‘Gaming Jesus” is ready to give the 8-4 tour. “It won’t take long,” he promises. The office that houses his game localization company is quite cozy.
A small sign bearing the 8-4 logo greets visitors just inside the door, and to the immediate left are various gaming-related things, including game cases from past projects. Mark MacDonald (“come: follow Gaming Jesus,” the 41-year-old’s Twitter bio beckons) is executive director at 8-4. He raises an arm and gestures to his left, where desks and computers occupy the brief expanse before the wall on the other end of the room: “That’s the tour,” MacDonald declares, drawing smiles from a few coworkers.
The company does a lot of big things from this small office, situated on the second floor of a gray building in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. It mainly localizes video games, repackaging them from Japanese into English.
“The overall company philosophy is doing cool (stuff) between Japan and the West in the game industry … whatever that is,” MacDonald says.
Focusing on game localization at first — 8-4’s first project in 2005 was to make “Mario Tennis: Power Tour” understandable to North American gamers — the company has branched out into other services since. As it approaches its 10th anniversary on Oct. 5, 8-4 is now involved in publishing games in Japan and setting up Japanese speakers for the Game Developers Conference in California. It also takes part in various public relations projects within the industry. However, localization is still at the core of the business.
Game localization is often overlooked by casual fans when it’s done well. But when it’s executed poorly, it can turn a company into a laughing stock. Past titles with notable gaffes include Nintendo’s 1986 offerings “Pro Wrestling” — with the phrase “A winner is you” — and “Ikari Warriors” — “You are the very prevailer that protect right and just.” And in 1991, the Mega Drive game “Zero Wing” infamously (or famously) gave us the phrase: “All your base are belong to us.”
“Growing up and having just really badly translated games, some of which have become famous as funny Internet memes and things like that — when you were a kid and into these games, it was actually really annoying,” MacDonald says. “It was like, ‘What did this really say? I can’t even understand what it’s trying to tell me.’ ”
Therefore, 8-4’s main objective is to ensure a smoother transition in bringing a video game to a new country, with regards to both language and culture-specific references.
“I think the goal for localization is that, if someone didn’t know better, they’d think (the game) was created in the country it was localized for,” MacDonald says. “There’s no, ‘Huh?’ No parts where you cock your head and you’re like, ‘OK this sounds weird … that doesn’t make any sense.’ ”
The crew at 8-4 doesn’t advertise its services. There wasn’t even a website for the company until a few years ago. Instead, it relies largely on word of mouth and reputation. This approach has worked, as evidenced by a past client list that includes big hitters such as Nintendo, Capcom and Konami, as well as smaller studios.
Making sure Japanese games can be understood and marketed overseas is a painstaking task. Localization is more than just translation, it’s perfecting every nuance and detail in a game’s script — from the accents and slang of a particular character, time period or setting, to the game’s menus and maps — and presenting it in a way someone from outside Japan can relate to, but also in the way the game developer originally intended.
When 8-4 accepts a project, the first step in the process is often gathering information from the client.
“We ask them for everything,” MacDonald says. “Give us everything, every cocktail napkin, sketch, every internal document that explains how the game works.”
When possible, the group assigned to the project also asks for a version of the game to play.
“Ideally, what we then do at that phase is play the crap out of the game to really know it backward and forward,” MacDonald says.
Playing the game helps staffers spot potential problem spots. It also provides a foundation for maintaining the essence of the story while finding cultural equivalents for things that might be normal to a Japanese audience but alien to Western eyes and ears.
“You come up with a glossary, a framework and plan for the project,” MacDonald says. “You go through any proper nouns, place names, people’s names, item names … all of that stuff, and come up with a coherent vision for the world of the game.”
And that’s only the beginning. It’s then time to work through the game’s main scenario, tackle any side quests or optional sections, and work through system files, error messages and so on.
Depending on what 8-4 is contracted to do for a particular client, projects can take anywhere from days to a year to complete. At any one time, the company might have between a dozen to two dozen projects ongoing — currently, MacDonald says they are tackling 10. That’s a lot of work for a company with just seven full-time employees, even when freelancers are sometimes brought in.
“We’ve intentionally stayed small so that we can focus on quality and not on management and those kinds of things,” he says.
MacDonald was one of 8-4’s first employees, but the company was founded by Hiroko Minamoto and John Ricciardi back in 2005. Both had worked in localization before, but decided to strike out on their own so they could call the shots.
Ricciardi is likely familiar to many gamers from his time at popular magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly (EGM) and later 1up.com. MacDonald, a former EGM and 1up editor, first joined his former coworker and Minamoto on a part-time basis during a trip to Japan. Things worked out so well he stayed on.
The name of the company itself is a gaming reference, a nod to the final level of Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.”
“We’re all big gamers,” MacDonald says. “We don’t do anything outside of games. We do stuff outside of localization, but we don’t translate washing machine manuals or TV or anything like that, unless it has something to do with games.
“The reason that we’re doing this is because we love games. Localization is one way that we’ve found to make a contribution (to the gaming community) that uses our skills and that we enjoy doing.”
This passion for video games means this week’s Tokyo Game Show is something akin to Christmas for the gang at 8-4. MacDonald is a TGS veteran at this point, and says he’s excited to see what’s in store.
“One of the big buzzwords in the industry lately has been VR (virtual reality) … and to a lesser extent AR (augmented reality),” he says. “I’m really curious to see the Japanese industry’s take on that.
“I’m hoping we get to see a few things. At E3, Capcom had this ‘Kitchen’ demo, kind of like a horror type deal, and I still haven’t seen it. A lot of people literally take off the VR headset because they get so scared. I’m hoping that will be there, that the Japanese audience will get to really play it.”
MacDonald says he’s mostly interested in the different ways Japanese companies and creators could approach VR.
“The Japanese industry usually has a different angle,” he says. “A unique angle compared to America and Europe, (which are) a little bit different from each other but are (in general) more similar.”
Mobile games are likely to have a large presence at TGS, especially since Japan is a major mobile market. As that field continues to evolve, MacDonald says he always looks forward to seeing what advances are being made. However, what he’s looking forward to most is simply satisfying his own curiosity.
“I’m more a console gamer from way back,” MacDonald says. “I’m really interested to see what new stuff (will be at TGS) — the next ‘Monster Hunter’ game, the next ‘Persona’ game, any stuff from Atlus … and Sega sometimes has some things that only ever come out in Japan. Personally, I’m always excited about those things.”
For more information on 8-4, visit www.8-4.jp. Tokyo Game Show takes place at Makuhari Messe in Chiba from Sept. 17 to 20. The event is open to the public on Sept. 19 and 20. For more information, visit expo.nikkeibp.co.jp/tgs/2015.
The must-sees at this year’s Tokyo Game Show
The annual video-gaming extravaganza that is the Tokyo Game Show has descended upon Chiba’s Makuhari Messe convention center yet again. As usual, there is plenty to keep visitors busy.
One thing I recommend checking out is PlayStation VR, Sony’s foray into virtual reality. There were 10 titles on display for the VR headset, including Capcom’s virtual horror title “Kitchen,” a neat demo in what has to be the worst kitchen ever, and a demo from Sega that takes you to a virtual concert starring digital pop star Hatsune Miku.
Other highlights at the show include playable versions of “Monster Hunter Cross” from Capcom and Sega’s “Phantasy Star Online: 2.”
Aspiring zombie hunters can also head over to the “Biohazard” (known as “Resident Evil” in the West) section of Capcom’s space and take part in a shooting range where fans can take aim at zombie cardboard cutouts.
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