There are three things needed for the success of a VN translation, the obvious one is skill, but the other, equally important ones are often put far behind skill: passion, and good people.
Skill is obvious because without it, you can’t be, or shouldn’t be, translating, or hacking at the engine, or photoshopping graphics. Some skills are hard to acquire and some you can ‘learn on the job’, but in the end, a line has to be drawn. You either can do something to a given standard of quality or you can’t, where that line of quality is depends whoever’s managing the project.
So where does passion come in? It’s probably the one major determiner for whether a project ever finishes. As I mentioned before, for any project of decent length, there comes a point where a project becomes a grind. Distractions are ever more attractive, and it’s just a battle of willpower. It’s probably different for professionals, since they have deadlines to keep, but for us amateurs, it’s easy to just give up and do something more fun.
The only thing I’ve seen that does anything to consistently counter this is passion. Complaints, bribes, threats, encouragement, it all can work, but it depends heavily on the person and whatever mental state they happen to be in. Hitting moving targets consistently for months at a stretch is a difficult task for anyone to do, so when you’re faced with that prospect, be careful.
The question remains however that there’s no way that I know of to measure passion. You can’t peer into someone’s heart and figure out, 6 months down the line, whether they are going to become bored, tired, distracted, get a job, or get hit by a car. It’s one of those X factor things, you either have faith in a person that they will carry through, or you don’t.
You want to find people who can survive the stress of taking a project to completion, but the attribute that seems to be the deciding factor can’t really be measured, just great. Thankfully, it’s not as hopeless as blind guessing. There can be a few outward signs.
The most obvious one of course is past performance — if you’ve finished one, or more, projects, then you are likely to be able to finish others. Your work ethic and passion has been tested once, and it at least passed. It’s not foolproof, especially if their first project was a tiny one, and their next is a few times larger. There can also be a difference in how much they care about the new project compared to their previous ones.
But then, there’s always more “squishy” signs, and this is where we also get into the people part. If fatigue doesn’t kill a project, and it often does, then the next major culprit is friction within the staff. It’s pretty easy for a loose group of people on a VN translation team to polarize on a debate, and it eventually rips the whole project into pieces.
Reputation is certainly important. I’ve encountered people where bystanders had clearly, and almost unanimously commented that the person in question was unreliable and generally a loose canon. That’s not usually a good sign. Similarly, people with good reputations tend to be in demand more, since they do good work, and often (though not always) get along with others. This is exactly why I strongly oppose notions of semi-anonymous free-for-all staff, like in a wiki. There’s no way for me to build any history of trust and faith with a dynamic IP address from a block, and even if there’s a user/history type feature, 3rd parties can jump into the mix.
But perhaps the most vague but useful of all is just “getting to know the person a bit”. Hang around them, talk to them, learn what makes them tick, why they they do what they do, and so on. It doesn’t take much investment of effort to have an idle chat every so often with someone, and you can get a sense of whether they’d be good to work with. You can pick out the drama queens and attention whores, the egoists who don’t listen to direction, the people who only think they know what they’re doing, the guys who only want to release things for the 15 minutes of glory, the ones who have a radically different work ethic than you.
This is why I’ve been trying to gather translators, engine hackers, and other people interested in VN translation into #denpa at irc.synirc.org. On a good hour, 3-4 translators are in the room and bouncing ideas over lines, or general theory, or just trading experiences. Then later it shifts to chatter about upcoming games, good food, or rants about exchange rates and other people join in. Already, I’ve made some mental notes about who I would consider working with moving into the future, and who I don’t want to work with.
Finally, you need an exit strategy. No matter how good a person you have, how reliable, motivated, skilled, there’s always the chance that life will intervene. If, heaven forbid, that person actually does get into a serious accident, starts working two jobs, etc., there’s nothing you can do. The same holds for if you’re working with someone, and it just doesn’t work out. You need an exit.
The whole point of an exit strategy is to minimize the damage should something go wrong somewhere. In the case of a translator, you don’t want them disappearing with all the scripts without warning, an engine hacker, you don’t want all your tools missing, in the case of the project manager, you don’t want the servers holding things to disappear.
How you formulate your exit strategy depends on the people involved. If you want, you can shove things onto a wiki for the world to see. You might want to just have a private code repository, perhaps subversion and perforce, or a distributed repository along the lines of git, mercurial and friends. Maybe an ftp dump is enough for you. Whatever it is, you should be thinking about it.
I think it’s probably overkill to be thinking about potential replacements unless you can really see that need coming in the near future, so you shouldn’t be too obsessive about disaster management. However, you need to really think about it at least once, so that when something does go wrong, you’re not left holding the short end of the stick.