Japanese Game Localisation: English games releasing in Asia
Video game localisation is a concept the majority of the English-speaking gaming population rarely has to think about. Outside of fans of Japanese media most gamers take the fact that a game will be releasing in their language for granted. An epic amount of work goes into the task of translating an entire game from one language to another, but the issue becomes even more complex once you factor in the multitude of decisions a publisher has to go through prior to release.
If you’re a consumer of Japanese media you may have found yourself frustratedly asking “Why am I forced to buy my favourite games from the other side of the world, even if I want it in English?!” It may seem counterintuitive for a business to not make popular games available in certain regions, especially as an interested gamer, but there is more to regional releases and video game localisation than meets the eye.
As each region represents both risk and potential for a publisher a careful analysis of consumer spending, demographic size, culture, language, genres, platform popularity, and many other factors must be performed. Obviously certain regions will stand out – the big ones being USA, EU, and Japan – and their popularity is an attest to that, but over the last decade many Japanese publishers have been slowly utilising the hidden international potential of publishing in English within the Asia region.
Southeast Asia: the rise of English releases
The ‘Asia’ region when it comes to video game localisation and publishing generally covers the countries of Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and frequently a few others as well. It is important to note that these countries all speak different languages, but are generally viewed as a single region when it comes to releases and video game localisation. In fact Southeast Asia is considered one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world! As you can imagine this makes localisation a daunting task!
Despite their differences these countries share the common trait of having English as their lingua franca or common language used for business and commerce, usually second in popularity to the native tongue. As a result publishers that include English options in their Asia localisations can convert sales in multiple parts of the region with minimal translations and costs. Lower costs, less risk, and you’re still converting meaningful sales within a region you otherwise might not have. Naturally publishers that localise in the country’s native tongue receive better reception than an English release, but this comes with heightened costs and the inability to sell this version anywhere else in the world.
Now that we have a basic understanding of the rationale behind video game localisations in Asia getting English language options in the first place, lets answer the question that naturally follows: “Why are they releasing the English option ONLY in Asia?”
Changing a video game’s characters, imagery, or actions to best suit a culture different from the original creators’ is referred to as Culturalisation. While very similar, this process is distinctly different from what many consider video game localisation.
Following the Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 controversy, and the statement from Koei Tecmo regarding the West’s political climate when it comes to games, it has become quite obvious that fear of unknown reactions when releasing a game is at the forefront of some publishers’ priorities. When a game is developed with a very specific audience in mind, as is the case of many Japanese game developers and publishers, the content can garner undue negative feedback simply because of misunderstandings when it comes to intent and acceptability. This negative feedback can manifest as generally bad public relations or at worst a loss in sales, adding to the potential risk of the market. By making the title available in Asia with English language options all of this risk is avoided, as popular western media generally doesn’t concern itself with Asian releases. The end result is a publisher providing English-speaking fans within Asia an opportunity to experience the game, and those outside of Asia the opportunity to play albeit with international shipping costs.
However even without the input from the modern gaming critic, audience reactions and interest play a massive role in a publisher’s decision-making process. Publishers must obtain market data to establish the level of interest each region truly has in their product. As you can imagine that data is one of the most important pieces in the puzzle. If no one cares about your game, they aren’t going to buy it! Some games will inevitably not appeal on a mass scale to specific regions, and it is the publisher’s responsibility to come to an appropriate conclusion.
Publishers deciding what & where to localise
We can already begin to see not everything can be explained away by critics and culture, although it plays a part. In fact certain publishers can be criticised for being short-sighted or even too content. It is not uncommon for a Japanese publisher to focus the vast majority, or even the entirety, of their marketing efforts within the domestic Japanese market. While it makes sense to invest in your largest market the result is inevitably less attention being paid by a non-Japanese audience. This can be a major concern for any medium to small publisher in Japan, and often one experienced by larger publishers as well.
There is more to localising Japanese games than just culture and critics! Market data, or a lack of, can make it significantly harder for a Japanese developer to be confident in a specific market.
This result is a symptom of the cyclical thought process of “We sell most of our games in Japan, therefore we focus our attention on Japan.” Of course the catch is that if a publisher refuses to take the risk of promoting their game outside of Japan they will always have disappointing international sales figures that serve only to reinforce the above conclusion that investments are best spent in Japan. How do we break the cycle? Some of it is cultural, it is no secret that Japanese insular society means businesses prefer to do business in Japanese. But a lot can be said for international consumers simply expressing interest in franchises held by a publisher! Consumers generally overestimate the amount of concrete information a company has about its audience. Make market research cost-effective for your favourite game development companies and let them know what products you’re interested in!
A very notable barrier to entry into another region are legal fees and the legal process as a whole. Licensing content within a new region can get messy, especially for any content featuring Japanese voice actors as many contracts in Japan explicitly state that use of the audio is only legal within Japan. That is one of the reasons why gamers will notice many localised games omitting the Japanese audio despite frequent requests by fans to include it. A very frequent request by well-meaning fans is to simply add subtitles, but due to the nature of contracts in Japan this would leave the publisher with the options of re-recording all the lines or releasing an incomplete product with no voice lines at all!
