Good localization checklist, working with gamers’ criticisms, and a universal set of languages for translation
Maria Lesk had begun her gamedev journey with community support and in seven years became a localization director. Now she manages all localization projects at Daedalic and knows close to everything about tailoring narratives for different languages.
Inlingo team has talked to Maria and learned why localization should be discussed early in development, how to react to subjective feedback from players, and what to do if your localization budget is nil.
“There is a person answering questions from players”
— When did you first got interested in games?
— It happened when I was a kid, like many others. I have an older brother and I ended up playing with his consoles way more than he did. We had an Amiga and a Playstation One and then we got a PC relatively late compared to all my friends, but the world of PC gaming captivated me once and for all. So, in the end, my parents decided to buy me the games and not my brother.
— Do you remember the games you first got into?
— On the Amiga there were the older games that I never understood because they were all in English. But there was one game called Swap – a very simple puzzle.
— Did you ever think back then, that your work would be connected to game industry?
— I never figured I would work in this industry one day because I simply never really knew which jobs there were apart from the obvious ones like programming and art. As a kid I never really had like this big dream job that I aspired to have one day. And I majored in Media and Communications and English and American Studies.
— English and American Studies probably helps you with localization right now, but what about Media and Communication?
— We covered a lot of aspects of media, but games were never really a big part of my studies. I think it became more relevant after I left with a lot of younger professors. That’s why I majorly focused on film. I still got to write my thesis on film and game topics, so that was cool. And, of course, English Studies helps me every day. It makes me a linguist and now I work with languages.
— Daedalic is your first workplace after university. How did you get there?
— I think back then I knew someone at Daedalic and I felt safe to send an application. Although I never had game companies on my radar. That application was for something completely different. It was for a marketing position because my studies included a couple of lectures on marketing.
— You first started working in customer support. What is the hardest thing when working with tickets from players?
— Oh, working with customers is a very specific field, you know, everybody’s different. I think what challenged me the most is when it started to get very technical. Like when I had the feeling that I’m offering IT support for their PCs instead of just helping with our games and that’s not really my domain.
Also, for Daedalic the position that I was in was completely new. We didn’t have customer support before that – they created this position for me during the job interview. I think the workload rose exponentially with every game we released. It was amazingly overwhelming for the first years, I worked so much, and there were so many tickets. In those couple of years, I was able to make some crucial changes in the customer support experience. Now it’s a smooth-running process.
I took it really seriously, not a lot of people do that. Most companies don’t do their own customer support, but at Daedalic there is a person answering these emails. I think a lot of people recognize that and like it.
“The base language needs to be perfect”
— How did you take up the post of localization director?
— That was in 2016 I think, when the localization manager before me switched the departments in the company and then he just suggested that I take up on that. Basically, I organize and manage the entire localization work for all Daedalic projects including our inhouse projects and titles for publishing from external developers.
I help with lockits, pipelines and schedules. I manage the entire translation into multiple languages and I also help with voice-over. Providing teams with all information, moving on to casting, scheduling recordings. Finally, if I have the time I also translate, proofread, and do LQA for German texts. It’s actually a lot of fun for me.
— So, what’s the favorite part in all of your duties?
— Well, the part that I’ve just mentioned – I really enjoy working with texts. For my particular position and the position that I’m in I really enjoy working with so many different teams. Because, every game is different, every team works differently. And usually in development you work on one game for months or years more likely. So, I get to work on a lot of different games at the same time, which is of course overwhelming, but it’s also a challenge I enjoy.
— At what stage does your localization team get involved in the development?
— Ideally, we get involved as early as possible so that we are at the table right from the beginning. The reality is the complete opposite. We get involved extremely late and mostly localization is being pushed to the end of the development period and then they show up with a million words and twenty languages to translate.
— That is a common problem in different companies. Do you think there is a way to persuade the decision makers to start working on localization earlier?
— Well, if you find a way please let me know. Since we are working with external partners a lot I just can’t barge in and say ‘are you working on localization already?’. I wrote a document with errors to avoid and everything they need to check before starting. Of course, I can never check if developers actually take everything into account.
