Alessandra Vincenzi, Head of Audio Localization at Keywords Studios, joins SlatorPod to talk about the ins and outs of audio localization in the video game industry.
Alessandra starts with her route into the audio localization space with Binari Sonori and her transition to Keywords Studios after it acquired the voice-over and translation services provider. She shares the differences between localizing for mobile versus Triple-A games, Chinese mobile games becoming more popular, and producing a new source language to localize.
She also talks about casting, onboarding, and categorizing voice-acting talent and how actors are matched to different clients. She goes into possible use cases for artificial voices in video games and the migration to remote recording solutions.
Alessandra gives her outlook on game localization with a growing amount of titles coming from Asia and the continuing convergence of game and media localization.
First up, Florian and Esther review the poll results from February, where the hottest localization trend of 2022 divided opinions, with 23.2% seeing speech-to-speech machine translation as the hottest trend.
On Slator’s job ad platform LocJobs, DeepL posted their first job for a Localization and Language Specialist – Turkish, perhaps signaling the company’s intention to add Turkish to the 26 languages it currently offers.
Florian: Tell us a bit more about your professional background. What was your route into the game localization industry? How did you get into audio localization specifically?
Alessandra: Let me start by saying that I have a degree in translation. I started as a freelance translator and one day suddenly I found this job posting of a company close to my house, a reviewer part-time. It is not that far so let us give it a try and see. The company was Binari Sonori and I started my career in localization and then audio localization there in 2001 as a reviewer, then a project manager, and then step by step audio manager, then vendor manager, managing all the external studios. When Binari Sonori joined Keywords, I moved to this global position supervising all the studios as part of the audio services service line and in 2019, as Head of Localization Division for audio loc.
Esther: Help us understand a bit more about Keywords in a nutshell, so the different technology and service lines of Keywords and also where localization fits into the wider organization.
Alessandra: Keywords is a company with nearly 25 years of experience. Localization for games was the first service that we provided and then step by step all the others were added. We provide a full platform of services from creation, testing, audio services, localization. Then we have customer care, marketing, and software engineering. We have seven facilities all over the world in four continents: Asia, Australia, the Americas, and Europe, and in more than 23 countries. With the platform of services that we are providing I am sure that if we think about any video games, recent ones or in the past, I could say that we have a bit of Keywords in any of them and this is something that we are very proud of.
Esther: What is it that you are localizing in a game context in terms of the audio and then outside of the game are there any other assets that you work on and do audio for?
Alessandra: If you think about when you are playing your game and your preferred characters are speaking your own language, you are having the most exciting and immersive experience ever. To me, this is what audio localization is. It gives the real flavor of the game in your language, meaning that you are focusing on playing the game and you will not be distracted by listening to something else in other languages. You are playing in your own language. We think about the project that we usually manage. We have many from 100 lines to 1000 lines, from one language to be localized to up to 50 languages to be localized. The turnaround time that we have for any of them may arrive from days if you are speaking about the very small video game and it comes to months, speaking about the big Triple-A title. The main focus for us for audio localization is on the game.
Florian: Do you have to be a gamer to work in game localization and is everyone on your team a gamer?
Alessandra: We all have a passion for games. Not all of us are gamers, of course. We come from different backgrounds with different skills. I used to play more in the past but yes, I am a part-time gamer. With mobile games that are becoming more and more popular, it is easier if you are not a full-time player too. You are on the sofa and then you can play easily instead of setting up the console and everything to be ready to play.
Florian: How different are mobile games to localize than the Triple-A monster console games?
Alessandra: The gamer loves the console experience. This is where we started. What is becoming more and more popular are mobile games where audio localization is not that present right now since it is more focused on text localization. Step by step they are becoming more and more complex and more languages will be added. It is a different experience. It is good to have a mobile if you want to play faster or you do not have much time. The old school is the console game, the PC game, where you have amazing audio, graphics and the experience is different.
Florian: You have mobile, console, and now the metaverse. What are your thoughts on that? Does it even make sense to talk about it at this point in time? Metaverse localization?
Alessandra: This is something that we believe is very interesting. Our eyes are wide open. Customers are reacting in a different way, at a different speed, and have different plans, so let us see how it will develop. We expect that in the next 12 months, we will see a big impact on the industry with metaverse. Let us see how it will evolve, but it is something that we are interested in.
Florian: Let us stay with the streaming side, like Google Stadia. Is that in any shape or form relevant for your day-to-day mode that it gets to people? If it is streamed or you buy it on a console, does it have any impact?
Alessandra: If I have to think about the process and the level of care and attention that we apply to console video games and streaming, I do not see any big differences in the process. For us, it is pretty much the same. If we speak about the process that we apply from moving from a video game for console to a streaming one, it is the same. The same professional and talented pool of project managers. The workflow is the same but we may have more video games, so the market will become bigger and bigger.
Esther: How involved do you or the team get in terms of casting voices, onboarding voice acting talent, and that part of the process?
Alessandra: We are always happy to have new talent, to work with them, and to expand our pool and database. Our recruiting process for actors is always open and in progress and we are actively working also with the dubbing school and acting school. As soon as we have a new actor ready from the school, we are happy to start working with them to always have new voices in our database. All the data that we are using from all the actors are protected and we are following all the rules and all the regulations in all of the countries where we record.