The good news is many publishers have been exploring the Asia-release market at greater frequency over the last decade, including multiple Super Robot Wars releases, the upcoming Bullet Girls Phantasia, Summer Lesson and hundreds of others. Many publishers have also been testing their releases in the Western market with digital-only releases, an obvious way to lower risk in the region by lowering production costs. However, this raises another frequent concern gamers have when it comes to video game localisation: physical releases.
Give me physical releases, or give me death!
Physical releases, as opposed to digital releases, come attached with significantly higher manufacturing costs and risk factors for the publishing company. On its own the process to press a physical product itself must be accounted for; as well as stock management, distribution, retail negotiations and many other related factors. It is undeniable that physical releases represent a significant increase in workload.
“How reliable is the collected market data?,” “Is there a serious risk of over or under production?” These questions answered incorrectly can eat up a company’s margins at an alarming rate. So why do Japanese publishers release games as digital-only in the West? As the old adage goes: it is better to be safe than sorry. Especially when dealing with a foreign market.
Asia has been one of the slowest adopters of digital purchases on consoles. Only 5% of the total digital gaming revenue in Asia is generated by console sales. Publishers must adapt to each regional environment for video game localisation.
So what options do we have as physical console gamers? Once again we turn to Asia to solve our problem with physical releases. If there are so many extra costs attached to creating a physical product, why then put that investment into a market like Asia instead of the historically lucrative United States or European markets? Surely if the publisher has already put in the effort to translate the game they might as well release it the same everywhere, right?! In order to answer that question we first have to understand the consumer habits within Asia and what makes video game localisation so appealing there.
Consumers encouraging physical releases
The first thing to note is that digital console purchases are the smallest video game market segment in Asia at 5% of the total digital gaming market. That may be hard to believe at first, but outside of Japan digital purchases on consoles simply aren’t all that popular. In fact, Japan earned 4 times as much revenue via digital console purchases than both China and South Korea combined in 2015. This data should be taken with a grain of salt, as a 14 year ban on consoles in China has surely inhibited expansion, but still illustrates a lack of digital adoption across the entire region. Outside of the top three Japan (45%), China (38%), and South Korea (11%) the rest of Asia makes up the remaining 6% of digital sales.
This domination by Japan in the data is amplified further by the fact that Japan only generates 27% of gaming revenue from digital purchases. This is well below the global average of 47%. This implies countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, and many others all across Asia have yet to catch up with the digital surge being experienced by rest of the world. As far as localisation of video games go the preferred method within Asia is still boxed games, and publishers are hyper aware of this.
Japan, the dominant digital purchasers in Asia, still remains well below the global average of 47% of gaming revenue coming from digital sales with only 27%. Over 50% of Japanese games purchased are still boxed games.
This slow adoption across the region, except for the unique legal situation displayed in China, has been amplified by a lack of telecommunications infrastructure in homes. The issue has been resolving itself at an increasing speed over the past decade, but still remains a problem in more rural areas of Southeast Asia. Mobile connection is fantastic in Asia, and you will struggle to find an individual that isn’t connected to their phone, but without widespread, reliable, home internet access we can’t expect companies to use the same distribution methods in Southeast Asia as they would in the United States or even Japan.
So, why do Japanese publishers localise video games physically in Asia, but not always in the West? Because the market data shows gamers in Asia overwhelmingly prefer to purchase a new game in this way. If a publisher released digital-only console games in Asia they are putting themselves at a significant disadvantage to their competition. The same could be argued in reverse for the United States, where not offering a digital option would be AAA suicide.
Encouraging game publishers to localise
The simple truth is the Western gaming audience has spoken and the message that has been sent to publishers is that gamers in the West don’t mind digital releases, and in many cases prefer them. When it comes to video game localisation publishers are generally following the safest trajectory: listening to the market data. A strategy that is hard to knock, but can be frustrating for consumers that feel misrepresented by said data.
We here at Play-Asia.com put a significant amount of time behind championing the efficiency of releases in Asia to Japanese publishers because it provides them with an efficient route to reach both the physically inclined demographics in Asia, as well as the smaller international group of gamers who prefer physical products all within a single region’s release. Video game localisation done right is, and continues to be, a big part of our strategy to facilitate gamers all around the globe.
The good news is that Japanese games are a niche in the West, and many publishers can recognise that they should look at their specific audiences habits rather than analysing the dataset as a whole. If consumers of Japanese media overwhelmingly vote with their wallets for physical localised video game releases, then titles targeted towards this audience will follow suit.
Let us know your experiences with localisation below! Which video game localisations have you played from Asia? Which games are you hoping to see released in English soon? Do you buy digital releases of Japanese console games?