Nintendo’s Secret Weapon

Nintendo’s Secret Weapon

On the third floor of Nintendo’s US headquarters, next to the conference rooms named after Mario and Donkey Kong, there’s a door that you can’t open. There’s no boss key or warp pipe here — unless you’re one of the handful of people with a high-security keycard, you’re not getting in.

If you were to somehow break the seal, you might uncover a treasure trove of Nintendo secrets — scripts and code belonging to unannounced games from the most iconic video game franchises in the world. Maybe you’d stumble upon the Wii U version of Zelda, unfinished and unpolished. Maybe you’d find some hardware revision that hasn’t been unveiled yet. Maybe you’d run into one of the talented writers responsible for many of Nintendo’s most memorable moments.

This is the Treehouse — the division of Nintendo responsible for shepherding the company’s games from Japan to North American shores. Composed of some 80 people across several different branches, the Treehouse team translates text from Japanese to English, compiles videos, puts together marketing plans, and works to ensure that the company’s games are as polished as fans expect them to be.

Their room is so secret, even other Nintendo employees can’t get in. Only Treehouse people are allowed in the Treehouse.

“We’re keeping things confidential until we’re ready to share them with the world,” says Treehouse manager Leslie Swan, who is also the voice of Princess Peach. “We work really closely with the development teams to make sure that no information gets out before it’s ready.”

“We have to develop that trust,” adds Tim O’Leary, also a manager and longtime Treehouse employee. “If they’re not willing to share stuff with us early on about hidden characters or special items, that makes our job a lot harder… so we would hate for anything that they share with us to get released into the wild before it’s time.”

Perhaps because of that secrecy, the Treehouse stays somewhat under the radar. You might have seen top Treehouse man Bill Trinen translating for Shigeru Miyamoto, or watched a few Treehouse staffers talking during the occasional Animal Crossing video, but as a general rule, Nintendo likes to keep its secret weapon secret.

Let’s change that.

When you play a Nintendo game in 2013, you expect certain things. You expect interesting levels and mechanics, delivered by the company’s legendary designers: Miyamoto, Eiji Aonuma, Takashi Tezuka. You expect to be charmed by the little touches added by their Japanese studios — the sound of a well-timed Mario jump, the way wind rustles Link’s hat as he stands still. And, if you happen to be playing in English, you expect stellar writing, thanks to a crack team of scribes and translators at the Treehouse.

Two weeks ago, I took a trip out to Nintendo’s offices in Redmond, Washington to sit down with the folks who run the company’s most secretive branch. Photos aren’t allowed inside Nintendo HQ; before visitors can even walk past the entrance, the secretary has them sign a waiver to promise that they won’t take pictures or share any company secrets they may happen to overhear. It’s too bad — the offices are lovely. But Nintendo loves their mystique.

After a brief tour of the facilities, I was ushered into one of the conference rooms — I think it was the one named Magikoopa — to meet with some of the core members of the Treehouse, all people who have been there for at least a decade. With me was Nate Bihldorff, best known for writing English for all of the Mario & Luigi RPGs; Leslie Swan, who helped found the localisation department almost a decade and a half ago; Tim O’Leary, a grizzled veteran translator; Rich Amtower, who helped localise several Final Fantasys and other big Square RPGs; and Reiko Ninomiya, who ran translation on the critically-acclaimed (and super-popular) Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

Also attending our chat via video conference from Kyoto were four top executives at NCL, or Nintendo Co., Ltd, the acronym everyone uses to describe Nintendo Japan: New Leaf co-director Aya Kyogoku; New Leaf producer Katsuya Eguchi; Mario & Luigi: Dream Team producer Akira Otani; and Dream Team assistant producer Tomomi Samo.

We were there to talk about the Treehouse: its history, its process, its secrets. Nintendo’s localisation group is part of the video game world elite. “Offering Treehouse your fan translation is like telling Picasso you started some paintings for him,” games writer Gus Mastrapa once wrote on Twitter, in reference to Mother 3‘s fan translators offering their work to Nintendo for free. (Mother 3, a Nintendo game released in Japan seven years ago, never came to North America. In fairness, the fan translation was also quite excellent.)