I want to stress the importance of localization as a lot of people underestimate it. It’s my job to tell them to take care of it early on. When it’s a project in our own development, it’s easier for me, I can go there and say ‘let’s talk about it early, I have a lot of experience, get me on the table’. But it’s always difficult because there are so many priorities and localization mistakenly never seems to be one of it.
— You’ve mentioned a set of advice for development companies to prepare the game for localization. Can you share some of them?
— To start with, the base language needs to be perfect. If the game is written in English invest in a good proofreading because that’s the language that every other language will use as a base.
Never underestimate the time and work localization takes. But also, don’t be afraid of it, so don’t push it back too far. Get involved in it now. Plan a good lockit because that’s the base for everything. If there are mistakes in there, they’re gonna be there for a while.
When you start working with texts, set the goals you want to reach and then test your fonts. If you know you’re gonna include Asian languages include dummy texts and make sure all the symbols are properly displayed and look nice.
It’s super important for the programmers to code with localization in mind. Remember there is going to be a localization one day and if your text boxes don’t scale it’s gonna be a problem. German might not fit where English does, and also there are languages with different line break rules. When coding, keep in mind that it’s not just for the one thing you can see right now, but for many different languages. Also, never ever skip LQA. That’s a bad idea.
Never hard code text into your game. We’ve had a lot of like painted texts in our first games. They are a pain to localize. It’s very important for Chinese, for example, because it cannot have any English words left. If there is a newspaper article that you cannot translate, well, that’s too bad.
Also, never change texts, once localization is in process. It’s a given, but it’s really hard to do.
— That’s a good list. I’ve seen a lot of smaller teams that are just starting to work with localization. They are kind of overwhelmed with all the things that occur.
— Oh, there is also one good tip that a lot of people might not know and that’s to have one dedicated localization person in your team, from the technical side. Because it’s often a topic that gets thrown around a lot and nobody feels responsible for integrating texts or doing all these things that I’ve just mentioned. Having a specialist people can go to helps a lot because I’ve seen some teams that are just like ‘no no no, I’m not responsible for this, you do that’. It’s not gonna work out. It has to be a responsibility that has to go to someone.
“Once you launch a game the sales are the most important thing”
— How does Daedalic choose languages for localization? Do you analyze similar projects or do you have a set of languages like EFIGS plus Asian and that’s it?
— Yeah, we do have this set of languages, but deciding on languages for a new project is mostly an executive decision by my CEO because he simply knows best which games are popular in which countries. While we have that set of languages that we try to apply to as many games as we can, but it’s 13 languages so when there is a very high word count, we of course have to cut some of those.
I remember when we were working on our game The Pillars of the Earth based on Ken Follett’s book, we tried to find out in which countries the book or the movie was a success. The game has a lot of words, so we tried to especially focus on that group of countries that actually enjoy it, and like the story.
— I know that some companies release the game in English, in different markets, and then they see where the game gets more popular. And only afterwards they add those languages. Do you think that’s a valid strategy?
— I think every strategy is valid because in the end it’s a gambling game. You cannot predict the future. Such approach might help certain companies. It could also mean that you lose a lot of players right at the beginning because, as we know, once you launch a game the sales are the most important thing and a lot of people won’t buy games that are not localized into their languages, they won’t ever give it a second chance because there are so many games out there.
So, having a game localized into many languages could mean the survival of the game, but again, it’s like predicting the future. Localization is super expensive, which is not fully understood and Daedalic invests a lot into localization. We have 13 main languages. We hardly ever cut back and we think of it as an investment. I hope it’s something the player base is grateful for.
But yeah, as I said I think every strategy is valid. Sometimes I see very popular games being released only in English and I think ‘wow, that’s a decision right there’. Maybe it helps them to save money and then concentrate on other important aspects of the game.
— Daedalic has always been releasing games with a lot of focus on narrative. What’s the hardest part when localizing a game with strong story?
