Interview: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn's Michael-Christopher Koji Fox Discusses Localization and Lore

June 28, 2013

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is only a couple months away from its release, and while we see a lot of Naoki Yoshida, Masayoshi Soken and other relevant developers behind the game, there’s a much less visible team which makes sure that every single line of text gets timely translated into a language we can understand.

At the head of that team is Localization Lead Michael-Christopher Koji Fox (known as Fernehalwes on the Lodestone forums), that is also renowned as one of the most prominent experts of the lore and backstory of the game. I had a chance to have a chat with him about his work and about what we can expect from the future on the lore front.

What did he tell me? Read on…

Giuseppe: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. Localization specialists are often seen (or unseen) as unsung heroes in the game industry. Can you tell us a little more about your job and your typical work day at Square Enix?

Michael-Christopher Koji Fox: There really isn’t a typical day, it kind of depends on where we are in a project or on what we’re doing at that time. Let’s see… I get into work at around ten o’clock and I start off by checking the Final Fantasy XIV forums, whether they be the beta forums or the regular Lodestone forums. This is something that I want to do every day, just because I want to keep in touch with what the players are saying about the game and check out what they think of our localizations and just, you know, the overall feeling of the fanbase.

It’s really important because it helps us adjust the things that we do, and also gives us an opportunity to add some stuff, especially for the fans, you know, stuff that they’re really looking forwards to.

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After checking the forums, it really depends on where we are in a project — it’s not a set “I do this every day”. If we’re at the beginning of  a patch or a large beta phase, it usually comes down to checking design and concept documents and read trough them to find out what’s going to be implemented in the game and what the devs are thinking about.

I also work directly with the Main World Lore Planner on naming and background stories. I get to play through early builds of the game, usually in Japanese, to see what the game is looking like so I know that when I do actual translations, how things are going to go in the game and how they’re going to work.

Then of course I do a lot of translation. On heavy days we do upwards of six, seven thousands characters of translation. We try not to do that much because when it gets up that high you lose a lot of the creativity, because you go for speed rather than quality.

I also spend a lot of time working with the other guys in our team: the English team as well as the French and German teams. We talk a lot about what we’re going to do with the characterizations, certain stylistic issues, everything down to how we’re going to spell certain words… If we’re going to go with English spelling or British spelling… How certain races are going to talk, what kind of words they’re gonna use, the overall styles for cities… things like that.

We talk about adjustments… how we’re going to go in and tweak the text, and if those tweaks are big enough to warrant going over to the devs and getting their permission. That leads to the next part which is actually going over to the devs and talking with them about the stuff that they have written. We ask them a lot about intentions… Why they wrote a quest a certain way, what they want the players to get out of it.

If it’s a new character appearing in the quest we will ask them about the background of those characters, where they want to take the characters, we need all that information so that when we translate it, we know that we’re gonna give the player what the developer and the planner really intended. Then, again, if we decide we need to make some changes, whether be characterization or maybe how a character handles a certain happening  during the quest, we make sure to talk with the planner and see if that’s okay. A lot of times it is, sometimes he tells us no and we make sure that we follow that.

We also do bug fixing — we have a great Quality Assurance team in Los Angeles. They check through all of our text and not only find grammar and spelling bugs, but they make sure we’re being consistent because again, with a game this size, even though we’re all well versed in the story, we can miss a lot of stuff, whether be characterization issues or certain lore points that have slipped our minds. The QA team is great at catching things like that.

On top of that there’s a lot of other little stuff that can come up now and then. Some of that can be kind of crazy. I’ve been asked to do some voice acting… bit parts. When they need like crowd voices going “Aaah!” or “Yeah!”,   me and a bunch of other localization team members just go into the studio and do a bunch of groans or cheers. I’ve written lyrics for boss battle music for sound director Soken. I’ve actually sung some of those lyrics (laughs).

I also handle the Developers’ Blog. I do a lot of translating for the Producer when he gets mails in English, or he needs his translated into English. I also do interpreting for Yoshida-san whenever he goes somewhere like E3 or Gamescom, places where he has to give interviews to English media. I’ll go with him and make sure I do all of his interpreting.

On top of that, we also work with other teams beyond the event and quest planners. We work with the UI team, asking them to tweak the UI to help accommodate the English, French and German languages, which tend to be a lot longer then Japanese, so we have to ask them to make design changes and things like that.

So, yeah, there’s a lot of stuff that we do in a typical day. Some days it can be just 100% translation. Other days it can be running around the team talking with people… but yeah, it’s a lot of work.

G: I read that the localization of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn isn’t exactly a straight one-way affair from Japanese to English like the usual video game translations. Can you elaborate on how this works?

MCKF: Oh, yes, localization is definitely not a one-way affair on this project. Actually it hasn’t been back since the beginning of the project and before then into Final Fantasy XI. The localization team has always worked closely with the online teams  to provide a little bit more than what the Japanese developers can provide, because when you come down to it, both Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV are massively multiplayer online games that are played on servers with players from around the world. They want to give it a more global feel… something that’s not strictly Japanese… something that has a feel of being international since there’s no borders in this game.

One of the things that they do is instead of making things solely Japanese and then ask us to translate those, they’ll talk with the localization team and collaborate with us to get more western ideas in the game itself. This comes down to things like monster names, monster attacks, place names, item names… these are all conceived by myself and the other members of the English team and we work directly with the world lore planners to come up with these, and then help them translate them back into Japanese.