But Nintendo of America didn’t always have that sort of reputation — although the company has been bringing games from Japan to the United States since the days of quarters and kill screens, some of their older games were riddled with typos and weird bits of text, mostly because they didn’t have any formal process for translating and localizing games back in the NES and SNES eras. “It was sort of a slapdash operation up to that point,” said Bihldorff. “I mean certainly products came in but I think it was sort of random how they got done.”

Although the Treehouse as we know it today didn’t quite start until the turn of the century, the name’s origins go way back to the early 90s, when a British studio named Rare was developing a game called Donkey Kong Country. Nintendo of America had assigned a few writers, headed up by a man named Dan Owsen (still with the company today), to polish the text and adapt it for U.S. audiences.

Nintendo’s Secret Weapon

“Because it was really confidential information and the visuals of that game were so confidential, they locked them away in a room where nobody else could have access and get into what they were working on,” said Swan. “And Treehouse actually became a codename because Donkey Kong’s residence in the game was a treehouse.”

Meanwhile, Swan, who was then managing editor at the company-run magazine Nintendo Power, had been complaining about the English writing in many of their games. So Nintendo asked if she wanted to go to Japan and write the script for an upcoming title called Super Mario 64.

“I said, ‘Well, I’ll do it on one condition — you have both the translation and a writing staff with people who are really writers,’” Swan said. “So that was our founding philosophy, really.”

Over the next few years, the company recruited a handful of other writers and translators; some farmed from the pages of Nintendo Power, like Bihldorff, and others known for their work at other companies, like Rich Amtower, who spent a few years at Square, editing games such as Vagrant Story.

The name Treehouse stuck, and it’s been used to describe not just the writing team, but the entire group within Nintendo’s secret room: the audio-visual department that puts together many of the company’s trailers and videos; the product management group that handles release schedules and other major duties related to getting their games out the door; and the QA teams that play every game until all of the bugs are gone or their thumbs fall off — whichever comes first.

Bihldorff: “It’s not a professional-looking space, that’s for sure.”

Some might look at translators as mailmen, delivering messages with no interference or resistance. But to think of the Treehouse as just a service that turns Japanese into English would be underselling what they really do. They’re more like a group of tinkerers, playing in their workshop, adding that extra energy to games that are already bursting with creativity. And their top-secret office reflects that.

“It’s not a professional-looking space, that’s for sure,” said Bihldorff. “You’ve never seen so many toys in your life.”

“That’s another reason we’re behind closed doors,” said Amtower.

“They don’t want people to see it,” said Swan.

“They talk about protecting what’s in there,” said O’Leary. “We’re actually protecting the rest of the company from us.”

2.4 Million Characters

It’s easy to assume, while playing a Japanese game, that all it takes to go international is a couple of programmers and Google Translate. But localisation goes much deeper than that. The best localisation teams don’t just slap together a direct translation — they spice up dialogue. They change jokes or references that wouldn’t make sense to North American audiences. They try to figure out what’s going to make games better — and what’s going to sell more copies — in this part of the world.

The process starts in Japan, where most of Nintendo’s games are made.

“I guess it starts where we first talk to the folks in the Treehouse and tell them, ‘Hey, this is the kind of game we’re thinking about making,’” said Katsuya Eguchi, speaking in Japanese. (Luckily, we had a room full of translators.) Eguchi, one of Nintendo’s top creators, was a producer on the 3DS game Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

Nintendo’s Secret Weapon

In Nintendo’s world, there are two different types of games — there are the games like Wii Sports, which don’t require a whole lot of text, and then there are the games like New Leaf, which most certainly do. The script for the newest Animal Crossing clocked in at some 2.4 million Japanese characters, say the Treehouse folk — roughly estimated, that’s a little over a million English words, or about 20 novels.

For the text-light games, Team Japan will talk to the Treehouse fairly late in development, when there’s something concrete to play. But for the denser projects, the Animal Crossings and Fire Emblems, the Treehouse gets involved earlier, so they can help figure out what will have to be changed for North America. Holidays, for example. American players wouldn’t expect to have to follow the Japanese calendar — and how many kids in the U.S. know what Golden Week is? — so the Treehouse has to work with developers in Japan to piece together a more appropriate set of events.

