Lou Bega, Polish Vodka, and Other Tricks of the Foreign Trade
Originally written May 25 , 2001
For the last two days, I've been staring at screens of our latest game Tropico, translated into Japanese Kanji characters. I'm trying to debug Tropico's support for Kanji, and generally make the Japanese version (plus Chinese, Korean, and Thai), look as good as possible. Unfortunately, I speak Japanese about as well as I speak Hungarian or Polish (two other languages that Tropico is scheduled to be localized into).
Of course, I don't actually translate the text or the narration myself. We provide a localization kit to each country, containing all the English phrases, isolated down to a handful of files. Then, often at rather frightening paces, they send us a swarm of translated text back, which we have to integrate into the game. For the four biggest European languages (German, French, Italian and Spanish), we sent the localization kit to them 2 weeks before Tropico gold mastered in English. They translated 25,000 words of in-game text, plus a half hour of narration and a 90 page manual, inside of 3 weeks, and we had rolled out every major European language within 7 days of the U.S. master. We held up the English release long enough that all of these languages hit store shelves on the same day.
Even for smaller markets like Poland, Tropico is a major release for the local distributor, and they put pressure on us to help turn around the translated version quickly. Poland is a relatively poor country, with a small PC games market and high piracy rates. Yet the Polish version of Tropico will be perhaps the most professional version out there. Every word is translated into Polish, and given their overall tenacity, I'd imagine they have even less typos and minor text errors than the English version. I get three to five e-mails a week from the Polish distributor, and they've even sent us nice bottles of Polish vodka and other trinkets. We may not make much money from the Polish version, but I admire their hard work enough to go out of my way to support them.
For the most part, though, our efforts to support a given market are pretty closely linked to projected sales in that market. Germany is our biggest foreign market - we may end up selling more copies there than in the U.S. If you've played Tropico, you may have noticed that we included the pop singer Lou Bega ("Mambo Number 5") in the game as a possible dictator choice. While Lou may be a one hit wonder in most of the world, he's a mega-star in Germany, and the German office could hardly contain their excitement when they signed a cross-promotional deal with Lou's manager. Lou Bega gets to be a dictator in Tropico, and has one of his new singles included in the German version of the game, and a flyer for Tropico will appear with Lou Bega's next record. We kept Lou the dictator in the U.S. release, but axed the song (it was a disco song stylistically out of place in the U.S.)
The distributor from Taiwan paid a hefty sum for local rights to Tropico - more than all the Eastern European licensees combined. So when that distributor asked us to create special maps of Taiwan and also a nearby Taiwanese vacation island, we were easily persuaded. This is a tradition going back to our last game - Railroad Tycoon 2. One reason we included so many maps in RT2 (over 70 in the Gold Edition) is that we wanted every nook and cranny in the world with a contingent of computer gamers to have a map in the game. (Scandinavia, Korea, India…) Of course, the biggest markets got the most maps. If you computed the number of maps devoted to major markets like the U.S., Germany, and England (23, 8 and 7, respectively), you'd find a pretty nice correlation to RT2's relative worldwide sales. Not a perfect correlation though - 1 out of our 70 maps covered Antarctica (1/70 = 1.4%) As of this date, sales on the Antarctic continent haven't quite reached 1.4% of our worldwide figures…
Oddly enough, the one market where there's been virtually no licensing interest in Tropico is Latin America. There have been small deals in Brazil and Argentina, but nothing in the Caribbean itself, especially Cuba. Too bad - that’s the only market where we wouldn't have had to do any extra work to customize the game. Maybe Fidel Castro thinks our artists rendered him in an unflattering pose…