Marie Amigues, Founder and CEO of Altagram, joined SlatorPod in November to talk to Esther and Florian about how she runs the fast-growing game localization provider. Marie recounted her experience of launching Altagram and growing the business internationally, and discussed the ins and outs of game localization. Marie’s segment in the podcast begins at 28:45.
Firstly, Florian unpacked the sale of Lionbridge’s AI division to Canada’s TELUS International for nearly triple the amount paid for the entire company. Esther shared some recent financial highlights from LSPs Summa Linguae Technologies, Stratus Video and ZOO Digital. The two delved into machine dubbing and discussed a paper from DeepMind and Google.
Florian: Thanks so much for taking the time to join us today. Tell us a little bit more about your background, introduce yourself a little bit to the listeners. You have built quite a sizable business over the past eight years. How did you get started into this language industry and the game localization space?
Marie: When I was at university, I did a PhD in Philosophy and I was specializing in Cognitive Science and particularly AI and Language. In Philosophy, it is hard to get a job, so I enrolled in Business and I did a Masters in Marketing Management. In France I discovered Berlin, I wanted to work there. I did not speak German so that was an issue in itself to get a job, even more in marketing.
I met someone and we started to talk about business and he was interested in setting up a company in Germany. I thought that’s the perfect occasion and we needed to talk further. There was a defendable fee from Exequo and I met him and we discussed it. Then I decided I am ready to join this. A few months later I created the business ANAKAN in France, then I moved the company and it worked very successfully. I loved the business, I was so happy to be in Berlin and be a CEO. I have wanted to be a CEO for a very long time. It was not so simple and easy. I was 30 years old and a businesswoman.
Florian: That was around 2012/2013 when you started Altagram. How were those early days and how did you get the business off the ground?
Marie: I was new to the business and as a manager, I wasn’t sure that my team liked me. When my team knew that I was leaving the company, they wanted to come with me. I had to put together some funds and create everything, even the name of the company. That went quite fast because my team was pushing me to do that really quickly. We started to work together in the kitchen of my apartment, and that was only for one month, even to look for an office was complex at the time. Now we have these offices since the creation of the company. Since I was known well in the business, it wasn’t complex for us to reach out to new clients that were not the normal German clients that we were working with. We quickly started to have new clients that were looking for multilingual localization and video games.
Florian: Does video games have any personal angle for you? Or was it because you got started with ANAKAN and Exequo in the video game space? Could it have been any other localization space after that?
Marie: I love this area of business and love being with people that are passionate about what they do. I love to work on something very creative and I love the challenges we have every year with every project. All those things are interesting to discuss and to find solutions for. It’s not that I don’t know anything else than the video game localization business, but I really enjoy it so much that I don’t see why I would go into other things. We have clients coming to us and asking us about our perimeters of the business, of taking care of tractors or things like this. We don’t do that, we don’t have the team for it.
Esther: Let’s talk in a bit more in-depth about gaming and the industry. Can you describe to us the characteristics, like average customer account size, job size, turnarounds?
Marie: In this industry, you have different types of people. The indie companies, when you were able to release your games so you were publishers yourselves. That’s when the access to apps was almost done for free. You can go on the iOS, sell your game. We started to see a different way of handling the development and the publishing, that was around 2010/2011.
You have companies, about one or two people, where you talk with the CEO directly and they’re mainly handling the localization, which is time-consuming and you don’t always know if they can follow the path. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a small budget, it just means there is a different approach with the person you’re going to work with because they tend to not be available 100% of the time. I would say about 25/30% of our business is these small companies.
Then you have small and medium-sized companies, so those are usually publishers, but it could also be developers. Again, very different ways. The publisher will be the one who’s going to formalize the files, but not have a real connection with the game, so they’re always going to talk to the developers. That takes us a little bit more time. When working with the developer directly, you have real contact with the person. You know what’s going on, you have fast answers to a lot of your questions and you’re going to receive maybe 5/10 projects throughout the year because they’re taking care of many project and they could be small, medium or big.
In games, the more the narrative, the more you’re going to have texts and the less casual it will be. We have games that could be one word, but we mostly have games that are going to be roughly 200k, with DLCs. Sometimes we have games that we have worked with for over seven years, every month we have updates, and with audio as well. Then the photo finish for types of clients that are triple-A companies. They are usually having big projects, and a big-budget as well. It could be TP, TPQA as well, or it could be TP voiceover QA, so you have everything together.
Esther: You said TP, QA, TP voiceover, can you explain a bit about that and some of the other services that are involved as well?