“[We spent] three years working with the development team, cause again they consulted us really early, talking about it then some things like that,” said Reiko Ninomiya, who headed up localisation on New Leaf. “And then actual heads-down in the files… a year and three months.”

As the team in Japan finished up chunks of the game text, they sent scripts and early builds of the game to Ninomiya and her team. Not all Treehouse members speak Japanese, but both the bilinguals and English editors would play versions of the game as they came in. “[We’ll] still have fun with it,” said Bihldorff, who doesn’t understand much Japanese. “Nintendo games are fun even if you don’t understand the language, so you rapidly get to the core of what’s fun about the game.”

Bihldorff: “Nintendo games are fun even if you don’t understand the language.”

Using a proprietary tool called Message Studio, the translators will start directly translating the Japanese text and putting it into script files to send to the editors. On every line, the translators will add notes about the spirit of the language — “this guy speaks with a certain accent” — and any specific Japanese references or jokes that will have to be adapted for U.S. audiences.

Then it’s the editor’s turn to polish up that text, add jokes, and make sure that, if they’re working with dialogue for a recurring Nintendo character, that character is consistent. There are rules: Mario has no dialogue other than soundbites (“It’s-a-me!”), but Luigi sometimes talks, and he’s got a lot of love for his shorter, plumper brother. Bowser is nasty, but he’s also sometimes kind of goofy and misguided in a charming way. Cranky Kong is… well, you know.

Editing, of course, is an amorphous process — it’s hard to tell when you’re really done. Any writer will happily tell you that his or her story would have been so much better if they only had one more month. That’s just part of creativity.

“I really think it’s the same philosophy that game developers have,” said Bihldorff, “which is that it’s done when you run out of time.”

“We had to pry Mario & Luigi out of his hands,” said Swan. “You’re done now, Nate, you’re done.”

With games like Wii Sports, the process is much easier. Does every line of dialogue fit in its proper text bubble? Is everything spelled correctly? Is the punctuation all right? Bam, done. Ship it. Games like that usually only require one translator and one editor, the Treehouse folks said.

But with a text-heavy game like Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, the process is much more complicated. New Leaf, with its 2.4 million characters, was so draining that the team says they had everyone working on it at some point or another — all 50 translators and editors.

“You get your text in there and you start playing through it, and the debug team is playing through it and sending you bugs, and you’re fixing stuff that’s wrong but you’re also massaging stuff to be funnier, to be clearer, to be a better line here, a better line there,” said Bihldorff. “And that process… I really do think you just use every last drop of — until they’re saying, ‘We have to ship this game. We’re cutting you off.’”

Nintendo’s Secret Weapon

‘Tasty Quotes’

I get the sense, talking to the people who help make Nintendo games great, that this is a close-knit group, a clan of people who love their jobs as much as they love playing games. These five members of the Treehouse have been working together for over a decade, and they talk about their work environment like a teenager might talk about his days at summer camp. The mysterious Treehouse is a place of business, yes, but it is also a place of nerf guns, of Smash Bros. tournaments and schoolyard pranks.

“Someone leaves their PC unlocked, someone’s playing Animal Crossing, doesn’t sign off, and leaves their game sitting there,” said O’Leary. “You can go in and mess around with their village if you really wanted to… ‘Where did all these signs come from? Wait a minute, why does that character want to move out now? I don’t get it!’”‘

Maybe that’s why they keep things locked down.

“Our lexicon for Smash Bros was insane,” said O’Leary. “People would walk into the room, watch us play Smash, and they’re like, ‘We don’t understand anything you guys said.’ Because everything we said was a riff off a quote from five years ago.”

“Why don’t we give him the quotebook?” asked Bihldorff.

“God, no,” said Amtower. “That doesn’t leave.”

The quotebook, I manage to pry out of the gang, is a book of “tasty quotes” — inside jokes, references, gags — that is almost certainly not safe for work. Not safe for most places of work, at least. When you work at the Nintendo Treehouse, all bets are off.

