Is It a Good Idea to Localize an Indie Game?
Indie devs give their take on the topic
After the release of our interview with the indie studio Duck Rockets, here at Alconost we got to wondering: how do indie developers decide whether to localize their games? Localization is a good way to expand your player audience, and to increase your download rate and profit margin. But does localizing indie games always pay for itself?
We reached out to our indie developer acquaintances and received answers from four teams ranging from one to 10–12 people. Two studios produce mobile games, while the third studio and one solo developer make PC games.
Meet the heroes of our article:
Ink Stains Games — an indie studio based in St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida!). The team’s first project is the PC shooter 12 Is Better Than 6, which was made by three people. The studio’s next game was Stoneshard, a turn-based hard-core RPG about the travels of a medieval mercenary, for which the team had to be expanded to six people.
Recently Stoneshard was released on Steam Early Access. Interestingly, in 2018 Ink Stains Games conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign for Stoneshard, collecting over $100 thousand — three times more than the target amount.
Bon Voyage is a casual three-in-a-row game, available on Android, on the social networks VK, Facebook, and Odnoklassniki, and in the local stores of Iran and Japan.
Mountains — an Australian studio founded by Ken Wong, a leading designer of the popular mobile puzzle game Monument Valley. The studio’s first project was the mobile game Florence, which was released on Google Play and the App Store in 2018 for Valentine’s Day. Then on February 13, 2020, the game was released on Steam and for Nintendo Switch.
Florence is an interactive love story, told in comics format in the “daily life” genre with mini-games, and is memorable for its offbeat presentation, cute design, and pleasant soundtrack. The game has received numerous awards for “Best Mobile Game” from The Game Awards, GDC Awards, and BAFTA, and was the 2018 winner of the Apple Design Award.
Alexander Goodwin Khoroshavin is a fairly unusual developer. He makes a point of doing all his projects alone, from the initial concept to the release trailer montage. And yet Alexander is entirely self-taught, and has acquired his skills in modeling, art, music, and engine expertise in the broad expanse of the internet.
Under his belt the young solo developer has two mobile games on Google Play, which have gone unnoticed, and three games on Steam: Algotica, Mechanism, and Selfloss (release slated for spring of 2020). Selfloss is a melancholy adventure about a kind old man and his magic staff in a fantasy setting of Old Russia and Iceland.
Alexander is passionate about his work, and sometimes goes for days on end developing his games. He is also a postgraduate student and teaches at the Unity and Unreal Engine courses of ITMO University in St. Petersburg.
What made you decide to localize your games?
Ink Stains Games: Not every gamer speaks English, and having their native language among the supported options is a strong reason for them to buy. If translating a game is an option, it should absolutely be done, as it has a direct effect on sales.
Incidentally, the entire text of your page should be localized, including the game expansion plan, the early access text box, and the supporter pack description (if any). We translated our Steam page into the languages for which we have localization. We can’t cite any specific numbers, but we have definitely seen an impact — wishlist conversion and purchases in these regions is markedly above average.
With Chinese gamers we had a debacle: we translated the description into Chinese, but forgot about the early access text box and the expansion plan. This made many people think they were buying a finished or nearly finished game (when in fact it was essentially an open beta), and they left lots of negative reviews, not realizing that it was still in early access. Or else they purchased the supporter pack, thinking it was standalone DLC. After we hastily translated these texts, the flow of negative feedback dropped considerably.
Alexander: Many developers don’t know (or forget) that Steam only features a game in the countries for which its page has been localized. At least, that’s how it was for a long time. This means that translating a game’s page and the game itself into different languages is the quickest way to make it visible to the largest number of people.
Duck Rockets: We decided to translate into languages other than English for one simple reason. The launch of the first non-Russian version was planned for Facebook, but the platform did not allow country-based soft launches or filtering of the countries in which gamers would see the app. So we had to at least cover a basic minimum for our European audience.
Who do you turn to for translations, and how do you choose the languages for localization?
You can localize through localization studios, freelance translators, or even using fan translations (crowdsourcing). Naturally, the quality of fan translations is rather unpredictable, but for indie games with a solid fan base this is a realistic option (Klei Entertainment is a good example). The crowdsourced translation can later be groomed using an editor and localization testing.
