I can’t wait to see this, and not only because it includes my short-short The Lemmings and the Sea. I was intrigued by the concept ever since Robin Laws approached me to write something. I remember reading a children’s edition of Aesop’s Fables at the age of about seven, and being amazed at how insightful they were (even if I couldn’t have articulated that thought back then) as well as loving all the talking animals. I loved having the chance to try my hand at writing something in the same style. But mainly, I just can’t wait to see what the other 69 contributing authors have done.
The roster includes some big names from the gaming world like Greg Stafford, Ed Greenwood, Sandy Petersen, and John Kovalic, as well as writers like Matt Forbeck, Jonathan Howard, and Chuck Wendig. It’s a wide and eclectic group of people, each of whom is bound to come up with something great. I’m proud to be among such company.
The book looks nice, too – a satisfyingly chunky hardback with a lion and an aardvark gold-stamped into the cover underneath a simple but appealing dustjacket. Rachel Kahn’s internal art has a light touch that is perfect for the subject matter.
I’m told that an announcement about North American distribution is expected any day now. I really hope it will be in time for Christmas-gifting on this side of the Atlantic.
I have worked as a localization editor on a half-dozen or so projects ranging from an MMORPG being imported from Asia to mobile phone games whose code and initial text were developed in eastern Europe. Here are a few things these projects have taught me, both as a writer/editor and as a freelancer.
1. Know What You’re Getting Into
Or more specifically, how much you’re getting into. The client may quote you a number of entries, but the number of entries is only a very rough guide to the amount of work required. Quite apart from the amount of editing the text requires, the number of entries gives you no real idea of the starting word count. Depending on the platform an entry may be as short as 2-3 words or as long as a half-dozen paragraphs.
There’s nothing wrong with being paid by the entry, so long as you know how many words there are in the average entry – if you don’t, you could be letting yourself in for a lot more work than you expect, and a lot more than you quoted for. Always get a word count when you can. – or better still, sign a non-disclosure agreement and look at the work before you agree a price. If neither of these is possible, negotiate an hourly rate.
2. Learn to Love Excel
This kind of task is almost always done in Excel rather than Word. Excel is not the friendliest environment for text editing, but it does support automated uploading of text to the game program, and that is why producers prefer it for this purpose.
For reasons that will be made clear later, there is no way around this. Excel – learn it, love it, live with it. The alternative – if there is one – may be some home-brewed text management system, and they are usually far less friendly even than Excel.
3. Establish Word and Character Length Limits
Before starting work, ask the client if there are any limitations on the number of words (or, more usually, the number of characters, including spaces and punctuation) in an entry or type of entry. In general, the smaller the screen on the target platform, the more likely it is that character count will be an issue.
Once you know the maximum character length for an entry, here is a neat trick that will have Excel monitor the character count for you:
- Enter the maximum number of characters in a cell to the right of the edited text.
- In the next column, enter “=LEN(A1)” where A1 is the cell with the edited text. This column will display the actual character count for the text in cell A1.
- In the next column, enter “=IF(B1-C1>0; “OK”; “Too long”)” where B1 is the cell displaying the maximum character count from step 1 and C1 is the cell displaying the actual character count from step 2. This cell will now display “OK” or “Too long” according to the number of characters in cell A1, so you can see at a glance whether you are within the limit.
- You can copy these three cells into the entire column and Excel will automatically update row numbers as required.
4. Beware of Codes and Macros
Some of the original text may include codes for paragraph breaks, special characters, fonts, and so forth. Always get a list from the client to avoid deleting them by mistake, so that you can enter them correctly in the edited text, and so you can spot errors. The client may tell you not to worry about this, but you should. Original text may also include macros of various sorts, which will be attached to the spreadsheet cells in which the text appears and will not normally be visible. These can be lost if, for example, you copy the text into Word for editing and then copy it back into Excel.
5. Show Your Work
Unless the client insists otherwise (which may be because of macros) use a new column for the edited/rewritten text, so that the original and edited text can be examined side by side. This will help the client in the event that your editing turns out to be based on a misinterpretation of the meaning of the original. Original text can sometimes be ambiguous. If this is not possible, highlight the cells in which you have changed text by using a different background or text color.
6. Edit, Don’t Write
The product is already made, and the story is set. No matter how much you think you could improve the story, do not rewrite to change story elements, as this can cause problems. Just fix up the text. But see below.
7. Look for Cultural References
A game that is imported from overseas will probably use metaphors from its language and culture of origin, and these may be literally translated. There will almost certainly be other cultural references, included knowingly or otherwise. Here are a couple of examples:
A game developed in Asia may refer to rice cakes instead of rations; this is easy to fix, provided you check it with the client first. There could be art or other ramifications to changing the word without telling anyone.
