Just over three million people tuned in this year to watch the livestream of the Nintendo Treehouse Live event at E3. Viewers were treated to friendly smack talk between Morgan Ritchie and Eric Smith as they played devious custom-built levels in Mario Maker, a deeper look at Xenoblade Chronicles X with Rich Amtower, Ethan Stockton, and Ed Murray, and some delightful demonstrations of Toad’s Treasure Tracker and Fantasy Life with Audrey Drake and Alison Rapp.
Even the most diehard Nintendo fans might not recognize those names—despite likely having played several of the titles they’ve helped shepherd into America—but they’re still more recognizable now than they were sixteen years ago. Back then, the face of the Treehouse was completely different. Hell, it barely had a face.
I caught up with Bill Trinen, the Director of Product Marketing at Nintendo of America, about how things have changed since then.
“The thing about Treehouse is that it’s actually a huge team [now]. When I joined Nintendo back in ’98, there were two of us,” Trinen shared with me. “We localized games, captured all the screenshots for promotional materials, wrote all of the manuals, captured all of the footage to help with T.V. ads for media…the list gets longer.”
This is when Treehouse started to branch out into other divisions, Trinen said.
“From there, the team started to grow, and one of the first things I said was, ‘We really need somebody else to capture the footage [for media], because there’s actual localization work to do, and we can’t do it all,’ so then we added what’s now called our Marketing Support Team.”
The Marketing Support Team is responsible for capturing all of the footage used in promotional materials, as well as trailers for games, including 2004’s Twilight Princess trailer, which was met with a standing ovation from its audience.
“Then there’s my team,” Trinen said. “I left out of localization several years ago and started up what is essentially the product marketing team. Our role is to educate the NOA internal marketing teams and their agencies on what the products are and how they can identify the key features of a product.”
“We also have our brand management/Pokémon team that handles all of the Pokémon products. They do some things around the Kirby franchise. Today, Treehouse is a very large group. Localization alone is 40 or 50 people. It’s hard to imagine that we started by translating text into .txt files.”
If you don’t know Trinen as the Director of Product Marketing, you probably know him as Shigeru Miyamoto’s translator, so I asked him about that next. I said: “You’ve been working with Mr. Miyamoto for quite some time. Can you tell us what your guys’ interpreter-interpretee relationship is like?”
With a laugh, Trinen replied, “There have actually been rumors that Mr. Miyamoto is going to retire, you know, so this E3 we were going to spread the rumor that the two of us had bought a place in a Hawaii and that we’re going to retire together.”
“But really, when I first joined Nintendo it was in 1998. I had gone in for an interview on a contract job and didn’t hear back, so, I just sort of assumed I didn’t get the job. Then I heard back from this agency that had hooked me up with the interview and they said, ‘well yeah, they don’t want to hire you for the contract job, they just want to HIRE you!’ So, naturally, I said, hey, sure—I’ll do that!”
While they were going through the paperwork to formally hire Trinen, Nintendo put him in a contract position which happened to be translating book reports for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
“As a part of the testing process for Ocarina of Time, we were doing these nightly telephone conference calls, because we didn’t have video conference technology back then—but we at least had email—so we would do these calls every night and I ended up being the one who was translating them for the testing team in Redmond.”
During these conference calls, Trinen would relay information provided by the testing team to designers Miyamoto, Aounuma, and Koizumi. When the project was finished, he was hired into localization full-time.
“I was going about my merry way for a few months when, one day, Jim Merrick comes up to me and says, ‘you’re Bill, right? You speak Japanese, don’t you?’ I was young and naïve, so of course I said, ‘Yeah! Yeah I speak Japanese!’”
Merrick asked Trinen if he would like to translate for Miyamoto when he gave a speech at the Game Developer’s Conference. “I asked him how big of a speech it was. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘anywhere between 3-5 thousand people.’”
Trinen then flew out to see Miyamoto in San Francisco. “He was really nervous because he had never spoken in front of an audience that large before—and I was really nervous because I had never met Mr. Miyamoto. I can’t remember it exactly, but there was this little joke at the beginning…anyways, we got on stage, and he gets to his joke, tells it, I translate it, and the whole room just busts up.”
Trinen shared that at that point, the nervousness had completely melted away from the both of them, and that this was the start of their partnership as interpreter and interpretee. “That’s been our motto ever since—whenever were doing anything, we don’t really care what the audience thinks, the two of us are just going to get up and have fun.”
“Before the trip, I told my wife, ‘I’m going to come back either looking for a new job or I’ll be staying at Nintendo for a very long time.”
You know the rest of the story.