Aion: Making East Meet West

This article is over 14 years old and may contain outdated information

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!


Recommended Videos

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.



WC: How much input do the original writers and developers in Korea have? Can you go to them and say “Hey, what were you trying to get at here?”

Dave: We can send our questions off to Korea, but with the time zone difference, it was often faster to really delve deeply into the game and puzzle out the answers in the context of the game experience. Actually, that’s a pretty good way to learn a game – by digging through files yourself to answer questions like, “How come this NPC is acting so mysterious when you first meet her?” Not only do you find the answer you were looking for, but you discover all sorts of other nooks and crannies.

Janna: For myself, I haven’t had any contact with the original writers and developers at all. A lot of it is the time difference, the time lag, the language barrier, and the speed at which we have to work. We’ve had to work very fast. We do delve deeply into the game. But we also have to decide at what point it makes more sense to take the story we’re given, find the main tentpoles of the story and build something slightly different, something new out of it.


WC: What was the hardest thing you’ve had to properly localize so far in Aion (or, any other games that you’ve worked on)?

Marti: Animated cut-scenes were difficult, because we had to match the timing of our spoken dialog to animations that were created for Korean dialog. That meant extra time during both the writing and the recording phases – we were rewriting scripts as the actors were reading the lines!

Fran: Object names. Remember, 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. So all these INCREDIBLY cool names (and they ARE cool) often have to be shortened to fit the UI.

Janna: Well, how about the most entertaining things? Aion includes poetry, jokes, even storybooks. Sometimes there’s just no way to adequately translate the poetic and beautiful or the funny from Korean – cultural differences, vocabulary, and nuance get lost in the Korean-to-Western translation. The results range from totally baffling to completely hilarious. For our own amusement, we’ve kept a list of some of the most entertainingly bad or unfortunate translations we’ve found. – we can give you a run for your money!

Erik: Whatever we rewrite the quests to, they still have to follow the way the quest works in the game, so sometimes you want to write a plotline one way but the actual mechanics of the quest mean you have to stick to the original. I’ve still managed to pull off some pretty radical changes, though. Changing a sad, corrupted tree-man who asks you to help clean up the corruption into a bitter, resentful corrupted tree-man who wants to see you suffer for him, for instance.

Jess: Many times we have found ourselves wanting to provide more context for a quest or a character, but we have to avoid painting ourselves into a corner, creatively, where the game designers send us new content that contradicts something we have introduced. We do a lot of keeping our options open.


WC: What’s the most common error you see in translation/localization for other games?

Fran: Either tossing around the original plot like it’s worthless (think early 90s anime translations) or slavishly maintaining EVERY bit of meaning, even if it means that the meaning destroys the pacing and storytelling. It’s much more common to err towards the first, but EITHER is damaging. The game has to be fun. Edit your content. Tell a good story that the audience will read. Harder than it sounds!

Conor: Doing this job has actually made me more critical of localised text in games now. However, as a whole, I would say the quality of localised text has improved markedly since the 90s. Foreign games often still feel foreign, but sometimes that can be a deliberate stylistic decision made by the production team. Ultimately, I suppose all games are different, and the approach to localising those games also needs to be different.

Daneen: …resisting urge to localize Conor’s spelling…


WC: What are the best localization jobs you’ve seen elsewhere, in other games / by other teams? Why?

Dave: I’m going to pick a nongame example out of sheer love: The Asterix comics by Goscinny and Uderzo. They’re humorous comics in French, replete with French puns, French wordplay, and jokes based on French idioms. The way the translators, Hockridge and Bell, extracted all those specifically French puns and replaced them with just-as-funny English jokes…it amazes me anew with each reading. I don’t speak a word of French, but I feel like Asterix is giving me a very funny taste of France.

Fran: I strongly second. And that’s the difference between localizing and translating.

Erik: Nintendo’s had a really, really strong localization team ever since the Gamecube came out. The latest Legend of Zelda and Pokemon games were pretty much my model for how to successfully localize a video game.

Robin: I’ve been a huge fan of Atlus’s Persona series, particularly 3 and 4. 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.

Conor: I’m going to be a little more obvious here, and plump for Final Fantasy Tactics. I’m playing through the PSP version at the moment and really love the way they’ve stylised the English. I’d love to play through the original and see how that compares to contemporary Japanese, but my lack of language skills would be a slight problem methinks.

Thanks to the Aion team for answering our questions!

The Escapist is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more about our Affiliate Policy