Talking Point: The Trends and Inconsistencies of Localisation
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Predicting releases is getting tougher
Yesterday brought the news that Project X Zone is being localised and released in PAL regions and North America this summer. To many that would arguably be a surprise, as the title has endured a relative failure in Japan, culminating in a major price-cut. Yet recent years have taught us that predicting localisations can be a tricky business, so we thought we'd try and make some sense of it all — though exceptions will likely be plentiful — so that we can hopefully go into future hopes with our eyes wide open.
Project X Zone, as our introduction suggested, was a title that had already been written off by some gamers in the West. Its disappointing performance in Japan, combined with continuing silence from the publisher and the likelihood of substantial translation being required, made it seem increasingly unlikely. Yet here we are, and perhaps those of us that had given into despondency had overlooked a key point — franchise power. We even have a recent example that demonstrates how important branding can be to a localisation decision, with the arrival of Pokémon Conquest on DS last year. Known as Pokémon + Nobunaga's Ambition in Japan, the branding was simple — remove the reference to a little-known Japanese franchise and target 'mon fans. This tactic isn't always taken in re-naming titles, as Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars on Wii showed us.
The common thread with those two releases, and now Project X Zone (described as a "working title" in Namco Bandai's press release), is that they're titles with big-name publishers and characters/franchises familiar to Western audiences. This upcoming mash-up combines characters from the rosters of SEGA, Capcom and Namco Bandai — also co-developed by Monolith Soft, which bodes well — which means that there'll be plenty of familiar faces for Western gamers. That's part of the reason that its original unveiling in Japan attracted a lot of attention, because it combined enough craziness with familiar icons to draw in RPG fans, while also targeting those comfortable with franchises such as Mega Man, Street Fighter and Resident Evil.
With that in mind, perhaps the localisation isn't a major surprise, while Namco Bandai will hope that gamers in the West will be tempted to pick it up during the traditionally quiet summer months and give the title a much needed boost. This emphasis on franchises perhaps helps to explain why, when it comes to other projects from big players, there's greater resistance or delay to localisation. The process of applying translations and arranging regional distribution and marketing has costs, and it seems to be the case that larger companies are less willing to undertake major releases for Japanese titles. Some, such as Capcom with the release of Monster Hunter Tri on Wii and the upcoming Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate on Wii U and 3DS, take hesitant steps, releasing titles well after Japan to test the waters of mainstream success. The latest entry wasn't confirmed for the West until it had been out in its original form for nearly a year in Japan, with no assurances that Monster Hunter 4 will follow suit.
We then have the examples of the Operation Rainfall trilogy, which showed that big companies such as Nintendo think hard before committing to localisations. While the big N brought all three of these releases to Europe, only Xenoblade Chronicles was published by Nintendo of America, possibly as the English translations and voice work had already been done with British actors. XSEED published The Last Story, which became its most successful title and is belatedly bringing Pandora's Tower to the region this Spring. We also have a relatively high profile example with Bravely Default: Flying Fairy on 3DS, with publisher Square Enix staying resolutely quiet on whether it'll make it outside of Japan. It may enjoy the same fate as Project X Zone, but it suffers from one clear issue — it's not an established IP.
This perhaps explains their troubled paths to the West, either through delays or no release at all. XSEED's role, however, brings us to an important part of any localisation hopes; they often rest in the hands of well known publishers, including Atlus in North America and Rising Star Games in Europe. To give some examples, Atlus has previously and is planning to publish games such as Radiant Historia, Etrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan and Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers; for its part Rising Star Games has delivered games to Europe such as Little King's Story, No More Heroes and Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward. There are other publishers of a similar size that also specialise in releasing titles that may, otherwise, have struggled to be published by one of the industry's major players.
The key for publishers such as these is that they can take a chance on titles due to lower overall expectations. Typically these releases have modest or minimal advertising, with a reliance on word of mouth, sometimes attractive promotions and extras, as well as a sustainable amount of stock. These games are often widely available but in small volumes, and in some cases are easiest found online. For the most part these are also titles from lesser known — we'll say niche — IPs and development studios. With a smaller scale business plan these publishers have stayed in business for a number of years, catering to a specific audience that would seem too small to those such as Nintendo and Capcom, but is nevertheless big enough to sustain a market.
The good times may continue for those of us with a desire for more Japanese-developed games, with the recent move of XSEED releasing Unchained Blades as a download-only game on the North American eShop, while Code of Princess looks set to be download-only in Europe. We've already written about the potential role of download-only retail releases on the eShop.
So, can we reliably make certain assumptions about what games are likely to be localised and those that won't — major publishers reliant on recognisable IPs and shying away from smaller brands, while smaller publishers step in for lesser known titles or franchises? It's never that simple, and we've only mentioned a few examples out of many; exceptions remain that will continually frustrate, irritate and defy logic.
Let's take Ni no Kuni: The Jet-Black Mage from Level-5 on DS, the kind of in-depth and lushly presented RPG that had some Western gamers foaming at the mouth in anticipation back in 2008. Yet it never came, while Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch recently arrived in the West on PS3. The major issue, as given by Level-5, was that the accompanying 352-page Magic Master book — a vital part of the game — would be expensive to translate and then the game would cost more to be bundled with a copy. The PS3 title, with its own book, works around this with a digital version in the game. An argument made on Destructoid — there's some strong language in the article — is that the same approach should be made to localise the DS game, bypassing potential space issues by releasing on the larger capacity 3DS platform. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked was a remastered DS title on 3DS, so why not do the same with this DS Ni No Kuni release?
Unfortunately, no matter how much we try, logic won't always apply. Lost Planet is a home console franchise released in the West, yet last we heard 3DS spin-off E.X. Troopers isn't planned for localisation by Capcom. We can make educated guesses based on the Western franchises in a game, or the scale of developers and publishers that may bring niche titles to market, but surprises do still frustrate. If some trends help us to avoid too much disappointment, however, then hopefully that's a good thing.