. Science Fiction and Fantasy writer and editor, been doing this computer games stuff for about 21 years.
Robin: I'm Robin MacPherson. I'm the fledgling of the team.
Janna: I'm Janna Silverstein. I've been a professional science fiction and fantasy editor and writer for longer than I care to admit.
Stacey: I'm Stacey Janssen. I'm a writer and the Editor-in-Chief for an online SF magazine.
Jess: I'm Jess Downs, the walking encyclopedia of Aion.
Conor: Agh, I'm Conor Sheehy, the guy who got to pick last on the colour front. And yes, that's "colour". Been a writer for NCsoft for a year and a half now, and recently moved from our Brighton office to Seattle!
Daneen: I'm Daneen McDermott, an eleven year veteran of the gaming industry. And Conor, I prefer "ultimate" not last - that makes you penultimate, by the way.
Conor: Sweet. Penultimate kinda works as a compliment for a writer. I just hope Scott doesn't come back and ruin everything. Or Erik.
Erik: I'm Erik Bear, son of the science fiction writer Greg Bear, first time writing in the gaming industry.
WC: What do you see as the difference between translation and localization?
Marti: The phrase "lost in translation" really sums it up. We start with translated text, and it's been reduced to the basic nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Often the subtler themes and character personalities are lost, and it's our job to restore them.
Stacey: Localization takes a lot of rewriting, reworking, reconfiguring. There's a lot more than just, "Let's make this be what it is, but in English." It's not something you can just run through Google translate and be done with. We're working on making the game flow, on making the story flow. The hope here is that players will get more of the actual story out of the game - and the basic story that we're working with is really worth reading.
Fran: Translation lets you use what I've made for myself, and it's often part of localization. Localization means changing a product I made for me into something FOR you. It's a cultural translation in a sense: Translation is to words as localization is to ideas and function.
Janna: Stacey's right: The idea that we could just put the Korean text through a translator and release the game that way is ridiculous. The game would be torn apart by players for bad writing, nonsensical dialog, and so much more.
Robin: Localization takes a foreign concept or information and shapes it into something more readily accessible. We could include, for example, Washington's chopping down of the cherry tree in the Korean version but the audience likely wouldn't connect to it to the same extent an American audience might. There's no cultural context for it.
Conor: The term we bandied about at first wasn't even localisation, but "Westernisation". What we were getting at was the notion of making sure the Western Aion would be as culturally relevant to Western players as the Eastern Aion is to Eastern players. If we can get gamers working their way through the game without even realising that it started out in a completely different language, then we've done our job.
Daneen: The classic example of the difference is "All your base are belong to us." was translated. Whereas the localized/westernized version might end up, "I'm in your base killin' your dudes!" When people can't tell it was translated through the experience, then it was localized.
WC: Can you walk us through the localization process? How do you take on the monumental task of localizing a game like Aion?
Dave: The first step was to look at Aion's narrative in the broadest possible terms and really grok the story. That meant not only how historical events unfolded in our fictional world, but also (and more importantly) how each player learns the backstory while playing through their own personal narrative. After that, we tended to operate in two tracks simultaneously. One track walked through the game, level by level and zone by zone, rewriting as necessary. The other track looked at overarching terminology issues: everything from PC skill names to the names of the herbs you pick up as you travel. As long as we intentionally criss-crossed those two tracks, we could keep our efforts cohesive.
Bridget: Monumental is an accurate word for it. Millions of words, thousands of quests, intersecting storylines and questlines, two human races and multiple sapient non-human races - each with their own distinctive way of speaking - swanning about in time and space and two worlds and an Abyss and hidden dimensions. I've never worked so hard, had so much fun, or felt so much pride in the results.
Jess: It seems to have fallen to me to implement and keep track of all the various terminology in the game. We've made a lot of changes, for reasons ranging from "it was a made-up name that sounds like a rude word in English" to "that doesn't quite have the right connotation" to "we could really make that sound more evocative". There are hundreds of thousands of terms, many of which are connected to each other because of the lore behind them (locations named after NPCs, quests named after monsters, skills and items named after a particular Empyrean Lord's domain, and so on). I am the gatekeeper and the enabler of the other writers' feverish creativity, which is a lot to keep track of!