We make sure that there are stories connected with these as well, so it’s not just random names. There’s a reason why something is called an “Angry Gobbue” — the Gobbue’s angry for a reason. NPCs as well are actually a collaboration between all of the localization team members. For example, the hyur and miqo’te names for NPCs are all done by the English team, the Elzen names are all conceived by the French team, the Lalafell names come from the Japanese team, and the Roegadyn names are a joint effort between the German and English teams and so, again, you have all these aspects of the game that are being created by not just the Japanese side, but also by the localization side as well.

And then, again, a lot of the quests, when we do our translations, we will some times add things — Japanese can be a very vague language — a lot of important information is either cut completely or it’s implied heavily. It can be kind of confusing  for western players and readers, so we’ll go in and tweak things to make it a little easier to understand and a little bit clearer. A lot of times the Japanese team will then go back and look at the English translations or the French translations and get ideas on how they can change the Japanese text in turn.

So a lot of stuff that we’ve done actually influenced the Japanese side as well. It’s going back and forth and there’s a lot of communication between us and the team. One of the greatest benefits of working on this project is being able to sit right next to the development team, so any time we have a question or any time they have a question, you just really stand up and walk for five seconds, and right there we’re able to have open communication and work together. I think it really makes the game that much better.

G: How much leeway is given to the localization team when translating the script from Japanese to English? Do you prefer a more literal approach or a heavily adapted approach?

MCKF: Well, when it comes to wording we’re given a great deal of freedom, but when it comes to story we make sure to try to stick to the original Japanese. Again, what we’re doing is nothing as extensive as what happened on Vagrant Story, but it’s anything but a literal translation. The most important part of our job is to make sure that players will have the same sort of emotional experience.

You look at how players reacted to Louisoix fading to white in that trailer that we released, and if we had deviated from Louisoix’s story in all of the quests that led up to that, when you hit that scene, it wouldn’t impact players as much. The fact that you had players in Japan, in America, in France and in Germany and all over the world reacting the same way to that scene — that shock and all that sadness — is what everything boiled down to. That was the main intention of the producer and the writers. It was to have everyone get really emotional at that scene and making sure that the translation that we have done for everything up to there could build up to that final climax is what’s important.

We didn’t 100% follow the exact wording that was used in Japanese, but we made sure that the final result was what the original writers intended.

G: The game has a star spangled voice cast in Japan. Have the English voice actors already been decided?

MCKF: Yeah, we have a great voice cast for the Japanese version. They went all out with all of those great voice actors who have a long history in the industry and lots of experience. We tried to do the same with the English, French and German versions, and hopefully our PR team will allow us to reveal that information to you some time really soon.

G: The lore of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is extremely rich, and you’re known as an expert. What inspired the idea of creating a forum dedicated to the lore? Can we expect a further evolution of the concept or more lore-specific features in the future?

MCKF: Since before the game was released I wanted to have a place on the forums where players could get together and talk about lore. I love stories, I love fantasy and I love reading. Whenever I play other games from other companies, I’ll make a point to go in and learn as much as I can about the world, and I know that there are a lot of people out there that are like me. They enjoy the story, they enjoy the background and the intricacies that are there in that world, conceived by the planners.

Since this is an online game you have this living community that is always up and about and learning more about the world and talking about it, and I wanted them to have a place to be able to discuss that, and talk about it and speculating, writing down their thoughts. So, since the Lodestone was released I kept going to the community and service teams telling “we need a lore forum, we need a lore forum!” They kept saying “Yeah sure, we’ll talk about it…”

They kept pushing it off and then everybody got busy, then i mentioned it again when they weren’t busy, but they got busy again. But finally, we got it up and now players have a place where they can go to discuss and speculate on the finer points of the story and not have their posts kind of fade away in the dark recesses of the General Discussion forums. They’ll stand out and they’ll bring people to them, so they can start discussions and keep the forums lively. It’s a happy circle, so I was really glad that we were able to get that up and running.

I’d like to be more involved with the forums. I kind of created it and then got busy and left it myself, and I feel really bad because that’s the exact thing I didn’t want to do. I want to work with it and get involved a little bit more, but until release it’s going to be tough (laughs).

But once the game is released i want to get back on the forums and start a conversation with everybody. Maybe drop a few lore bombs and dispel some of the myths. You know… make sure that people are on the right path and maybe throw out a few red herrings every now and then, because red herrings are always good to keep things interesting.

Once the game launches, I’d love for the Lore forums to expand into something even bigger than they are now. I also know that Yoshida-san has mentioned things like having in-game bestiaries and libraries of knowledge. I’m all for these things. I have a feeling that he might have forgotten. Just said it and then forgot about it. But I’ll make sure that he doesn’t forget and that we work to get some of that stuff in the game, because I love the lore and the game has a great backstory and it deserves to be told and I want to see as much of it told as possible.

G: We already know that the three leaders of the Grand Companies, the three Archons and Minfilia will make a return in the new game. Can we expect any other relevant character from Final Fantasy XIV to appear? Will we finally learn about Minfilia’s past?

MCKF: The PR guys won’t let me say too much, but I can tell you that several characters of 1.0 will be making appearances, as well as some well known characters from previous Final Fantasy games like…well, let’s just say that true fans of the series will recognize the names, so once the game will be released you’ll get to see all of this. Sorry, that’s all I can tell you.

Well, wasn’t that a final tease… those meddling PR guys managed to gag Fernehalwes right at the end. Yet, we got a lot more information on the process behind the localization of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, shedding some light on an area of the industry that is normally kept in the shadow. To discover the rest we’ll have to wait for August the 27th, when the game will finally hits shelves worldwide. 

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Giuseppe Nelva

Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.

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