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[Digital Simplicity] Lost in translation due to raging dispute over mobile game


Once in a while, a well-made game hits the market, gets mostly positive reviews from gamers and rakes in handsome profits over an extended period. To achieve this daunting goal, it must have two main elements: deeply entertaining gameplay and responsive communication with gamers.

Guardian Tales, a mobile game launched by Kakao Games on July 16, met the first condition, but has failed to meet the second, touching off a wave of disputes in the domestic gaming industry.

The once-popular mobile game is now at the center of heated disputes and hatred-infested confrontations on social media. Just a couple of weeks ago, it was touted as a rare success story; now it is a cautionary tale for other game developers.

Guardian Tales, developed by the South Korean unit of US-based Kong Studios, is an adventure role-playing game offering an array of collectable characters. Users can mix and match characters to create teams to navigate the virtual mobile world, unlocking puzzles and showing off their power.

As with most free-to-play mobile games, Guardian Tales depends on the “gatcha” or loot box scheme to make money, but it did not go for an overtly greedy path. Because there is a limit on the daily budget for loot box draws, game players cannot get all-powerful characters overnight. Instead, they have to play on a daily basis and solve puzzles to become slightly more powerful.

In addition to cute collectable characters, Guardian Tales offers plenty of parody scenes drawn from famous manga or movies such as “Dragon Ball,” “Naruto” and “Frozen.” These playful scenes and dialogues appealed to Korean gamers.

Things looked good -- perhaps too good to be true. On Aug. 2, Kakao Games, the Korean game publisher in charge of the local service for Guardian Tales, changed a line of character dialogue through a stealth patch. In the following days, the move sparked a dispute, fueling divisive speculation on social media.

The update was, in retrospect, simple. The original English version of the dialogue contained a derogatory term, which was translated into a sexist Korean word that was particularly offensive to women. Kakao Games’ new translation of the dialogue, however, was taken as offensive to men, upsetting many male players and sparking a boycott.

Sensing a make-or-break crisis, Kakao Games issued an apology, promising to address the issue promptly and make efforts to communicate with players. It hurriedly altered the dialogue again. Unfortunately, its third attempt to translate the dialogue was offensive to women.

Now, Kakao Games is getting slammed by a firestorm of criticism from both groups on social media -- men questioning whether man-hating feminists were involved in the initial patch, and women protesting the publisher’s decision to go along with male players’ demands and leave in sexist dialogue.

While the confrontation between the two groups is getting out of control, the review rating by players on Google Play Store plunged from a lofty 4.9 (out of 5) to a disappointing 1.8. Some big spenders, often called “whales” in the mobile gaming sector, are said to have left Guardian Tales in the aftermath of the raging dispute.

Man-hating female groups and woman-hating male groups have continued name-calling, waging a virtual battle over the game’s dialogue and the publisher’s missteps. Media reports are unnecessarily amplifying the disputes by focusing on the clashes between the sexes.

But the loud disputes are missing the real point. Why are players rushing to ditch Guardian Tales, whose gameplay itself remains good enough to invest time and money in?

What started all the racket was Kakao Games’ strangely quick move to change controversial dialogue without prior notice, but there was already a serious problem that remained untouched. The publisher had largely ignored a series of requests from players, who faithfully reported bugs and asked for fixes.

Keeping mum about reported bugs and in-game issues, Kakao Games, however, suddenly changed the translation of the dialogue in question, generating misunderstanding about its position on gender issues. This left many players doubtful about whether they could trust this publisher.

The translation blunder suggests that Kakao Games has a poor grasp of the importance of communication in mobile gaming. This is fatal, especially for a free-to-play mobile game in which a single patch could reshape the gameplay and make all the previous monetary investments worthless overnight.

Even though a game might be perfect in every other aspect, faulty communication with players can result in the loss of trust, a far more important factor in turning a game into a long-haul success than strange gender disputes.

By Yang Sung-jin (insight@heraldcorp.com)

Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.
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