Global Games: Culturalize, Not Localize

While a lot of attention is paid to localization in game creation, many American developers don’t consider another important – some would say critical – aspect of design: culturalization. If you’re seeking to rapidly distribute titles in an era where everything is global, you can’t afford to ignore the challenges related to the way players from different regions and cultures will respond to your product. By not adapting to the multicultural marketplace, you run the risk of leaving money on the table in areas where you might have been wildly successful. And, worse, you could find yourself being wildly offensive to a wide segment of your market.

What Is Culturalization?

Plants vs Zombies ChinaWhile localization is as basic as changing the languages found in menus, help files or other objects within the game’s world, culturalization is more complex. It touches those things that are imposed or conditioned by the player’s culture. For example, national practices such as holidays and memorials, or ethnic touchstones like funerary rites, taboos, clothing and food. It could be a noticeable physical indicator — such as moving the steering wheel of a car from the left side to the right side for the UK market — or a culture-specific one: Where Americans high-five, the Japanese bow.

Craig Alexander, Vice President of Product Development for game studio Turbine, sees culturalization as a necessity when game development moves into new geographic markets.

“What we learned about international markets is that it’s not enough to localize the content by just translating it,” he says. “Instead, we have to culturalize it.” In other words, for a game to successfully cross borders its attributes must delve fully into a user’s ethnicity and culture. For instance, when designing for the Korean market, that country’s spirit should be distilled through the game’s artwork, design and features.

Cultural Understanding = Market Share

Matching a market’s culture can increase the odds of a title’s success in it. Blind Squirrel Games does a lot of research for each region it releases a game into. “We are very sensitive to other cultures’ idiosyncrasies,” says CEO Brad Hendricks. “Take, for example, the peace sign. We often throw that sign casually around here in the USA as a kind gesture. Turn your hand the wrong way and it suddenly becomes an insult in places like the UK.”

In many instances, Hendricks adds, it’s the publishers who take the lead in making sure the developers aren’t treading into areas that may pose a problem.

The Arab world provides an excellent example for the need to make a game fit the culture. With approximately 60 percent of the Middle East’s population under 25, its online gaming market is experiencing explosive growth. The vast majority of the region’s people also practice Islam. Publishers who are successful there say it’s critical that games meet the sometimes very subtle cultural needs of their users. For example, the team at Game Power 7 – a leading company in the market — does everything from designing appropriate wardrobes to eliminating religious symbols and removing all references to consuming alcohol and smoking. When the game Allods was being readied for release, Game Power 7 content managers noted that three of the characters were referred to as “gods.” They swiftly changed that to the more acceptable “kings.”

Winning a Wider Audience

EA’s popular Plants vs. Zombies is wildly successful in China. That’s not by accident. “The design of the zombies and the setting for the game were all redesigned as a way to represent Chinese culture and make it relevant and relatable to that audience,” says Corporate Communications Manager Sandy Goldberg. Everything from the zombies’ clothing, to the action taking place around the Great Wall, to Chinese scripted gravestones with offerings at their base fully capture a regionally exclusive experience within the game.

China's Version of Plants vs. Zombies

During EA’s July 23, Q1 2014 Earnings Call, COO Peter Robert Moore assumed success for Plants vs. Zombies 2. “This is a big year for EA’s PopCap Studio and we’re seeing a lot of consumer excitement over Plants vs. Zombies 2,” he said.

Plants vs. Zombies 2 - Great Wall

Moore’s prediction was short-lived, however. While culturization goes a long way to building user loyalty, the game still has to be user friendly. Excitement over Plants vs. Zombies 2 died down quickly when Chinese gamers discovered that advancement was significantly more difficult in their version compared to the U.S. version.

Language’s Cultural Component

Many games don’t necessarily need to be wary of cultural issues. For instance, fantasy or sci-fi based games that don’t take place on Earth often get a pass. Although in cases like this, Blind Squirrel’s Hendricks emphasizes the need for linguistically sensitive translation of menus, game text and language because those will have even greater significance to users.

Sports games, particularly for international sports like soccer/futbal, get a quasi-cultural pass, as well. But here again, translation becomes imperative to success. In December, EA and Nexon launched FIFA Online 3 in Korea. More recently, EA worked with TenCent to bring it to the Chinese market. Say’s EA’s Moore: “Together, these two partnerships represent a growth opportunity for EA in Asia. Teaming up with publishers of the caliber of Nexon and TenCent provides local expertise and deep insight into the largest market for games as a service.”

The Flip Side

Asian game developers, who’ve been catering to U.S. players for years, have been far ahead of the curve in terms of culturalization. In a 2009 interview with PC & Tech Authority, Lani Blazer an Associate Producer on the MMO Aion from Korea’s NCSOFT, spoke about the importance of culture when prepping for Western users.

“We’ve actually been calling it the “culturalization” process because we’re doing much more than just changing a Korean word to an English, French or German word,” she said. “Once we had the first-pass translation in, we sent it to our writing team who began reworking quest text, NPC dialog, and the overall story; culture references, fables, and slang all had to be revised to make them familiar and meaningful to the Western audience. It was important to us that our players be able to relate to the content that we were presenting.”

Image: EA