Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Interview: Ghostlight on why localisation isn't as easy as it sounds

Ghostlight is a specialist publisher operating out of the UK, bringing Japanese games into PAL markets.

Operating since 2004, it has been responsible for European and Australian players gaining access to a range of the Shin Megami Tensei titles, as well as the rather excellent Agarest games.

Ghostlight Senior Producer, Alasdair Evans, took the time out to chat with us at length about the challenges and opportunities facing a niche publisher in the modern market. It's a fascinating read; especially where Evans explains the process for localisation and why it takes so long for Europeans and Australians to get some games when they've been available in the US or Japan for so long.

That we need to wait so long for the games is a common complaint that gamers out this way have, but hopefully after reading this it becomes clear that the localisation business isn't as straightforward as many people think.

Evans also talks to us about broadening Ghostlight's product portfolio with PC game releases and how a physical product publisher will continue to remain healthy as the industry transitions to digital download consumption models.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): How is 2013 shaping up for Ghostlight?
Alasdair Evans (AE): We’re really excited about 2013. Not only will we be releasing our first two 3DS games in Devil Survivor: Overclocked and Crash City Mayhem, but we’ve also got another title from the acclaimed Shin Megami Tensei range, Devil Survivor 2, coming to the DS. And those are just the games we’ve announced... One of the most exciting things that will be happening this year is that we will be releasing our first PC JRPG. We’ve already signed one console game to have ported to PC and if this is a success then it could open up the potential to bring over games which in the past didn’t seem viable.

We’re also looking into a few other games, but I’m afraid we can’t say too much about them just yet.

DD: What do you see as the dominant trends affecting companies that specialise in localisation and publication of Japanese games in Europe moving forwards, and what opportunities do you see in those challenges?
AE: In the past year we’ve seen digital distribution become increasingly important across the gaming world and not just in niche sectors, such as Japanese gaming. Nowadays you’ll often see big budget games released for download on the same day that they are available in store. This is something that is being pushed even more on newer handhelds such as the Vita. Nintendo too seem to be pushing digital distribution with its latest consoles to an extent that you didn’t see on the Wii and DS. There are several advantages to digital publishing games, but one of the most obvious effects is that it is far easier to release games worldwide. While this does open up another option for American or Japanese companies that would like to publish their games over here in Europe, we’re confident that our knowledge of the European market still gives us an advantage here. And, of course, the global nature of the Internet also applies to services such as Steam. That means that our first PC game will be released in territories that Ghostlight has never reached before.

Of course it’s not just format that’s evolving. The consoles that people play games on are changing as well. In the west, the successes that companies such as Carpe Fulgur have enjoyed on Steam have opened a lot of people’s eyes to the popularity of Japanese gaming on PC. 2012 saw several other companies releasing JRPGs on PC in the West too. So far these titles have mostly had PC versions released in Japan, but there are a lot of games that never got a PC release there that could be popular with PC gamers in other territories.

Over in Japan the handheld consoles are still incredibly popular and the success of the 3DS in particular means that they will continue to be important in the JRPG market, despite the release of the Wii U and the rumours of other console releases.

DD: European and Australian gamers are often frustrated by the time it takes to publish games in these markets - in some cases it can be a year after the game was released in the US. Could you outline the process for publishing a Japanese game in PAL territories, and explain for us the delay?
AE: It’s frustrating for gamers, but there will always be delays like this unless the original developer/ publisher has planned from the outset to localise and release their title in Europe, US and Japan simultaneously. For us, the first stage of publishing a Japanese title in the PAL region is deciding which games you are interested in. While that may seem a little obvious, it’s important to mention as this decision opens up several potential causes for delays. After that, we need to contact whoever holds the rights and arrange for a version of the game to be sent to us for evaluation. Depending on whether the game has been licensed for North America or not, the version we receive may be in either Japanese or English. After the team here has looked at the game, a report is prepared and assuming we still feel the game meets our requirements and that there will be a market for it, we contact the licence holder and try to negotiate a deal with them.

If and when a deal is reached, we will then start the localisation process. Even if a game has already been translated into English, changes will still need to be made to the game as the technical requirements differ from region to region. This means that a brand new product has to be created, the complexities and inherent issues of which can easily be underestimated. Creating any new product throws up the risk of generating new bugs through the sometimes necessary implementation of new libraries and so forth and that in itself can open up a whole world of hurt in terms of development time, bug testing and fixing and master submissions. Not to mention that throughout this process we will also be working on the manual and localisations, box art and any other printed materials such as the Collector’s Edition content.

Finally, once the game has been passed by the console manufacturer, it needs to be marketed and sold in to stores via distributors and retail chains. The market is very tough for boxed product at the moment so this can sometimes be a lengthy process. Once orders are placed from distributors, the product is put into manufacture alongside any collector’s components and a release date is set.

Of course this whole process opens up many stages at which a game could be delayed.

Sometimes we source and evaluate games that have previously been overlooked for various reasons, so to the end user it can seem like months or years before a localised version reaches our shores. For example the success of a sequel to an established series can sometimes indicate interest in earlier games in that series that may have been passed up previously.

