ByLiv Sommerlot, writer at
Liv Sommerlot

A lot of gamers dream of one day being able to work in the game industry. Some of them are artists, others are programmers, some are just dreamers full of big ideas they'd love to see come to life on-screen.

I was mostly the latter.

I did, however, know a thing or two about writing, and coming out of grad school, I landed a job as a game localizer for a publisher specializing in bringing Asian games to the west. There were things I enjoyed about the job and other things I didn't enjoy about the job... but most numerous were the things no one had told me game localization entailed.

For this reason, I thought I'd share some of my wisdom, experience, and a laugh or two for all those out there who dream of one day becoming game localizers themselves. What do you need to do to become a game localizer? What should you expect? Hopefully, I can answer all of those questions!

An Inside Look at the Life of a Game Localizer

1. What did you study before getting a job in game localization?

I was in school a long time, actually, though much of it had no influence on my future job in game localization. I studied music, art, then finally got a degree in Japanese. I went on from there to get a Master's degree in Japanese translation from Kent State University.

It took me a while throughout all these changes to figure out I wanted to work in games... I don't think I made that final decision until I was accepted into an internship program at a game localization company in Japan during the summer between my two years of grad school. That internship helped me start building my resume, and I ended up doing a lot of freelance translation work while finishing up my last year of school. Having actual, paid game translation and/or writing work is pretty much essential if you even want your resume looked at by game companies.

2. How did you get your job in game localization?

I applied for it the same way you apply for any other job, ahaha.

But seriously, I originally found the job posting on a professional translation website called ProZ (I had an account there to help me find freelance translation work). When I applied for the job, I had to take a localization test, which was basically a whole bunch of game text (sometimes poorly translated) that I had to rewrite. Everything from dialogue to system text to names of spells. There was also a short copywriting portion, since that came with the job, as well.

Looking back at it now (and remembering the future tests my team would receive from freelance hopefuls), I would have handled much of that test differently, but I still ended up landing the job.

3. What exactly does game localization entail?

I get asked this a lot. That being said, I'm sure it's a bit different depending on what company you work for and how they handle their game translation.

My team (the U.S. team) would receive text for games that had already been translated into English from their native Asian language (Chinese, Japanese, Korean). As this translation was typically done by native speakers of the source language, its quality was... all over the place. This was called the "relay" text. We had in-house relay translation teams that were very good, but the amount of text we had to process was monstrous. Thus, a lot of text had to be sent out to freelancers and agencies, as well. Agency quality is typically terrible.

At any rate, we take the relay text and rewrite it. We don't just edit and proofread (unless it's a rush job), we actually rewrite much of the text, rename characters and monsters, come up with witty achievement and quest names, and try to make the text as entertaining, fun, and legible as possible.

4. Describe what you'd do on an average day

The company I worked for handled a lot of games, which means that on any given day, I'd be working on text for two, three, four different games. Since I was part of a team, we'd divvy up the work based on each project's deadlines, our own strengths and weaknesses, or even just what we felt like working on that day. We were in constant communication with each other via group chat, so it was easy to figure out who was doing what, etc. We all had types of files we preferred over others. For instance, I loved writing dialogue and making up fun quest titles, but one of my colleagues far preferred lengthy item files where he could come up with complicated RegEx codes to pre-translate tens of thousands of words in a matter of hours.

An example of relay text and its localized version.
An example of relay text and its localized version.

Our projects would vary greatly in terms of scope. We'd have release games where we were given the entire text of a game (anywhere from 500k to 1,000k words) divided by file type (Achievement, Mission, Dialogue, TextIndex, etc.). Usually we had two to three months to get those finished. Then there were game updates. These could be really short (around 5k words) or longer (up to 150k words), and we were generally given a week or two to finish them.

I had a lot of fun with the dialogue in this game...
I had a lot of fun with the dialogue in this game...

