There are no homogeneous markets for MMOs, warned Red 5 production VP Taewon Yun in his GDC China speech, laying out a number of translation and localization pitfalls and best practices for developers hoping to launch a game for a diverse and global audience.
Yun began by noting that while MMOs in the East and the West have similar origins, each region has taken very different paths. These differences are easily observed both in the art and the gameplay, shaped as they are by cultural differences. The differences even extend their influence to the business models, citing the preeminence of the free-to-play model in Asia.
In the East, he continued, MMOs are mainstream, and tend to be developed for the general public. In the West, they most usually cater to a niche of hardcore gamers -- a difference that becomes abundantly clear in comparing subscriber numbers.
If you want to succeed as MMO developer, Yun said, you have to take Asia into account and plan how to succeed here. If you don't, your potential market is greatly reduced.
One of the main differences and disruptions that the entrance of Asian countries, especially China, had in the MMO scene, noted Yun, was the possibility of selling virtual items for real money. The practice began with Ultima Online, where its ability to make free accounts led to the a huge number of low level players created in the region's net cafes specifically to gather and sell items. The situation completely altered the economics in the game, and is something that has been common ever since.
One of the main issues when launching an MMO in Asia, said Yun, is localization, warning that the idea extended far beyond mere translation. Developers have to localize context, expressions and even the gameplay and your business model, as tax systems and economic conditions can be very different.
There are not homogeneous markets, Yun stressed -- not in Asia, not in Europe, not even in the US, adding that it's extremely important when undertaking the localization and translation process to avoid hardcoding, and to be aware of cultural issues beyond the use of words. This process needs research and cross-cultural teams.
There are subtle differences that must be taken into account even inside the same language, he said, using differences in the Mandarin Chinese spoken in mainland China and Taiwan as an example, much in the same way as differences exist in English between the U.S. and UK.
On the cultural side, developers have to be careful not to assume that a successful franchise in one country will be met with the same success. If "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" is not going to win over the West, said Yun, developers can't assume that similar themes from the West will be understood in Asia.
Yun pointed to a number of changes Blizzard made with World of Warcraft as it localized for the East as good practices to follow. MMOs in Asia tend to be prepared to be controlled just with the mouse, for example, without requiring the keyboard. Because of this Blizzard spent a lot of time creating a controlling mechanism that used just the mouse, while keeping the keyboard functionality, so it would be easy to use for new users, and would allow them to discover the advantages of a keyboard over time.
Some of the models, too, had to be modified to Asian tastes for "beautiful" characters, something that had an observable impact on the game when the number of players playing the Alliance was much higher than those playing as the Horde.
Yun concluded by noting that his own company was founded with offices in both regions, as its idea of co-development between both studios eliminates the need for localization and brings about the best of both cultures.