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The History, Pitfalls, and Opportunities of Arab Video Game Localization

An Arab view of the game industry’s various attempts to cater to the Arabic market

Walid AO
Walid AO
Oct 12, 2020 · 10 min read

ust imagine: you are in a heated team deathmatch session with your friends trying to reach your first prestige in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The map is Karachi, located in Pakistan, a country with Urdu as its official language. And yet the world is dotted with Arabic writing — not Urdu — which immediately disrupts the suspension of disbelief.

It bothered me that a triple-A videogame made such an avoidable mistake; any specialized localization team would have been able to identify the mistake and remove it before the release date. For the uninitiated, localization is defined as:

The process of making something local in character.

The video games industry in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) evolved tremendously in the last two decades. And yet, video games localization aimed at the Arabic market remains a missed opportunity. The complexity of the language, cultural values, and social fabric can seem daunting to western developers and publishers.

However, targeting the Middle Eastern gaming audience can be a challenge worth undertaking. Statistics by newzoo from 2018 showed that gaming revenue exceeded $1.9 billion in Arabic-speaking countries. Western developers and publishers can easily tap into this market and influence its further development. Saudi Arabia leads the world in gaming revenues. The average revenue per paying mobile user (ARPPU) in Saudi Arabia stands at $270, with some gamers spending well above $1000 a month — these players are nicknamed “killer whales” by developers.

Development history

Sakhr Software Company ventured into Arabic localization back in the ‘80s. As a result, they developed the current Arabic keyboard and localized many games into Arabic. However, Sakhr's involvement in videogames was sadly discontinued in the mid-90s.

Captain Tsubasa Vol. II (1990) an RPG style football (soccer) game on Famicom was completely localized to Arabic. The localization was not a mere menu translation; the entire game and its plot were converted for the Arabic audience. Captain Tsubasa Vol. II is considered one of the most beloved video games in the region.

Despite this success, localization efforts in the region stalled largely due to soaring piracy. It took another 14 years for a major localization effort to get off the ground. Sony released an Arabic version of This Is Football 2004 — it featured localized menus, commentary, and even regional clubs. The game was a success in Saudi Arabia, the main region it targeted. However, that success didn’t come without some trouble.

The game was released in PAL format, even though gaming enthusiasts in the region tended to use unofficially-obtained NTSC consoles. They did this because games were typically released first in countries like the US or Japan (which were NTSC regions). However, the success of This Is Football 2004 prompted companies like EA and Konami to follow by localizing their own football games.

There were various other attempts to localize games for the region in subsequent years. For example, THQ published WALL-E in 2008 — it was based on Pixar’s animated film of the same name. It was also the first action-adventure game by a western publisher to be completely localized in Arabic. Sadly, it was commercially unsuccessful. This is partly because it didn’t target hardcore gamers, and also because it was marketed in Saudi Arabia — a country without any movie theaters in 2008.

More and more games saw localization after WALL-E. Uncharted 4, Detroit: Become Human, and Horizon Zero Dawn are prominent examples. The scope of the regional changes was significant (menus, subtitles, and even voice overs were all localized). And in the last four years, Ubisoft has released all of their triple-A titles (excluding South Park and Mario + Rabbids) with some sort of Arabic localization. In fact, Ubisoft is the only western publisher with local offices in the region. Rainbow Six Siege was localized in Arabic post-launch, too (a full three years after its original launch).

Complexity and challenges

Localization is never an easy process. But the process of converting game elements to suit an Arabic-speaking audience can be particularly challenging for developers and publishers. Here are just a few of the key hurdles teams face when considering Arabic localization.

1. Arabic is an RTL language

Arabic is a “right-to-left” language. This has wide-ranging implications for text direction across the game; not just for elements like dialogue, but also for menus and other UI. Aiming for a more immersive Arabic localization means flipping UI to read from right to left.

You might find it interesting that movement from left to right is quite ingrained in English-speaking countries in general — not just in terms of the written word. During the second Iraq war, observers noticed that footage of American and British troops showed them advancing from left to right. When analyzing the videos, experts highlighted that left to right represents progress in western civilizations. Consider that pretty much every 2D platformer has the player progressing from left to right, as well. It’s a deeply-ingrained pattern, and re-considering it for Arabic localization requires a more fundamental re-thinking of the pattern itself.

2. Translation vs. transliteration

Publishers and developers do not have to translate everything. Arabic audiences are okay with Latin names and numbers in the translation whenever appropriate.

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Screenshot of Watch dogs 2, notice the Latin word in the subtitle. Source: altagram.com

As an example, Ubisoft chose not to translate the word “assassin” into Arabic for the Assassin’s Creed games. Rather, they transliterated the word instead. This is because the Arabic word for “assassin” has a very dark and negative impact. But in the Assassin’s Creed franchise — at least in an English-speaking context — the “assassin” is actually the hero.

3. Gender specifications and pronouns

Like numerous other languages, Arabic attaches gender to many words or phrases. This can be a unique challenge when translating from English to Arabic and can lead to much longer sentences.

Pronouns in Arabic can also be complicated and can come in many forms. I won’t dive deep into the linguistic details for this article, but I’ll just say that Arabic forms may include separate/discrete pronouns or pronouns attached to verbs. The variability means that the resulting text post-translation can either be doubled in size or even shortened by half. There’s no clear rule of thumb in terms of the size differences. This, again, means that localization can become complex especially when considering the way text size is handled across the board.

