The Treehouse Interview

by Jonathan Metts - November 30, 2004, 11:44 am PST

Bill Trinen and Nate Bihldorff of NOA's Treehouse division discuss localization, the ESRB, and even the new Zelda for GameCube.

PGC: Okay, so, we've got a few questions for you guys, but first, could you just explain what is the Treehouse? What does it do?

Trinen: Well, the Treehouse is like the product development arm of Nintendo of America. It handles localization, but that’s just one part of it. It also kind of oversees development timelines and things on second-party development in North America and basically the western hemisphere. So they'll be working very heavily with Kensuke Tanabe's group in Japan. You probably know his name most recently from Metroid Prime. He's been in EAD for a long time, he was the producer on Metroid Prime, and again the producer on Metroid Prime 2.

His branch of SPD basically is responsible for second-party development in the western hemisphere, as well as some in Japan. His group was basically responsible for working with IS (Intelligent Systems) on Paper Mario. So the Treehouse works in conjunction with them, communicating with development teams, for instance, the guys at N-Space on Geist, looking at progress, evaluating versions of the game, getting feedback, that sort of thing. You know, pushing them to get things done on schedule.

PGC: Is Treehouse involved in the approval of 3rd-party titles as well?

Trinen: No, that's "lot-check." The Treehouse does also include the game evaluation function, where 3rd parties can submit their games for evaluations by Nintendo. Nintendo will evaluate the game, you know, give them a score, give them feedback, things that Nintendo thinks they can do to improve the game.

PGC: Is that required?

Trinen: It was at one point, I don't think it is anymore.

Bihldorff: Well, sometimes we'll do it ourselves, not personally, although we do get roped into it, but a lot of times, you know, marketing and various other departments will want feedback like that. You know, how good a game is, how well it's supported, how good you think this game's going be. And that typically goes through the Treehouse, as well as we get farmed out to so many others things, you know, we also have Chris Campbell and Tom Eberspecher and Colin Kastner down there, they're responsible for putting together movies, footage for commercials, pulling screenshots for things…

Trinen: Packages, manuals...

PGC: So it's like an arm of marketing, also.

Trinen: It's kind of a... it's an arm of development that works with marketing. Primarily, because, you can't get the best picture of a game if you don't understand video games. Like Chris Campbell, and actually, Nate, basically, with a little annoying feedback from me, we get stuff like the E3 Zelda video.

PGC: What games are you working on now? For localization?

Bihldorff: That we can talk about?

Trinen: Yeah (laughs) classic answer to that question, uh, well, we just finished up on Paper Mario, just finished up Minish Cap, that's gone gold. Nate’s been working on…

Bihldorff: …Mario Tennis, Metroid Prime: Echoes, um, we're doing Jungle Beat, I guess that's not a big secret, we’re allowed to talk about that, which is awesome.

PGC: Yeah, Bill’s favorite game!

Bihldorff: Yes, my favorite game, too.

Trinen: Yeah, that game is like, the magic of the original Super Mario Brothers to me. Just pure brilliance.

PGC: Well, he’s the “King of Kings”. (laughter) You guys have got to lobby for that to be kept on the box.

Bihldorff: I somehow doubt it. (laughs) Oh, and a bunch of DS stuff.

Trinen: Yeah, of course, Mario DS is gold.

PGC: When you say Minish Cap went gold, did you guys do the translation for the version that's being released in Europe first?

Trinen: Yeah, that was kind of a complicated project, because Europe wanted it this year for their market because they need something strong for handheld. So we did the English translation while they were still finalizing the Japanese text. And we're seeing a lot more of that. I mean, it used to be that they would finish a Japanese game, it would go gold, we would get the text, and then start working localizing. I think Mario & Luigi was probably one of the first ones where we were working in conjunction, side by side with them. Where they're still writing the Japanese text while we're translating it. It ends up being a lot more work since there are so many changes. So we did do the English translation in the European version of Minish Cap, and then Europe, they actually, I think, were going from Japanese to their other languages. But, I would recommend waiting for the US version, because the text in the US version is going to be a lot better.

PGC: So you're actually fixing it up beyond what's going in the European version?

Trinen: Yeah, we did fix it up beyond the European version.

PGC: Okay, I will let people know about that. This is a case study, I guess. I played through Paper Mario, the Japanese version, and I don't read Japanese at all. So, a lot of the story and the style of the humor of the game, I picked up through visual cues and through the way the text is displayed, and then some help from the Internet, GameFaqs, and a really good translation a guy did himself. There were definitely some things I noticed that probably wouldn't make it into the English version. And I wanted to know, how do you decide what is just going to be translated directly, and what will not make it culturally?

