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Behind the Line: Localizing Controls, why is the back button different on the Switch?

It’s a short shot this week. Yours truly has been crazy busy with work, but in the hazy blur of activity I noticed this.

Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”


And it reminded me of a topic I’ve spoken of before. Yes, here we have an example of how localizing affects more than the words.

Localizing the Controller

This is a perfect example of the importance of proper localization, and how that goes past simply translating words. User interface conventions could be different from one region to another. You may be wondering to yourself about this, because most games are X to accept, right? And that’s true, in America. In Japan it’s the other way around. Players of the original Final Fantasy Tactics may remember the time it took to get used to navigating menus there with O to accept, and X to go back. This lines up with the control standard that Teiyu Goto told 1up in 2010:

We wanted something simple to remember, which is why we went with icons or symbols, and I came up with the triangle-circle-X-square combination immediately afterward. I gave each symbol a meaning and a color. The triangle refers to viewpoint; I had it represent one’s head or direction and made it green. Square refers to a piece of paper; I had it represent menus or documents and made it pink. The circle and X represent ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision-making and I made them red and blue respectively.

FFT didn’t have a good localization for release outside of Japan.

Note: those who have played it shouldn’t be surprised, since the language translation used is pretty bad, too. There was clearly not much effort put into localizing the game for release outside of Japan.

Lessons To Take

First of all it’s important to realize that there is a strong theme of Japanese companies being very Japan focused. Square Enix thinking that a western RPG would be required to sell in the west, leading to expressing surprise when a standard JRPG actually sells well. They didn’t realize that the audience was still there, even if it wasn’t in Japan. As Square President Yosuke Matsuda said:

“Due to having split [the development mindset] according to regions around the world, we weren’t able to see this clearly up until now, but fans of JRPGs are really spread around the world,” emphasizes Matsuda. “Through the means of various networks, the latest information that is announced in Japan is instantaneously being spread across fans throughout the world. Whether it’s North America, Europe, or South America. There really isn’t much of a gap [in the relay of information].”
You might think that sounds like they’re putting a lot of effort to localizing their games, going so far as to try to make games entirely for other regions. But I would counter that this is an overly heavy handed line of thinking that shows a degree of a myopic Japan-centric attitude. They didn’t realize that their work would have fans outside of Japan, and instead tried to copy other people for worldwide releases.

Second, you may be wondering just how much work goes into a good localization. The answer is A LOT. We know the language has to be changed. Certain cultural references may need to be updated. User interfaces clearly may need to be altered. Local laws about what is presented may force different restrictions or obligations on the release. It’s easy to forget in the age of digital distribution, but there are in fact many local and regional laws that still must be adhered to by a game publisher.

How Does This Happen?

Coming back to the Switch, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo simply forgot that there was an alternate user interface convention in other regions. Sure NOA probably pointed it out, but that could have been dismissed because, “This is the standard, what are you talking about?” Similarly to how NOA gave feedback that calling everything “New XXXX” was getting weird, but Japan continued because in Japanese the word “New” sounds interesting and exotic. Those names, like the New 3DS, or New Super Mario Brothers, were another example of this cross cultural blindness.

This doesn’t mean that I expect this to be the reason why they botched the control scheme, but if it were, it wouldn’t surprise me at all.

In Other News

In other news that’s slightly related, Kotaku made the observation that now even Nintendo isn’t even bothering with instructional booklets. That’s not too surprising. Documentation is a tremendous pain to write, and has to be set in stone. Software updates and patches may make the booklet obsolete. Digital distribution doesn’t allow for hard copy instructional books in the first place. We all have the Internet to look things up. Video games can have tutorials, or possibly do a proper ‘learn by playing’ type of interaction. There’s little call to invest hours and hours of work into writing the book, copy editing, graphic design, layout, and printing of the material that most people won’t even look at. And don’t forget, those books need localization too!

I don’t take joy in instructional manuals going away, but for those who mourn them, remember that they are mostly vestigial at this point.

Kynetyk is a veteran of the games industry.  Behind the Line is written to help improve understanding of what goes on in the game development process and the business behind it.  From “What’s taking this game so long to release”, to “why are there bugs”, to “Why is this free to play” or anything else, if there is a topic that you would like to see covered, please write in to

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