Pavel Tokarev
"Games are a risky business, but the winner takes all." Interview with Pavel Tokarev, founder of INLINGO game localization studio
How games helped him escape the harsh reality of the 90s, then became his life's work.
Pavel Tokarev is the founder of a service for translating video and mobile games into different languages. Localization gives gamers access to games created anywhere in the world, breaking the language barrier. We talked to him to find out the best ways to interact with translators, why 20-year-old characters can have dramatically different voices in different languages, and what kind of games he plays the most.
Pavel Tokarev
Founder of INLINGO game localization studio
"Sometimes you just have to get away from reality and recharge"

— When did you first discover the world of video games?

— Like many others, I started gaming in elementary school—around 1998, or maybe even earlier. I remember that cigarettes cost 6 rubles at the time, and when the crisis hit they shot up to 30 rubles. Back then, I would smoke cigarettes and play video games. I even had a few games on cassettes. A friend of mine's dad was a pilot, and he brought back a console from one of his trips. You couldn't tear us away from that thing.

— What was it about games that you found most fascinating?

— Gaming gave me experiences that I could never have in real life. I lived in Novokuybyshevsk, which was your average industrial city. I still spent time kicking a ball around outside and playing organized sports, but games were a lot more interesting. This hobby was how I really found myself. But I wouldn't say that I was a gaming addict: at that time, there were no in-app purchases or subscriptions. You only had to buy a game once, and so you would buy them fairly rarely.

As a teen, I never used any reality-altering controlled substances—the most I ever did was smoke cigarettes and drink beer. Games seemed like a much better alternative.

Gaming is the best thing to happen to humanity. Year after year, I keep an eye on the number of people who are in prison, and I can tell you that the number is steadily getting lower—that means society is becoming less aggressive. I want to believe that games play a part in that.

If things are going wrong in a person's life, I'd much prefer they turned to DotA 2 than to the bottle. Virtual worlds can fill the emptiness inside you, and protect your liver, too. It's pretty much the safest way for both children and adults to deal with the difficulties life throws at them.

Sometimes you just have to get away from reality and recharge so that you can face it again.

— What made you want to escape from reality?

— I grew up in a place that you wouldn't exactly call paradise. Some of the kids I grew up with have already been to prison a few times, others have died. It was a lot like that crime show Brigada, only it was happening in real life. That was what childhood was like in the '90s. The older kids were dealing with real life, and the younger ones were trying to be like them.

It goes without saying that everything around me had a profound effect on my worldview. It wasn't that reality was driving me completely crazy, but games were a way for me to let go for a while. They were the oil that kept the engine from giving out under strain.

— When did you first seriously consider starting your own business in the gaming industry?

— It was 2012, and I was running sales training sessions for major corporations like Eldorado, DNS, and LG. Things were going well for me, but suddenly I was hit with the classic crisis that sets in between the ages of 27 and 30: my values were starting to shift. I realized that being an employee was no longer enough for me. I could not continue down the path I was on.

So, in the interest of changing my situation, I tested different pursuits: I started freelancing as a business coach, and tried my hand at logistics and reselling legal services. One thing that turned out to be a turning point was working in sales at a translation bureau. A year there was enough to see that there was no growth happening. One evening, my colleagues and I sat down to get to the root of the problem. I suggested it was because we did all kinds of translations—medical, legal, technical, etc., and I thought we should focus on one single area. Somewhere along the way, the topic of games came up, and I couldn't get it out of my head after that. My intuition told me that it was a fast-growing field, and my own interest in games made it doubly attractive.

Over the next three months, I tied up loose ends and discontinued all my other pursuits to focus solely on game localization. It was hard because everything I had done before was suddenly irrelevant. Before, I had worked exclusively in offline sales, but there was just no way for me to meet with developers in Moscow in person, as I lived in Samara, so I had no choice but to do everything over the phone or in writing. Eventually, I was able to get myself a few orders, and our team completed some test assignments for several big companies. We had the advantage of good luck: we got in touch at a time when they were actively looking for translators.

I hold big planning meetings in my office because I want my coworkers to feel comfortable dropping by
— What were your first projects?

— My first project was a high-volume translation from Korean into Russian. Unfortunately, I can't tell you the name for contract reasons. We also worked on some projects for WebGames. That partnership turned out to be a very productive one for us: we learned how to find translators and assess them. Our team translated from Korean to Russian, then from Russian to English, and then from English into the major European languages: Spanish, French, German, and Italian.

Naturally, if a project launches behind schedule or doesn't resonate with its intended audience, even perfect localization can't save it. But all else being equal, positioning a project in diverse markets can significantly improve its standing.