O’Leary: “Our lexicon for Smash Bros was insane. People would walk into the room, watch us play Smash, and they’re like, ‘We don’t understand anything you guys said.’”

Also not safe for work: an inadvertent mistake that could have caused quite a few headaches for the Treehouse team, in the most unlikely of places. It was a DS platformer called The Legendary Starfy. While developing the fifth game — the first to see release on Western shores — one of the team members in Japan had put together a rough English translation in order to help the Treehouse folks play through the ROM.

“Do you remember Starfy?” Bihldorff asked me. I didn’t.

“Starfy is a very, very benign sort of chubby little starfish thing that makes his way through relatively easy platforming levels,” Bihldorff said. “And we were playing through it and I remember all of a sudden one of the ancillary characters is like ‘Shit!’ That does not belong in this game!”

Uh oh. They quickly got rid of the line, but it was something of a scare.

While maintaining this sort of office environment is almost certainly good for the team’s creative output, joking too much can get a little dangerous. If some Treehouse prankster buries an expletive or hidden message in a game’s files, someone is probably going to find it. Just look at Hot Coffee, a supposedly-inaccessible sex mod for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that caused the game-makers at Rockstar an endless amount of grief when it was uncovered by crafty gamers back in 2005.

Even a few hidden curses could be quite damaging to Nintendo’s family-friendly image.

Nintendo’s Secret Weapon

“The scary thing nowadays is that you can’t be too careful because stuff that’s in the game code that you might not even be able to access, people access now,” said Bihldorff. “People crack these ROMs open eventually. So you have to make sure that everything in the code is scrubbed out, even if — you can’t even have stuff. It’d be great to be able to be in these files and be shooting witticisms back and forth to each other, but you never know when that stuff might be buried somewhere in the code that somebody can access and see… Even if it’s not profane, I don’t want people seeing behind the curtain.”

Lines Nobody Will See

You’ve probably done it. You’re playing a big RPG, and it occurs to you that maybe you should wander back to the first town just to see if one of the NPCs has something new to say. Or you try to see what happens if you talk to one of your townspeople when it’s raining during a full moon. There’s something kind of special about those lines of dialogue — the ones that not everyone will get to see. It feels like they were written just for you.

In almost every game there are lines that most players will never get to witness, but in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, that applies to just about every line. Since every character in the popular village simulator has his or her own personality, and your town will only ever have a limited number of characters, you won’t get to meet everyone. And you definitely won’t see everything they all have to say, unless you’re ready to play the game for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

That’s gotta be frustrating, for writers. To spend that much time working on dialogue that most people will never even get to read.

“The reason we prepared all of these messages is so when you’re playing with someone else, they’ll come across a message you’ve never seen before and maybe they’ll show it to you — ‘Oh my gosh, look how funny this thing is,’” said Aya Kyogoku, co-director on New Leaf. “So that’s why we created all that text, all those variations on messages.”

And, sure, people have been sharing funny lines and situations on Facebook and Twitter. We’ve even got an entire Kotaku sub-site dedicated to silly moments in New Leaf.

Nintendo’s Secret Weapon

“Those messages I always thought were the most fun in the game, because they were so private,” said Bihldorff. “You know you were looking at something that when somebody actually got to it, either it was a totally bizarre sequence of events that would get them to that particular message, like you’re in an RPG and they’d backtrack through the entire game to this one dude they saw who’s sitting on a mountain.

“But you knew somebody had done something special to get there, and so putting a little something extra into that message so you knew that no matter what they were gonna be smiling when they saw it, cause you knew the writer was winking at you when they wrote it. Those always had a little bit more power than I think other ones did. But we never had any feedback that anybody ever read that.

“I think in the modern age now, you actually see people that are like, you know in Animal Crossing they were in a thunderstorm next to the tree with a wolf character who happened to be next to him and they said something funny about howling or whatever. Whatever the line is, somebody’s gonna capture it somewhere and probably upload it, and so you can actually see that people are enjoying the stuff you did.”

“But doesn’t that make it less special?” I asked.

“Yeah, maybe, a little bit,” said Bihldorff. “Well that’s a whole different interview. I could probably talk about that for hours.”

