It's not so long ago that The Treehouse at Nintendo of America's HQ was a mystery, a department with a rather charming door behind which delights could be found. It was tempting to think of it as a smaller game-related version of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory, with Oompa Loompas in Mario hats singing songs and playing games.
Of course, the reality is rarely as fun, but nevertheless represents an exciting area in which new games are tested and localised for Western audiences. The job the team undertakes is integral to the enjoyment we often derive from Nintendo games, and throughout the team's history it's been credited with breathing life into humorous and clever scripts throughout the company's titles. Whether character names or the endlessly funny lines in a Mario & Luigi RPG, it's likely that some of our favourite moments have been improved or largely conceived — within the limitations of the core software — by the Treehouse team.
Of course, Nintendo of Europe has its own localisation processes — often outsourced — yet it's the role of the Treehouse that's most prominent; the well-known Bill Trinen's early days were in a smaller version of this team years ago. Yet since the first time the door was shown in an early Nintendo Direct the staff from this group have gradually emerged into the public eye. Initial appearances came in the form of brief talking head segments in Direct broadcasts to introduce a game, but these roles expanded dramatically in E3 2014 when the team provided four full days of live coverage from the show floor. It's easy to underestimate how bold that approach was, putting staff and early builds of games into a live setting where much could go wrong, yet issues were rare. While improvements in the overall flow and presentation of the broadcasts will no doubt be made, it was an impressive performance from a group that showed itself to be full of charming, passionate gamers.
It was a smart move by Nintendo, and it seems that NoA is keen to bring the team to the forefront even further. The logic is sound — as Nintendo seeks to improve sales it needs to communicate to gamers, yes, but also portray itself as personable and amiable; in other words, be the nice guys of gaming. The main man ultimately responsible for The Treehouse, Reggie Fils-Aime, also stepped back from some of his usual PR spin and bluster during E3's Digital Event to give a rather sincere and touching speech about Nintendo's passion for delivering fun experiences through its games.
After being relatively aloof in its dominant DS and Wii days, save the occasional wacky moment during E3 press conferences, it's perhaps no coincidence that Nintendo Direct broadcasts were trialled shortly after the 3DS began its recovery from dismal early sales in 2011. Nintendo's products weren't selling themselves through concept alone, and since that point the company has released a number of broadcasts to raise awareness, excitement and, also, to humanise the brand. When the company President and its most revered developer re-enact Luigi's Mansion 2, the willingness to share that light-hearted side is clear for all to see.
Despite these quirky moments, conventional Nintendo Directs can still be fairly bland, heavily scripted affairs. Their power is in revealing exciting details, new games, release dates and so on, and as a result the controlled presentation rapidly moves us from one point to another. They're more playful when tackling a single game, however, such as the silly TV shopping-style presentation given to Mario Kart 8 or the giggly flirting in the EU version of the Direct for Bayonetta 2.
The E3 Digital Event, of course, loosened shackles to a great degree, and also gave developers much of the spotlight in various segments. For a Western audience, however, it was The Treehouse that gave the greatest insight into the realities of working for a company like Nintendo and on its games. Largely unscripted, the comparatively carefully worded presentation from the Digital Event was a distant memory as various members of the team would regularly exclaim delight at the cuteness of Toad and Yoshi, or comment on the fact that Bayonetta looked bad-ass in a Samus outfit. Of course there were limitations and guidelines being followed, but it was a glimpse behind the curtain; these were staff that loved games and expressed that far more spontaneously than we're accustomed to.
With all of that said, it's not particularly surprising that the team will be running an 8-hour Twitch broadcast this week, with the final build of Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS likely to be the main event. It'll follow a broadcast around the game in Japan, and coincides with the game's launch in Nintendo's homeland — Nintendo of America is no doubt keen to share final reveals for the title in its own way. The Treehouse team is rapidly becoming more experienced, too, with recent talking head contributions to the Bayonetta 2 Direct and — more importantly — live streaming from major expos. Various members of the team are no doubt happy to work as presenters and, ultimately, only the actual developers of Nintendo's games know the titles as well as the Treehouse staff.
It should be an entertaining, information and in-depth watch later this week, then, and is the latest effort by Nintendo to portray itself as less a corporate machine and more a collection of passionate gamers. Various staff members post openly on Twitter — though likely shy away from questioning any company policies — and we also have regular videos from Nintendo Minute, while social network accounts throughout all regions are showing more humour and flexibility in their posts. We're not quite at the stage of having a major executive exchanging pleasantries on Twitter in the manner of Sony's Shuhei Yoshida, admittedly, but there are plenty of steps in the right direction.
Nintendo arguably has no choice but to adopt this personable approach; more than ever before it's the strength of the big N's brand and its unique content that is relied upon to sell systems and games. It's far easier, generally, to feel loyal to a company that shows humour, self deprecation, passion and an eagerness to please. Opening up the Treehouse door is just one example of this in practice.
There are always plenty improvements to be made, but when you compare Nintendo's broadcasts and communication of today with the company's efforts as recently as three years ago, it's a startling difference. Nintendo's talking to gamers, though it needs more to listen.