Once we find a title that we want to bring to Europe, there’s usually a lengthy negotiation process covering all aspects of the title, i.e. fees, rights issues over art and music, copyrights over the source code and use of middleware etc. All these issues need to be resolved before signing a game, so complex legal aspects of any agreement can take time before we can actually get things moving.

Alongside all that, circumstances sometimes change and a game that may not have been possible to licence before may become available at a lower cost, making it possible to reach an agreement when it was not before.

Once a title is signed, the localisation and testing process takes a lot of time and effort to get right. Japanese-to-English translations of large story-based JRPGs can take months just to get a first draft (we’re usually talking about hundreds of pages of text here) and every new test build of a game has to be tested as if it were the first. That means hundreds of hours of testing.

Even if the game has already been translated, it will still have to undergo changes to the code. As I mentioned earlier, the technical requirements in each region differ and there is also the possibility that additional bugs will be spotted which will need to be fixed.

This usually means having the Japanese dev/publisher make the changes, which can also introduce delays as the particular team who worked on a title may not be immediately available. Unsurprisingly, dev teams never sit idly waiting for localisation work from us, naturally they need to work on new products, so we usually have to find a balance that enables multiple projects to run in parallel. This can mean that we may have to wait to start a project and fit in around developer’s tight schedules. Downtime can invariably occur here.

Aside from all of this there are also lots of smaller issues that can add up to big delays. For example, before licensing a title, we will evaluate it, which often requires waiting for a playable work-in-progress build or even a finished version, which can take weeks to months. On more marginal titles we may even wait to see how well a title sells in Japan or the US before setting out to acquire it for Europe.

Lastly, we have to factor in the console submission and approvals process of the game, as well as the printed materials. It’s sometimes even tougher for us if we decide to create one of our typically fantastic Collectors’ Editions! As you can imagine, each special item has to be designed and approved by the licensor or rights holder. On top of all that, there are applications for age ratings, manufacturing and shipping and it sometimes only takes one minor problem in any one aspect of development or production to delay the whole process by weeks or even months.

DD: There's been an explosion in gaming platforms announced for this year - with last year's Wii U and Vita to be joined by a Steam "console," the Ouya, and the expected announcement of new Sony and Microsoft hardware. How does an outfit like Ghostlight determine which platforms to look for games to publish to?
AE: Having so many different platforms to choose from makes this an exciting time and there are several things we look at. We tend to be platform agnostic here at Ghostlight and we actively look for games on a wide variety of platforms. Of course there are several factors which make it more likely that we’ll release games on a specific platform, with the most important of course being which games are available to us. Some platforms have a much larger library of Japanese games available and as such, all things being equal we are more likely to pick up a game for those platforms.

Other than that we look at the size of the user base in Europe and - more importantly - what sort of gamers are most likely to own a specific console. For example, while many publishers were moving away from the PSP in the West due to perceived low games sales, for a niche publisher such as ourselves the relatively large proportion of JRPG fans owning the platform allowed us to enjoy several successful releases on PSP in the last couple of years.

DD: There are so many great Japanese games that are never localised. How do you determine which games will resonate in western markets?
AE: There are lots of factors we have to look at from the platform the game is available on, to the quality of the game itself. Beyond that we have traditionally had to rely on our knowledge of the PAL market and our experience with previous releases. While those things are still important today, the explosion of social media has opened up many new avenues for European gamers to get in touch with us and tell us which games they’d like us to release.

We realise that sometimes the desire for certain games among our community may not be wholly representative of the overall market but our fans have certainly influenced our decisions in the past.

DD: What role do you see localisation specialist publishers having in the future as self-publishing through platforms such as the iOS App Store becomes increasingly common?
AE: I think that localisation specialist publishers will continue to play an important role even with the rise of digital platforms. They bring local knowledge, not just of the local audience and customs, but also through their contacts with regional service providers, online marketplaces and hardware manufacturers.

DD: Fans of Japanese games in the west tend to have a very social community - with cosplay and the like. Is there opportunity there for Ghostlight to directly build a relationship with fans?
AE: Definitely. As I mentioned previously, the rise of social media has allowed us to get much closer to our community and to communicate directly with them. We currently have an active Facebook and Twitter community and we also post a weekly blog in which we update them with the latest news from Ghostlight. Not that it’s all one way traffic! We certainly listen closely to our fan base to see what their concerns and interests are, and to answer any questions they might have, of course.

We try and keep people interested in other ways and last month we started a feature on our blog in which a colleague of ours Tom (who just happens to be speak Japanese), rounds up some of the more interesting happenings on the Japanese gaming scene.

While at the moment we don’t attend many conventions or expos, as a company this is something we have been looking to change and our community manager, Ross, does attend several exhibitions each year and often meets with members of our community at these events.

DD: What are some of the most interesting games you have your eyes on at the moment?
AE: I was expecting that question. All I can say is that we’ve currently got our eyes on quite a few new games, but unfortunately we’re not in a position to name any names. Sorry!
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