We talk to Nate Bihldorff about Zelda, Elite Beat Agents, game localization and more!
PGC: So Nate, for our readers at home, can you explain what it is you do at Treehouse?
Nate Bihldorff: Sure. My title is Localization Producer/Manager. The manager side of it, I manage three of our writers on whatever projects they're working on, and the localization producer side basically covers the rest of what I do, which is the active writing that I do on specific projects and all the other corporate stuff that I have to do with the job. [Laughs]
PGC: Alright, so how much writing do you really do on a day-to-day, project-to-project basis?
Bihldorff: It really depends on the project. This last period that I just came through was a pretty interesting one. The two projects that I was working on simultaneously were Elite Beat Agents and Zelda [Twilight Princess].
PGC: Wow, that's a winning combination.
Bihldorff: Yeah, both amazing games, both very, very different localization projects. I was working with [iNiS's Keiichi] Yano-san on Elite Beat Agents who was in Japan, of course, but he speaks fluent English. The biggest problem with his game is that there were no text files associated with it. He's drawing—all the text in the game is basically kind of a drawing. So, for that particular one we would get really early storyboards, then identify any ESRB issues, or any issues that we thought should be changed, and then see his rough text in there, give him text changes, and he'd have to physically redraw it. A lot of that game we'd get screenshots of what was going to be in the game, because seeing every screen is almost impossible. You have to fail or win every section. Contrasting that with Zelda, we ended up with probably 9,000 messages in that game. And that one, Bill [Trinnen] and some of his other translators would translate files. You'd get a file that was every message that ever occurs in Kakariko Village, and they'd translate it, rewrite it. Since I've been working on this game for almost three or four years, we'd already been familiar with all the early stuff, but once we got into active importing of text into the ROMs...we write everything sort of blind, not really know what the messages mean, so we'd go to try and find it in the game. Often times, that means doing things out of sequence, or going back to an area that you know you shouldn't be going back to and getting those particular messages.
PGC: So it's one thing to just rewrite them blind, but you need to go back and check to make sure the context is correct too, right?
Bihldorff: Context is hugely important, especially like stuff with the Midna hints in this game. A lot of them you won't even get unless you're screwing up for a long period of time, and then she pops in and tells you that you're doing something wrong. Another thing that we were concerned about this game very early on was ESRB issues. We knew since there was the more realistic graphics style, Zelda games were traditionally E-rated games, so we pretty much identified early on with the more realistic graphics style we were heading into Teen-rated country and wanted to make sure that it stayed in T-country—I can't really imagine a Zelda with an M rating—but also which descriptors would come out. I think everyone's being a lot more careful to keep things within reason for the ESRB. It was awesome for us because we had to request ROMs really early from [Zelda producer Keji] Aonuma-san and his team, and I'm of course a huge Zelda fan and I always wanted to get a new ROM to so I could see some of the new things in the game. So that worked out pretty well. We've got a really close relationship with those guys, we did all the trailers in the past years, that first 2004 trailer we worked very closely with his team capturing the footage and then sending it over there and getting his advice on changing stuff. So we've got a really great relationship with them.
PGC: That's great. The last time we talked to you was E3 2004, and we asked about you aiming for a T rating. But between then and now, the ESRB came out with the Everyone 10+ rating. Did that throw you a curveball as to maybe wanting to put it under T, but above E, in that in-between rating?
Bihldorff: Not really. To be honest, I don't think the team itself was specifically thinking in those terms. I don't think they were ever cutting content, or adding content, saying 'oh, we can finally do this' or saying 'we definitely can't do this because we wouldn't want an M rating.' I think they had their vision for the game, and our role in it was basically just saying, 'this is what we can expect to get.' Even after that E10+ rating came out, there was just no way. You're talking about a sword, a fairly realistic guy, stabbing things, or jumping through the air and stabbing them through the heart and then going 'yeeack!' It doesn't matter that there's no blood spurting out, that's still enough fantasy violence that the ESRB rating was going to be a T.