Last up were the really short projects—editing or copywriting marketing material for a game, writing descriptions for in-game cards, or whipping together super short emergency updates. In any given day, I could be working on something from all of these categories—a Mission file for our big release project, the NPC file for a game update, marketing material for a Halloween promotion. Some days (or weeks), however, I'd be writing dialogue 24/7. It all depends on what the teams need.

5. What did you like best about being a game localizer?

The sheer fact that I was writing games was pretty cool. I'd always dreamed of being able to work in video games, and here I was writing massive amounts of text for them.

Also, how much freedom we were given. This might not be true of all publishers and developers, but my team was pretty much given free reign when it came to what we wrote (so long as we abided by the overarching game guidelines). I must have written hundreds of thousands of words of game dialogue during my time as a localizer, and I got more and more lax with following the exact flow of the relay text as I went, to the point where sometimes I felt like I was simply writing the game myself, using an outline of sorts.

You don't wanna know how much research I did on "old Western slang" to write this character's dialogue...
You don't wanna know how much research I did on "old Western slang" to write this character's dialogue...

I especially had fun with characters. Much of characters' personalities, quirks, and nuances gets lost in the relay translation process, so I'd take what little I was given and try to really develop and flesh out each and every character. I'd give them accents or trademark phrases or specific ways of speaking that would make them stand out amongst the typically vast cast of characters in MMORPGs.

6. What didn't you like about being a game localizer?

As much as I enjoyed my job and what I did, there were definite drawbacks at times. Pay, for instance. Writing and editing typically aren't high-paying jobs to begin with, and in the games industry localization in general isn't valued too highly these days. Unless you're working for one of the big-name companies, don't expect a glamorous salary. You'll make enough to get by, to be sure, but you have to enjoy what you do to make it worth it (luckily, I did).

Which brings me to another point—"localization isn't valued too highly these days," which means it's the first thing to get cut, rushed, or down-budgeted if the rest of the company deems it necessary. I was forced to watch a lot of unfinished, unpolished, and, to be frank, embarrassing English get put into games (or in marketing materials) simply because we weren't allowed the time or manpower to better fix it (or fix it at all). If you're someone who takes a lot of pride in every project you work on, this can be incredibly frustrating and demotivating.

7. What were some of the weirdest or craziest things you got asked to write as a game localizer?

Many times the game team had a different idea about who to cater a game to than the game's original developer, which led to us having to make a surprising number of little (or big) changes in a game's localization.

Usually this came in the form of removing all adult content from a game's text in order to market it to young children (which, when considering the original game was rated 18+, is quite a feat!). So you'd have this high-fantasy game with people being slaughtered by monsters and going to war and wearing ridiculously revealing outfits (the original game even had a boob slider) and have to remove all cursing. And I mean all cursing.

Someone oughta wash his mouth out with soap.
Someone oughta wash his mouth out with soap.

At one point, I even came up with my own made-up curse word, "peppersquash," to be used in place of the typical curse word. This, of course, quickly became an inside joke within the team. Other things we were often asked to remove were alcohol references, which could involve something as simple as renaming a few items to having to make up an entire new type of drink to replace it with because there's a town in the game literally called "Drunk Town" with corresponding quest lines and you've gotta find some way to get around it.

8. What are some of the funniest things you've encountered as a game localizer?

I swear there was some new, ridiculous thing popping up in our game texts every day, which is part of what kept the job so entertaining. I remember the Chinese team revealing at one point that three boss monsters in the game they were working on were named "Hitler," "Stalin," and "Mao." Those obviously had to be changed... I believe the Chinese team made that change for themselves before the text even reached our team.

In another game, there was a 50 Shades of Gray reference in one of the side quests. You come across a woman and her chained-up captive before being given a box of "tools" and asked to use it on the man. The tools included wildly inappropriate things like a candle, lube, and a vibrator. How in the world were we supposed to make something like THAT appropriate for children?! If I remember correctly, I ended up changing them to much sillier methods of torture like lukewarm coffee, a plastic-wrapped CD case, and a recording of the song "This is the Song That Never Ends."