Mountains did their translations using a localization studio, Duck Rockets used the online professional translation service Nitro, while Alexander Goodwin and Ink Stains Games employed a combined approach: localization studio, freelance translators, and fan translation.
Ink Stains Games: 12 Is Better Than 6 was translated using a major localization studio. For Stoneshard we selected translators on an individual basis — mostly they found us themselves, since they had an interest in the project.
Polish localization was done by a fan: we met him halfway and gave him access to all the accompanying documentation, and then we integrated the translation into the game.
Alexander: Quite frequently the native speakers themselves help us out. I was once assisted by an ordinary school principal from Peking, who helped translate Algotica into Chinese — free of charge. He emailed me, offering to do so. I also employed the services of a localization studio for Mechanism: they translated it into Chinese and corrected my English and German (a friend provided the German translation).
How do you choose the languages for localization?
The number of languages selected cannot avoid being affected by the amount of text in the game. For example, Stoneshard (Ink Stains Games) currently contains 40,000 words, while Bon Voyage (Duck Rockets) has around 5,000 words, and Florence (Mountains) and the games of Alexander Goodwin contain little text. Algotica, for instance, has fewer than 1,000 words.
Ink Stains Games: Stoneshard is currently available in five languages (one of which is Russian, and another of which is a fan translation); our previous game was released in six languages. Stoneshard alone, even in this early stage of development, with no plotline, has over 40,000 words. 12 Is Better Than 6 has nearly three times fewer words — around 15,000. So for Stoneshard we lacked the resources to translate into every language.
It’s not simply a matter of money — nearly every localization has to be vetted for quality, and the more languages there are, the longer it takes. The game is complex, with extensive mechanics, so numerous nuances have to be fine-tuned. The translators have many questions regarding the setting and how to correctly translate various concepts. If there are any references we have to explain them as well, so as to adapt them to the language of translation.
Alconost comments: The challenges described by the Ink Stains Games team are a striking example of the need for glossaries for large-scale projects. These glossaries can contain the game’s primary terms, names, and locations, with explanations of their meanings. Ordinarily our localization team helps compile the project glossary.
Also important is the platform used to organize the translation work. Choosing the right platform makes for easy and productive discussion, so that issues are quickly resolved. Incidentally, here are the platforms we work with.
Mountains: Just like Monument Valley, Florence doesn’t have much language in the game. Based on my experience with Monument Valley, it’s relatively cheap to translate the game with so few words. So we did the most popular languages first — English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Korean, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), Japanese, Polish, Portuguese and Russian. This list was recommended to us by our publisher, Annapurna. On a later update we decided to add the extra languages.
Duck Rockets: At first we translated Bon Voyage into the primary European languages, betting on their profitability. Japanese and Arabic came up by accident; they were an experiment. We also tried translating the app page into other languages, and since there was interest from Turkey and Italy we localized the entire game into their languages, as well.
Which is better: to localize into many languages or to stick to the five most popular?
Ink Stains Games: In the future we plan to add localization into Spanish, French, Italian, Korean, and Japanese. Fan localizations may also end up being integrated.
We choose languages for localization based on the percentage of Steam users from a given country, and also based on data for various regions for our particular game.
Alexander: If I see a game gaining popularity, I will naturally try to localize it into all the available Steam languages.
Duck Rockets: We have plans to expand the list of languages into which Bon Voyage is localized, but this is highly dependent on our audience. If we are seeing 1,000 installs a day from a country, it is definitely worth localizing into that country.
If the budget permits, it is worth including as more languages. Because everyone thinks you ought to translate into the most popular languages, which ends up raising competition among games in those languages.
Of course, we need paying users from these countries (where popular languages are spoken). The bulk of our profits comes from English- and German-speaking users. But the smaller stores also produce some income, and should not be written off — especially considering that they increase our download numbers and other metrics.
Mountains: We would love our game to reach as many people as possible. Like many decisions, we have to balance our desire to reach underserved audiences with the costs.
Localization process and results
Localization is more than putting a game’s text into table format, translating it, then feeding it back into the game. For some languages the game architecture may require serious reworking. Fortunately, many developers already know that it’s best to prepare for localization at the development stage.