These linguistic differences extend well beyond the use of text, too. They become apparent during voice over work; western developers and local localization companies need to work closely together to overcome these challenges. One hurdle you may not have considered is the time taken to actually speak the new lines of dialogue — given that the game is already produced for English-speaking audiences, cutscenes (as just one example) will already have a pre-determined length (and an established length for each shot). This places constraints around timing for Arabic dialogue, especially in cases where the text is much greater or much shorter than the original English version.

4. Inclusion and representation

Translating both written and spoken text is itself an enormous difficulty, but it’s actually only the tip of the iceberg. Inclusion and representation is another important factor. There is a significant — and pitiful — history of Arab representation in video games. This is especially grating for audiences who have quite a long history of playing video games (bearing in mind my earlier point about the enthusiast gaming crowd in Saudi Arabia, for example). The Middle East is a region that is home to many wonders and amazing sights. Fair and reasonable portrayal of the region — and accuracy, in particular — are naturally important to gamers across the Middle East.

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Petra in Jordan. Photo by Brian Kairuz on Unsplash.

Some games have taken real steps to cater to local audiences. This Is Football 2004 and FIFA included regional teams in localized versions of these games. And the 2019 version of FIFA chose Mo Salah — a Liverpool player — to be the cover star of their franchise, a move that resonated positively with Arab gamers from around the world.

Arab gamers want to see their culture and their celebrities embedded in video games. They understandably don’t want to see themselves exclusively portrayed as terrorists. The inclusion of local sights and landmarks matters, especially when these places are represented with accuracy and authenticity. Some games have done a great job of this. Assassin’s Creed, for example, allowed players to explore digitized versions of Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus for the first time ever. Gamers across the region welcomed this.

But numerous games have faltered. Spec Ops: The Line, for example, takes place in a post-apocalyptic Dubai — many Arab gamers didn’t like this, because they refused to see their beloved city portrayed as a ghost town. Not to mention the fact that several events in the game’s plot didn’t sit well with Arabic audiences.

5. Culturally sensitive topics

The MENA region is, for the most part, a culturally conservative area. This means that numerous topics that are often represented in video games for western audiences need to be carefully considered when it comes to Arabic localization. Topics like nudity, explicit sex scenes, alcohol, homosexuality, religious symbols, and polytheism all fall into this category.

What this means in practice is that many games simply can’t be localized at all. God of War isn’t officially published in many Arabic countries due both to its violence and polytheism. The Last of Us Part II wasn’t officially published in Saudi Arabia and the UAE due to the same-sex relationship between two main characters. Watch Dogs 2 is also not officially published in many Gulf states due to its real-life representation of San Francisco.

There are cases where a game can be localized but with significant modifications. Assassin’s Creed Origins was modified for the MENA region. Scenes with nudity and sex were altered to fit regional requirements.

Despite the above points, it’s worth remembering that not all Arabic countries are the same. It might be tempting for a developer to think of the Middle East as an entirely homogenous market, but this isn’t quite true. A subject that is deemed taboo in Saudi Arabia might be completely acceptable in Morocco, for example (and vice-versa). A platformer with a level tailored around Christmas may be totally unacceptable in Saudi Arabia but it might be perfectly fine in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon — in fact, these markets might welcome it.

6. Dialects

All of the language challenges described so far would be difficult enough for any developer or publisher. But there’s another wrinkle here: dialect. Localization teams need to choose the voice over dialect very carefully. Dialect can completely change the way Arabic players perceive a game.

Each Arabic country has its own dialect that is used in everyday life. However, all Arabic countries use Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) in writing and in official business (contracts, news, books, emails, etc…).

A video game dubbed with the Omani dialect may not be understood in Tunesia, for example. Moreover, some Arabic dialects are perceived in a specific way. The Wall Street Journal published an article in 2011 about different Arabic dialects and their impact on dubbed pop culture. The article stated that Arabs consider Egyptian Arabic a lingua franca for comedy, while Syrian Arabic was a good fit for drama. And now Jordanian dialect is being considered for crime thrillers.

There’s no clear definition or guide that specifies which game will suit which dialect. Detroit: Become Human was published in Egyptian Arabic and it was a success. Just Cause 3 was released in the Lebanese dialect and it was also a success, although interestingly, many gamers received it in a comedic way. Ubisoft released The Division in MSA and they announced that The Division 2 would be released in Syrian Arabic. The change actually raised concerns within the gaming community, who raised their concerns with Ubisoft around the dialect change — consequently, the game was eventually released in MSA.

Recent games in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Uncharted 4 were all released in MSA and Arabic fans liked them. However, I doubt if a game like GTA would be a success if dubbed with MSA. One option might be to use multiple dialects in a game, but this brings about its own unique challenges and risks — developers will have to justify their choices for each specific character, and they need to also be sensitive about the culture and stereotypes surrounding those dialects.

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Designed by vectorpocket (via Freepik).

Takeaways

Localization is still relatively new to the Middle East. But there’s reason for optimism, given some clear positive steps by developers and publishers to tap into this market. The region is home to roughly 400 million people and the vast majority of the population skews younger. Game publishers typically focus on North America, Europe, and Japan when it comes to targeting audiences for their games. However, in recent years, they’ve increasingly acknowledged the growing importance (and commercial value) of audiences across the Middle East.

Ubisoft and Sony are currently leading the way in Arabic localization. Many other developers are now following their steps. The Witcher 3, for instance, was partially localized post-release with Arabic subtitles and menus. New triple-A games are increasingly likely to include Arabic language options from the beginning.

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