Localization is part of marketing. You can spend a million dollars on development, but if you skimp on translation, it's going to have a negative impact on your game's success.
"Translators sit at home all day, interacting primarily with their screens"

— What are the steps involved in localizing a game?

— Before the process really begins, there's a pre-localization phase: preparation. We study the game and look at the text as a creative work. If the name of a character, location, game mechanic, or control is repeated, that term should always be the same. To ensure details like that don't get overlooked, we work with the developers to create a glossary.

Then, if possible, we try to talk to the producers and writers to be sure we understand the audience their game is geared towards, plus any hidden meanings in the text. These are important details that it's wise to clarify before starting work on the project.

The next step is choosing translators. Our team is made up of more than 150 of them all around the world. We choose people who work with the language pairs we need and specialize in a specific genre. Some translators are fantastic at translating fantasy games, some know all there is to know about Blizzard franchises, and some have been playing Perfect World for half their lives.

Once we have the translators selected, we start teaching the team. This is one of a project manager's key tasks: they help the localizers familiarize themselves with the project, then ask questions to ensure that everyone's on the same page. After that, the translators play, watch trailers, and study the glossary, all with the goal of understanding everything behind the words they'll be working with.

The third step is the translation itself. The principle is simple: from the source language into English, and then into whatever languages the client asks for. Then the editing process begins. It can be either full or partial. The English translation is always fully checked, and if we're pressed for time, the other languages can be reviewed in part. However, if we do that, we have to be completely sure that the translators are as experienced as possible.

In the past, that was where the process ended, but now we ask the client for a game build with the translation implemented. This is a special moment: no matter how well prepared you are, the final text will always look a little different than you expected. It's important that translated phrases fit in the space allotted for them and look the way they're supposed to. If the testing team finds a bug, we note it in a report that we send to the developer. They make the necessary corrections, and we do a final round of testing on the parts where issues were found during the previous iteration.

— How long does it take to localize a game?

— Translating a mobile game into 20 languages can take anywhere from 2 to 30 days depending on the genre and text. Most clients release regular updates, so the processes are happening at the same time. We can be translating elements for one update and testing another in the same week.

— I've heard that a wide variety of factors can influence a player's impression of a game: characters' accents, tone of voice, intonation, etc. How do you find the right voices from all over the world?

— Up until now we've been talking strictly about text localization, but three years ago we began to provide voiceover services. And with that came a whole new set of challenges. Perception of voices is highly subjective. That's why we work with references: the client sends us a voice that they think is the right fit, and we give them our advice about what needs to be changed.

A Chinese client once told us they needed a voice for a 20-year old male character. We played them a sample and they said, "Why did you choose an old man?" Then they sent us a clip of how they think a 20-year-old should sound, and to us, it sounded like a little kid. In the end, we spent a lot of time using examples from American TV shows to explain that their target audience thinks a little differently. If you're going to resolve issues like these, you have to have good communication with the client—and that is the underlying concept for all of our work.

Now we do voiceovers for 10 key European and Asian languages. We've also added an audio producer to our team to help record and process voices. We work with studios in different countries: they provide a database of actors and help us find the right person for our request. Then we give the client a few samples, and they choose one of them. It takes combined effort from the actor, audio producer, and project manager to get results—and this requires much more communication than organizing translation does.

We record with the selected actors, show the recordings to the client, and then they make any comments or corrections. Sometimes we record twenty scenes and it turns out five of them need to be re-recorded. Once the client has confirmed that they are satisfied with the intonation, we move on to the next sections.

Our office is dog-friendly, and this dog has become our in-house relaxation consultant and senior cuteness officer—we’ll have to start paying her pretty soon
— How much can you make doing localization?

—Keywords takes in USD$150,000,000 every year, and they're the market leader. Personally, I like that number, and that's what I'm aiming for. Nevertheless, the margins in our industry are extremely low. I'm not going to give a specific number, but the profits are similar to what you see in Russian retail. Our main expenditures are on internal processes: keeping and training project managers, marketing, implementing new IT solutions.

— What about translators and voice actors? How much do they earn?

— If we're talking about a native speaker, they can earn anywhere from 3 to 8 thousand dollars a month. It's about the same for a voice actor. But it all depends on individual rate and number of hours, which means these specialists have to be careful: a low rate can mean plenty of work, but it also means an hour isn't worth much.

— How many people work for you?

— Currently, we have a team of 67 and about 150 translators working full-time. We also have about 500 people on standby—we're a big, global community. I keep a close eye on the work we do with translators, because they are more than just a resource for us. I regularly give them feedback through project managers—both constructive criticism and praise. This is important, because translators sit at home all day, interacting primarily with their screens.