Bihldorff: “Those messages I always thought were the most fun in the game, because they were so private.”

“That person still gets the experience of discovery, like you know you get the discovery, you get to share it,” said Amtower. He and O’Leary spent a lot of time working on the Fire Emblem games — strategy-RPGs in which you can match up characters by making them fight side-by-side in battle. Each different possible pair of characters has specific scenes and dialogue, so many people will never see many of those lines. Unless they try really hard.

“Some of the most interesting conversations are in those files,” said O’Leary. “So at the end of those, we were writing those for each other. ‘Isn’t that funny?’ ‘Yeah it is, too bad no one’s gonna see it.’”

“That’s what a lot of my philosophy of the writing of it comes down to — you wanna reward people for having gone through the trouble,” said Amtower. “It’s really fun to think that someone might have done all that stuff and then get that awesome message out of nowhere.”

The rise of social media is a recent phenomenon, of course. 10 years ago, there was no YouTube or Twitter or Facebook — if you wanted to see secret messages, you had to either find them in the game or spend a lot of time looking for hints online, at risk of wasting your time because you fell for a well-crafted prank. (“And here’s how you revive Aeris…”)

Many of the messages in the fighting game Super Smash Bros. Melee, for example, you’ll never get to see. There’s one for playing a million matches — something that’s essentially impossible to get — you’d have to play for tens of thousands of hours just to even come close. The message has become something of an urban legend on the web.

“It was largely unexciting,” said Bihldorff. “I think it said, ‘Go outside.’”

Nintendo’s Secret Weapon

Where’s Mother 3?

Hardcore Nintendo fans, if offered an opportunity to sit down with Nintendo’s localisation team, would probably ask where Mother 3 is. Or why we haven’t gotten Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland. Or why the Treehouse never bothered localizing The Last Story, though Nintendo released it in Europe. (The small publisher XSEED brought that game to the United States last year.)

That’s the big question: how does the Treehouse decide what to bring over — and what not to bring over?

“Well, actually we have an evaluation system in place here,” said Leslie Swan. “And through that process we get the game in, do an evaluation of it to determine what we think the sales potential is, and it comes down to essentially if we don’t think the sales potential is great, we don’t do it.”

It’s easy to imagine, as depressing as the thought may be. Picture a bunch of smart, experienced gamers sitting in a room, playing through Mother 3, and deciding that, as good as that game may be, it just won’t sell enough copies to justify localisation costs.

Then again, how does anyone really know how well a game is going to sell until it’s out there in the wild? Back in 2000, the folks at Nintendo Japan (NCL) almost turned down one game that would turn into a pop culture phenomenon: Animal Crossing.

“When we first started working on Animal Crossing for N64, we really – on our side weren’t even thinking about having it localised for a foreign, for an international market,” said NCL’s Eguchi. “Of course, some voice came up at NCL saying, ‘You know, what about this game? Think it’s possible that people on that end would like it? Maybe this is the type of game that would catch on?’”

So they sent ROMs of the game, then slated for Nintendo 64, over to the Treehouse. (It would later be moved over to the GameCube.)

“We actually had an N64 cartridge that we would pass around, ’cause we had one working ROM,” said O’Leary. “And it was super addictive — we all thought it was really cute. The gameplay was, while it seemed sort of simple and maybe not what we’re used to, I have to say that every morning we would fight to see who could get the game first, because you go to the store and there’s only one shovel and somebody bought the shovel and you’d have to wait until the next day.

“And if somebody else bought the shovel — you could wait four or five days and no shovel appears. And everyone else is digging up fossils… There was quite a bit of competition. I actually came to Leslie and said ‘I’ll take a year, two years myself and do this whole game. It’s that much fun.’”

O’Leary, on the first Animal Crossing: “I’ll take a year, two years myself and do this whole game. It’s that much fun.”

“I’ll never forget [NCL producer Takashi Tezuka] coming here and saying, ‘If we’re gonna do this, you guys have to change everything,’” said Swan. “Because they had designed it so specifically for the Japanese market.”

