The Yakuza series has come a long way since 2005, when Sega figured the best way to get people interested outside of Japan was to enlist the voice acting talents of high-profile Hollywood talent like Michael Madsen, Eliza Dushku, and Mark Hamill. Despite a huge marketing push, Yakuza flopped.
It remained enormously popular in Japan, however.
In the last few years though, starting with 2017's Yakuza 0, the series has left its niche behind. It's to the point that the game's latest release, the RPG-influenced Yakuza: Like a Dragon, has been heavily promoted as one of the launch games for the new Xbox machine. Suddenly, Yakuza is being used to help sell consoles.
Part of Yakuza's appeal is that it feels unlike anything else in games—calling it quirky and weird would be both accurate and a massive understatement. That makes the job of a localizer all the more important, because they have to balance making a game with a very specific sense of style make sense for a larger audience, without losing its special magic.
By all accounts, Sega has managed to do that over and over with Yakuza.
I recently had a chance to talk with Yakuza: Like a Dragon localization producer Scott Strichart, who started in QA at Atlus, working on games like 3D Dot Game Heroes and Trauma Center. We talked about the difference between localization and translation, how the localization team works with the Japanese developers to make changes, the ways localization has become more important to games, and a lot more.
VICE Games: How did you get started in localization, and what about it remains appealing to you?
Scott Strichart: I have a creative writing background, and in the summer of 2007, I was really poor after completing a teaching credential program, and found that local video game publisher, Atlus, was hiring localization editors. I applied and got offered a position… in QA. But I took it, and after completing my first project, I passed their editing test, and was set on the path I am now, never looking back at my teaching credential. Except to be amused that it’s signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s then-governor.
But what’s kept me in it for 13 years is a longstanding love of Japanese games and the excitement that’s never faded in how I feel about them. They shaped me in a lot of ways, and here I am at Sega / Atlus, with an entire lineup of “Made and set in Japan” content that we put out with the same confidence as our counterparts in the Western side of the business. From Persona, SMT (Shin Megami Tensei), and 13 Sentinels, to Yakuza, Sakura Wars, and Puyo Puyo, we’ve carved such a Japan-forward space out of the market that I’m just consistently psyched about.
I know this is a pretty basic question, but it comes up a lot when I write about these topics: what do you consider the difference between translation and localization? How has that difference applied more generally to your work and then, more specifically to Yakuza?
I consider translation to be the mechanical definition of taking words from one language and putting them in another, and this makes sense in the context of documents and literature, to some extent, but not so much with media. Localization stacks on top of translation in that it wants the person experiencing the product in the target language to have the same experience that was offered in the source. And that means modifying the target to balance the source’s literal meaning and authenticity with intent and accessibility.
You take Yakuza, and the authenticity is pretty high, because it’s made and set in Japan and expects that its players already know a yakuza family hierarchy and the associated terminology, proper cabaret club etiquette, how much yen something costs, etc. It’s our job to figure out what parts of that are fine just the way they are for a player in the West because they can accept that Japan is going to feel a little foreign to them, and what parts make the game a lesser experience for them if we didn’t make adjustments, or at least build a bridge to it.
We generally lean heavily toward keeping it as authentic as we can, because we expect that people getting a game called Yakuza are generally going to want an authentic Japanese experience, right? But we are always looking for the parts that need us, whether that’s a slight shift in the dialog or revamping a whole minigame, as we had to do for the chat minigames in Yakuza 6. It’s really on the little details that we struggle, like, should we accept that maybe people know what katsudon is at this point or keep calling it a pork bowl…
I imagine each project presents its own localization quirks and challenges. Was there a particularly memorable one with Like a Dragon, something that you still think about now?
I mostly think about the karaoke; I still have the raw mixes sitting in a folder on my desktop, because it feels weird to delete the culmination of that work. The idea of translating the songs was something I rejected as impossible when the suggestion came up just two games ago when we realized how much context we were leaving on the floor with songs like Today is a Diamond in Yakuza 6. And here we are, not only having translated and adapted six songs, but had English-speaking actors sing those adaptations, the studio mix them, and now there’s two versions of every song in the game. It’s funny though, you never imagine yourself a songwriter until one day you find you have to be one. That’s localization for you.