A game from Russia may have tough guys calling other characters “darling” regardless of gender. This does not imply anything about the speaker’s sexuality, because terms of endearment are often used ironically in the Russian vernacular; instead, it implies a put-down. The phrase will have to be changed for an American audience, to something less ironic and more directly insulting.
If you are lucky (and the text is clean) most of what you don’t understand in the original text will be some kind of cultural reference. Ask at the outset whether you will have access to the overseas writers and/or a locally-based speaker of the original language, so you can clear up any questions or problems quickly.
8. Eschew Exuberant Punctuation
In Asia, particularly, it is common to use multiple sentence ending punctuation marks, especially question marks and exclamation points, to convey emphasis. The text can look like a written version of the archetypal screaming Japanese game show host, and this may not be the desired tone for the game. Check with the client first, but as a rule only use single sentence end punctuation and convey emphasis through word choice and sentence construction.
9. Typos are a Universal Language
At the start of the project, get a definitive list of character, place, and creature names from the client. There is no guarantee that they will be spelled consistently in the original text. If in doubt, query. A dargon may be a mis-spelled dragon, or it may be a completely different creature.
10. Clear Name Changes in Advance
Sometimes a name will have to be changed, either because it is too similar to another name in the game (like the dragon and dargon example above), or because it has a sound or meaning in English that is laughable or runs counter to the game’s intended tone in some other way (for example, a spell that conjures a scalding explosion of steam may be called Wet Bang in the original text). Be aware, too, that the original text may be the work of multiple translators, each with their own way of rendering names into English. The Dark Wood and the Forest of Gloom could be the same place.
Always run suggested changes by the client before making them in the text, as the original names may be tied to art and code entities and those links may be broken if the change goes unnoticed. Also, you may not be the only editor on the job – especially if it is an MMORPG with tens of thousands of lines of text – in which case the client will need to juggle the input of multiple contract editors. The sooner you get your suggestion in, the more likely it is to be the one that sticks.
The core gameplay involved strategy and resource management as the player tried to complete a castle on schedule. More workers made the work go faster – provided you got the mix of skills right – but guards were also needed in case of an attack by unfriendly locals.
All well and good. But what made this game special in my eyes was the way it integrated interactive stories. Every so often a screen would pop up showing an adviser or other character asking the player to make a decision. Vikings are attacking elsewhere in the kingdom! Do you: (a) ignore them (they raid and loot, and your revenue goes down); (b) send troops (leaving less to guard your castle); or (c) buy them off with Danegeld (expensive, and may lead to other Vikings showing up later to demand money).
Mechanically, it was a piece of cake. In terms of design, a storyline was no less taxing than a conversation tree in a Monkey Island style adventure game or a short section from a numbered-paragraph gamebook. But I always felt that the little stories added a lot to the game, and I’ve often wondered why no one else has used this cheap and effective technique. RTS games continued to emphasize building and resource management, but their storylines became more linear as their cutscenes and other narrative elements became more expensive to create. I imagine the prevailing thinking was that it would be wasteful to create narrative animations or video clips that the player might not see because of a decision made earlier in the game.
Visually, there’s no question that subsequent generations of RTS games were – and still are – far ahead of Castles. The stories, while more linear, are richer as well. But something about this humble little mechanic still charms me. It’s interactive storytelling, albeit on a modest scale, and even that small amount of interactivity added something to the game that was out of proportion to its cost. To me, it was a good mechanic that disappeared not because a better mechanic came along, but because no one figured out how to make it work with cutting edge visuals.
Now don’t get me wrong; I love good-looking games. But when the choice arises to create better gameplay or better visuals, is gameplay underserved? Visuals have that instant impact – great screen shots, jaw-dropping trailers – that serves a marketing function as well as making the game better. Gameplay is harder to see without actually playing the game, which no one will do unless they have been inspired to buy it – probably by jaw-dropping visuals. Word of mouth happens, to be sure, but it takes time, and in today’s release-driven market two or three other games with jaw-dropping visuals have started to hog the limelight by the time the word of mouth on your game has had a chance to build.
I’m not really sure where I’m going with this train of thought. Not into an anti-art, anti-marketing, design purist rant, because I know that making a great game without marketing it is like smiling in the dark: very nice for you, but who else cares? I know that all the elements of a game – design, art, audio, engineering – have to work together in order to make something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and I know that in order to achieve that, compromises have to be made in all areas. I guess I’m wondering whether anyone from a discipline other than design or writing has any similar regrets.