Take the shrine that originally rested in the middle of the game’s town, for example. Most U.S. gamers wouldn’t get the Japanese tradition, so the Treehouse changed it to a fountain. Elements from Japanese culture are swapped with items or jokes that might be more appropriate for North America.

It’s an interesting philosophy, and it certainly contrasts with a game like, say, Persona 4, which is set in Japan and stuffed with Japanese culture. But that’s just not how Nintendo wants us to see their games.

Another example: The case of the missing washtub.

“There was a scene in [2005 DS game Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time] where, very typical of Japanese comedy, there’s a washtub that falls through the ceiling,” said Akira Otani, a longtime NCL producer who has worked on all of the Mario & Luigi RPGs. “It hits the person in the head and they kind of get knocked out. That is something very — you see that a lot in Japanese comedy, but when Nate saw that in the game, he was like, ‘People are not gonna understand that.’ So that was one instance of, well, regardless of all our best intentions, it wasn’t gonna work for an American audience and we had to address it.”

So the washtub became a bucket.

Those are the sort of challenges that the Treehouse’s residents have to tackle on a daily basis. Little things — editing each line of dialogue so it fits properly in the text bubble on screen, for example. Or writing lines that match the movements of characters’ lips during voice-acted cut-scenes — a process that drove Amtower and O’Leary a little batty while working on the 2005 GameCube game Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance. Since the cut-scenes were all locked down, and they couldn’t change the lip-flaps, they had to write English that looked as if it resembled what the characters were saying in Japanese.

“We were kind of thrown into the fire,” said Amtower, “and we’re trying to figure out like, ‘How do we fit all of this in — wait, he turns his head, now’s our chance! See how much we can cram in when he looks away!’”

And then there are the little things that take a whole lot of time. Folks at the Treehouse are responsible for putting together the packaging of each of their games. They write all of the text in the digital eShop for 3DS and Wii U. They do text for Virtual Console games. They write hardware updates. They work down to the wire to test and polish and test some more, finishing up Nintendo’s very large slate of games for the holiday rush.

“I think one of the challenges we have right now is just the general crush that comes every summer,” said Bihldorff. “This is the secret part about working in video games — maybe not so secret — is that your summers just get absolutely destroyed.”

Sometimes, they have to get esoteric: in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, for example, the team spends a lot of time working on monster names. Since the upcoming 3DS game is a sequel to the Super Nintendo game Link to the Past, and the development team has made monsters and items that call back to that game, the Treehouse has to make those connections themselves.

Exacerbating this problem is the fact that Link to the Past was developed before the Treehouse even existed. There are no records of the translation, no easy text to refer to.

“The developer might have put together this enemy that looks like a Tektite, but they’re not called a Tektite in Japanese,” said Bihldorff. “So it may have this name that’s based on the original Japanese for Tektite, and we didn’t even localise that particular thing, so it’s not fresh in our mind, but that guy is doing a very specific callback to a very specific enemy that means something very specific, and we have to sniff down, go all the way down that path and find that same character and make sure we do the same — if they’re just using the ‘Tek,’ maybe we’ll use the ‘Tek’ and make it a Tekling. Whatever.”

Nintendo’s Secret Weapon

Yep. Hours spent trying to figure out what to call the descendant of a Tektite. That’s how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Bihldorff says it could be up to a month of work just getting those enemy names right. And again, maybe nobody will ever read them. But for the people in Nintendo’s Treehouse — for the people who put countless hours into making sure that when you play a Nintendo game, you’re playing something that’s polished, that’s funny, that’s well-written — all that time is worth it.

Even if their jobs are a little bit secret.

“Well I mean, the satisfaction is knowing — a lot of our satisfaction in our job is trusting that someone’s gonna enjoy what we’re doing,” Bihldorff said. “We’re not stage performers — there’s nobody applauding for localisation. You put it out there and you hope that… as long as one person out there is really enjoying the game, that’s enough.”

You’ll probably never visit the Treehouse. You’ll probably never get a chance to get into that top-secret wing of Nintendo. Too much security; too much secrecy. But when you play the latest Mario or Zelda, and you chuckle at a joke or marvel at how much effort was put into the name of an insignificant monster, at least you’ll see some of the Treehouse in every line.

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