Why Video Games Take So Long to Publish

It’s time for stuff! 

I’ve noticed a lot of people being frustrated when games don’t come out as soon as they’d like, so I’d like to share why those games seem to take forever, as well as pointers. This doesn’t just apply to my company, but to many companies, even! It’ll be fairly helpful.

Placeholder dates: See those dates on Amazon or Gamestop? Don’t go by them. If a game was just announced and is coming up for pre-order, those dates aren’t real dates yet. Those are oftentimes placeholder dates, or ‘goal dates’, made by publishers. Ideally, they’d love to make those dates! But it’s not a ship date, and certainly not a release date. Look for official press releases, on a publisher’s facebook, twitter, or mailing list, to see what they say about dates. 


Good Terms to know:

- Placeholder date: Like said above, an imaginary date made by developers or publishers as a goal date, but also so people can take pre-orders. Many places require a date in order for pre-orders to be taken, thus, the birth of this. It’s commonly seen as something like ‘December 31st, 2014’ or something way off in the future, but that’s not always the case.

- Release date: If a publisher releases a statement and says, “December 25th is the release date,” it’s expected to be in stores December 25th.

- Ship date: If a publisher releases a statement and says, “December 25th is the ship date,” it’s expected that the title, which is stored in warehouses and ready for pick-up for various places like Best Buy, Amazon, Gamestop, etc., could possibly be in stores December 25th, but it’s only beginning to be picked up from said warehouses on the 25th, and it’s expected that those places will have them in stock throughout the week.

- Developer: The people who made the game. Say you’re a writer, and you wrote a book. You’re the developer, in this case.  A team made a concept and programmed it into life. The developers for Rune Factory 4, for example, are Neverland. 

- Publisher: The people who distribute the game. You wrote this book, but you have no means of making it into physical copies and distributing it to the masses. You go to a publisher who will fund this venture. In the case of video games, publishers will translate it into another language, edit the work, and then distribute. Beyond that, they don’t make the games, they just try to make them available. XSEED Games would be the publisher in North America for Rune Factory 4. 

- Localizer: Sometimes a company can’t publish in certain regions, but they translated, localized, and edited the game. So, they’ll do all that work, but they’ll give the publishing rights to someone else. XSEED Games was both the localizer and publisher for the North American version of Way of the Samurai 4. However, NISA used our English version and published it in Europe, since they have the ability to do so while we can’t. 


Why would publishers do this? Ship dates? Why not do release dates always? It’s confusing!

Actually, ship dates used to be the standard. With the rise of the big-budget AAA titles, release dates became increasingly common, but smaller publishers can’t work with those kinds of schedules, since any small set-back and take a lot of time to fix.


But even a long time ago, a place said December 25th, and I could go in and pick up my copy on December 25th.

Sometimes, it works that way! Sometimes things within publishing don’t go wrong, production and manufacturing move swiftly, and places like Gamestop and Amazon can pick the games up sooner than expected with a ship date, allowing them to stock it sooner. 


Well, why can’t it always work that way? 

It’s no understatement to say the process of every single game is different. One title can go smooth as butter, the next can be a rocky road of hell, and there’s not much anyone can do about it. If a publisher has a lot of employees, if places you communicate with (like Sony, or maybe the developers in Japan) respond to approvals quickly, if manufacturing works out, things might not be so bad. But if you’re small, if people don’t respond to e-mails, if your product fails inspection (which I’ll explain later), things get pushed back before you even realize it.


An example: The life story of Rune Factory 4:

Translation, Editing, and Localizing: 

I’ll start the process of Rune Factory 4 after the months it took to acquire the rights and after the receipt of a 1.6 million Japanese character count (a massive number - the average Final Fantasy title falls between 400-700k Japanese characters, as I was once told by a former Square-Enix employee*). Now, most assume that Japanese game publishers are huge -and a couple of them are a decent size!- but most think that there are at least a hundred, or even more. 

*fun fact - XSEED was founded by the former president of Square-Enix USA, along with several Squaresoft/Square-Enix employees. Today, Ken Berry, current Vice President of XSEED Games, is the last one standing. He’s done an amazing job building this company to be what it is today.

XSEED averages from year to year on 8-9 employees. While some publishers have specialists in every position, a lot of Japanese game publishers, not just us, have multiple jobs within our job. It’s not uncommon to work 12-15+ hour days every day, or have work spill into the weekend. Thankfully, we have translators we can trust whom we work with on a contract basis, as well as some in-house translators. 


How are games translated, exactly?

First, we have to wait until the developer gives us the text, which publishers convert into excel files. Yes, many times translators only have giant walls of text in an excel sheet to look at and that’s it. Of course, publishers also try to have the translators play the games and will provide copies of the Japanese version, but it’s impossible for a translator to make a deadline and thoroughly play through every line in the game. It’s very impossible, even. 