Ink Stains Games: The need for future localizations is something we gave thought to from day one, when we were planning our game’s infrastructure, so considerable effort was made to optimize the mode of text storage. The entire in-game text was exported in a special text file format, from which the game can then pull it without our having to rebuild or alter it. The translator can freely edit and autonomously insert text into the game without our assistance. This proved convenient for both the developer and the translator.
Alconost comments: Working with text in table format is an option, but it is our opinion that for text-heavy projects — such as Stoneshard — it is more convenient to work using localization management platforms, which let you store localized texts, communicate with the translation team, and provide context within the text itself. Our customers prefer to work with us on Crowdin for app localization, and on GitLocalize for GitHub projects.
Duck Rockets: For translations into European languages we didn’t have to change a thing. When it came to Japanese we had to spend some time figuring out the display of the characters and the position of text in the game.
During localization into Farsi we had to make a serious effort to get the text to display properly from right to left. Here’s a bit of trivia: Farsi has its own symbols for Arabic numbers, meaning that we had to transform all the numbers displayed so as to replace the numbers we’re used to with Persian ones.
Mountains: We had to go through the game and identify any artwork that had words in it and prepare those bits of art to be substituted.
Did you have to change or redo anything in the game during localization?
Ink Stains Games: Yes, every language has its idiosyncrasies. For Russian and German we had to make it possible to indicate word gender and to produce the proper forms of adjectives, so that our generator of names for objects and dungeons would function properly in these languages.
Chinese posed a number of problems. In the same dungeon name generator the algorithm had to be changed: adjectives and nouns had to switch places. To do this correctly we had to rewrite the text parser — Chinese, as we know, has no spaces, which we use for text transposition in other languages. We also had to add support for Chinese punctuation for the log, since it has its own punctuation marks. In addition we had to work out the font settings: in the game the text is pixelated, which rendered many of the characters unreadable.
Alconost comments: Certain game fonts do not have the symbols for every language. This means that for certain language versions different fonts must be chosen, because without this many symbols will appear like □□□□. How can you check for this ahead of time? The internet has a number of excellent tools for pseudo-localization. These tools imitate the interface in the foreign language, including changing the text length and “checking” the encoding. Essentially, this launches a scenario that imitates the target language and produces a build, which can then be checked as in the testing process.
Alexander: No, my games are rated for a fairly young age group, with no skeletons (which are strictly prohibited in China), so I didn’t have to do any “culturalization.”
Duck Rockets: We only had one such incident: the game included the Carnival of Brazil, at which the heroine had almost nothing on. The Iranian publisher asked us to put some clothes on her, so we redrew her.
Has localization paid for itself, and what languages have proven the most profitable?
All the studios named Chinese as the most successful and profitable language. Duck Rockets’ game has not been localized into Chinese: for mobile games the situation is somewhat more complex, since without an arrangement with a Chinese publisher it is impossible to launch a game in China.
Ink Stain Games: Yes, all our localizations have paid off. Experience has shown that the purchase ratio is higher than usual in countries where the game is accessible in their language. Chinese performed especially well: the percentage of Chinese gamers ended up being on a par with the USA and Eastern Europe.
Alexander: Yes, absolutely. The majority of purchases come from the Asian market, especially China. Be sure to localize into Chinese (both simplified and traditional). That is an absolute must.
Duck Rockets: Our best-paying countries are the USA and Great Britain. Germany also provides a significant part of our income. We’ve never had a situation where localization failed to at least pay for itself. The game profits cover development, with funds left over to experiment a little with translations into new languages.
Of course, we had hoped that if we just translated into this one language we would see our audience increase in that country. But in the realities of the current market that remains a distant dream. What we ended up seeing was a noticeable rise in audience engagement and loyalty, which are also highly important, so localization was worth it regardless.
Mountains: Half of the sales for Florence were from China, and more people had played the game in Mandarin than in English.
Localisation did meet our expectations. We encountered some feedback from our players where some words would work better than others; but that is to be expected. We made the corrections on future updates.
Comment by Alconost: Collecting user feedback on localized versions is an excellent practice. This helps to correct oversights in time — for example, by sending a localized text for proofreading. Or to realize that your current provider is not producing a very high-quality translation. As our customers observe, “When users say nothing about the translation quality in our games, we’re thrilled: it means the translation is just fine.”
Life Hacks and Conclusions
What would you recommend to other developers to make localization more effective (cheaper, faster, etc.)? Can you share any life hacks with us?
