Since time immemorial, Japanese video games have followed a typical release schedule. Launch in Japan first, followed by a localized release for other countries a few months, or even years, later. But this trend shifted dramatically in 2021. Many high-profile Japanese games such as Tales of Arise, Shin Megami Tensei V, and both Monster Hunter Rise and Monster Hunter Stories 2 have been launched day-and-date worldwide.
So, what has changed? A simultaneous global ship date allows Japanese games to make a bigger, more immediate impact than ever before, which can create more lasting interest in not just a single game but its whole franchise. Seeking that impact comes at a cost, though — challenges include implementing tighter workflows and communication between the team members localizing the games. Simultaneous shipping (or sim-ship) is the way of the future for Japanese games, though, and understanding the process not only demonstrates the benefits of this approach but also how to potentially deal with some of those lingering issues.
It’s not hard to see why Japanese developers and publishers would want to make sim-ship work. Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst at Niko Partners, tells IGN the console and PC install base continues to grow globally, providing new opportunities for Japanese game developers. He also notes this growth is happening concurrently with a waning home console market in Japan.
“Japan accounted for 20% of PS1 sales, but PS4 sales in Japan only reached 8% of the global total,” Ahmad explained to IGN. “Higher development costs for PlayStation games and lower sales potential than prior generations has led to Japanese developers taking a global approach for HD console titles.”
And making up for a diminishing console focus in Japan by launching a sim-ship title has massive benefits in terms of audience awareness around the world. Monster Hunter Stories 2, for example, set a new record for peak concurrent players of JRPGs on Steam back in July, beating out Persona 4 Golden, then reigning champion of this statistic. The recent release of Tales of Arise has already far surpassed the concurrent player base of previous Tales entries. Unsurprisingly, they are the first games in their respective franchises to simultaneously ship globally.
That increased player interest can also stem from another benefit of sim-ship: a more cohesive, worldwide marketing cycle for games.
“It would allow us to coordinate and maximize our marketing and sales efforts worldwide for a more impactful single release date rather than diluting our efforts across multiple dates,” XSEED Games and Marvelous USA CEO Ken Berry told IGN. “This is also beneficial for fans of our titles across the world, as they won’t have to wait for the game to release in their territory.”
Sticking to regional launches won’t stop other regions from experiencing it ahead of their planned release due to the proliferation and ease of importing, but without proper localization, those players who choose to import may not fully experience and understand any given game. A gap in release also means spoilers will get out before all players can buy a potentially localized version. A globally shipped title can avoid all that.
Lost Judgment – Gameplay Screenshots
One of the most recently sim-shipped games was Sega’s Lost Judgment, the first game in the Yakuza series to be shipped simultaneously globally. Sega localization producer Scott Strichart expects sim-ship to become more of the norm going forward.
“Nothing we can say is “new” or newsworthy,” Strichart said of having to market in different regions after a game’s Japanese release. “Arguably and ironically, it’s one of the reasons I end up doing so much of the press myself – the localization is the only thing that’s new to the region.”
Strichart explained it’s been a slow build of integrating new processes, tools, and onboarding new people and whole teams to get to where Sega is today; it didn’t all suddenly happen because of Lost Judgment.
“You can follow the series’ growth all the way down the line, from starting to close the release gap after the release of Yakuza 0,” Strichart said. 2019’s Judgment was the first title to have English audio and European subtitles, and then 2020’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon launched across Xbox, PlayStation, and PC all at once in North America. Lost Judgment is bringing this all home with a sim-ship.
“For Lost Judgment, it was simply time to make the leap. You have to build toward a sim-ship situation, game over game, and after Yakuza: Like a Dragon, we were ready.”
Though they’re not the first, the glut of 2021 sim-ship games are likely not going to be the last games to launch this way. Increasing interest in games originally targeted to Japanese audiences are seeing worldwide fervor, like 2018’s Monster Hunter World. The franchise generated a majority of its sales from Japan prior to the release of Monster Hunter World, but that entry saw more than 70% of its copies sold overseas.
The upsides of sim-ship may be clear, but it doesn’t come without its challenges. A game can’t be localized until it actually exists in a substantial enough state. Or, it could, but it opens the work pipeline up to plenty of problems. Entire parts of a game and its mechanics can be changed and reinvented unexpectedly. If developers start localization too soon, then those devs may run into “churn,” which means having to redo language files to fit revised mechanics, doubling up work that could have been avoided if more of the game’s text was locked.