PGC: That's cool. Alright, you mentioned Elite Beat Agents, I'm really looking forward to that. Have you played Ouendan?
PGC: Were there any words of getting that translated and over here, or was that a Japan-only thing from the get-go?
Bihldorff: You know, early on I had no idea what the process was in Japan. Because, we all loved that game, but since we weren't in direct contact with Yano-san's team, iNiS, so I don't know what went on between him and NCL as far as deciding to make it appropriate for the American market. I think that, my personal opinion on Ouendan is that I love this game, but there's no way the J-Pop would have flown over here. It had a hard enough time finding an audience in Japan, and I think it would have just been DOA over here because nobody would have known half those songs. And for me, half those levels were more difficult than they should have been because I didn't have any anticipation of what the beat was or what it was going to sound like, where as with Elite Beat Agents, I've probably heard Material Girl in my youth about a thousand times. I have a certain instinct about how the cadence is going to be going, so I was automatically, more naturally playing well at that level. I think that even if you tried to change the music...say we translated it and tried to find songs that could fit it, the amount of work in making songs that were thematically appropriate, and then you're basically reprogramming anyways, because you're reprogramming all the beats. At that point, it would make much more sense to come out with an American-only one.
PGC: So it's basically the English version of Ouendan. It's not really a sequel...
Bihldorff: I think that's a good way of putting it. It's not really a sequel, and it's certainly not a localized port of it. It's something else.
PGC: It's like an American Ouendan, basically.
Bihldorff: Yeah, essentially. I mean, I have such high hopes for that game. I really hope it finds its audience, because it's amazing. You probably know, I loved Ouendan as well, but I love Elite Beat Agents and I think that...strangely enough, I think it's another sort of game that's really going to appeal to a lot of non-traditional gamers. It appeals to gamers like you and me.
PGC: We were kind of surprised to see it was a Touch Generations game. You're thinking anybody can pick this up and play it?
Bihldorff: I think so. Granted, you or I would never turn on the easiest level, which I think is called Cruising, or Breezing, or something like that.
PGC: Oh, I'm totally skipping that.
Bihldorff: In Elite Beat Agents, they actually went a step further than Ouendan. They have a very, very good tutorial. They actually even show the stylus tapping down at the moment, and you play the very first level and are literally doing one beat every four seconds. For you and I who are seasoned vets, it'd be really stupid and not worth our time. But honestly, I can see that mode getting a lot of people who wouldn't traditionally play Ouendan. So I think it's actually a really good Touch Generations game, but it's certainly not going to halt the hoards of really serious gamers from going out and getting it. Because as you know, it's a challenging game. The games are not easy, but they're a lot of fun.
PGC: Alright, so can you comment on anything you're working on now? Zelda is done, EBA is done. Are you going to be able let anything slip?
Bihldorff: Can I...what can I comment on...no, actually I can't comment on anything now more than what we're showing right now. [Laughs] This period of time, I guess it's sort of post-launch for me because I've wrapped up all my launch games, but there's a lot of support involved afterwards. Specifically a lot of really boring stuff, like doing manuals. Especially with a game as high-profile as Zelda, not only doing events like this where you have to show it to people, but also sitting down and making sure the right kind of screenshots gets taken, the right kind of footage gets taken, for a thousand people wanting it. You want to release footage here, you want to release screenshots here. So that certainly takes up a lot of my time right now. As far as specific projects that I'm working on, they're all secret.
PGC: They're all secret?
Bihldorff: Yeah. Are there any other ones we've announced that I'm allowed to talk about? [Thinking] No. Some of my writers have been working on games that we've pretty much announced, but I think I'm going to keep my mouth shut on that one for now. [Laughs] Awesome stuff, though!
PGC: If I were to say... would games like, I don't know...Rhythm Heaven or Mother 3 be filed under that 'awesome stuff'?
Bihldorff: Man, Mother 3. I don't know what's going on with that game. That's already out in Japan, right? Was it awesome, did you play through it?
PGC: No. I'd like to, but it's all in Japanese. That's where you guys come in!
