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Building success through culturalisation

Beyō Global's Chui Chui Tan explores the three levels of culturalisation and how they can determine a game's success

There are many factors that contribute to the global success of a game. Culturalisation is one of the critical elements, which unfortunately is often overlooked. To be able to make the right culturalisation decisions, you need to understand your players and their context -- the market as a whole.

There are many definitions of what "games culturalisation" involves. For example, Kate Edwards talked about applying culturalisation in game design, navigating sensitive themes to reach wider markets.

Or according to Craig Alexander, vice president of product development for Turbine: "What we learned about international markets is that it's not enough to localize the content by just translating it. Instead, we have to culturalise it. In other words, for a game to successfully cross borders its attributes must delve fully into a user's ethnicity and culture."

Seek to have a full, comprehensive understanding and picture of your players in their context and culture

A holistic approach

Being a user experience and culturalisation expert, I am a strong believer in approaching culturalisation in a holistic way. The holistic approach is two-fold:

  1. Instead of just adapting your games by looking into a specific aspect of the country -- religious, legal, or particular cultural behaviour -- you seek to have a full, comprehensive understanding and picture of your players in their context and culture. This will then enable you to adapt your games more accurately, on a more meaningful level.
  2. Instead of just adapting a specific aspect of your games (e.g. the artwork) for a market, you integrate them throughout your design, build, marketing and publishing process. This means you're providing a more cohesive experience for your global players.

The three levels of culturalisation

To make culturalisation more easily digestible, let's dismantle it into three levels.

  • Level 1: Respect the regional establishment

An imperative level. It's the basis of forming a relationship between your game and the players. This level includes avoiding mistakes that might offend your local players or ones that break the local laws or anything that shows your lack of respect or understanding about their beliefs, values and customs.

Not getting this level of culturalisation right might damage your business and reputation both on the individuals and government levels. An example would be Football Manager 2005, which was outlawed by the China government when Tibet and Taiwan were designated as separate countries.

  • Level 2: Cultural expectation

This level is about creating an ecosystem that works within the context of the local gamers. It makes sure that you provide a user-friendly experience to your players in different countries. Bear in mind that a good or user-friendly experience for your German players might be -- slightly or significantly -- different from your Russian players.

Bear in mind that a good experience for your German players might be different from your Russian players

The oversight of this level of culturalisation would hinder your players' experience. One simple example of this is NCSoft's martial arts game Blade & Soul, which reached more than one million players in just a few days after its official launch in the US and Europe.

Before NCSoft West released a Westernized version of Blade & Soul -- which was an instant hit when it debuted in 2012 in Korea, with one million players in its first month -- its internal team worked hard with its Western development staff to adapt the game for the US and Europe without changing the vision. The studio went through a lot of closed beta testing to make sure that price points were correct for in-game currency and hard currency for the Western players.

  • Level 3: Experience enhancement

This level is about making your games stand out from others in a country by enhancing the players' games experience. Very often, such experience and the elements which come with it are not something that the players themselves can easily pinpoint to you -- it might be something that they don't know they miss or need until you offer it to them. This level of culturalisation requires an in-depth understanding of your players in their local context.

Bringing back the Blade & Soul example, another tweak the studio made was to raise the difficulty level to around 140% of what their Asian versions had, since one of the major feedback it often received in those regions was that it was too hard to level up and that they were more used to games that have a significant levelling curve and allow players to outright purchase items to make that curve easier.

NCSoft's Blade & Soul

The three levels of culturalisation shows the breadth of adaptation a company can explore and apply when releasing in different countries.

How can culturalisation determine the success of a game?

Culturalisation can be applied at many different levels in game design and publishing, determining how successful your game could be in different markets.

Games culturalisation is more than just about the content. It also applies to the operation and publishing aspects -- for example, nonetisation strategy, marketing strategy, which social media to be advertising on, and so on.

That's something Netmarble's US president Simon Sim discussed in an interview with last year: "For some games, we think true culturalisation is very important. For example, in mobile MMORPGs, player behaviour, content consumption speed, and accessibility are very different from Asia to the Western market. So how to meet those territories together? We need to fully culturalise not only the visuals and translation, but the mechanics across systems, difficulty, and learning curve."

Here are a handful of examples:

Games culturalisation is more than just about the content. It also applies to the operation and publishing aspects

  • Play style

Before you start designing your games, it would be useful to have a clear direction about the markets you are planning to focus on. The play styles of different regions might be slightly different.

