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From Volunteer Translator to Official Publisher, the Story Behind a Chinese Desktop Dungeons Enthusiast

By Isabella Jiangcheng
Apr. 24, 2023 updated 07:40

When Craft first discovered "Desktop Dungeons" a decade ago, he never would have guessed that the game would accompany him from university to the workplace or that his relationship with it would evolve from being a passionate fan to the publisher of the 3D remake of the game, "Desktop Dungeons: Rewind,” in China.

Back in 2013, indie games were still a very niche field. Most indie game developers only placed their games on their personal websites instead of on Steam and communicated with players in a casual manner. However, the bold innovation of "Desktop Dungeons" in the Roguelike genre allowed the game to break out of its niche audience, even in China. It broke the usual rule of exploring for dozens of hours in Roguelike games by introducing mechanics such as regaining health and mana by exploring new areas, passive monster attacks, and shrinking the map to miniature size. These changes greatly accelerated the length of a single game session without sacrificing the randomness and depth of Roguelike games. As a result, even players who were initially intimidated by a "Hardcore Roguelike" became deeply fascinated after playing a few rounds. Additionally, the game's text was full of personality and humor, making it even more enjoyable. Not surprisingly, Craft became addicted to the game.

If Craft was just an ordinary player, the story might have ended after a few hundred hours of gameplay. But Craft was not just a gamer. He was also a core member of the White Gems, a grassroots localisation community. The group originated from a Minecraft fan forum and was mainly responsible for Minecraft-related localisation work. More than a decade ago, Chinese support for Minecraft was still patchy and relied heavily on a small group of enthusiasts who were willing to create language patches. White Gems was among these enthusiasts who volunteered tirelessly to improve the Chinese localisation of Minecraft. They made significant contributions to the Chinese localisation of early mods such as Industrial Craft and Thaumcraft.

It was precisely because of the curiosity and open-mindedness of the Minecraft community that many players were not only passionate about exploring niche games but also wanted to recommend these games to their friends. And the best way to showcase these games is through localisation. Therefore, Craft and his friends immediately decided that they could not let Chinese players miss out on "Desktop Dungeons.”

Craft and his friends' first reaction was to contact the game developer. After receiving a somewhat positive response from the developer, White Gems immediately began working on the localisation. The game's script contained over 65,000 words, including technical terms, made-up words, and dry humor that might be difficult to convey to Chinese players. At the same time, the fixed resolution of 800 x 600 presented a new challenge: spells could only be expressed in four Chinese characters, or they would not be displayed at all. But the White Gems welcomed these difficulties. They used puns, internet slang, and even local dialects to produce a Chinese patch with "divergence" as the keyword. They then released this version as a patch that supported both the official and DRM-free versions of the game.

However, what they did not anticipate was a cracked version of the game with the Chinese patch appearing immediately on several well-known gaming forums. Discussions about the game quickly heated up, but it became apparent that only a few players actually purchased the legitimate version of the game.

Piracy spread like a virus, and Craft began to question the value of their work. What was even more disappointing was that despite the increasing number of pirated downloads of "Desktop Dungeons" in China, the game's Steam page did not have a single game review in Chinese. This seemed to completely undermine the purpose of Craft and his friendsefforts to introduce the game to Chinese players in order to build a better community around the game. As the contact between White Gems and the game developer gradually faded away, the localisation project was eventually put on hold.

In 2015, as more and more Chinese gamers got on board with using the Steam platform, many indie games began to enter Chinas gaming community. "Desktop Dungeons" is no exception. Many Chinese players started asking on the game's page if an official Chinese version could be added, but the developer politely rejected the idea due to a lack of personnel and budgeting. However, hardcore Chinese players of the game raised a question: wasn't there already a complete Chinese patch available?

During a business trip to Guangzhou, Craft was having a meal with his friends from White Gems when he received a friend request from a stranger on his phone. The person expressed his interest in joining the "Desktop Dungeons" localisation team and working with Craft to continue pushing for the project. He also offered to help contact the game developer and integrate the previous Chinese patch into the official version. This stranger later turned out to be the well-known indie game streamer Sound of Mystery.

Unwilling to give up, Craft first worked with Sound of Mystery and then reunited with several members of White Gems to review and revise the original text, creating an updated version of the Chinese patch that could be used by the official version. Sound of Mystery also fulfilled his promise and communicated extensively with the game developer, stating that they had the ability and resources to produce an official Chinese version of "Desktop Dungeons".

Unexpectedly, in the final stages of communication, the "Desktop Dungeons" development team had new concerns: they still lacked confidence in testing the Chinese market. If they were to invest in such a massive amount of text and fail, the investment would be too great.

Although there was some disappointment at hitting another dead end, for Craft, the concerns from the game developers were not entirely unjustified. In 2015, the game publishing environment in China was not yet mature, and many indie game developers had a lack of trust in the Chinese market due to rampant piracy. Moreover, the grassroots localisation groups were "gray" in terms of their identity, making it somewhat difficult for them to communicate directly with overseas developers. On Reddit, there were even posts guiding overseas developers on how to get a  "free ride" on the work of grassroots localisation groups, further deepening the distrust between overseas developers and volunteers who were willing to support localisation efforts.

In 2016, fueled by his passion for indie games, Craft joined Indienova and brought his experience from his previous localisation projects to this new team. He started the "Game Gutenberg" project. Not for profit, the Game Gutenberg team directly connected with overseas indie game development teams to provide Chinese language support. Games such as "Reigns" and "Cultist Simulator” were made available for Chinese players through the project. However, as for the "original" project, "Desktop Dungeons" still seemed far from complete.

But then the plot twist arrived. By chance, one of Indienova's overseas colleagues met "Desktop Dungeons" developer Danny at a convention and talked to him about Craft, Sound of Mystery, and the previous efforts of White Gems.

In fact, Danny had not forgotten those emails from China over the years, and he even heard about the Game Gutenberg project from other developers, which piqued his interest. This opportunity for offline communication, along with years of continuous pushing for the project, seemed to have finally shown him how sincere players were. Eventually, Danny decided to take a chance.

In the end, the official Chinese version of "Desktop Dungeons" was launched in May 2017. The Chinese version is also the only overseas language version of "Desktop Dungeons". Its success proves that this was the right decision: even now, the game maintains a "Very Positive" overall rating among Chinese players.

This year, the 3D remastered version of the game, "Desktop Dungeons: Rewind”, was published by Indienova and is now on Steam.