Englobe Inc.’s Kate Edwards on Geopolitical Strategy, Culturalization, and Consulting

As a Content Strategist, Kate Edwards has had the opportunity to work with game titles including Halo 1, Halo 2, Fable, and Forza. “Some personal favorites from a process standpoint were all of the Age of Empires titles, as well as Jade Empire,” she shares. Most recently, she just finished work on Dance Central and Dragon Age 2. Kate Edwards discusses the origins of Geopolitical Strategy at Microsoft, taking the leap to consultation, localization beyond language, and culturalizing.

From Geopolitical Strategizing to Consulting

Dance Central

Edwards: “The biggest challenge working on Dance Central was my lack of dancing skills. The geocultural review had to be done playing through the game using the Kinect, so my clumsiness was really put on display. Thank goodness it was usually only me in the room at the time!”

With the access to work with so many top titles, we have to wonder: What is a Content Strategist? Edwards was working at Microsoft as its Geopolitical Strategist (a position Edwards created within a team she called Geopolitical Strategy) to help the company prevent making geopolitical and cultural mistakes across all Microsoft products and locales. Edwards explains, “We wanted to avoid the kind of things that make governments and consumers upset, that then result in products getting banned and/or receiving very negative PR.”

” We wanted to avoid the kind of things that make governments and consumers upset, that then result in products getting banned and/or receiving very negative PR.”

When Microsoft Game Studios got started, Edwards got more and more heavily involved in helping them with unique issues that applied to games. “I worked on everything from UI design, to stories, to artwork, to character design, scenarios, and so on.” She provided proactive advice to help them avoid yielding major backlash in various locales.

Between 1995 and 2005, she performed a review of nearly every 1st party Microsoft game on PC and Xbox, and some 2nd/3rd party titles. She also instituted a “geopolitical quality review” process at Microsoft for every product, including game titles. For Edwards, it was the dream job. “As an avid gamer myself, this was an ideal job for me—melding my geography and geopolitical background with my passion for games.”

Now, she’s supported by a career as a consultant. “Once I left MS in 2005, I continued my focus on game content ‘culturalization’, started the Game Localization SIG in the International Game Developers Association, and have been entrenched in the game industry from the localization side,” Edwards says. She also co-organizes the Game Localization Summit at the Game Developers Conference, reminding us that localization goes beyond language.

From Challenges to Resolve

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Edwards: “Working on Star Wars: The Old Republic has been really gratifying from the standpoint that I once aspired to be a storyboard artist for Lucasfilm and really wanted to work on something Star Wars related. Years later, I’m finally getting the opportunity. Just in a radically different capacity.”

However, not everyone is warm to the idea of consultation. “As a content strategist who deals with touchy issues like religion, politics, and culture represented in games, I often get viewed with suspicion by game artists, writers, and designers.” Her biggest challenge is integration in a team. “They view me as a hindrance rather than a help. They often think I’m there to be the ‘PC’ police or somehow curtail their creative vision. With this kind of roadblock, it makes my job very difficult to do and it potentially endangers their work.”

Although it took time, Edwards was eventually able to overcome this by proving herself to game companies in two ways: “First, I’m a gamer and have been longer than many in this young industry have been alive. So I love games. I’ve played a lot of games, and I understand the important issue of context from a gamer’s perspective. Second, as they worked with me, I showed the creative folks that I share their vision and my ‘intervention’ is usually very minimal.”

All in all, Edwards’ feedback rarely changes major aspects of a game. “I strive to make surgical changes—maybe remove one symbol, word, or change one small thing here and there. Once they saw how I worked and the understanding I bring to their creativity, they accepted me as a value-add to their process.”

”I strive to make surgical changes —maybe remove one symbol, word, or change one small thing here and there.”

As a consultant, she still faces the challenges of overcoming perceptions and hesitancy from clients. She has overcome many of these issues, though. After all, she’s working on Star Wars: The Old Republic right now.

Kate Edwards is a Geographer and Principal Consultant at Englobe Inc. She happens to also work with Google on Google Maps and Google Earth.