Marie: TP is translation editing for feeding. LQA is localization QA. They will do testing, verifying the information to see if it’s right or not. For voiceovers, inside the game you have characters that speak and we are going to record those characters and then we’re going to do the voiceover. That’s what service localization companies usually offer. In our case, we also offer culturalization, for instance, when a client has a game that they want to bring to the Asian market and film, it might not fit really for the Asian market. We are going through the whole game, we are going to check the music, the mechanics, the type of graphics as well, and do a real analysis about what we will recommend changing if you wanted to go to the Chinese market for instance, or if you wanted to go to the Arabic markets. We do FQA which is when we double-check the functionality of the game before we do the TP, voiceover or QA.
Esther: Can you tell us a bit about streaming? Streaming games have come up in the past few years with Google’s Stadia and Apple Arcade. What kind of impact is happening?
Marie: For us at the moment, it doesn’t change much, just the fact that it’s a new platform. It does have a change in terms of the terminology, but it doesn’t really change anything about the way we are working on the localization of the game. We do receive Stadia games and we take care of them, but it’s like having another game that has a continuous release. We do that for any kind of client, more these days with coding. It’s not the only business, it doesn’t have a much different impact. We’re welcoming more and more of those streaming platforms in the business. It is probably going to happen more and more within the game industry.
Florian: There is this whole new cycle of consoles, what is it? Is it a major driver of work for you guys and how does it work? They come in and then there’s a massive localization boost?
Marie: I’ve seen that happening for 14/15 years since I’ve been in the business. I see it with every cycle of the console. There are triple-A companies, like Blizzard, EA, Ubisoft, or triple-A games or double-A games that have a license, an IP and want to release games for the new consoles. They and the game developers are going to concentrate on this development for a year or two when there is a new console, and in the meantime, they’re not going to release all the games. During this, we’re going to have a call just before the release of the new console.
The games industry is just growing no matter what. Their scope is not as impactful as it used to be in our localization business. It had a huge impact at the beginning. Before there were only consoles and now we have PCs, consoles, mobile, you have different kinds of platforms, and we have much more worldwide as well.
During the time of the release, when developers want to launch the console, we’re going to receive more requests to make sure that we’re going to be on time and for bigger IPs as well. There’s a mass-market that’s going to be super interested to have your games on the console, so you want to be there. You want to make sure that you’re not losing the opportunity to have a new platform that works better, has better graphics, is going to be interesting, and has more players.
During the next two years after the release, we still have a lot of requests. The growth is really important. Then it’s slowing down a bit and at the same time you have new releases of consoles, and you still have the other consoles that are still used, so you’re going to have multiple queues at the same time. Then the other consoles are going to get slower and we’re going to continue on the bigger, newer console.
Florian: You’re expecting to hire more people, in anticipation of that. It’s quite a large company already, what do you expect currently and in the next year in anticipation of that?
Marie: We’ve got record sales this year. We had one month that was worth almost what we did in one year when I created the company. That gives you an idea of how big it grows. We need to hire people, it’s a business made by human people, it’s still not done by machine, only the software. I’m still trying to keep a small or medium-sized company. I don’t like having it too big, just because it’s harder to manage and it also doesn’t give the same atmosphere. Now these days everybody’s working from home and it’s working fine, but I like to be able to have a human-size team.
My idea was to expand into different countries. I thought with satellite companies it’s much more manageable, it’s going to be international, it’s better for the company business-wise, and we are closer to the production and the clients. What I learned is that it’s even more complicated to manage, but of course, at the end of the day, it’s an excellent experience. The fact that we can grow in every different country is better because we have learned a lot from the headquarters in terms of taking care of the team so that we don’t have to learn by mistakes for the rest of the two companies in Korea and Montreal.
Esther: I was going to ask you a question about Keywords. They’re quite visible because they are on the large side for gaming, and they are also a listed company. It is interesting because they’ve managed to corner the market within this game localization space. How do you think that influences your conversations with buyers, your ability to hire talent in the space, and win deals?
Marie: Keywords has the right approach in terms of what they’re doing at the moment and the way they’re emerging. When they buy a company, except for VMC, they keep the team and the structure, so they’re doing a merge. In general, they are keeping the same team so they are keeping the same clients. It was getting bigger everywhere in this space of outsourcing and not only localization. I think our clients do respect the way we approach the work we do and the fact that we are small but big, we are more like a boutique. Sometimes I would say it depends on the approach of the client and they prefer to just work with the biggest and that’s it, there’s no more conversation. We’re still quite good at what we’re doing.
On the other side, if you do consider the numbers of companies that Keywords have, it’s as much as the number of sales teams if not more people inside. It’s a competition that we might not be able to have because in terms of the sales team, we have three COs and three others, so we are six people at the moment, and COs don’t only do sales.
Florian: When did you start? Was that an early decision in 2013/14, where already you have two full-time salespeople or was this something that only happened recently?