— It’s crucial for the translators to find the right tone. Especially if you have a big story like with The Pillars of the Earth. We have to use translators who are familiar with the work, with the tone, with the characters. I think it needs translators who are good writers and have good command of the language.
But for Daedalic it’s not just about background. We have very quirky humor and finding people who can work with that was important. They have to not only tell a good story in their language but also transfer that humor. Most freelance translators that we work with are super experienced in story driven games. It’s important to find the right people.
— This is an old question, but what’s Daedalic’s approach on working with freelancers, having your in-house department of translators or working with vendors?
— We usually depend on freelance translators that we’ve worked with for many years and have well-established relationships with. I really enjoy working with them actually. There are people who get every single one of our games. We usually work on several projects simultaneously.
Last year we released a lot of early access titles which require constant attention like every two months, every other week. At times like these we sometimes use agencies that are able to pull off big workloads and a lot of target languages at the same time, but that’s basically an emergency situation.
— Localization almost hardly ever gets as good as the source text, even when it’s close to perfect, there are always criticism from players. How do you tell what criticism is valid and what is just subjective ideas?
— It’s actually a good question because I think it’s a very fine line sometimes. In general, I take feedback seriously and I often share it with my translators and ask them if they think it’s valid. I don’t speak every language, so I trust their judgement.
I think what a lot of people forget is that translation is a form of creative writing and it has a spectrum. So, player feedback often comes down to personal taste. The ‘I would have done it differently, so I hate this and here’s my suggestion’. Of course, every translator has the right to say ‘nah, I won’t implement that, it’s my name in the credits, it’s my work, I’m not changing it’. There are just too many opinions out there and you cannot heed everyone.
When I read negative reviews saying ‘poor translation’ what should I do with that? You have to find out what exactly is the problem, is there actually something wrong or is it just a subjective opinion. Other times there are things that my translators incorporate, like if there is a typo, something that is technically wrong like a wrong text at the wrong place. This happens, and it’s amazing when players spot that.
— Do you think companies that work with niche genres that are popular among smaller subset of players should add as many languages as possible because the player base is potentially very small or it’s a good reason to save money and just release it in two or three languages and see what’s going to happen?
— It’s a tricky question because in the end it comes down to budget. You are to decide if you can afford adding 10 languages. We know what it’s like to release niche games that don’t get a lot of attention and yeah maybe you have two-three players who are very grateful that you offered their language, but it’s not what gets you the money back, I’ve seen it before.
I think for smaller companies and niche games that are still beloved it’s a good idea to ask the community if they are interested in doing the translation for a smaller coin or maybe for free. Fan translations are a great way to save money and also bond with the community. In that case you won’t have to worry about the cost and about it being top quality because it’s a community effort and people know who made it.
I’ve seen it do a lot of good things especially for early access games or smaller teams that cannot afford localization.
— What is your workday like?
— My work day just comes as it comes, like you have to take care of everything that is like time-critical because of time zones before lunch and everything else after lunch.
When there’s no pandemic going on I commute to work, go into the office like at 9:30, check my mails, check my calendar, check all my messengers, reply to emails, have meetings that could easily also be emails. And then have lunch and then it’s basically the same thing in the afternoon. In the evenings I try to get home and not continue working from there.
— How do you spend your free time?
— Games, obviously. Working out, sports. Wasting time on social media, spending time with boyfriend, friends, not during the pandemic, of course.
— Let’s switch to the rapid-fire round. What are you playing right now?
— Right now, I’m playing ReCore and Life is Strange 2.
— Your top 3 favorite books?
— Happiness by Will Ferguson, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and the Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle.
— Top 3 movies?
— The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mad Max: Fury Road and Almost Famous. Three very different movies.
— What games or a game in your opinion have the best German localization?
— I don’t play games in German. I can only say which Daedalic game has the best German localization and that would be The Pillars of the Earth or Die Säulen der Erde which is the German title.
— Final question. Deponia or Elysium?
— Oh, it’s easy. Elysium.
— Come on, there is no soul there.
— Yeah, well. I like clean water. I think it’s a big privilege, so I like it.