Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Localization and the Video Games Industry: Who Gets What?

Last weekend, Saturday to be precise, I was lucky enough to take a trip to London for this year's Eurogamer Expo, which now refers to itself as the cooler-sounding "EGX". As a self-confessed video game and language nerd, I am very interested in the translation and localization of video games and electronic entertainment.

When I was younger, I often didn't give a second thought to the fact that the video games I played were always either in English or provided an option to select English from a number of languages. As a kid I would often head into town to get a new game and immediately spend the entire trip home reading the blurb on the back and the instruction manual.

Growing up in the UK meant that the text on the box and in the instructions was either only in English or was in EFIGS (English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish), which are often deemed the "most important" languages in Europe. While some of the packaging featured other languages, the software often was only in English, with no other language options provided.

The discrepancy between the packaging and the software barely bothered me as a kid. However, as an adult I now realise that large corporations will only translate and localize games when there is a profitable market to be exploited. With all this in mind, I decided to quickly do some research into which languages and locales the video games industry favours.


Steam's search engine allows for the filtering of the online distribution service's catalogue by language. This past weekend there were 14,576 titles available on Steam, with around 90% of these available in English. Titles in the other EFIGS languages are widely available. 44% of titles are available in German and almost 42% are available in the French language. 37% and 35% of games are listed as being in Spanish and Italian respectively. 

These figures are hardly surprising if you just take a look at the usage notes for "EFIGS" on Wiktionary: "In software development, used to designate five widely used languages that software (notably video games) is often translated to."

It's very clear that games are not translated in the same proportions as there are speakers of a language. If this was the case, Simplified and Traditional Chinese combined would not account for only 4% of the games available through Steam. In fact, it's fairly obvious (and a little sad) that the proportions clearly line up with the relative size of the markets and their spoken languages.

Xbox Marketplace

It's not just the language you speak that may limit the number of games you can get. While I am lucky to speak English, I am also in the United Kingdom. However, that did little to console me when I found out that if you take a look through the Xbox 360 games available on the Xbox Marketplace, you are privy to a vastly different number of games depending on your locale.

The United States enjoyed the largest number of games available. At the time I checked, the UK's catalogue contained 76 fewer titles than the United States. That said, there were 1223 titles available in the US and the UK's catalogue contained 1147 games, making the difference minute.

While Steam showed a linguistic bias towards European languages, the Xbox Marketplace tends to favour markets in North America and Europe, where users have access to more titles than elsewhere in the world. For example, 1112 games were available in Spain while only 365 were available in Argentina, despite both countries being primarily Spanish-speaking. For some odd reason, Argentina also has half as many games available as other Spanish-speaking countries in South America, such as Chile (840), Colombia (861).

Much like on Steam, mainland China gets the short end of the stick, where a paltry 25 titles were available. However, 976 were available in Hong Kong. Undoubtedly this can partially be attributed to non-linguistic factors. In fact, the Hong Kong marketplace had more titles available than any other Asian locale.

Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia all have access to between 300 and 400 games while in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), over 500 titles were available. Does this increase have anything to do with the fact that the UAE is home to the highest net migration rate in the world?

Is the difference between the number of games available in Europe and South America solely due to the size of their video game markets or are there political and economic reasons as well? Is the discrepancy just because some languages are easier to work with than others? If you happen to be an industry expert or deal with localization, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

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