Deconstructing the "localize it!" argument

By Matthew Emirzian / Originally published on Tactical Insights on January 31, 2012

In niche game communities you'll often find gamers who are frustrated that the foreign-language, mainly Japanese, games that they want to play aren't being localized in a language they understand. Unfortunately, this frustration can lead to irrational arguments as to why their favorite game should be localized or why it's not being localized. They start with the conclusion that game X must be localized and build their argument entirely around that premise, regardless of logic, reason, or evidence. Here are rebuttals to a number of their arguments which are frequently found on gaming forums and sometimes even on popular gaming blogs or portal sites.

1. Blame "lack of marketing" or "lack of effort". If only the world at large was made more aware of the game, it would fly off the shelves! "They didn't advertise or support it" is a popular scapegoat and whipping boy for poorly selling games. On the contrary, the game they want localized isn't unpopular because nobody's heard of it, it's unpopular because it's in a genre very few people care for, using art styles and plot/characters that don't appeal to the majority of the foreign markets, and possibly the game itself just isn't very good or appealing. Spending money on advertising is not going to expand a game beyond that core audience. Ironically this suggestion is self-destructive as marketing is very expensive and would likely push a proposed niche game further into the red while having little effect on sales. The related argument is that "game companies expect us to do the marketing work for them!" This is called word of mouth, and businesses of all kinds rely on it.

2. Grossly exaggerate the popularity of the genre, name recognition of the developer or series, or promote random obscure and mostly meaningless trivia. This argument is rarely used to promote a game, instead it's used when someone rational points out the reality of the situation and explains why a game would likely sell poorly, or why another game would likely sell better than the one they want. If the game you like is complex, difficult, turn-based, text/voice heavy, or licensing-heavy you're looking at an uphill battle convincing a company to localize it. In a recent example, I had Sting fans trying to tell me how popular and recognized the Sting brand name was, how "Dept. Heaven" was a known series, or how GBA Sting games being ported to PSP meant that Sting games sell well, all as proof that Gungnir would sell well or better than another PSP SRPG, Growlanser. Unfortunately, the almost complete lack of activity in Gungnir-related threads across the net tells a different story.

3. Claim that a few loud and persistent fans form a mass movement in support of a game. The difference between a "small but vocal" minority and a sizable group of people on a message board is the number of unique posters involved, which can usually be approximated by petitions. Localization petitions rarely garner enough support to gain attention, and thus will usually be dismissed as "useless". Localization petitions aren't ignored because they're "inherently useless", it's because the petitions in question only managed to get 100-200 unique people to sign it, or because of other considerations unrelated to popularity. Similarly, a game or series with an established IP, brand, and fanbase set in a popular genre would make a game a better localization candidate than a new IP from a less known developer in a less popular genre.

4. Vilify and demonize companies which don't localize the game(s) they want. This can also take the form of scapegoating certain high profile employees. These arguments are absurd and easily dismissible, yet unfortunately rather frequent and unmoderated. They'll make absurd claims that the company hates "their fans" and/or hates making money. Then there's the offensive claim that a Japanese company is motivated by racism and xenophobia in a "foreigners don't deserve our games" gambit. Namco, Capcom, Atlus, and Nintendo are especially favorite targets to vilify for not localizing or making certain games. I don't doubt that a few empty threats of violence make their way to the email inboxes of said companies, either.

5. Claim that game companies are forcing gamers to buy awful quality crap before they localize "the good stuff", holding it for ransom so to speak. This argument is especially silly when the two games or series in question are in completely different genres. It's not even enough that a game might be profitable or break even to be localized — it must also be more profitable than other games that can be localized in the same time frame. Localization staff at a company is limited, as are release windows, and a game in a popular series that will turn more of a profit than X niche title is going to be chosen first. If Nintendo has a choice between Fire Emblem and Super Mario Bros, they're going with Mario. If Namco has a choice between Tales of X and another Naruto game, they're going with Naruto. Similarly, just because they could "afford" to do it as a gesture of good will doesn't mean they will (in fact, they probably won't).

6. Claim that because a sequel is better quality than its previous poorly selling predecessor, that it deserves to be localized based on that merit alone. It's a basic tenet that businesses will to look at the sales of previous games to determine whether a future game is worth the financial risk and time investment. Regardless of whether the sequel was better than the previous game, it's up to the gaming public to prove there's enough interest in a sequel to be worth the extra risk of a follow-up sequel to a poorly selling game.
   A business will look at what has previously sold well to determine what to localize or create in the future. For example, FFT and TO are two of the best selling and most popular tactics series in North America, so smart businesses will be more likely to create or localize similar games to meet the perceived market demand. Only the most braindead fanboys will be unable to grasp this sort of simple business logic.

7. Claim that a J- or SRPG should be inexpensive to localize because it doesn't have a lot of text or voice acting, and thus low sales numbers should still result in a profitable game. J- and SRPGs still have a relatively huge amount of text compared to action games, shooters, racing games, etc. which are made even riskier by the relative unpopularity of the genres. That's not even getting into the usual costs of publishing a game. Cranking out multiple risky, low profit niche games per year isn't a safe venture.

There are other reasons why games are localized or not localized, such as licensing issues, contractual obligations, missed release windows, and the occasional shortsighted decision. Irrational "localize it!" arguments only end up poisoning the discourse with nonsense. At the end of the day, either you have the critical mass of support to get a publisher or developer's attention, or you don't. Instead it's a better idea to try to garner more legitimate, rational support or brush up on your Japanese.