Ink Stains Games: First and foremost, look for translators who actually like the game itself, and who will find it interesting to work on it. The best translator is one who understands the game and how it works.
Alexander: I stick to the rule that games should have as little text as possible, but it all depends on the project. If it’s an adventure game, it’s easy to keep the text to a minimum. Remember “Inside”: no words whatsoever, except for the menu text, and what a hit that was! My games have very little text, which simplifies the task of localization.
I don’t deny however that there are genres where extensive, well-written texts are of the utmost importance. If you have an RPG with a ton of text, make your standard language as close to ideal as possible, so as not to overpay for additional translation of new sentences later.
If your game is popular, and you’ve already translated into all the primary “gamer languages,” you are likely to get emails from gamers in various countries asking you to add localization for their own less widely spoken language. And if there is a demand, why not? In game development, especially in the indie sphere, it’s not how profitable a decision is that matters, but how it affects your image. I think people often forget about that.
Duck Rockets: If you need to quickly translate small texts, especially into 6–7 languages or more at once, the most convenient way is the online service Nitro.
You can find publishers for local stores, who usually undertake the localization themselves. That’s how it was with our Japanese and Iranian publishers.
Perhaps our best life hack is to localize the app store description and screenshots into other languages as a way to test audience interest. If a person opens the game’s page and sees English description and screenshots, they lose interest, and conversion drops. But when you localize the game’s page, conversion immediately increases.
Frequently the smaller markets have few interesting games (and apps in general) in their native language. This means less competition there, making it easier to attract an audience and make some money.
We took Bon Voyage to Iranian and Japanese stores. In Japan the result was not particularly impressive, but we did earn something. Iranian gamers, on the other hand, found our game very much to their liking, and they ended up becoming the most enthusiastic players we have. Games vary, and you never know for sure how the audience in a given country will receive your game. You have to experiment.
Alconost comments: In any case, a game needs to support EFIGS: English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish. Otherwise gamers are guaranteed to complain. Gamers have come to expect this selection of languages by default. As for other languages and markets, you can experiment with them by translating the description on Google Play and the App Store (without localizing the game itself). This is a good strategy.
The Russian-speaking segment currently accounts for a fairly large part of the gaming community: it is the third most widespread language on Steam, and the Russian gaming market has a worth of $1.7 billion. Gamers are constantly demanding Russian translations, and they leave low ratings for games that lack a Russian version. For this reason, in addition to the standard EFIGS languages + Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, we recommend including Russian in your localization.
Bottom line: is it worth localizing indie games, and when should you consider it?
Ink Stains Games: If you’re able to localize a game, absolutely do so: it’s the most effective means of increasing your game’s overall reach. There’s no point whatsoever in getting on Steam exclusively in one language. A good rule of thumb would be English, Russian, and Chinese.
If there are any regional statistics available for your community, take advantage of them. In our case, we went by the statistics for the countries of our Kickstarter backers. This was a fairly good way to approximate the order of precedence for the different languages.
Duck Rockets: If the game was created not just as a hobby, but in order to attract a wide audience and as a way to make money doing what you love, it’s worth it.
If the game doesn’t have much text, I think it is absolutely worth trying out the local stores. Everyone wants to make it big on Google Play and the App Store, but few consider the potential of the smaller platforms.
Alexander: Chinese localization for games is absolutely essential. Add the other languages gradually in order of profitability.
Mountains: Just build the game and UI with localisation in mind from the start. The China market is so big that I would never release a game without at least English and Chinese versions.
Our games have very little text, which made localisation a relatively cheap and easy process. For games with tens of thousands of words, such as RPGs, it’s a little more complex. But I think even indie developers should build with a localisation system already in place so that they can future proof themselves. It’s far more complicated to add localisation into a game’s architecture at the advanced stages.
A big thank-you to the talented indie developers who agreed to chat with us and share their experience!
Localize your games, guys — after all, experience has shown that it’s not always expensive, and an additional flow of players never hurts. :)
About the author
Alconost is a global provider of localization services for apps, games, videos, and websites into 70+ languages. We offer translations by native-speaking linguists, linguistic testing, continuous localization, project management 24/7, and work with any format of string resources. We also make advertising and educational videos and images, teasers, explainers, and trailers for Google Play and the App Store.