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How Bungie made Destiny's Tower 'feel like home' to international players

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Bringing Destiny to a global audience represented a new challenge for Bungie. Prior to releasing its "shared world shooter" on PlayStation and Xbox platforms last year, the developer didn't have a dedicated localization team and made its apps and website available only in English. But for Destiny, the studio had to think internationally and change its approach to the way it used language in games.

At GDC, Bungie localization manager Tom Slattery walked attendees through the process of making non-English speakers — the game is translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and Japanese — feel welcome in the space epic. Slattery said the goal was to make Destiny's main social space, The Tower, "feel like home" to everyone, to make it "an international space ... that's filled with a lot of different people."

That meant making certain compromises.

In early versions of the game, there were guideposts and faction signs that had English language text on them. Some of those were translated into the game's other languages, but that often meant in-game signs were cluttered and sometimes inconsistent. So Bungie established a set of global art directives: Don't communicate anything important to players via text in graphics or textures. Instead, they'd use universal visual cues or the UI, which could be more easily localized.

Slattery said the localization team wanted to "avoid Anglo-centricism." They didn't want The Tower to "feel like an English speaking city," so there should be no references to English terminology. Early on, the game's textures were littered with English text, some of it written on the game's guns. Much of that had to be scrubbed for international players, though text representing the game's weapon foundries stuck around. And artists were allowed to put "industrial gibberish," which really just means indecipherable letters and numbers, on certain items (crates, canisters) scattered about the environment.

The Tower also has its share of Latin inscribed on the ground, Slattery said, because it "looks cool" and "nobody knows what it says" anyway.

There is still some signage in the Tower that has text on it, but only in English, Brazilian Portuguese and Japanese. That helps sell the social area as an "international space," Slattery said, without making it seem so focused on English.

Destiny had a few localization pitfalls. The biggest "fail," Slattery said, was using the Future War Cult logo to represent the faction. Their logo is just a stylized version of the letters FWC (sometimes just simply "F") which didn't translate into other languages elegantly.

Slattery said that the game's opening cinematic featuring a trio of astronauts setting foot on Mars was also a problem. Originally, Bungie planned to render the cinematic in the game's seven languages, but as development progressed, they quickly ran out of disc space for those different versions of the video. Their compromise? Include a handful of languages to make the opener feel international — perhaps the three astronauts were Brazilian, American and Japanese, he mused.

Another issue the studio had to work on was dealing with male and female player avatars. Unlike having to deal with a single Master Chief and how other languages referred to him, players in Destiny can choose their gender. And in other languages that use feminine and masculine terms to refer to people and inanimate objects, a player's Guardian might be called one of two things depending on gender. Slattery said Bungie wanted to respect character gender through dialogue.

Since 2012, Bungie has added a dedicated localization team that translates its game, website and apps into seven languages on a rolling release cycle.

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