Localization vs. Culturalization
When we design games or apps, we optimistically strive for an experience that can have widespread appeal, crossing geographical boundaries and gaining legions of fans in numerous countries. It’s an admirable goal to have a game that can be enjoyed by so many people, yet achieving widespread success often requires considering numerous factors that can make a game or app suitable for multiple markets. As one would expect, language is often a primary factor to consider. A user whose native language is English may be unwilling to purchase a game that features a language he cannot understand, so developers and publishers try to accommodate that user by creating a version of the game with translated content. But is addressing language enough?
This is the focus of a debate about two processes: localization and culturalization. While localization is more commonly used, culturalization can often be much more effective in certain circumstances, because it goes beyond simply meeting language needs to address cultural distinctions.
Localization: The Efficient Translations Approach
Localization is primarily about translations. We see localization all around us in translated books, foreign films, programs, and apps. When you watch a foreign language film that features translated subtitles, you are watching a movie that has been localized. When you use software that prompts you to select your country of origin and preferred language, and then modifies the content accordingly, it is most likely a product that has been localized.
Localization is used as a quick, efficient way to increase sales of a product. While it is generally sufficient, it is lacking in certain ways, because it doesn’t fully address cultural differences that are specific to certain regions.
Culturalization: The Culturally Aware Approach
Culturalization encompasses localization techniques, but goes many steps further, looking into how multicultural audiences may respond to a product and its contents. It involves a more thorough approach, using local experts to inform, educate, and guide the process with their knowledge of the culture and context. When using culturalization techniques to develop games, we look into many factors including color scheme, artwork, user experience, sounds, and language, questioning how a particular audience may respond to these various elements. What may be suitable for the Western market, for example, may not work as well for another market. The experiences that may be intuitive for one audience may be challenging for another audience.
Draw A Stickman: Epic is an example of how we successfully used culturalization to appropriately meet consumer needs and expectations in multiple markets. Draw a Stickman comes in two versions: a global version and a Chinese version. Whereas the global version employs localization techniques, presenting a consistent experience regardless of whether the user lives in the United States, Italy, or Russia, the Chinese version is noticeably different, because it was designed through culturalization processes.
For the Chinese version of Draw a Stickman, we took an adaptive approach, modifying the characters, background, language, and more to better fit Chinese culture. We looked beyond basic design elements and explored differences in player behavior. For example, our research showed that Chinese players preferred more detailed and explicit instructions, so we ensured that our tutorials were more thorough in the Chinese version. Another example is our awareness of the social media platforms that consumers use. While Facebook and Twitter are popular in most parts of the world, in China the preferred social media platforms are WeChat and Sina Weibo, so we modified the game’s social integration tools appropriately.
Anticipatory research and planning is key to the culturalization process, and rightfully so. Launching an app or game is a critical event, and one where most companies cannot afford to be reactive following a mistake or weak consumer response. This is a proactive approach. Localization has its merits—primarily that it is efficient—but culturalization techniques can often be far more rewarding for both companies and consumers. It is more complex and involved than localization, but it is more likely to strike a positive chord with audiences.