Anyway, sometimes those excel sheets are five different files with 100 tabs, other times it’s 100 different files with five tabs. It’s different every time. Sometimes it’s pure conversational text, meaning there could be an entire chunk of in-game visual context you could be missing that’d make the scene very different to translate, and other times they’ll have literal ‘stage’ directions written in the text. I’ve found that to be pretty rare, actually.

Games also can’t just be translated, but localized and edited. And I don’t mean making pop culture references; that’s not localizing. I mean making a character sound natural in English.

Example: Let’s take Doug, one of the bachelors from Rune Factory 4. He’s a dwarf whose way of speaking in Japanese is pretty rough and informal. One translator/editor had even described him as something of a punk with his word usage. A punk with a heart, or a rascal. Certain lines won’t translate to reflect this, especially when you have someone who is a Japanese native speaker translating very literally. Take this real-life example of a one-liner Doug has when describing one of the various weather conditions:

Direct translation: “Shit. This weather…it’s very bad!”

It’s not wrong, exactly. What he’s saying is true. The weather’s bad and he’s likely cursing its, well, badness. But even if it’s correct, is it really the way someone like him would say it in the English-speaking world? Plus, we definitely don’t want the word ‘shit’ in a game like this. It doesn’t quite fit the atmosphere of the game. Too intense. Shit could be ‘damn’, or anything, but the translator went with that.

Maybe this?: “Wow, this weather sure is bad!”

Hm. That’s not it either. Taking out the negative portion of the direct translation, ‘Shit’, doesn’t reflect his displeasure at the weather. The rest of the sentence also is worded a bit too formally for someone like him. It’s not overly-formal, but does it really say ‘That’s Doug’?

Final: “Man, this weather’s crap!” 

Ah, that’s the one! It manages to show off the informality of someone with his personality type, as well as show displeasure without using language that doesn’t befit the game. 


Now do this with over a million Japanese characters, which can translate to millions of words, as sometimes one Japanese character can represent an entire sentence or phrase. On a deadline.


Don’t forget that Japanese tends to skip on the pronouns, meaning it’s very easy to mistranslate a section, because without the context of the game you can’t figure out who’s talking to who about what. One of our translators had even translated Porcoline as a girl because they could only go off of speech patterns and not pronouns. Another example of this from another publisher is Aksys Games’ Ragnarok Tactics, where one translator had translated an entire character thinking he was a girl, only to later realize it was a man. Then it was off to fix a lot of mistakes. 


August 2012 - Translation for Rune Factory 4 begins with a deadline of only six months to be not only translated, but fully edited. Three translators. Heaven or Hell, let’s rock.

March 2013 - Translation is finished! Editing is also, for the most part, finished. 


Programming English into Japanese games:

This part is something of a waiting game for publishers. Why is that? Well, Japanese publishers don’t do the programming, generally. Even places as big as Bandai-Namco will send the text back to the developer, who have the programmers and creators and people who know the game’s code best, to input the text. Inputting text can take anywhere from 2 weeks to, in the case of Rune Factory 4, 2 months and ready by May or so. We have lots of other work to do in the meantime, but until we can play the game in English, we can’t do much more than wait.

So, two months pass and we have English text in our game! Our very first version of the game, or ‘build’! That means the game is almost ready to go, right?

No. Oh, no, no, no, no. That means we’re ready to start QA, or Quality Assurance. Generally QA for a small title, like Corpse Party: Book of Shadows, will take 2 weeks or less, while for a big game like Rune Factory 4, it will be scheduled for 4 weeks. I say scheduled, because we estimated that 4 and ended up going into 6 and sort of 7-8-ish, throwing off a lot of scheduling.

The job of people in QA is to break the game. They’ll play through the story, of course, but what they really do is try every inane thing a person will do just to see if the game will crash. They’ll also report misspellings and terminology issues. Believe it or not, an entire game might not be allowed to be published until certain terms are fixed!

Some big publishers, like Square-Enix USA, will hire people and create their own personalized QA team. Others, like XSEED, will hire companies who specialize in QA. I’m also in particular the kind of person who tries to play through as much of our games while they’re being worked on as possible, and I’m given the creative freedom to correct lines to fit the context of the situation, as well as tweak lines to better fit a character’s personality.

This happened a lot with Rune Factory 4. I had, over the course of 8 weeks, changed over 6000 lines of text, possibly more.** There was often a change of pronouns (Lots of “You learned to make-!” to “I learned to make-!” in particular), change of dialogue to be more serious or to better fit a character portrait’s facial expression, etc. I don’t think it’s possible to catch everything, and I’ll feel awfully bad if there are obvious mistakes in the final product, but I feel happy that I was able to play over 300+ hours and still enjoy the game while making it better at the same time.

** Fun fact number 2: before we inputted the text, I read through half of the games’ text in an excel sheet without knowing anything about the game just to check for spelling issues in two weeks. The second week I caught a stomach flu and ended up staying home with a 102+ fever, vomiting, the works, but since we had a deadline I brought my home with me. That week was sleep, be sick, and read RF4. At one point I was even in the hospital on an IV drip just so I could feel hydrated enough to finish! And finish I did. Whoo-hoo!

