Square Enix, the video game company behind the Final Fantasy franchise, relies on its international subsidiaries for the localization of most of their games for North American, European, and Australian game players.
Square Enix holds regional international operations, with subsidiaries in North America and Europe. Square Enix, Inc. is the North American subsidiary, and is located in El Segundo, California, in the United States. Square Enix Ltd., the European and Australian subsidiary, is located in London, England, in the United Kingdom.
When the Japanese game developers decide to release a game internationally, they send it to their international subsidiaries; it is first sent to North America, and from there to Europe and Australia. The staff works mainly from Japanese to English and the other way around, and from American English to British English, French, German, Spanish, Russian, and several other languages.
Before a translation is greenlighted and translators are allocated, the localization, QA and marketing staff play through a build of the game and sometimes do a focus group study. The localization team's playthrough can sometimes take over 100 hours of gameplay. Once the company greenlights a localization project, a period of brainstorming starts in which glossary, style, naming schemes, fonts, etc. are chosen.
During the translation phase, voiced sections are translated first. Text files are crosschecked by multiple translators and editors. The text is then integrated along with any graphic and sound changes, and the game goes to quality assurance. During a period of several weeks to up to three months, Japanese QA teams look for bugs while Western QA teams check linguistic issues. The localization team often replays the game during this phase, translates the manuals and help out on the guidebooks if these are made. Finally, the game is sent to the hardware manufacturers to be approved.
Challenges for the localization teams include space limitations (due to data storage and/or on-screen space), achieving a natural dialogue flow despite multiple plot branches and script lines being stored out of order, and, when voiced footage is not rerecorded for lip movement, dealing with file length and lip-sync limitations. However, recent technological advancements have made it possible to reprogram the lip movements to match spoken English dialogue. For example, in Final Fantasy X, which was released in North America back in 2002 for the PlayStation 2, lip movements were still in Japanese, even though the audio was in English.
However, more recent games such as Crisis Core -Final Fantasy VII- and Dissidia Final Fantasy, both released in North America on the PSP in 2008 and 2009, respectively, now have the lip movements reprogrammed to match up with audible English dialogue in storyline cutscenes. Most English voice actors cast for the characters tend to come from the United States, which is why their characters tend to have American accents. However, more recently, a few characters have began to display various other foreign accents in their voices. For example, in Final Fantasy XII, some characters, such as Balthier and Larsa, have British accents, and in Final Fantasy XIII, two of the main playable characters, Oerba Yun Fang and Oerba Dia Vanille, have Australian accents.
When translating its video games, Square Enix tries to take into account the cultural differences between Japan and the Western countries. This sometimes involves rewriting dialogue or altering graphics, animations, and sounds. For instance, in Chocobo Racing, visual references to the Japanese folk heroes Momotarō and Kiji were changed to depict Hansel and Gretel instead, since the game was destined mainly to children, and Hansel and Gretel are better known to Western children than Momotarō and Kiji; references to Japanese folklore and pop culture are often replaced with references to American folklore and pop culture. As another example, in Final Fantasy X, Yuna's last line to Tidus was changed from "Arigatō" (literally "Thank you") to "I love you", due to different cultural sensitivities concerning the subject of romance.
Censorship can also affect the localized versions of the games, due to the United States having higher censorship standards than Japan, and require obscuring mature themes, altering graphics, or removing parts of some scenes. This was common in the NES and SNES eras, but less drastic later on once video game content rating systems were established, although censorship is still fairly common; most games and other forms of entertainment from Japan often gets slightly censored for American audiences, aiming at slightly younger demographics in the United States than those in Japan.
Gameplay may also be altered when it is felt that a game might be too easy or difficult for the Western audience. Characters' abilities are adjusted, toning some up, and others down, to rebalance the playing field, preventing any character from having a clear advantage over another.
The localized versions of the games may sometimes expand on the original games. For example, the Westernized version of Dissidia Final Fantasy contains an Arcade Mode, an additional gameplay mode that is not found on the original Japanese release. Generally, gameplay content left out of the original game due to time constraints may be completed and added in the localized versions (such as extra boss fights, events, and cutscenes).
Sometimes, the expanded, localized games, usually the North American ports (due to similar technology in both Japan and North America), are re-released in Japan (with only text translated back into Japanese and the addition of Japanese subtitles to audible English dialogue), and are branded as "International Versions", and if the North American release has been censored, the international version of the game might possibly get a lower content rating than the original Japanese version.
Recently, Square Enix has expressed willingness to make "worldwide simultaneous releases the norm". Concerning Final Fantasy XI, producer Hiromichi Tanaka had stated that while Japanese/North American/Australian simultaneous releases are possible due to only translating Japanese to English, it was not possible for European countries (except for the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland) due to the difficulty of finding good Japanese-to-European-languages translators.
The time gaps between Japanese and Western releases vary from game to game; in some cases, the Westernized games may be released mere days after the original Japanese release, while in other cases, the time gap may span several months. A notable example of this is Dissidia Final Fantasy; the original Japanese release was on December 18, 2008, while the Western release in North America was on August 25, 2009, some eight months after the Japanese release, due to content additions and edits.
For more information, see the Wikipedia article.