Monday, August 03, 2009

Fan Translations

As I mentioned in my last post, playing MegaTen re-sparked my interest in "retro" gaming and online fan translations of our favorites that never made it overseas. It's funny to see how that "scene" has remained virtually unchanged in over 10 years. There are still people hex editing ROMs, there are still circa-1998-looking webpages that aren't updated that often, the patches are applied (of course) in the same way.

Now, these take forever because ten times out of ten they're fan-based projects, which means that a few people over the net, or sometimes one person all by him/herself are tackling the translation, the ROM hacking, the table editing and whatever else needs to be done. This is the work of normal people with real jobs and lives and probably less free time than you or I. However they find time to put in work on their labors of love, and for free.

The equivalent of a really complex fansub, these fan translations often take years, if they're ever completed at all. Hex editing - a term I mentioned above - is necessary, which means that games are a lot more difficult (technically) than your typical anime episode or movie. Compounded by the fact that games have no uniform way of being made, so when they're dumped into a file the structure is preserved. So if the company that made Game X in 1987 that you wish to translate, used some ghetto, wonky way of structuring its programming, then you may be in for a long road ahead before you even get to editing the text.

To make matters worse, a certain amount of memory/space is often allocated for text in any given game, and there's a big difference between English and Japanese. When writing as well as typing, whether you use one kanji or 5 letters to express a word, your brain is still counting them as 1 character and 5 characters, respectively. A computer is no different, despite the fact that I type "head" in English or "頭" in Japanese, the computer makes the distinction that "head" is 4 characters and "頭" is only one. A good example of this is Twitter. In 140 characters in Japanese you can basically type a paragraph, in English that expands to probably over 250 characters depending on what you're talking about. While this is in fact no problem when you're on Twitter, because tweets are unlimited, when you have a set length programmed/allocated for text in a game, you may be required to cram a complex thought into a small space in English, from the Japanese game. Obviously not wanting to reprogram the entire game around a translation, this is why older games often contain strange text or scripts that seem unfinished. (I'm not talking about Engrish here, more like SNES-era RPGs that have strange scripts - think FFIII(VI) )

So after years of hard work, not making a single pittance off of translating a game, why do these guys do it? "For the fun of it," or, "So other fans can enjoy it," much for the same reasons that fansubbers do the same with anime. But one comment on the Wiki entry for Mother 3 (known better as Earthbound in the states, only the 2nd title of the series has been released anywhere but Japan) struck me as odd. "1UP cited the initial low critical response and sales with the lack of an English release for Mother 3." Now, for one, in this day and age it's a well-established fact that there are games that do much better outside of their home country/demographic, especially those with an already built-in fan base - which Mother 2 had in spades. If you look at the fact that nearly every Final Fantasy game before the PS-era titles as well as now the Dragon Quest series has been re-re-re-released for portable systems, people will buy remakes, there's a whole new generation out there waiting to try these rumored titles they've heard so much about, and finally if people love a series and you release titles that have yet been released in that region, people. will. buy. it. No matter how low the critical response was, people will buy the damned game for two reasons: 1) they loved Earthbound, if they see more titles from that series, most will buy it out of sheer curiosity & 2) It's a Nintendo in-house-made title. Most first-party Nintendo titles are explosively popular, often because they're good. Obviously there have been bad titles, but I can guarantee you that Pokemon Dash paid itself off.

Which brings me to my next point. Why the hell not? Localizing something like Policenauts or Snatcher now, unless in a compilation for a new system, would probably not make fiscal sense. However, every other week a Sega compilation of crappy 16 bit titles or Monkey Island or one of a dozen older games comes out in downloadable form. But if these people/groups that translate these titles out of their "love of the game" just want to see them released to the public, why not just pay them a small amount of money for their work, release it and make everyone happy? Obviously there's more to it than just that, but the company has minimal financial output beyond localization, especially if you're quietly releasing a title without any real advertising budget behind it. And now you can release a "risky" title with viral and word-of-mouth marketing that costs next to nothing.

As bizarre as it seems that no one has really indulged that idea as of yet, companies are actually still showing opposition to things like this. I recently ran across a few Chinese-made games on iTunes, one of which had a blatant ripoff of Wario of Nintendo fame, and the other was a ripoff in total of Mr Driller, by Namco. They're still there months later, making money for what amounts to pirates, after reporting this to both Nintendo and Namco's legal departments, who could've easily killed both games. But in recent years companies have threatened to sue fan translation groups, and in a unique case the asshats at Square-Enix have threatened legal action against a group that started doing an amazing 3-D remake of Chrono Trigger. Why would you not hire, or at the very least, comission the work of these talented people? They could totally do what most free-market economies are predicated upon: Buy someone who is talented's work for a minimal amount of money, exploit them and make piles of cash from it.

Everybody wins in a situation like I just described. The company has a minimal fiscal risk, the fans get a localized version of a potentially great game and the translators get to do what they love and get somewhat remunerated (read: happily screwed) for it.

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