Esther: When casting for a specific title, is there a lot of back and forth with the client to propose different actors or different styles of voices for a particular character?
Alessandra: Customers are different and they have all different approaches, so we usually act as a consultant and have built trust over the years. We may receive different requests, from please cast all the characters in the game or we want to cast the first five or ten main characters and we totally trust you and we believe that you can do all the rest. We are open to any suggestions and we are happy to support as a consultant more than a service provider in that direction. We may have a database casting session or live casting and sometimes we have a lot of back and forth with the client specifically for the main characters. It is where the artistic part of the game starts and it is interesting.
Esther: Are there certain languages or language combinations that become more challenging either due to regulations or because they are linguistically complex or because there is not enough talent? Are there any that stand out as being problematic in that sense?
Alessandra: With our nearly 25 years of experience, we have seen many challenges and we have overcome all of them together with our clients, so we are very happy about that. At the moment I do not see any specific challenge connected to languages since over the years we have set up a specific resource management team that supports the production to look for writers, recording studios, and resources. Either in the target country or to keep a good relationship with the one that we already work in. We have a strong and intense training program where we connect production, resource management, and the studio so that they are all aligned about our expectations and this is both in terms of production itself but also in terms of regulations, local contracts, the rights of the voice actor, which is a tough topic for us. One new trend that we are facing over the past couple of years is connected to more and more mobile games coming from Asia and China, meaning that we have a new source language. Before we were used to having English as the source language, so the UK and USA were the source country. China is where we have a lot of new mobile games and the source language is Chinese. This has changed a bit our internal workflow where step by step, we are working on a hybrid solution with the artistic experience of the creation from US Hollywood movies and TV series. We have teams that are focused on the localization workflow and we are working to combine the best of both.
Florian: How do you categorize the voices? How do you do that in your resource library?
Alessandra: This is something that starts from the very beginning with the custom sessions. We invite new actors that have never worked with us and then from that session our Custom Manager and our Dubbing Director can start to define which will be the main categories for that voice. Then step by step, we may understand that you are good for some specific characters. All these levels will be added to the database. Each time that we have to cast 10 monsters, we need four male voices between 30 to 40 years old for that, and then step by step the casting director listens to all the source files to identify which is the best target.
Florian: Is it super competitive? For example, there are only so many voice actors in your database and all the monsters may be booked out.
Alessandra: That is why our recruiting process is always ongoing. It may happen that someone may decide to change his career and does not want to be an actor anymore and then we need a monster to replace the old one.
Florian: What are your thoughts on fully artificial voices and potentially recorded voices that are now used to create new output?
Alessandra: The technology is in progress and we are working with several companies and Keywords would like to be part of the innovation, so it is one of the areas that we want to develop. A high amount of emotions are required in the video game recording. We see some areas where we can use the artificial voice: tutorials, mission briefings, where the character is providing instructions without any specific emotion. Then what we use already in our daily life: car navigation systems, messages in elevators, etc. If we have the very same situation in the video game, we will propose the use of artificial voice. We also see the use in some secondary characters who are in the background in the game who do not have many lines and, again with a low level of emotion required. In other markets, the usage could be wider. The rights and the voice of the actor should be protected and has to be protected and in Keywords, we have a specific platform for the actors’ contract and the actors payout and we are following all the rules. This artificial new technology is something that should be taken into account in this scenario.
Esther: During COVID, were there challenges relating to everybody suddenly not being able to go into the studios? Operationally what impact did that have? What are your thoughts on cloud-based dubbing or voiceover as a solution either for COVID or for the future?
Alessandra: It was a challenge indeed. I still remember March 2020 when we were forced to stop production. After the initial shock, the team was amazing. They immediately set up remote recording solutions in every country. After not even a couple of weeks, we were able to provide the content to the customers so the production never stopped at that stage. This opened our eyes to a new scenario with a high level of flexibility that can be used and can be extremely helpful in some specific situations: small retakes, casting when the actor is on holiday, which is something we usually deal with a lot in August where all the actors in Italy are on holiday. I do not know if you ever have the chance to attend a recording session in a studio. The atmosphere, the connection that we have with the Dubbing Director, actors, and the Sound Engineer is amazing and you are recording in a safe environment where all the people are focused on that. While recording from home, you may have doors shutting, the dog outside backing, you may have your neighbor who decided to start hammering on the wall, and then you have to stop. It is helpful for some specific situations but to me, the preferred choice is to still record in the studio and you see immediately the magic of the audio localization and how it will be transferred in the final game.
Florian: What is your outlook for 2022, 2023? Would you agree that there is a convergence between media and gaming?
Alessandra: We see a lot of innovation, so we will keep our eye open on speech synthesis and I see a combined solution between technology, human talent, and the human touch in this direction. Mobile games will become more and more complex and I see an evolution in the requests of having more audio localization in these titles for the future and more titles coming from Asia. We see this as a combination between the media and video games, this is something that we are already experiencing daily. I cannot disclose anything, but believe me that in 2022, we are working on amazing titles and we will have interesting things to play.