We once lost someone because they worked themselves into exhaustion and ended up in the hospital. People need communication and support.
I have three main requirements for in-house employees: they should be dedicated, loyal, and open-minded. The first value is vital: no one should keep quiet about difficulties they experience with a project. More importantly, they have to be able to find multiple solutions to a problem. Any discussion at a meeting should result in a specific plan of action. It's important to me that team members can express themselves without getting lost in irrelevant details.

The next value is loyalty, which has a tendency to run contrary to competency: the smarter someone is, the less loyal they are. I want my co-workers to be willing to sacrifice their personal time for the company when it's necessary. For instance, if a client offers to come to the office in a week, but you've already booked a tour of Europe, you won't mind canceling your trip. I'd happily reimburse that employee's losses so they would later be able to go on that vacation with a clear conscience and a bonus for a job well done. I'm more than willing to spend money, resources and personal time on people who are willing to invest in the company.

That being said, balance is important in all things. Usually, people are most loyal when they realize cleverness won't get them anywhere. It's much easier to just say the right things to management and pretend to be incredibly busy.

I don't see the point of sitting at a desk 12 hours a day if nothing comes of it. Loyalty has to go hand in hand with results.
This is a small relaxation room in my office. It’s separated from the rest of the space by a glass wall
The last value is open-mindedness. This is a great quality that our society is constantly trying to knock out of people. You have to be able to reject your previous experience in order to accomplish new things, and constantly seek out practices that fix gaps in your competencies. I try to expand my employees' horizons so that they delve deeper into linguistic curiosities, think about how games are made, and try to figure out what issues there might be in our clients' projects. I read at least one paper book a week. In addition to public speaking, I also do yoga, travel, and constantly pick up new skills to add to my repertoire.

There are people on my team who love baseball, and people who are huge fans of Japanese or Korean culture. These aren't average people who race out of the office every evening in search of beer or, at best, the gym. It's important to me to see that a person has a hobby, a direction they are moving in. That's how I judge open-mindedness.

"Business is like surfing—sometimes a wave crashes down on you"

My desk is almost always empty—just a stack of papers to sign and a computer
— What does your workspace look like?

— I'm not someone who likes to sit still. I work in a 70-square-meter office. There's a big table for meetings and a separate desk for the computer I use to check reports. I have a kind of therapy room where I have one-on-one meetings, and a bar-counter where I sit, drink coffee, and gaze out at the Volga. Although there are rare occasions where coffee is replaced with whiskey. Turns out that business is like surfing—sometimes a wave crashes down on you and you wipe out. In general, I try to burn off stress by staying active.

The walls are covered in flip charts and whiteboards because I try to record absolutely everything that happens and then get focused. Even if an idea can't be used right away, I set it aside in a separate folder. At one point, the idea to start doing voiceover work was in that folder, and now it's one of our main areas. If I get sick of sitting in my office, I go to a cafe.

Nearly all my tech is from Apple. I'm a big fan of that company. I have a Windows machine in my office because it's easier to use certain special translation software and reporting programs on Windows. I need a big monitor because I try to spend at least two hours every three days playing our client's latest releases. It's not work, it's a lifestyle: I do it because I'm interested.

I also love fancy accessories like Moleskine notebooks and top-quality pens. I bought a really nice one just to sign copies of the book I co-wrote, Our Game, and I was thrilled. I love things that are cool and well-made.

— Do you play games at work a lot? Meaning, do you test them to make sure the localization and voiceover turned out all right?

— I play, but not for testing purposes. I like to immerse myself in the worlds our colleagues create so that I can better understand their business on an emotional level. But beyond that, I follow our clients' earnings carefully. It's important to see that their investments pay off. Translation is part of a game's success—that's one of the things I always keep top-of-mind.

A planner is the best task manager, and it never bothers you with notifications
— What is your favorite game and why?

— I've spent a lot of money on War Robots, which is like World of Tanks, but with robots. It's a very dynamic game where you have just 10 minutes to beat the other team using a wide range of strategies. I usually reach for it at the airport, when I'm waiting to board a flight—that's enough time for a few matches. I'm also a big fan of games where you have to build a fortress and defend it from attackers.

— What does a game need in order to earn the admiration of users and naturally rise to the top of the industry?

— I don't think anyone knows the exact answer to that one. There's a company called Playrix that puts out one successful project after another, but they've had some that flop too. Even Blizzard, the biggest name in game development, makes their share of mistakes.

I'd say there are several things that all great projects have: a good idea, a great team, enough money to take it from concept to release, solid mechanics, and a well-thought-out economy. If a game never asks players for money, it will never turn a profit, and if it asks for too much, no one will play it.

