The Language of Games: A look behind the scenes of localization with Nazih Fares

In this exclusive interview, Nazih Fares, Head of Communications & Localization at The 4 Winds Entertainment, shares his insights into the evolving landscape of game development and localization in the Middle East.

From addressing the challenges of Arabic game localization to discussing the potential of the region, Nazih offers valuable perspectives on navigating the complexities of the industry.

It is evident that there’s potential in the region, but should developers take more active decisions when it comes to considering players in the Middle East? Nazih believes that there is a promising trajectory of game development in the Middle East.

"The Middle East has witnessed remarkable growth in its game development scene, yet it remains largely untapped by global publishers. Embracing a more experimental approach could unlock immense potential for the region."

“Even though the local industry has truly matured in the past 10 years with the rise of local publishers, studios and more, it is still seen as an underserved territory globally. The reason behind that logic is because most global publishers base their decisions on proven record and analytics from previous years, using it as a base for business projections. This is a two-sided sword sadly, because on one part only a handful of companies have released enough games in the region to have enough datasets for a projection, while others are relying on open-source analysis or competitor comparisons.”

He emphasizes the importance of adopting a more experimental approach, advocating for smaller-scale projects to foster growth and innovation within the region.

He notes that there’s many misconceptions when it comes to Arabic Localization.

"Arabic is very much a different case... [due to] the complexity of the Arabic language on a national level and the technical aspect to implement it in all forms of digital content."

Despite being the fifth most spoken language globally, Arabic is notably absent in many games, including high-profile AAA titles. Fares expresses regret over this, stating, "It is rather unfortunate since the players' ability to grasp the genuine meaning of the game in their own language is greatly impacted by the language."

Fares emphasizes the necessity of modifying game language and conversations to reflect Arabic culture accurately. He explains, "English slang, idioms, and even grunt noises... cannot just be translated verbatim in Arabic." Striking a balance between pleasing local players and preserving the core narrative is a challenge, Fares notes.

Highlighting a lack of knowledge and refusal to learn about Arabic culture among developers, Fares underscores the importance of accurate representation. He states, "To still be represented in game as a stereotypical land of deserts and Bedouins, home to conflict and terrorism, or worst orientalism is immensely disrespectful."

Furthermore, Fares discusses the historical oversight of Arabic language support in game development infrastructure. He observes, "Arabic was overlooked when the West developed an infrastructure to support... European and Latin languages." This oversight, combined with technical issues, has delayed proper Arabic implementation in games.

“We’re seeing some changes with major publishers like Ubisoft properly representing the Abbasid era Baghdad, or our own company creating army operators from real Arabic troops like the Iraqi ISOF brigade in WW3, but those are the exceptions.”

He notes that because of these reasons this has delayed being able to properly implement the language in game with an engine not supporting Arabic, especially with publishers using their own proprietary tools.

Moving towards voice acting and localized dialogues, Fares points out some key considerations surrounding voiceover and dialogue localization. According to him, voiceovers represent a significant investment for publishers in localization efforts.

He notes, "Voiceovers are one of the biggest investments a publisher can make. They can be really expensive, especially for games with constant content drops." Additionally, Fares highlights the limited pool of talent available for voiceover work, particularly individuals who are well-versed in gaming culture.

As he points out, there’s another complexity: the diverse range of Arabic dialects. He explains, "With over 16 different Arabic dialects in the region... many publishers’ default to Modern Standard Arabic." While this dialect is widely understood, Fares suggests that the regional rivalries among Arabs can influence voiceover choices. He advocates for experimentation with different dialects to better reflect the personality of the game's characters.

Maintaining the delicate balance between staying true to the original game content and adapting it for local audiences is a complex task, as Nazih Fares explains.

He states, "At its essence, the balance primarily revolves around local age ratings and their jurisdictions." Fares points out the significance of organizations such as GCAM in KSA and NMC in UAE, which provide clear directives for effective localization in the region. These guidelines ensure that games can undergo localization without risking removal from shelves due to culturally insensitive content.

However, Fares acknowledges that regional regulations may necessitate some level of content censorship. He provides examples such as China's prohibition on depicting bare bones and the German market's requirement to depict blood in a color other than red. According to Fares, these restrictions are rooted in the values and cultures of each respective region.

Overall, Fares emphasizes the importance of respecting local regulations and cultural sensitivities when adapting game content. By doing so, developers can maintain the trust and respect of players while ensuring that their games resonate with diverse audiences worldwide.

In contemplating the impact of the expanding global gaming audience on the future of game localization, Fares holds a nuanced view, stating, "I personally don’t believe that game localization is affected by the audience nowadays, but by cost."

He highlights the prevailing reality within the industry, where financial considerations often outweigh audience preferences. Fares expresses concern over the increasing reliance on AI and automated localization solutions by publishers as a cost-saving measure. He predicts, "With the hype of AI as a tool, I foresee many publishers opting for AI solutions rather than hiring local talents."

Nazih raises an alarm about the implications of this trend, particularly for translators and quality assurance staff, who are among the least paid in the industry. He observes, "Many language service providers have already embraced this AI hype train."

He views this development with apprehension, given the potential ramifications for the quality and authenticity of localized gaming experiences.