Trinen: What did you see that wouldn't make it?

Bihldorff: It’s really case by case, that sort of thing.

PGC: Paper Mario, I think I was surprised, some of the jokes seemed to be kind of low brow, I'm trying to think of some examples…it's been a couple months since I played it.

Trinen: They like really bad puns in Japan. Bad puns are huge over there. I don't know if that's what you mean by low brow.

Bihldorff: We didn’t do anything about her dress, err… that was in Super Star Saga.

Trinen: Well, it did make it into Super Star Saga, joking about how when they gave that extra dress to Luigi, and the joke in the Japanese was that hers was probably all torn and dirty from, you know… (laughter)

PGC: I think, actually, when you control the princess, and she's taking a shower, there's things like that, there was some weird stuff...

Trinen: Oh, where she drinks the potion, she turns invisible, and she takes her dress off? Yeah, that's in our version.

PGC: Oh, okay, I haven’t played the English version yet.

Trinen: The first full nudity of Princess Peach. (laughter)

Bihldorff: We didn't take out any content... We obviously changed text around here and there. Oh yeah, we took out one chalk outline of a dead Toad in the road with the blood smear. A lot of times, it's not we think it's that inappropriate, because nobody's really offended by that, but sometimes, in the U.S. market, if we decide we want to get an 'E', which did for Paper Mario, you know, we really feel that it appeals to all ages.

Trinen: A lot of people don’t understand about how the rating system works. If you get a rating you weren’t expecting to get… The ratings effect where you can advertise a game. If you say for instance, you're expecting to get an 'E' rating for a game, and you buy, in advance, because you have to buy in advance, TV and print ads, you know, in magazines, that will accept E-rated games, but wouldn't accept, for example, T-rated games, or even E-rated games with some descriptors, once you get that rating that's not what you thought it was going to be, you just wasted all this advertising money, because you can't advertise it there. And, so, really, it's not so much, "We're Nintendo, we make kiddy games" - it's that "A: we're Nintendo, and we make games that we think appeal to all ages and B: because they appeal to all ages, we want to be able to market to all ages" and then it's important to get that E rating.

Bihldorff: Oh, I know what you're thinking of. When you get to the island, and Flabio and the bob-omb sailor are arguing about something and then he tells Flabio, "you know what I think about that?" And then he farts.

PGC: There's a few things like that.

Bihldorff: Yeah, we just changed that text-wise to say the party is making a crude joke, yeah, he said that something stinks, so we took that out and said "you know what else stinks?" and then it's like Flabio's armpits or something like that. It was handled in text. Other than that, we didn't change anything like that.

Trinen: Yeah, we try to reserve the crude humor for the Wario games.

Bihldorff: There's a lot of subversive stuff in Paper Mario 2, but, it's not... (laughs)

PGC: Probably not as subversive as in Mario & Luigi.

Bihldorff: No, those guys were crazy. Alpha Dream was... they were nuts.

Trinen: They were wacky.

Bihldorff: They were really wacky, I loved working with them; it was a pain, because Bill said, we were translating and writing at the same time, and it kept changing and changing and changing, but they were really funny dudes, and yet they really knew the Mario series so well that everything they threw in, well, they make fun of the series itself and everything they threw in really fit well.

Like, working with them is not the same as working with the Wario Ware teams, because, Wario Ware, those guys... I mean, every time a new mini game comes up, you just cringe (laughs) ... like, "how are they gonna involve poop in this one?"

Trinen: Yeah, they love poop on that Wario team,

PGC: Like, first you're spinning poop, and then you're touching poop... (laughter) one of our staff thinks it's like greatest game ever made.

Bihldorff: The spinning one?

PGC: Yeah. (laughs)

Bihldorff: Yeah, getting the food through the intestinal tract. They love that stuff. I mean, it's really funny, and to be honest, we did a pretty in-depth look at poop, (laughter) you know, just making sure this is something we can market and that American audiences are going to find as funny. So, yeah, we actually did a long look at those games, and yeah, we kept a lot of it.

Trinen: Especially with the Wario games, we try to keep as much as we can, and still just get like that 'Comic Mischief' description.

PGC: So with Mario & Luigi, would you say that the difference between the style of the text and the new Paper Mario game, was that mainly originating in the developers, the original style of the Japanese text was that much different?