In Lost Judgment’s case, Strichart explained localization started very early, but it had to in order to hit its sim-ship launch date, so it’s a bit of a catch-22. And when the decision to sim-ship is made, this ideally means that the game’s text is fixed.
“When text isn’t set in stone you can imagine how it might impact everything from translation to voice recording,” freelance localization editor Jessica Chavez, who has worked on games like Fantasian, Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter, and Rune Factory 4, explained. “Small changes in the source text during the development process can have a big effect down the line.”
Entire scenes may need to be retooled to accommodate simple terminology changes, or dialogue windows adjusted to fit newly added lines. A freelancer editing and cutting their own text working with an in-house development team may come to find their “completed” translation no longer makes any sense.
Alex Smith, a games writer and freelance translator, who has worked on franchises like Final Fantasy and Ace Attorney, noted text is often being tweaked until the end of development. Revisions to material that’s already gotten a first pass results in some wasted effort and incurred expenses for material that gets cut or rewritten to the point that it needs to be retranslated from scratch.
Sega had the luxury of Lost Judgment’s Japanese text being locked in before beginning to localize the project. “We could literally open the game and check for the way a story beat plays out, the way a minigame works, or the way a mechanic functions,” Strichart said.
Using freelancers for sim-ship games isn’t uncommon, but the priority when bringing them on is often speed. Chavez noted hard deadlines are involved and more bodies are needed just to tackle the numbers of lines that require translating. There’s not much time to really get familiar with the product or get to know other team members. Since freelancers aren’t in-house, getting access to materials for context or asking the development team questions can involve a lot of red tape.
Freelance translator Christina Rose, for example, who has worked on games such as Super Robot Wars T and Phantasy Star Online 2, mentioned the availability of reference material and documentation will always vary by project and client, but that’s where in-house translation teams have a major advantage.
“The further downstream localization is from the development team, the less information they have access to, which means more guesswork, errors, and schedule pressure,” Smith explained.
Some publishers build their entire business on freelancers while others, like Sega, rely on internal linguists as it has franchises that have been around for more than 15 years. Keeping the knowledge base consistent among its own in-house group can make a huge difference.
“Sega is one of, if not the foremost publisher of Japanese-born content, especially when you consider all of Atlus’s content flows through the same localization teams, making for untold millions of moji a year that we process,” Strichart said.
Regardless of approach, it’s essential that each company finds the right workflows and processes in order to get closer to frequent sim-ship. Still, a quality localization absolutely requires human interaction. Strichart considers localizations that use machine translations to be doomed.
“Sega prides itself on quality localization, and if we were in a position where the schedule was forcing us to take shortcuts, then the schedule is also in a fail-state and would have to be reassessed,” he said.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
A successful sim-ship requires communication between development teams and translators, whether freelancers or in-house. This process is steadily improving, but there continues to be room for change, according to those who do the translation work.
“I’d like to see more direct hires of freelancers rather than agency-based project management,” Rose said. Handling project management in-house would remove a middleman that potentially muddies things with games of telephone, likely allowing freelancers to much more effectively communicate what they need.
Another issue cited stems from one of crediting. Game publishers often will only credit the translation agency and not the individual translators and editors. While individual credits are rare, most game companies will lift NDAs at the time of a game’s release and then allow individuals to take credit online in spaces like Twitter. However, larger translation agencies may place perpetual agreements in their employment contracts that prevent individuals from claiming involvement without permission — even if the game company client otherwise allows it and says it’s fine for individuals to do so. Essentially, freelance translators could have poured so much work into a localization for major games, and never be allowed to take their due credit.
Perpetual agreements keep happening because translation agencies are becoming publicly traded corporations. As such, it’s not enough for them to just only be profitable, but also to grow exponentially year after year. It’s generally cheaper to directly hire translators than to go through an agency, which is why these larger companies have an incentive to prevent workers from claiming their own contributions. If the translators publicly take credit, then they become more known, resulting in them being more directly reachable, potentially causing agencies to lose both talent and revenue.
“The result is that individuals are denied the ability to take credit for their work, which impacts their future career opportunities and their ability to self-promote and showcase their own portfolio in a creative industry,” Rose explained.
Because these larger agencies hold all the leverage due to their size, it’s difficult for any individual worker to oppose perpetual agreements without potentially burning bridges or losing work opportunities in the future.
Rose notes that unionization does not seem feasible for this sort of issue, since localization is a global-scale industry stretching across countries. Individual workers are often seen as easily replaceable and can be kept out of contact with each other due to geographical distance. She believes that the only entities who are in a position to change this are the game companies themselves since they are the agencies’ clients.