For example, according to Julianne Harty, esports manager at NCSoft, when comparing the Eastern and Western Blade & Soul players: "One of the things we identified very early on was understanding the differences between the Western and Eastern play styles. Koreans tend to play a very cautious and defensive game while North Americans are very aggressive."

  • Artwork and character design

Adapting artwork for different markets is one of the best known culturalisation approaches. Many assume that it requires a huge amount of effort to do so, but this doesn't have to be the case.

Back in 2013, Adways Interactive picked up Burn the Rope from Canadian developer Big Blue Bubble with the intention to publish the game in Japan. The studio recognised that the original game already had something that appealed to the local Japanese market, and it was keen to keep that while making some changes to the artwork to make it even more appealing. Equipped with the local insight that Japanese players prefer small and cute characters instead of more realistic characters, it tweaked the character graphics and the art style without changing the game design at all.

Burn the Rope (Left: Western version; Right: Japanese version)
  • Icon design

Culturalisation does not always involve a big scale of adaptation. It could be as small detail as the design of an icon in your games.

For its Asian launch, 99Games decided to introduce several Asian dishes within their cooking and restaurant management game, Star Chef. One of the dishes was a bowl of noodles with a pair of chopsticks dipped in the food. Little did the studio know that planting the chopsticks directly in the bowl symbolises an offering for the deceased in Asian cultures. It immediately rolled out an update with a fix after it was pointed out to them.

"We understood the significance of such small elements and how important it was for us to get these things right," said 99Games' VP Shilpa Bhat in a blog post. "What appeared like a minor change from a developer's point of view, for a game that caters to cuisine and food enthusiasts, was a major glitch."

  • Music and sound design

It is about adapting the music and sounds to the specific audience in different countries. Let's take Runes of Magic by the Taiwanese developer Runewaker Entertainment as an example. It was not very successful in Taiwan and China, but German publisher Frogster saw great potential and decided to license the title and gain the rights to publish it in Europe and the US.

One of the changes the studio made so it would work better for Western players was the sound design. It understood that Asian players are used to high-frequency sounds -- more aggressive and loud -- where the whole sound atmosphere feels more crowded. On the other hand, European and US players are used to low-frequency sounds -- sub-bass, deep impacts, rumbling and more focused sound design.

The studio described "focused sound design" as: "You hear one thing prominently, and everything else gets balanced down to make space for the one important sound going on." The team subsequently created some new sound content and audio mixing before releasing the game for the US and Europe markets.

Chui Chui Tan, Beyō Global's founder
  • Monetisation and payment methods

In some cases, you might want to consider having different monetisation strategies for different markets. There are many factors to determine how you go about monetising your games and handling your payments. For example, there is a misconception that, in the Philippines, users don't pay. But that might not be completely true if you provide them with payment methods which are convenient and are familiar to the locals -- for example, payment via partnerships with local telecommunication companies.

Similarly, free-to-play mobile games might face challenges in the Latin American market due to the limited payment methods where prepaid cards and vouchers are more popular than credit cards or eWallet payments. This is something you might want to look into and explore if you are to launch your games in this region.

Another example is ZeptoLab's Pudding Monsters. When the studio decided to launch it in China through a local partner, it learned about how Chinese users are accustomed to getting digital content for free. The way developers monetise in China is via in-app purchases or ads, so weeks before its launch, it changed its payment strategy.

  • Marketing approach

Culturalising your marketing strategy can have various approaches. It could include understanding where and how players in different markets discover new games, how they go about choosing which games to try out or to play, or what will motivate them to recommend the games to their friends. A marketing method might work well in one country but less so in another.

For example, it is common for mobile games to be advertised on subways in South Korea, or through a huge outdoor and TV campaigns in Japan, or integrating your game within the WeChat app might be a good idea in China. This approach would save the players from having to log into an app store, enter credentials and endure additional download times. In addition, when a user is on WeChat's games section, their friends can always see the games they are or have been playing -- this could also serve as an effective marketing tool.

It is not an afterthought or nice-to-have

These are only some examples of how culturalisation could be implemented to contribute to the success of your games on a global scale. Understanding the local players and culturalisation is an investment to be considered upfront. There are many approaches from which to choose, with a wide range for high, low and medium costs. There really is no excuse to not include culturalisation into the process. Yes, it takes additional time and budget, but it will save many headaches down the road and the ROI will be much higher.

Chui Chui Tan is the founder of Beyō Global which focuses on international UX and culturalisation. She helps companies to better understand how their international customers experience and perceive their products or services. You can contact her at

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