Trinen: You know, I think it's a function of the characters in the game, really. Like, I know a lot of people really liked Fawful in that game, and Fawful was a crazy character, and I think also because a lot of the characters in the game were new, we weren't constrained by the legacy of the series or the legacy of the character and we were able to do a lot of crazier things with it. Like, the way that Fawful evolved was this bizarre collaboration between me and Nate leaving notes for each other in the translation, and it just turned into the most bizarre character ever created.

PGC: And one of the favorite ones.

Trinen: Yeah, and in the Thousand-Year Door, all of the characters are based on existing characters from the Mario universe for the most part, and also, you didn't quite have the wackiness of Fawful in any one of those.

Bihldorff: Yeah, but I think Mario & Luigi embraced the lunacy a little bit more, a lot of the really crazy stuff... I mean, Paper Mario 2 is a little crazy as well, but most of the craziness just comes from us. Whereas, Mario & Luigi, it was like playing crazy-defense almost, just because the developers were so insane. I didn't think the text was that crazy when we were reading it, but it the situations that the characters were in, it was like mind-boggling, what was going on.

Trinen: Yeah, that touches the fact that they have the whole theme of laughter going on through the whole game, where you had the Fwaha Ruins and Chucklehuck Woods, and like, all the place names are derived of different ways of laughing. And so we kind of took that to heart, they want this to be a funny game (laughs), let's go hog wild!

PGC: Going back to what you said about the ESRB, I guess one of the most interesting cases of ratings to me was Smash Bros Melee, which got a Teen rating, and then there are a lot of very similar games on GameCube that get by with an E rating, like Wind Waker, for instance, I mean, you have two different games, and in each one you have cartoon-like characters using swords, and there's no blood.

Trinen: I think a lot of it has to do with the ESRB itself, and how they rate games, and Smash Brothers, the original Smash Brothers, was very barely an 'E' in their book, and with that in mind, we basically, in knowing the GameCube version is much more realistic and probably going to get a T, we went with that in mind in advance, and planned our marketing around getting a T rating.

Bihldorff: Sometimes it seems horrible and arbitrary when we work with the ESRB, but they actually have gotten increasingly better over the years. And for example, Wind Waker vs. Smash Bros., with Wind Waker, you have hours and hours of gameplay where you're exploring and sailing around and you're cutting grass and doing this and doing that, and then you fight. A lot of the reason why fighting games get rated a little bit more harshly is because that's all your doing, is all the time in the game, you're beating the crap out of someone, you're hearing sounds of pain, you're using a bat, you're using a gun, you're doing that the whole game.

Trinen: And that was the case in Smash Brothers, there was a lot of gun usage in the game, with the Super Scope, or the laser blaster, or Fox's gun, or Falco's gun... and so the use of guns in games, they have a strict line on that, and I think that's what gave that game the T.

PGC: I don't want to get too far into territory you can't talk about, but do you think with the new Zelda with the new style and vastly better graphics on the GameCube, do you think there's going to be an issue of E or T?

Bihldorff: I don't think there's any question it'll get a T personally. We'll probably have to look at it and have a long discussion with the ESRB. But that is one of their bigger issues, that you can get away with, well, Wind Waker has beautiful graphics but it looks a lot like a cartoon, but the more realistic you get, the more you're going to get [in terms of ratings]. From what we've seen, I don't think there's any question that...

Trinen: We can't talk about what we've seen. (laughs)

Bihldorff: I mean, we just recently met with the ESRB and talked about Ocarina of Time, and that had some dicey moments, whether or not it was going to get an E, you know, the original one where Ganondorf pukes out all that blood at the end, and then you end up ramming your sword down the pig's throat, you know, when he transforms, and it's not exactly non-violent, and if you imagine a scene like that with vastly improved realistic graphics, I think that'd probably be in the T range.

Trinen: We're really good about working with them too, like, the way submission works, you're basically supposed to send them a video tape of basically the most violent or reprehensible content in the game, and we let them know about the scene in the end where you finally defeat Ganondorf.

Bihldorff: Late, though. We had to tack that on...

Trinen: Did we? I thought we did that at the same time.

Bihldorff: We did an early submission on that, and then we saw that, and were like, "whoa...!"

Trinen: And we saw that and thought that was pretty intense there, and so we showed that to them, and they looked at that and took it into consideration based on the look of the game and how much of the game that represents in terms of the overall gameplay.

Bihldorff: There was no blood, and he turned to stone, and died. They took all that into account.

Trinen: You're not supposed to... you gave the whole thing away, Nate! (laughs)

PGC: Okay, do you guys have anything you want to say in closing?

Trinen: (whispers) Zelda rocks!

Interview by Jonathan Metts. Check out the Talkback forum to discuss this interview.

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