The Story of Sebastien and Utopos

Translating fun: how to make games the world will enjoy


Back in the early ‘90s, when Atari ruled the earth, I was one of the legions of bedroom coders fighting for the affections (and pocket money) of the world’s gamers. I was developing Utopos, my first game for the legendary Atari ST, when I received a letter from Sebastien Larnac, a French gamer who had got hold of a demo copy. Sebastien offered to give me a full French translation in return for a free copy of the full game.

I agreed, and as a result around half of my sales ended up coming from France. This lesson in the power of translation stuck with me, and I have always insisted on multiple languages in any product I work on. Now, nearly 20 years later, Sebastien is still working with me.

Since the 20th anniversary of the release of my first game is approaching, I spoke to Sebastien about Utopos, and the possibilities for today’s generation of budding game translators.

What made you decide to write and offer your services as a translator?

– Well it all started back in 1994 or so. At that time I was a heavy ATARI STe fan, and still am to be honest. As a consequence, I came to know about and fall in love with demos, being artistic demonstrations using the limited hardware as far as possible (and very often beyond that). At that time I strongly wanted to become a game translator, something I actually had to forget about later. So I contacted you to offer a French translation against a free copy. You know, French people have never been really good at languages, though as these were my main studies I thought it could only help to sell that great game.

Utopos seems like a lifetime ago. Do you even remember what it was about?

– Of course! It was a great 50 fps gravity shooter using STe expanded hardware, opening upper and lower borders for instance, adding sampled FX and soundtrack and it was terribly addictive! I played it for years with a good friend of mine and believe me if at first it’s a bit tricky to fight against gravity to avoid crashes, once you get into it, games are simply insanely fun! In the summer of 1995 when I travelled to Helsinki to achieve a compulsory training period for my studies, I clearly remember you and the other guys working on Utopos 2 and I even seem to remember there was a PC version started too. So, as you can see, I haven’t forgotten about that game. Thanks to it, I made a friend, it allowed me to stay in Finland for 2 months and to work again with Transfluent about 20 years later.

Are there any translation challenges that are unique to working in games?

– To be honest, I don’t really remember the process of translating I used back then. Did I only have text file or could I directly test translations in the game? I really cannot tell but I know that as a first translation, it showed me something very useful: every sentence gets longer in French, and you have to make things as short as possible. Having gaming experience helps a lot: even today you can play games with such a poor and inadequate translation that it almost kills all the fun. Knowledge is not enough, you have to love what you are doing.

Do you think the recent boom in low-budget indie game development means there’s room for today’s multilingual gamers to do what you did?

– Well I hope and think that there is still room for beginners out there who want to offer their services to translate independent games but getting hired for long is another story, something that made me change my plans. Even though I still work on translations here and there, and it is something that I really love and think about as a mental challenge, my main job for the last 12 years has been teaching computer studies to kids in schools and also to adults in an open university and I love the job!

Thanks Sebastien! Let’s check back in 20 years to see where we are!