Marie: In this business, you can’t sell dreams. There are issues that we need to corner, we need to discuss before saying everything is possible because it’s not. I didn’t want to have someone who was so much into sales. I started working with a marketing intern and helping a little bit. It was usually the project manager who was helping me with the pitch. Then one of the senior project managers moved more into sales. Now she’s taking care of the whole sales team worldwide. I would say she’s excellent. Together with another person, they’re dealing with all the requests, all the LSPs, and she’s working as well with the project manager to go into more details and the localization engineer as well if there’s something we need to double-check.
Florian: You started with marketing and then slowly moved people into more sales roles. On the whole COVID lockdown, how do you sell now? Maybe previously, you did a lot of conferences, et cetera, and now it’s all fully virtual or how does it work?
Marie: I was personally doing over 14 speeches and conferences per year. Almost every month you’re going to a conference. It’s fun, but it’s quite tiring as well. It’s back to back meetings, usually about localization. The whole team moved online and I was very sceptical about it. We definitely do more events. We don’t have as many meetings, but those we do are much more interesting. It’s great, it’s less expensive because you don’t have to pay for all the travel trips and you don’t spend too much time on transportation. In terms of performance, I would say that this online system is working surprisingly well, the business adapts very well to it.
Florian: You’re involved in a type of horizon 2020 project, the big European research project? I think there’s something newer happening as well?
Marie: We had two phases. European 2020 is a grant that is given to very high, innovative projects and that you’re going to commercialize, it’s not only research. The new goal is to commercialize the project. We applied two phases. Phase one, that was about 2015/16. We have a 2 million Euro development for a very innovative platform powered by AI for the game industry, and particularly for the localization business to streamline the business in a complex and probably very repetitive sense. We try to change it and just rename everything and to go faster, but give the opportunity to give the highest quality that we can. Avoiding slightly the project management, still taking care of all the files, but concentrating on the translation itself, on the actual visuals using AI, as well on the text to speech. We’re using AI for those three components. We have extremely good results on the MT stage. That’s very good news because normally in this business, creativity is the most important. We will see how all that goes, it could be excellent what’s happening at the moment for the business.
Esther: Around the use of machine translation generally in games, you are saying it doesn’t seem to be widespread at the moment, but there is this potential and lots of people looking into that and trying to commercialize it. How long do you think it will be before this is commonplace in the workflow for game localization?
Marie: The way I’m thinking of it is that we will be ready to start to sell it in May this year. We always try to have the highest quality possible, it’s not something that I’m considering halfway. Not all languages could work with this and not all characters are working. I don’t think that we will be able to do it for any kind of text. It’s not for everything. That’s the same with MT, you can’t use it for everything but already we can use it for 60/70% of our content, it’s not saving so much money, but at least saving a lot of time.
Esther: When you’re talking about text to speech, is that using synthetic for voiceover or dubbing, how does that work?
Marie: It’s creating a voice. You have to have big numbers of data for recreating this voice to make it sound natural. Another usage of what we are expecting to do, will not be for real voiceover for our characters, it doesn’t make sense for that, but you can use it for different pre-usage before the commercialization of the game. That could be useful for the developers, it gives them more ability to know if it’s going to work or if there’s going to be any issues coming up. We are trying to focus as much as possible in what we know, so that’s the pre voiceover for the game.
Florian: Have you ever considered expanding into media, maybe entertainment, education, all of these things? Keywords are tentatively starting to come into it, even feature films. Is that something you’ve considered?
Marie: I never say never because it doesn’t work like that. I think we have so much to do at the moment in the game industry. Between that and the development platform, I feel that there’s enough for us. I’d like to focus on what we know how to do, but we do e-learning projects. For instance, we do have companies who are coming to us because they’ve liked the way we are working with games and they want to have the same type of work. That’s for the music industry, but we don’t actively look into it and we don’t work with Hollywood. In terms of growth, I’m focusing on the three companies and the platform as our future for now.
Florian: What’s your outlook for 2021? For the console, there’s going to be a big growth push, so you feel that’s going to keep you super busy, the new platform? Are you going to grow or try to do more geographically or are you going to stay with Montreal, Seoul and Berlin for now?
Marie: I feel quite busy. We will continue having the same companies geographically if we’re talking about the next two/three years. I think that’s where we’re going to keep for now and just build and grow into that. We’ll see for the platform as well, how it’s going to develop. It’s new, going into software development. We are working as well in terms of sales, so it’s probably going to be independent and we’ll see if it’s something to look into. That would be another area for development that might be more with geographical regions than what it is at the moment for a traditional business. I would say there are two parts of the growth that could come. One that is not going to continue to get bigger in terms of places, but the other one might.