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Ask the Developer Vol. 3, Big Brain Academy: Brain vs. Brain–Part 1

  • Content pre-recorded in accordance with current COVID-19 health and safety guidelines.

  • This article has been translated from the original Japanese content.

1: Parents and children split apart

Part 1: Parents and children split apart

In this third volume of Ask the Developer, an interview series in which Nintendo developers convey in their own words Nintendo’s thoughts about creating products and the specific points they are particular about, we're talking to the three developers behind the Big Brain Academy™ series, including the upcoming game Big Brain Academy: Brain vs. Brain for the Nintendo Switch™ system, launching on December 3.

First, could I ask you to briefly introduce yourselves?

Kenta Kubo (referred to as Kubo from this point on): I'm Kubo. I am the director for the Nintendo Switch game we are releasing now, which is called Big Brain Academy: Brain vs. Brain.

Tomiaki Yoshinobu (referred to as Yoshinobu from this point on): I'm Yoshinobu. I was the director of Big Brain Academy for Nintendo DS™ 1 and Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree for Wii™ 2. I was also the main programmer for the Nintendo DS version.

Hideki Fujii (referred to as Fujii from this point on): I'm Fujii. I was also the planner and designer for the Nintendo DS and Wii versions of Big Brain Academy.

1 Released on the Nintendo DS system in June of 2005. You can enjoy a collection of minigames across five categories based on the theme "brain-bending activities."

2 Released on the Wii system in April of 2007. You can enjoy a collection of minigames across five genres together with other people.

Thank you very much. In addition to Kubo-san, who is a developer for the new Nintendo Switch game, we've also invited Yoshinobu-san and Fujii-san. They weren't involved with the development of the Nintendo Switch version, but they were developers for the Nintendo DS and Wii versions. This way, we can hear about all the games in the Big Brain Academy series as a whole.First, Kubo-san, could you explain Big Brain Academy: Brain vs. Brain for Nintendo Switch a little bit?

Kubo: Of course. Big Brain Academy: Brain vs. Brain is a minigame collection with activities for your brain covering five different categories: Identify, Memorize, Analyze, Compute, and Visualize. For this Nintendo Switch version of Big Brain Academy, we included a variety of activities from the Nintendo DS and Wii versions, plus some features exclusive to Nintendo Switch. There are two different modes: Solo and Party. In Solo, you can steadily work on activities by yourself, practicing with 20 different minigames. In Party, you can have fun playing together with friends or family.

The Big Brain Academy series started on the Nintendo DS. Where did the idea for this game originally come from?

Yoshinobu: At the time, Iwata-san 3 was Nintendo's president, and Nintendo's global strategy was for Nintendo to expand the gaming population 4 by having people who don't normally play games try them out. That was the company's goal. We had time to ourselves to think, so I talked with Fujii-san about what we could do on Nintendo DS.

Fujii: Around this same time, my child was studying for kindergarten entrance exams. After seeing my wife and child studying together for the exams at home, I started to have doubts about this kind of "parent and child" learning.

3 Satoru Iwata. Former President of Nintendo. Led the release of Nintendo DS and Wii, as well as development of Nintendo Switch. Worked to deliver Nintendo entertainment to as many people as possible. Made appearances in Nintendo Direct broadcasts and presented products and services "directly" to users. Passed away in 2015.

4 Nintendo's core strategy that Satoru Iwata announced circa 2003. At this time when many people's interests were moving away from games in Japan, a phenomenon called "Gamers' Drift," the strategy proposed games that could be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age, gender, or gaming experience.

What do you mean by "doubts"?

Fujii: I had doubts about this relationship in which parents were telling their children to do something, and the children feel they're being made to do something, as a learning strategy. Then I saw this advertisement on a train for a cram school 5, which showed an entrance-exam question for a junior high school. I tried to solve the question as a challenge for myself and was shocked when I found I couldn't.

5 A place that provides private study lessons for children to prepare for entrance exams. Students usually take these lessons after school.

You thought you'd be able to solve the question, but you couldn't.

Fujii: Exactly. I felt a sense of panic about how dull my brain had become. And thinking about how I'd heard parents of children studying for exams saying things like, "Games aren't beneficial for you," or "Games just get in the way of studying," I thought maybe we could make a game that is both fun and beneficial and that parents would recommend to their children.

I see. So your own environment and experiences led to the idea for the game. What happened after you had a vague idea of what you wanted?

Fujii: I brought the idea, and Yoshinobu-san brought the technology. (Laughs) With that plan in mind, I approached Yoshinobu-san.

