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Surviving Audio Localization

February 14, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

3. Video Subtitling & QA

3.1 In-Game Subtitling

We subtitle games for hearing impaired players and so that gamers give their ears a break. Also because you won’t sell many games in Europe or Asia if they’re not at least partially localized (meaning original dialogue with subtitle).

In some countries, French Canada and France for example, you need a French version if you want your game on shelves. Partial localization is also way cheaper than full (because of the 50 to 70% budget). So you’d better anticipate and have your programming team adapt the engine (tags linking text and audio so when dialogue plays, its corresponding text is displayed on screen). Additionally, it needs to adapt to all writing systems depending on markets you target.

So if you plan on having subtitles it’s best to let your user interface lead know. You need sufficient space for the text (horizontally and vertically – don’t forget there are a lot of diacritical characters and that some of them are 2,000 year old ideograms). Some languages also read vertically or from right to left – think Hebrew or Arabic for instance (do not mock small markets). Be positive: it could be worse if hieroglyphs were still used. Check if all alphabets are supported in the fonts you use (TTF or bitmaps – uppercases AND lowercases).


















Figure 7: Castilian diacritical characters (caps and lowercases)

3.2 Pre-Rendered Subtitling

High res video subtitling works a little bit differently. To start with, you don’t have enough disc space to physically duplicate videos (per language) nor can they remain in their original format (huge files): you will use a smaller format set to play different channels depending on the selected language (like in Bink).

Unfortunately, this (very practical) option doesn’t work for subtitles and text cannot be image-inlayed like it is in traditional subtitling (it would create as many duplicated files as you have languages). So the engine needs to call a one text file that will display text based on time code (as opposed to single audio files calling single bits of text in-game). Again, high res do not feature too much dialogue so we’re not talking Twelve Labours.

You also want to be careful with annoying things such as PAL vs. NTSC (if settings are not right, image or sound can lag). Last but not least, run some tests on the font you’re planning to use, the minimum of which being legibility (all the more if you develop or port on PSP. Its 16/9 screen remains small).

Remember: video game subtitling is different from movies. Only a fraction of dialogue is actually subtitled in movies or television (again the critical path) mainly because our ability to differentiate between syllables and words and associate meaning before processing the information is faster than that of our eyes.

Developers don’t have the time to create real subtitles – the adaptation time is significant. So they came up with text that comes and goes (or rolls) along with the audio creating a rhythm that is not very natural. So renounce fancy fonts that will display poorly or dribble on regular TVs.

3.3 Audio QA

Organization & Process

We’ll go through this quickly as there’s enough to cover on linguistic testing for a standalone article (hopefully soon to be ready!). However tempting this may be, skipping linguistic testing is not a good idea. No matter how well organized you were and how stable your build is, you will have localization specific bugs and other functionality issues impacting all versions to deal with. There is no such thing as a bug free build and eventually you’ll need to waive some.

Linguistic QA requires a lot of expert resources, equipment and a bullet-proof process so that testing and debugging move along smoothly. Very few developers or publishers are set up to carry it out in-house (I believe only Nintendo is). You need testers that are not solely natives from all the countries where your game will be released but also fine grammarians / proofread specialists and that’s no piece of cake. Then you need to sit everyone next to a debug kit and a pc to enter bugs in a database, burn them copies and provide them guidance and documentation.

Let’s assume your game is small (if so, one tester per language is enough) and localized only in four languages; it’s still four debug kits and PCs less for functionality testing (times the number of platforms). It also requires a lot of flexibility (late or night shifts are not unusual), so unless you have C3PO droids working around the clock, you will need to outsource at some point.

Working with a QA contractor means coming up with a solid QA plan so that testing time is optimized. You might want to continue working with the localization agencies that ran translations and recordings in the first place, but they are not necessarily staffed to meet urgent requests. One of the biggest challenges for outsourcers is responsiveness: things rarely turn out as expected in this line of work and you cannot expect every company to gather a 15 German SWAT within 2 hours.

And you don’t want those 15 German testers to idle (while getting paid) because you’re late on your next build or it crashes. Plus, that means dealing with as many localization agencies as you have languages and sending x builds to the other side of the world will make your security and data managers go bananas.

You may also choose to hire a company specialized in QA: they have bigger resources, provide tech support, consoles and PCs (and chairs…) and deal more easily with emergency demands (and with some clients’ lunacy). You also get results for all languages at the same time which is helpful.

In either case, vendors need to be prepared: they must get their hands on a U.S. version to get familiar with the game’s content and mechanics. They need to know what you want them to do and they need a rough schedule so they can arrange for resources.

That said you also need to clear all security issues beforehand. Have them sign a non disclosure agreement and check their facilities and set up (remember you may also work on an IP that’s not yours or on a movie tie-in and you don’t want the plot to leak). Provide them with a detailed walkthrough (with cheats) and other support documentation such as the as recorded script.

If your game is multiplatform you might just as well test the main first. Chances are that fixing those bugs will prevent duplicates from pullulating in your database. Have the other platforms tested once those first bugs have been fixed. Arrange your schedule so that you have enough debugging time and resources between testing rounds. Linguistic QA is expensive: between 20 to 50 euros an hour depending on languages (late and night shifts cost more).

Bugs Categories

Explain how you want the bugs to be referenced and how you wish them to be described. Here are a few examples of audio bugs:

- Audio file not playing:

This might happen for several reasons: file name issue, file was overlooked during integration or is still in post production etc.. It can also be a volume issue if the mix isn’t final yet. If it’s an insignificant one liner, it’s not really a problem but all of your critical path must play.

- Audio not playing in a pre-rendered video:

Check channels assigned to languages etc.

- Audio playing in English or in the wrong language:

Again this may be an integration issue or setup in the sound data.

- Wrong audio:

This one is annoying, especially if the wrong line is totally out of context or if the video dialogue has not been correctly edited.

Please note that the categories listed above are likely to jeopardize your submission success. But other joyful issues will arise such as lags (usually in the US version as well), scratches and volume problems etc. (due to negligence or a simple build burn issue). Subtitles will bring headaches because they display their ID tag instead of the text or won’t display, or display out of synch etc. You need to prioritize especially at this time when your dev team is already buried under work: the last thing they want to hear about is another localization overload.

Assess if fixing the bug is essential: some are really not worth it and you’re better off with a “will not fix.” All the more once you have a solid master candidate, ready to go through its last functionality testing before it’s sent for approval.


Audio plays a big part in localization’s appreciation. Well translated lines, adapted jokes and sound casting will show local gamers that you care for them. The market has to grow and we need to struggle to get the best quality for all countries.

Studios and publishers need to get ready: with the expected inflation of storyline content and sky-high costs of next gen developing, localizing audio will get riskier and much more expensive. Investing time and money in tools, process and fruitful business relationships with outsourcers will become mandatory. Royalties and fee issues will also generate tensions with actors’ unions and eventually a deal will have to be brokered. Best if we address those issues now.

Should you have any comments or questions, feel free to email me.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 6

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