We've all seen bad translation jobs in games before, but when you have a two-million word Korean MMORPG to make accessible to the West, where do you even start? The NCSoft team sounds off on the monumental task of localizing a game like Aion.
Tell me if this sounds familiar to you: You find out about a new free-to-play MMOG from across the Pacific, and for whatever reason it catches your fancy. Maybe it's an interesting setting, maybe it's some cool concept art, but whatever: It's free, right? You're playing it, you're having a good time, you're immersed, and then you turn in a quest, and see, "You did make the congratulation!" A poorly localized game can color your whole experience - and that's exactly the pitfall that the NCSoft team is looking to avoid with its upcoming wing-based MMORPG, Aion.
I spoke with members of NCSoft's Seattle-based team about the task of bringing an Eastern MMOG to the West. To start off, here are some interesting numbers: There are almost 2,000,000 words that needed translating in Aion - as Janna Silverstein puts it, that's 16 "fat fantasy novels" (at 130,000 words per book). With 17 writers on the team, that's approximately 120,000 words per person over a period of just five months. Yikes.
But to properly do its job, the team couldn't just feed all of that text into Google Translate and call it a day - the inherent difference between translation and proper localization, said Fran Stewart, is that while translation "lets you use what I've made for myself," localization "means changing a product I made for me into something FOR you." Localization, in other words, is to ideas and concepts what translation is for words. "If we can get gamers working their way through the game without even realizing that it started out in a completely different language, then we've done our job," added Conor Sheehy.
In the case of Aion, then, this meant literally starting from the beginning - not just going through the game line by line and translating the text, but looking at "how each player learns the backstory while playing through their own personal narrative," said David Noonan. But even then, it's not always that simple - after all, Aion is a game developed for an Eastern audience by an Eastern developer. While Western fantasy is heavily steeped in Tolkien-esque mythology, Eastern games typically are not.
Yes, there is a culture gap, but it's a gap, not "some impassable chasm," said Noonan. Besides, it isn't like the original developers weren't familiar with Tolkien and Western fantasy - Marti McKenna admitted that she had been surprised by "how many western fantasy references the developers had managed to sneak into the text!" Added Erik Bear, "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," pointing to the influence of books like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, where the story is less about an ultimate battle with good guys and bad guys and more about all sides of a war.
To that effect, Daneen McDermott pointed out that, "Both Elyos and Asmodians are the good guys. Even if they don't agree about it." There were other hangups beyond the culture gap, too - technical ones. The cutscene animations were drawn to the original Korean voicing, for one, and even names were an issue: "In Korean, if you want to call something the Impenetrable Iron God Shield of the Acadian Hero-Nymph, you may need as few as seven characters. That's roughly as wide as the word 'Roughly,' by the way," remembered Stewart.
Other difficulties included translating poetry, jokes, and storybooks - or even just making sure you haven't written yourself into a corner when altering text to fit Western sensibilities, since the original developers in Korea are still making new content for the MMORPG. It's certainly not easy work, and the balance between throwing out the original content entirely and "slavishly maintaining EVERY bit of meaning" even if that destroys the pacing and storytelling, is a tough one.
Still, on the whole, the translation industry has its bright spots - no matter the language. Noonan expressed fondness for the localization done on the French Asterix comic books, whereas Robin MacPherson said she was a fan of the work Atlus had done with Persona 3 and Persona 4: "(A) terrific job of localizing a lot of text, creating some great dialogue, and doing it in such a way that it retained its Japanese feel."
To read the full-length interview with the NCSoft Aion translation team, head over to WarCry.