Bihldorff: No, me personally, I'm not working on Mother 3. I don't have all the writers under me, so there may be other people in discussions going on with it, but I wouldn't look forward to it in the immediate future, no. Sorry, I know! There's a big Mother fanbase, there is. At least everyone can go back and play Melee to get your Ness on. [Laughs]
PGC: A couple of our international readers were kind of curious. There's English English, there's American English and there's Australian English. Do you need to consider all the different English slangs and vernaculars when scripting a game, or do you just make it American English and then just distribute the games elsewhere and have them deal with it?
Bihldorff: That's a good question, and probably one a little bit better suited to NOE, who ends up doing localization and distribution for the UK, and for I assume Australia. For me, when I sit down I'm worried about one thing, which is the North American version. So I'll write for that audience. I'm certainly not going to be adding...I'm spelling 'favorite' with an 'o', not with an 'ou', worrying about what they're going to be doing in England. I think that when NOE gets it, it's sort of their call as to whether or not if they're just going to throw it out in England with American spellings, or if they're going to take the extra step. You can probably tell better than I could if they've done that on certain projects where they go back and make just subtle differences in the British spellings. I have no idea what they do in Australia. I wouldn't even begin to know any Australian slang that I could slap in there. It would probably be something ridiculous like...
PGC: [Aussie accent] G'day!
Bihldorff: ...like 'crikey' or 'g'day'. [Laughs]
PGC: Looks like we're running out of time a little bit, but I wanted to ask you a little more about Zelda. You mentioned that it was the first T-rated Zelda game...do you feel that Zelda is more appropriate...does it fit as a T-rated game more than it does an E-rated game? Like Wind Waker style against the Twilight Princess style.
Bihldorff: I think they co-exist. I certainly think this game is a T-rated game and with this artistic style, the level of realism in the graphics, there's no real other way that you could have done it. I don't think it would have been appropriate as an E-rated game. If we had taken the steps to make a game with that graphic style an E-rated game, the whole battle system would be...
PGC: ...with foam swords and Nerf guns. [Laughs]
Bihldorff: Yeah, I can't even imagine how it would work. And on the flip side, I think that Wind Waker existed perfectly as an E-rated game. Basically, you take each one as it is. As it turns out, Twilight Princess has such a sort of darker, mature storyline, that it fed into the T rating perfectly. So it ended up, I think, being perfectly suited for it. But I wouldn't go as far as saying that the entire Zelda series should be an E or a T rating. I think it's just on a game-by-game basis.
PGC: Okay, we have time for one more. You've been playing through Zelda start-to-finish for a while. What I want to know for a lot of people, and for me personally...I want to know, after playing the Wii version for so long, can you go back to the GameCube version? After playing with the Wii controller for a while, can you go back to the GameCube controller, or any traditional controller?
Bihldorff: Well, I highly suggest you try it. I'm sure that you'll review both of them. But for me personally, no. There's no going back. It just feels weird. I mean, this certainly came up because we ended up debugging the GameCube version after the Wii version wrapped, because the release was going to be later. Yeah, it feels totally foreign now to hammer on the B button to swing my sword when I could be...I'm not even go into aiming a bow. Using a cursor to aim a bow is now is just...why would I do that?
PGC: I'm just worried that the $400 I spent on my Xbox 360 is going to go to waste because I can't use the controller anymore.
Bihldorff: [Laughs] That's a pretty big risk! Me personally, I think that there really is no going back once you get used to it. I haven't had a chance to play any FPSes on Wii yet, but I can't wait. I'm terrible at dual analog, and honestly once I get used to just pointing and shooting at a guy in a first-person shooter, how am I...why would I ever go back to not doing that? It really would just seem like going into the past. So me personally, no, I can't ever see really going back. That being said, I love the fact that there's a GameCube version out there. Not everyone has the means to go out and get a Wii right off the bat, and I think it's good that we're rewarding people with that experience.
PGC: So Nate, I think our time's up. Thank you very much for talking to us!
Bihldorff: No problem!
Interview by Steven Rodriguez. Discuss this interview in our Talkback forum!