In a perfect world, all video games would be translated into all markets’ languages so that the greatest number of players could buy and enjoy them. In reality, the video game translation situation is more complex than that. Some wildly popular games in Asian markets almost never make it over to other key gaming markets like North America. Meanwhile, developers spend time and money localizing games for particular target markets, only to see them barely sell.
Then the issue of piracy comes into play. Video game piracy involves taking the game data and distributing it for free or at a reduced cost. Pirates can do this using emulators, modchips, custom flash cards or modified firmware. Players then download the pirated, illegal copies of the games through torrenting (file-sharing). The precise number of torrented games is nigh on impossible to pinpoint, but Fandom states that video game “copyright infringement causes millions of dollars in damages each year.”
Piracy can cause video game producers to lose massive amounts of potential revenue. It also plays into the wider debate about which markets they should localize their games for. Let’s take a look at when it makes sense to localize a game and when your professional localization services budget might be better spent elsewhere.
Punch Club: a video game localization case study
Perhaps one of the most imperative reasons to localize a game is to try to beat piracy. As fans in the gaming industry know well, when something isn’t localized or accessible in your region, and you desperately want to play it, your options are limited. Many gamers would happily pay for the game, but the translation of it just isn’t available and legal copies are region-blocked. As such, gamers have little choice but to turn to pirated, foreign-language versions instead.
To prove the scale of this issue, TinyBuild went public with the sales and piracy data of its game “Punch Club.” The game sold over 330,000 copies in 2015. However, it was pirated a staggering 1.6 million times over the same time period.
The figures show some fascinating trends, such as which regions are more likely to pay for games, and which are pirating games regardless of whether or not they are translated. For instance, localization for Western Europe proved to be profitable. When the company looked at the data, the “bought instead of pirated” rates for the German and French translations were 46% and 18.8% respectively. That shows a large segment of buyers who did not pirate because the video game had been translated. As TinyBuild CEO Alex Nichiporchik observed:
“Punch Club clearly shows that localizing games to Western European languages pays off and has a very low piracy rate.”
When game localization becomes a wasted effort
What data like this also reveals is when game companies should cut their losses—when localization simply does not make sense. In the Brazilian Portuguese market, for example, the most pirated “Punch Club” game came the day that the translated game was launched in that market. There were 373 copies sold in Brazil on that day, but 11,627 pirate users from Brazilian IP addresses. While the pirates probably downloaded the Brazilian Portuguese version, localized sales didn’t see a huge return on investment. Meanwhile, there were already massive amounts of Chinese players pirating the game when it launched in English. That market doesn’t even wait for a localized video game to start pirating. So, why localize?
These results can help video game companies understand which markets are likely to pay for a game and which are likely to obtain it by more nefarious means. It doesn’t make sense to localize a game for a market that overwhelmingly pirates the game anyway, translated or not. Knowing the markets means that companies can avoid committing massive budgets to a video game localization that will never pay off. This is extremely helpful when companies are planning out their gaming translation strategies and processes. If you wish to know more about video game translation in general and the process involved, you can read more here.
How to see if a game is worth localizing
TinyBuild has demonstrated that by being more open and forthcoming with sales and piracy data, the entire industry can benefit from knowing where it makes the most sense to localize.
TinyBuild got their data by building analytics into the game itself. The company could even tell when the versions that had undergone translation were being pirated, as all versions—bought, cracked and pirated alike—reported data back to TinyBuild.
All of this goes to show just how much the gaming industry could benefit from coming together to understand and work around piracy as part of the translation process. Instead, the industry keeps employing large-scale digital rights management (DRM) scares, which traditionally can be hacked within hours of a game release. And the most expensive and secure DRM versions are usually only affordable for the largest game development studios. That leaves small indie studios like TinyBuild in a bit of a bind. This innovative plan of figuring out piracy habits and working around them is therefore a must for smaller games companies.
What’s more, TinyBuild didn’t come at the data with any sort of anti-piracy agenda or statement on how the industry should handle DRMs. Piracy is part of the digital ecosystem, so instead of trying to shut down the many-headed pirate hydra, this system proposes to work smartly around it. The way to do that going forward will be to share more data so that there are a clear benchmark and a global map of which target markets would benefit from translation. That will help both the gaming industry and the translation industry know where to pool their resources.
Louise Taylor is Head of Content for Tomedes, a leading localization company specializing in video game translation. She has covered language and translation topics for Tomedes for more than five years.