Culturalization is a gigantic part of game development. The best way to make sure your game will work in another country and culture is to adapt it to the people living there. Language, according to several experts, is just the beginning of that process.
“Language is the bare minimum,” said Facebook Audience Network’s Hahn Kim, citing a study the social media company had conducted. “Culturalization is adapting a games look, feel, and tone to a market’s value and belief system.”
Kim was part of the Reaching International Audience: The Importance of Culturalizing Games and Campaign panel at the Driving Game Growth: A GamesBeat and Facebook Summit. He was joined by Jam City’s Brian Sapp and Imangi Studios’ Walter Devins. The panel’s moderator was Geogrify’s Kate Edwards.
They discussed the topic of culturalization and what it means for game studios to bring their experiences to other cultures, beyond translating the words in their games. The main point the panel kept returning to is that culturalization must happen on multiple levels in order to truly be effective.
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Two of those levels include in-game mechanics and monetization—how can they be adapted to specific cultures? “Many games in the West monetize through gacha mechanics. If you bring those same mechanics to Japan, Japanese players expect more free gacha’s in their experience,” Sapp said. “When we look at Japan, we asked ourselves if this game is designed well for that audience.”
All the panelists agreed that culturalization, which can be described as a deeper form of localization, happens at all levels of a game — including the gameplay systems, controls, narrative, language, and in-game economy. It’s similar to localization, although that term often focuses mainly on language on not the other elements listed above.
Studios may need to change the structure of their product if they want to find success in another culture. For example, a game with 5 minutes of narrative and story before the tutorial might be enjoyed more by Japanese players than U.S. players. The developer may want to change the tutorial placement before launching in the U.S.
Those changes, however, are an opportunity cost for most studios. Sometimes culturalization may not be worth it, according to Sapp. A narrative game, like Jam City‘s Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, may take too much work to effectively culturalized due to how much text there is and how centralized the IP is in the West.
Other games with a lower barrier to entry, like Fortnite or Clash Royale, are another story. Those can be much easier to culturalize — but special attention to detail still needs to be paid when trying to add levels, characters, and other elements that are specific to various regions and cultures.
“We wanted to develop a map called the lost jungle,” Devins, whose studio develops the popular endless runner Temple Run. “We wanted to be culturally sensitive, but the gameplay hasn’t changed in any of the versions of our game.”
Devins said that they had to be careful when adding tattoos to characters and religious symbols to their game in order to be sensitive to cultures in places like India. “Now we have a huge audience [there],” he added.
Culturalization can have negative effects if not handled well. Poor QA on lower-end devices and an overall lazy effort can lead to negative reviews and a loss in users, according to both Kim and Sapp.
ABC QA tests on a range of devices and hiring staff in the regions you’re trying to culturalize for are almost “bullet-proof” ways of making sure a game is properly prepared for a specific culture. But one of the most important aspects of culturalization starts at home.
“You have to admit there is a lot we don’t know,” Devins said. “I think a good summation of it starts with trying to learn what we don’t know.”
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