Some companies, like Sega, are already taking action. Strichart has gone on the record publicly in support of pressuring agencies to credit individual contributions. Additionally, Rose mentioned that her project manager for Tales of Arise was able to secure an NDA lift for the game, allowing Rose to publicly claim her own translation work on it.
Seeing freelancers as part of a team and not just a way to plug a hole in an increasingly important development pipeline would go a long way to cementing teamwork, communication, and familiarity with the material as part of the localization process.
“Valuing freelancers’ experience and time in terms of fair rates, access, and crediting will result in a better product,” Chavez said.
Screens – Tales of Arise
Size (Sometimes) Matters
As for smaller and more niche publishers, sim-ship isn’t out of the question, but depending on the game, it can take a considerable amount of resources. However, as long as the western publisher and the Japanese development team collaborate at the very beginning of the process, sim-ship is possible.
“I don’t feel that you have to be a large company to sim-ship since smaller companies have done it in the past, including Aksys,” Aksys Games COO Bo DeWindt told IGN.
For some titles in the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue franchises, the publisher worked closely with the Japanese developer, Arc System Works, to make sure the localization was done side by side with the development; they weren’t sim-ships but they were pretty close. For example, 2016’s Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator came to PS3 and PS4 in Japan on May 26, while North America and Europe received the game a few weeks later on June 7 and 10, respectively. However, the latest entry in the franchise, Guilty Gear Strive, sim-shipped worldwide this year on June 11.
In the case of the Zero Escape series, Aksys helped fund Zero Time Dilemma with Spike Chunsoft, and the developer wanted to make sure the game would be released in the west in tandem with Japan. Zero Escape: The Nonary Games, which contains the first two entries in the series, 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward, benefited from the localizations of both games already having been completed — the former previously released on Nintendo DS and the latter on 3DS as well as PlayStation Vita. The only aspect that needed to be added was voice acting for 999, so that helped streamline the close sim-ship process. Not every project faces such a fortuitous road, though.
“The issue a lot of smaller publishers have with this is that they’re working with titles that are individually licensed from Japanese developers, and sometimes those negotiations don’t even start until the game is near done or already out,” Strichart explained.
For smaller Japanese developers, the sales from a finished game are often needed to start funding the next one. So the prospect of holding the Japanese release while a localization team tries to translate would be a non-starter for many. There’s also the issue of manpower. If smaller Japanese publishers started localizing while the game was still in development, some just wouldn’t have the resources to dedicate to multiple languages and all the tools that it requires.
And there’s even more to consider when releasing a game outside of Japan and North America; European releases need to include more languages to accommodate so many different countries, so their target release date can often dictate the possible global date. Is the Japanese office willing to sit around on their approved master for a few months or the US office for even one month as the European release date is adjusted?
It’s easy to commit to sim-ships when the release timing is still a long way out, but as launch nears, each office starts weighing the downside of having to delay its launch date solely to accommodate another territory. Sim-ship is a commitment, but if it’s not properly planned for, it can raise just as many challenges as potential benefits.
And sometimes, there is even an upside to not doing a sim-ship.
“Seeing a product launch in another territory first gives us a lot of insight on how it will likely be received in our area later because gamers tend to be universal in their criticism of games,” Berry said. The gap between releases may provide enough time to make small gameplay and quality of life adjustments, or fix a bug that wasn’t caught by the quality assurance team.
“Because no matter how much we test pre-launch, nothing compares to thousands of people playing [a game] at once upon launch,” Berry continued.
Ahmad concluded that with the increase in social gaming, as well as new trends in cross platform play and saves, we can expect to see Japanese game developers take a more all-encompassing approach to game development in terms of platforms and geographies.
“As demand for console games continues to grow in both traditional console game markets like North America and Europe, as well as regions with high populations such as Southeast Asia and the Middle East, we would see Japanese publishers reaching out for more simultaneous global releases.”
And as developers and publishers may look to recent releases to demonstrate the potential success for sim-ship, Strichart is grateful to everyone who played a part in getting Lost Judgment out the door as the studio’s first global release.
“It’s intimidating to think that having done it once, it’ll be difficult to step back from now,” he said. “So our tasks turn to smoothing out the issues and getting it into a place where everyone can do their job with enough time to keep the costs reasonable and the quality as high as we can set the bar.”
George Yang is a freelance writer who has appeared in other places such as Polygon, Kotaku, The Washington Post, and more. You can follow him on Twitter @yinyangfooey.