One of the big shifts in the video game industry is the move away from regional releases to simultaneous worldwide releases. Yakuza, however, is one of the rare series that is released in Japan first. How does that change the localization process? Does it give you a chance to see some of the fan reaction in other regions, and does that end up influencing the localization?
It’s only like that because sim-shipping involves a lot of conversations much bigger than what I imagine a lot of people think as just localization “starting too late” or “being too slow” or any number of other reasons. We started localizing both Judgment and Yakuza: Like a Dragon as development started on them, so in the sense of that affecting the localization process, we’re already as prepared as we can be to get these things out the door at the same time. It was a big shift for us when that happened, but we’re there now, and when you say the industry is moving away from regional releases, you’re right. In my mind, we need to join them. It’s all moving so fast these days.
What's your creative process like with the original development team? When you're trying to work out something in the localization that you want to run by them, what happens? And can you point to a specific example to help illustrate it?
It’s a lot of back and forth! I’ll lean on the custom animation example we did for what the fans know as the “How Do I Get to the Station” substory, in which Ichiban is asked by an English-speaking foreigner for directions. Knowing we’d have to do this in English VO, which adds a layer of absurdity on top of absurdity, I asked RGG if they’d be open to devising a custom animation where Ichiban breaks the fourth wall by slow turning to the camera with a wink and a thumbs-up specifically for the English VO version. They were onboard, but “slow turn to the camera” was kind of a foreign concept to them, so it involved sending a lot of gifs, asking for specific tweaks… and ultimately going into the dev environment myself to make the final adjustments. It’s such a dumb little thing in the end, but it was a neat collaboration, and more than proof that we have a great working relationship with them.
We generally lean heavily toward keeping it as authentic as we can, because we expect that people getting a game called Yakuza are generally going to want an authentic Japanese experience, right? But we are always looking for the parts that need us.
I don't think people understand how technically sprawling the localization process is these days. It's not just a spreadsheet, changing words around. What was it like for Like a Dragon?
We have several internal and external CAT (computer assisted translation) tools now that are built to assist with this, but it’s still super complex because these masses of game text have to transition between those tools, a voice script, the developer, and several translation teams across the world. And then I went and made it worse by keeping two different databases for the Japanese audio and English audio subtitles. (To be clear, these tools do not translate for us, they simply manage the translation process.)
We’re constantly building and investing in the tech we need to do our jobs more efficiently, because like you were saying, there’s no time for tools, or a lack thereof, slowing us down anymore.
This is your pinned tweet:
I wanted to ask about it, because obviously you're proud of how much Like a Dragon offers. It's my understanding localization did not always have this kind of support. What's changed, and can you talk about that evolution within Sega specifically? What's happened?
Ha, you found my Twitter. But yeah, I am really proud of everything it offers. And you’re absolutely right, when you read about the literal hacking that some localization teams of yore (some still do…) have to go through to do their jobs, it’s amazing to consider that we’re at a point where a fool like me can say, “I want to translate this game’s main story twice because it’s right for the product and it’s right for the fans” and get both the company and the dev team behind that.
The US branch of Sega / Atlus is primarily a localization house. We put out more localized content than just about anyone else in this space, and we have to make the effort to be an industry leader on the strengths we have. Especially when we’re six to eight months behind the initial release. What are we offering that the Japanese version didn’t? Why should anyone wait to buy the Western product if they can just play it in Japanese and get enough of a gist from the visuals? It’s a competitive world out there, and pushing expectations is the only way to stay ahead of it.
What's a small detail related to the localization in Like a Dragon that you're proud of, that you don't think most people will notice?
No two in-game cutscenes between the English audio and the Japanese audio will line up, because rather than ask our English voice actors to match the length of the Japanese voiced lines down to the second, we “simply” re-cut the game around the new audio on the localization side. All told, the English audio version of the game is probably half an hour to an hour shorter than the Japanese audio version of the game by virtue of English actors speaking faster than Japanese actors and less space between spoken lines. Nobody noticed that on Judgment I don’t think.