In the heated ongoing conversation over “censorship” in localization, we’ve heard a whole lot from fans and even translators, but we haven’t seen much discussion from Japanese developers. Which is why, when speaking to Tetsuya Takahashi this week in Los Angeles, I asked him for his thoughts on the matter. His answers were a little surprising.
Takahashi, CEO of the Japanese developer Monolith Soft, was the executive director of Xenoblade Chronicles X, a game that caused a stir in late 2015 among certain crowds who complained when Nintendo removed certain features for the Western version of the game. In Japan, for example, the 13-year-old character Lin Lee could wear a bikini that exposed most of her body. For North America, Nintendo removed that.
Fans cried out that Nintendo had censored the developers of Xenoblade Chronicles X, but it didn’t seem to bother Tetsuya Takahashi.
“In terms of Xenoblade Chronicles X, there’s been a few different changes that were made to the game, but my personality is such that I’m not a stickler for products that I’ve already made, so I don’t really mind what the final product turns out to be in that sense,” Takahashi told me. “I really didn’t mind much at all, actually.”
I’d asked him about a few of those localization changes that proved controversial among a subset of gamers, which also included the removal of Xenoblade Chronicles X’s breast slider—a toggle in the Japanese version that allows you to control the size of your main character’s chest, if you choose to play as a woman.
“As a developer, I do feel like it’d be ideal to be able to adjust the content so that it’s culturally acceptable, whether it’s in the US or in the EU,” said Takahashi. “For example, there was a discussion about the breast slider. Jokingly, I said, ‘Well would it help if we had a crotch slider for the male?’ Obviously it was a joke, but they responded obviously it’s not gonna work out. I do realize there’s a cultural difference between what Japanese people think and what the rest of the world thinks.”
“Fans sometimes accuse the Treehouse of censorship,” I said, referring to Nintendo’s well-known North American localization team, one of whom was translating for Takahashi. “As a developer, do you feel like you’re being censored or are you OK with changes like that?”
“I think what’s important is that we make sure that the end user who actually plays the game doesn’t have a bad experience,” Takahashi said. “If that change is going to help alleviate that, then I think we should definitely make it.”
While Nintendo of America localized Xenoblade Chronicles X, Nintendo of Europe is handling Takahashi’s next game, Xenoblade Chronicles 2. (NoE also localized the original Xenoblade Chronicles.) Director Genki Yokota, who works for Nintendo’s Japanese division (NCL), says all three companies are communicating about localization decisions that may prove to be controversial.
“When we have costumes or clothes that we have a little concern with, we share it with NoE and NoA and they’ll say, ‘No, no, that’s fine’ or ‘You’re right, that’s an issue,’” Yokota said. “If it is an issue, we’ll go back and say we’ll say, ‘We adjusted it this way, what do you think?’ There’s a lot of back and forth in that sense. Rather than compromise, it’s like we’re all aiming for the same goal, of being able to provide a good experience for everybody in all regions. And we’re aiming to have a game that has very little difference between the regions.”
Nintendo is often at the center of the online debate about changes being made to Japanese games, though the man running the company’s U.S. division said decisions for changes aren’t made solely by his American team. “The creators are always involved in anything that happens in the localization process,” Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime told Kotaku boss Stephen Totilo at E3. “In terms of what gets localized, there’s a simple collection of words that we use to define how we think about this: It’s ‘cultural relevance’ and ‘understanding of the ratings and ratings implications.’” He said, as an example, that a character’s age might be changed to avoid an M rating in a game. A more severe rating could make the game harder for Nintendo to sell, “which clearly is not in the best interest of the developers or the business for that to happen.”
Fils-Aime said Nintendo of America’s Treehouse localizers travel to Japan about “every two months” to work with Japanese developers whose work is being brought to America. “It’s during those meetings that they discuss the localization process, what’s being evaluated,” he said. “I am extremely comfortable with the process. And again if you look at our executives that are involved, Nate Bihldorff and members of this team, they have deep relationships with the developers and everything is being done with the best intentions of the content showing itself the best way it can.”
For Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Nintendo is aiming for a simultaneous worldwide launch. Whereas Xenoblade Chronicles X launched in Japan eight months before it came to the west, the next game in the series is slated to release in all three regions (Japan, Europe, North America) in the fall of 2017. This allows the developers to talk about potential localization issues as they make the game rather than having to deal with them post-release. “We’re really building [the game] as we’re in discussion,” said Yokota. “Whereas for the past title, the Japanese version had already been pretty much close to completion when this [localization] discussion started.”
Although these answers will undoubtedly lead some to cry censorship—to accuse Nintendo of forcing its Japanese developers to make changes just to appeal to Western gamers—the people who actually work at Nintendo say they’re far more concerned with pleasing everyone.
“For past titles, because the Japanese version was done, our challenge was then to figure out what it is we need to do to make sure this game is made available in overseas, as well as, we’re able to sell this product,” said Yokota. “In that sense, I was open to making any changes that were necessary to make sure everybody can enjoy this game.”
Here’s hoping they added a crotch slider.