Games are a global business. After all, how many other industries could I work in where I live in Australia, work for an American-based company and can be read by anyone from Portugal to the Philippines at the push of a button? Not many. So it's a shame that while information about games is truly global, the games themselves are not.
It's a sad fact that most publishers just can't keep up with the 21st century. Consoles, games, console services like Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network are advertised globally, on globally-read sites, and yet their actual distribution is delayed not just by translation, but by 20th-century ideas like staggered market regions and country-specific licensing deals. Which in the end means lots of people gets lots of games a lot later than other people.
It sucks. You hate it, I hate it, we all (especially the Europeans among us) hate it. So I figured it'd be interesting to take a look at the industry's biggest publishers, look at their biggest games from the past two to three years, and see which companies are doing a good job of satisfying global demand for their product, and which ones...aren't.
Some things to note before we get into it: if a game's already out in one market and not yet out in another (ala Smash Bros), it's not being counted, because the upcoming date is still subject to change. I've also noted the game's release as the day it first appeared on any system, so if it appeared on 360 then PS3, we go from the 360 date. Finally, I'm only noting release dates for the three major markets: the US, Europe and Japan.
I know, this is an important issue - even more important - in places like Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, Korea and Latin America, but for the sake of brevity (and the fact it's tough actually nailing down concrete dates in many of those markets), they've got to go. If it helps any, you can generally align Australian dates to Europe's, Canada's to those of the US and so on and so forth.
So what do we actually get out of this, aside from a bunch of numbers?
Lots of interesting stuff. Like the fact Western publishers are as bad at getting games into Japan as we like to think Japanese publishers are at getting games to the West. And the fact that were it not for Okami's lengthy delay, Capcom would be a surprise "best in show". Oh, and the fact Square-Enix really needs to get its act together for the release of Final Fantasy XIII in Europe, because another year-long delay will be taking the piss.
You know what's most telling about that list, though? The number of games on it that were released worldwide, simultaneously. It's one. Of the biggest-selling and most high-profile games of the past 2-3 years, only one could manage the feat: Halo 3 (though to be fair Metal Gear Solid 4 should double that number in June). Which considering the amount of money and the size of the teams (at least on the publisher's end) involved in big games these days really isn't good enough.
Ken Lobb, Xbox's GM creative and technical services, spoke with us a little on how Microsoft Game Studios get their games out the door and across the world. Their emphasis on simultaneous global releases - or "sim ships" - is a handy pointer for other publishers who can't seem to really get a handle on the global nature of gaming these days.
"Sim ship is always a high priority for Microsoft", Lobb says. "There are many reasons for this: it allows us to benefit from building buzz in multiple territories, it permits the team to finish all versions of the game within a small window of time, and it builds on sales and marketing efficiencies".
"The most important reason for us to focus on a worldwide sim ship is that it's the best situation for the gamer", he continues. "In the current world of highly connected gaming via Xbox LIVE, it's only fair to try to have a game available at the same time in all territories". Obviously, this isn't a universal goal for MGS: Mass Effect, for example, is still unreleased in Japan, and many other games have had much longer turnarounds than Halo 3. But it's at least an acknowledgment of the realities of today's market.
The reason Microsoft were able to ship Halo 3 globally was simple: they took a holistic approach to localising it. Normally, a game's delayed due to one of three concerns. One is hardware restrictions, like region-locking. That's a whole other sad, separate topic. One is manufacturing problems, as we've seen with titles such as Rock Band. The other, most common explanation is the translation of a game from its native tongue. The vast majority of games are written, developed and tested in one language, and only when it's done (or nearly done) is it handed off for translation duties.
For Halo 3 - and other MGS games like Lost Odyssey, though to slightly more relaxed timeframes - Microsoft ensured all localisation duties were being performed almost from day one. Lobb says that the dev teams and testers worked closely with localisers from early in the game's lifecycle, meaning that rather than translating the entirety of a finished product (which would result in delays), the game was being localised while it was being developed, and as such was ready for a European and Japanese release the same time it was ready for the American market.
Capcom chose not to be a part of this story, but I'd imagine they employ a similar system. You can't enjoy an eight-day turnaround on a game like Devil May Cry 4 if you hadn't planned well in advance for a speedy global release. Ditto for Konami, who should be applauded for the work they've done in lining up Metal Gear Solid 4 for a global, simultaneous release.
For the rest? Having translators and localisers working with the developers throughout the game's development is a lot of work. And would cost a lot of money. Probably too much of either for companies like Marvellous and Atlus. But for Nintendo, and Square-Enix, and Sony, and Activision, and many other big-name, big-money publishers? It's definitely within their grasp. And is definitely something the lot of them need to be thinking more about in the future.