Sometimes the funniest moments simply come from the way the relay text was written. For instance, completely innocent things becoming suspiciously sexual just because of the way they're written, or things that should normally be incredibly strange and/or horrific being glossed over like they're nothing.

Jaylon's original relay text.
Jaylon's original relay text.

"Jaylon," in particular, was a character in one of our release games that always gave us a laugh. Nearly all of his lines sounded super sexual ("checking you out," "looking gleefully at you mounted on a monster," etc.), to the point where we made our own team meme out of him to refer to anything overtly sexual we found in the text.

VO is another thing that always makes for hilarity. There's nothing quite like hearing a voice actor put their own spin on text you wrote and sometimes not quite... getting it. I remember one line I wrote that was supposed to be some old man mourning for his destroyed city. The line went: "Cardilla! My beautiful Cardilla!" But when it came back from recording, the actor thought "Cardilla" was a woman, and the man was professing his love, so it came out more like "Cardilla! My beeeaauuuutiful Cardilla!" in an overly dramatic romantic fashion.

Also, developers aren't always great about making sure the right VO lines pop up in the right places, particularly when it's just NPC chatter. For one game, we ended up having to manually check every single NPC on the test server to make sure their VO line matched up to the situation. The report we sent back to the devs was hilarious and included such bug reports as: "Man says 'Welcome. Make yourself at home' despite standing in a tomb full of monsters" and "Man shouts 'The pain!! The pain!! My leg! I can't feel it!' but when you talk to him, he simply welcomes you to the town."

9. What are some of the most difficult things you experienced as a game localizer?

Lack of context is probably the biggest obstacle my team faced. When you're localizing, writing, translating, etc., oftentimes you don't have the actual game in front of you. Thus, you have no idea where the string you're localizing will end up on the screen, what prompted it, if it's too long/too short, if it's supposed to be dialogue or a command or pop-up text, or even if your word choice is appropriate for the situation.

Thankfully, we were given test servers for many of our games (the big release games, at least). We spent so much time researching and playing on the test servers, we usually knew more about the games than the actual game and production teams (which would often lead to us finding and reporting bugs before anyone else). As we worked, our localized text would gradually be uploaded onto the test server to replace the relay text, allowing us to check everything we'd written in-game and do our own localization QA.

One of my favorite things to do is scrounge the Internet for reactions to my localized content.
One of my favorite things to do is scrounge the Internet for reactions to my localized content.

Even with test servers, however, not everything is a sure bet. Sometimes you simply can't figure out where your string is in-game. Or there's no way to trigger cutscenes without actually playing through the entire game. So there's still a lot of guesswork involved (which is why LQA is so essential). And that's only for games we actually had test servers for—many of our older games lacked test servers, so we'd often localize completely in the dark!

10. Do you have any advice for those with hopes of one day becoming a game localizer?

Write. Write all the time. Write as much as you can.

Game localization is just that—writing. But it's more than just being able to come up with your own story and characters. You need to be able to look at text, process it in your head, but then set it aside and rewrite it how you think it should be written to be not only correct and natural, but fun, immersive, and entertaining.

It's a bit like translation, actually. So many translators start out with unnatural, stiff translations because they can't separate themselves from the source text. They're afraid of distancing themselves from the source text. This oftentimes results in translations too similar to the sentence structure of the original language, odd wording/phrases, and simply bad English. This can happen in localization, too, especially when you're working from a poorly translated relay text. You need to be able to quickly gather the most important points from a piece of text, then rewrite them as they would be in English, while also adding in creative punches along the way.

So... write! And maybe start learning another language or two. Starting out as a translator even on a freelance level is a good way to get your foot in the door and get some concrete game experience on your resume, which most companies will be looking for.

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Anything you'd like to ask about the great big world of game localization? Want some advice or insight on how to get started? Leave a comment!