WC: Western high fantasy is very influenced by Tolkien and D&D, whereas Asian fantasy games tend to... well, not be. What sort of culture gap do you see between Eastern and Western fantasy, and how do you take that into account when you work?
Marti: I was actually surprised at how many western fantasy references the Korean developers had managed to sneak into the text! I think we've tried mostly to let Aion be Aion, but being Western fantasists, our influences have crept in as well.
Bridget: I think the independence from the "typical" Tolkienesque western high fantasy is one of the most refreshing things about Aion. It's going to appeal to a western audience while providing a sort of freshness they may not have been finding in MMOs up until now.
Fran: There's less of a gap than there used to be. I think a lot of Asian game designers have read the same books we have, but because the Eastern mythology and folklore are so different from Western, they're familiar seeds planted in strange soil, so the results are different. As for how we take it into account, it's all about getting the idea across. Where it's possible to fill in the information a Western player's missing about a certain folktale or idea, we embed it into text to lead the player to the right conclusion. Where it's not, we might substitute a Western version ("Aaah, this is kinda like Red Riding Hood, but with a dragon as Red, a Shugo as the grandmother, a talking tree as the wolf and the player as the woodsman!") or replace it. It comes down to moving the story along and keeping the player involved and enmeshed in the action.
Dave: What I think we're shooting for is a game that acknowledges the culture gap, but then stands astride it, with one foot firmly on each side. Aion becomes something a bit like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I don't think a Chinese moviegoer watches Crouching Tiger and says, "Wow, what an authentic take on our history" (or even necessarily an authentic example of wuxia). But there are cultural elements in there that resonate strongly with that moviegoer, just as there are elements that resonate with born-in-Wisconsin Dave. It's a cultural gap, not some impassible cultural chasm. The more bridges we built across that gap - the more chances to wander over to the other side without realizing it - the better.
Erik: Well, it's not like this game's not influenced by Tolkein. There's a quest where a wizard and his elf archer friend send you to a dwarf who will help you toss a cursed ring into a volcano, after all... I think Asian fantasy is mostly different from western fantasy in that it's less about the quests of a single hero and more about the conflict as a whole, which is mostly the huge cultural influence of books like the Romance of Three Kingdoms, about a conflict between three sides where there aren't really good guys or bad guys. Asian fantasy's also more elegant and pretty than western fantasy - Conan or Warhammer versus Final Fantasy or Yoshitaka Amano.
Daneen: Erik makes a very good point. In Aion, there's 3 factions. Not just "bad guys" and "good guys." Both Elyos and Asmodians are the good guys. Even if they don't agree about it.
WC: Do you think it's easier to bring a Western game over to countries like Korea and China (localization-wise) or vice versa?
Fran: Culturally, though Western audiences may be less familiar with Eastern myth, it's FUN to learn about, so that's a wash. I suspect the headache is similar. It's mostly that they're a little more experienced at it than we are.
Robin: I suspect it's easier to bring a Western game to Asia because so much Western culture gets exported - that's our biggest industry, it seems. I hope Aion helps open up the West to different experiences and cultural perspectives. There's a lot to appreciate on the other side of the Pacific.
Daneen: A lot of exported Western culture is translated, not localized. Some Eastern cultures are familiar enough with the Western culture that a story may be understandable, but it might not resonate like a story that originated in that culture...or one that was localized well.
Erik: On the other hand, a good story generally has universal appeal.
WC: About how much text would you say is in Aion? How long did it take the team to complete (to this point)?
Fran: All of it. Seriously, the text is huge. And the thing about games is that there's text hidden in lots of places you DON'T expect. So on top of the NPCs and quests, there are dictionaries of character, mob and object descriptions, reams of little one-off lines, tags for objects in the world, scripts for spoken dialog, hidden back-masked messages - Oops, was I supposed to mention those?
Marti: Yes, Fran's right - we used all the words. There aren't any left. Sorry about that.
Janna: When I first joined the Aion Westernization Army (and we are an army -17 people!), I was told we had more than a million words to localize. A million words - if the average fat fantasy novel is about 130,000 words long, then we're writing nearly 8 fat fantasies in about 5 months. I have to believe that, as new zones open up and as the game is revised and expanded, we'll be doing more as it comes to us.
Stacey: Well, we were told a million words originally, but that turned out to not be all of the words (so my understanding goes). It didn't include the NPC chatter (the text bubbles you see while wandering through the various cities and settlements). It didn't include the dictionary links that you'll find in game, which describe items and places you're looking for. It didn't include the hover text descriptions or the loading screen tips. We had a LOT of text to go through, and we've been at it for months. We've only recently been able to really feel like we're approaching the end of this process. It's been intense.
Conor: Last time I had a look through, we were closer to the 2 million mark.
Janna: Okay, so that's 16 fat fantasy novels in 5 months. Go look at your bookcases, folks. Count out 16 fat fantasies. That will give you an idea of the scope of the work.
Jess: I like Janna's analogy, but I'd like to add that it's not just a question of writers editing 16 unconnected fantasy novels; it's more like a fantasy series where we all have to be familiar with the work as a whole, so that the choices we make in editing contribute to the complete experience of the game. The challenge here is that the text for the UI, tooltips, and the like should be 'invisible' to the player. When someone sits down to read a quest, and especially when they click on an in-game lore book, they are actively engaging with the reading. The UI text and so on should be clear, concise, and never cause the player to think twice about it.