One particular thing I caught last minute was a cultural joke. Amber (Kohaku) had made a comment to Illuminata about her legs reminding her of a daikon radish, which made Illuminata angry. I had no idea what it meant, and immediately asked the bilingual speakers in the office what it could mean. I had to ask several before one finally knew what I was talking about and started laughing. “For women in Japan, if their legs get compared to a daikon radish, it means their legs are fat and stumpy. Like cankles. It makes them self-conscious.”

So, Amber had innocently made a comment that offended Illuminata. I don’t think people in English would really get it. I certainly didn’t, and I like to think of myself as decently well-versed in cultural knowledge at this point. The major English equivalent I could think of was ‘chicken legs’, which is often a derogatory way of pointing out the lack of beauty in a woman’s legs. Since chickens are called cluckadoodles in the world of Rune Factory, I made the comparison that way using cluckadoodles. Whew! Confusing crisis averted!


So, 4 weeks of QA became 8 weeks. But it’s done by the end of June, right? So shouldn’t you be ready to go by July or August?

Not necessarily. One of the reasons it’s taking some time is because this is a very important product to us, and had QA gone smoothly, things would have been fine. For us in particular, we’ve now grown cautious of releasing our precious titles without being thorough.

Earlier this year, we at XSEED Games released Pandora’s Tower. I had played and beaten the game dozens of times before release without ever experiencing a single crash, and I thought and still think of the game as one of the best games we’ve ever released. However, the final version of the game, the ‘master build’ which is used on the physical release that everyone plays, somehow still ended up with a very common freeze bug in the main story. Several, even. It thankfully never corrupted save data and there are work-arounds, but it was very scary and frustrating for us to realize there was something like that in the final build of a game. For that reason, along with realizing what a massive undertaking Rune Factory 4 was, we decided to take the time we needed to make sure that won’t happen again. It’s very, very difficult to issue a patch for a game, sometimes outright impossible, so it’s better to not have things like that happen at all.

I was given the task of playing the master build of Rune Factory from scratch and testing all the things that had been reported as crash bugs in earlier builds, doing silly things, playing through the plot. I’m happy to say, after beating the entire story and raising a very healthy farm alongside an adorable family with Leon one week later (I am a master at this game), I didn’t experience any crash bugs. I’m very happy!


Well then, you’re good to go! Start manufacturing! Get this game out here so I can play it!


Right now, Rune Factory 4 is undergoing its final test. It’s a test every single game must go through, so it’s very important! See, Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft don’t just let games get published on their systems. That master build, the final version of a game, must go through a personal inspection. A compliance test, if you will. RF4’s master build is sent to Nintendo, where they play through the game themselves and fret over it. This process normally takes about 4 weeks, and it’s fairly common to fail the first time around. They don’t just check for build stability, you see, but also to make sure legal terminology is correct. For example, one small sentence on our part could equal an automatic failure.

Example 1: “If you press the ‘A’ button, you can do a rolling dash!

Example 2: “If you press ‘A’, you can do a rolling dash!

Did you know that if you use example 1, you can automatically fail that very important test? Using ‘the’ and ‘button’ when describing said buttons goes against official Nintendo terminology, so it’s a big no-no. I was actually lucky enough to clean up close to 100 lines that used Example 1 in Rune Factory 4 long before the master build! These official terminology things are what we hire QA houses for, since they specialize in knowing these rules. There’s many more things like that as well, so it’s always a nail-biter when waiting to see if you passed.

With this schedule, if we pass the first time around, we’ll likely learn at the end of July. This is why July wasn’t a possible ship date for us. If we don’t pass, well…I guess we’ll come to it when we come to it! Haha.


So, say you pass the first time around at the end of July. Wouldn’t August be okay to ship still?

Manufacturing for Rune Factory 4, due to the amazing support we’ve been given, is estimated to take about a month. We’d have to start around the beginning of August, and if things went smoothly, it’d be finished by the end of August. It’s impossible to start manufacturing, or building the physical copies of the title for distribution into places like Amazon or Gamestop, until we pass the inspection from Nintendo.

So, by our estimation, September is now looking mighty likely! Thankfully, that is still within our Summer 2013 estimation, meaning we’re still within what we feel is reasonable time.

Anyway, taking out some key things here and there like package/manual design (by the way, XSEED is very proud to be keep publishing full-color manuals!), approvals and such, that’s basically what bringing over a game looks like! Again, every single game is different, and every publisher has their quirks. But if this helps even one person understand the system of why games take so long a little more, I’ll be happy. As always, I’m here and happy to answer more questions, so long as they don’t break NDA, so do ask if you’re confused! It’s better to educate than to ignore, if you ask me.

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    Good info from someone who worked on localizing Rune Factory 4 for North America.
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