From ‘Pac-Man’ to VR — A Brief History of Game Localization

History of Game LocalizationOne of the most recognizable video games in history is the product of localization — do you think Pakkuman would have risen to worldwide notoriety without first being changed to Pac-Man? Probably not.

Localization has long been commonplace in the gaming industry and we have the early U.S. and Japanese creators to thank for seeing the value of bringing their games to different parts of the world in different languages. Let’s take a look back about how far we’ve come.

1970s

  • Before video games invaded homes on consoles and computers, games were mostly found in arcades in all their button mashing glory. At this point, U.S.-based companies only made games in English and really only thought about the national market. To be far, these early games didn’t have much text to localize anyway.
  • It wasn’t until Japanese companies — like the creators of Pac-Man — realized the potential of localizing their games for the American market and beyond did game localization even become a thing.
  • By the mid-70s, the Atari 2600 was out and video games were steadily becoming more and more popular — which in turn increased the need for localization.

1980s

  • With big hair and Transformers came a boom in the video game industry in the 1980s. The release of the NES, SEGA Genesis, and the Nintendo Game Boy made games incredibly accessible.
  • One of the most successful localization projects at the time was Super Mario Bros. — the game’s Box and Docs were translated into German, French, Spanish, Italian and Dutch, though the game text remained in English.
  • The most famous localization flub of all time also came out this period. When localizing Japanese shooter Zero Wing, the sloppy translation causes the villain to declare “All your base are belong to us.”
  • The term EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish) was also coined during this time.
  • The first human voice in a game appeared in Dragon’s Lair.

1990s

  • By now, we were in the throws of a full on video game revolution. Multiple consoles and handheld devices were available, and the ever-growing PC market led to a massive surge in computer game development. Partial localization became the norm for most titles, which meant that along with box and docs, user interfaces and in-game subtitles were also translated.
  • But audio localization was still very rare, considering how time consuming and expensive it could be. Fun fact: full audio localization is still that way, even with all our advances in technology.
  • Ever the groundbreaker, Bioware’s Baldur’s Gate was one of the first RPGs to be fully localized in Spanish. It was quite the undertaking, but it proved that localization was worth it.

2000s

  • The biggest thing that happened in the 2000s when it came to video games was the dramatic success of online games like World of Warcraft. Because of the worldwide appeal of the Internet, games like WoW needed to be made available in native languages in order to reach new audiences across the globe.
  • Companies also realized that shipping games in multiple languages at the same time (called sim-ship) helped increase sales and extended the life of the titles. This meant that they had to start localizing during development instead of after the game was released in English.

2010s

  • Full localization has become more of a standard and games are being translated into more languages than ever.
  • Transcreation and more advanced localization — such as changing a character’s appearance or story to fit a foreign market — are also being used more often.
  • Mobile games, like computer and console before them, have also changed the localization game. Now, we not only have to run linguistic QA, but localization QA as well to make sure that the localized game works on a variety of screens.
  • VR also promises to push the boundaries of both video games and localization.

What are some of your favorite games in history? Let us know in the comments!

Image: emayoh/Flickr

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