Another crucial point is timing. You have to release the product at the right moment, but figuring out when that is can be difficult. People with years of experience tend to be able to predict what will be relevant tomorrow. I think data on user preferences helps with that.

Never forget that games are a risky business, but the winner takes all. The potential to sizzle out is high, but that is more than made up for by the incredible revenues earned by projects that reach the top. People are becoming billionaires over just a couple of decades.

— The gaming industry is developing much faster outside of Russia than within Russia: there are more apps being developed abroad, and more players there too. Why do you think Russia lags behind?

— I wouldn't say the Russian gaming industry is underdeveloped. When you look at companies making games, we're far from the worst. For example, Playrix is one of the top mobile developers.

On the other hand, our products do tend to fall behind in terms of quality. In the last few years, China has made huge progress on that front. I think it all comes down to the size and makeup of the market. There are significantly fewer players in Russia than in the US, Korea, Japan, or China. Additionally, the economies of those countries are more developed—people are willing to pay more.

— How do you structure your day?

— This year I discovered Todoist, an incredibly easy-to-use app where I keep track of all my tasks. It's convenient because you can divide them by project and add tags. There's a smartphone version and a desktop version, plus it synchronizes with your Gmail account. So Todoist is essentially my personal assistant. I do still like to write down the day's to-do list on a blank sheet of paper, though—my brain just works better that way.

Google Calendar is another thing that really helps me. I use it to keep track of my meetings from Todoist and set deadlines. Sometimes I end up missing a deadline, but I've been working on improving that, especially since personal efficiency is the goal I've set myself for the year. I realized that for the sake of the company's future growth, I have to keep things orderly in my head and be a good example for my employees.

— Could you share what apps you use to simplify your work and life in general?

— I do yoga and cardio to relax. I'm always testing out different fitness apps, but so far I still prefer a personal trainer who can create workouts for me. I also meditate for half an hour every day. It's like brushing your teeth, but it helps freshen your thoughts instead of your breath.

I use my voice recorder app fairly often because we have someone on staff who can transpose recordings into text at lightning speed. And I downloaded Quizlet to work on my English—my tutor assigns me exercises right in the app.

— What do you do in your free time?

— I used to play airsoft a lot, but now I've given it up for the most part. I ride my bicycle, read books, and work out. I recently decided that I want to buy a boat after going hunting a few times and realizing I enjoy shooting. One time, I killed a duck on the first shot—that was a really neat feeling. Tokarev is a hunter's name, after all. I guess the genes finally kicked in. Hunting will probably be my hobby for at least the next ten years.

Pavel Tokarev Recommends

I like Nikolai Chernyshevsky's book What Is to Be Done?—it's about business. The author predicted the invention of skyscrapers and combine harvesters. It's full of real lifehacks for building a business and hiring people. The book was a real find for me, and I still reread it every now and then.

Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is another useful read. Everyone says they've read it, but no one can name the seven habits. I think of them as basic concepts that everyone can and should apply to their lives. Another discovery I made this year was Alexander Friedman's book Professional Use of Subordinates. And I'm currently reading another one of his books, You or Chaos.

When it comes to product development, I recommend Platform Revolution. Apart from that, everyone should read the Strugatskys' Hard to Be a God and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I also like Victor Pelevin. I especially like Generation "П"—it had a major impact on me in terms of business.

Movies and TV Shows
Silicon Valley and Suits are some good TV shows. Things in America aren't quite the same as these shows portray them, but it's a pretty picture nonetheless.

The next level is the TV show Billions. I don't really watch for the story, but for the way people's roles are described. I also liked House of Cards. It's a show about what a politician should be like, and is also useful when it comes to business.

But my absolute favorite show is The Young Pope. It's a masterpiece. And among older shows, I recommend Sherlock Holmes and Seventeen Moments of Spring.

Podcasts and Videos
One of my favorite podcasts is Chill with Artem Dmitriev. I listen to Silicon Horizons (Silikonovie Dali) quite frequently and watch Evgeny Cherniak's YouTube channel Big Money—he's basically the new Oleg Tinkoff. The ideas he talks about and the way he presents them are very interesting.

I sometimes watch the channel The Russians Are Alright (Russkie Norm). I don't like the host, but the guests are always great. I'm also following a few game streamers, and I watch the TED Talks channel—I'm always interested in topics that have to do with public speaking.

I follow Artemy Lebedev for a PR point of view. The way he talks about business is always on point. I also like Andrei Kurpatov's channel— the information can be hard to digest, but he talks about how the brain works in a very compelling way. I always go and read the sources he cites afterwards. And last but not least, G Spot. How to Make Money in IT. Those guys put out great content.