Yoshinobu: At the time, brain-exercise-type 6 quiz games were a big trend. There were books and TV shows, and our child was also often doing them together with the elementary-school teacher... Even at home, my child would regularly play with these quizzes, asking whether we could solve this one or that. Seeing my child get so excited about them like this, I thought maybe this could be really popular. So when I heard the idea from Fujii-san, I immediately agreed.

Fujii: However, we were unsure how far we could go into the educational aspect of the game while having it be fun at the same time. Our field is entertainment, and we don't know much about education. So we went to educational events and facilities to do some field research.

6 Puzzles that test your thinking ability and creativity. All kinds of TV shows and books came out after Akira Tago's Atama no Taiso, a book series on brain exercises, became a hit in Japan.

What were the children like when they were studying?

Yoshinobu: They were...not very happy.

Not happy?

Yoshinobu: Unfortunately, the children didn't seem like they were having fun in the least. Also, although the children were fully focused when sitting at their desks, the parents weren't necessarily watching. They'd be talking with each other or wandering off outside... It was like the parents and children were separated from one another.

This is what Fujii-san was talking about earlier, the structure where the parent is making the child do something, and the child feels they're being made to do it. This was causing the separation.

Yoshinobu: As mentioned earlier, we were preparing back then to launch Nintendo DS, and this idea of having as many people as possible try playing games was also a personal goal for me. Fujii-san and myself were looking for hints along those lines.

And that's how you decided to tackle this structure challenge? By the way, did you feel like with Nintendo DS you'd be able to overcome the challenge of children not having fun and the problem of parents and children being split apart?

Yoshinobu: I did. First, normally you use a controller with video games, right? Controllers with lots of buttons are not particularly easy for small children to use. Even parents might feel hesitant if they aren't familiar with games. But on Nintendo DS, you can use the stylus. All you need to do is touch what you see. No matter who it is, all they need to do is simply tap on the screen. Back then, we were thinking about an approach for people who weren't used to playing games, and for children. This seemed like a perfect fit, as it was so easy to understand what to do. This was before the launch of Nintendo DS, and smartphones weren't popular yet either, so finding that touch controls are easy to understand was a new discovery. So, considering this, even though Nintendo DS has lots of buttons, we decided that the Nintendo DS version of Big Brain Academy would use only touch controls.

What about you, Fujii-san?

Fujii: I felt the same way. Also, one thing I noticed doing the education field research was that monthly fees for extracurricular activities were unexpectedly high.

You're talking about money now? (Laughs)

Fujii: Each family has their own approach to these things, but going to classes a few times a week can be quite a financial burden. So, I thought that maybe we could make something that's easier to get into—something that parents and children could both participate in and have fun together with. A Nintendo product that could serve as a gateway for daily learning.

So you tried to use Nintendo DS as a gateway for learning?

Fujii: Rather than printouts and other paper-based materials, we made use of the strengths of digital-based learning. Children really love it when there are sounds or they can watch things moving. That alone provides motivation.

I see. That makes sense.

Fujii: I thought that if we added these kinds of elements that children like and provided everyday digital drills that parents and children could do together and compete in, then we could overcome the challenge in Nintendo's own way.

It sounds like you noticed some important things during that field research.

Fujii: Nintendo's goal is to put smiles on our consumers' faces, and when I'm designing a game, I try to imagine how people would feel when playing it. So because of this field research, I wanted to make the game while imagining kindergarten and elementary-school children having fun playing it together with their parents.

I see. I think I've got a good understanding now of where the idea for the game came from. By the way, Kubo-san, since you are the director of the new game, when was the first time you got your hands on Big Brain Academy?

Kubo: I was still a student when the Nintendo DS version of this title was released. Of course, I played games on Nintendo DS, and I had heard about this game. But I didn't buy it myself and wasn't very interested in it at that time. Um, sorry... (Laughs)

Yoshinobu and Fujii: No problem. (Laughs)

So this is the first time you've been involved in the series?

Kubo: Yes. Kawamoto-san 7, the producer of this title, contacted me about bringing this game to Nintendo Switch. That's when I first felt this was something I would become personally involved in.

7 Koichi Kawamoto. A member of the Entertainment Planning & Development Department. The General Director for Nintendo Switch and the producer for Nintendo Labo and Ring Fit Adventure, among other titles.

How was your experience playing Big Brain Academy?

Kubo: Both the Nintendo DS and the Wii versions were still very challenging for me, even as a fan of video games in general.

Japanese packaging for Big Brain Academy on Nintendo DS and Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree for Wii pictured

So an experienced adult gamer like you could also enjoy it.

Kubo: Exactly. Also, I have a five-year-old child. We're not planning on having our child take exams for kindergarten or elementary school, but my wife is very passionate about early childhood education. (Laughs) My wife doesn't make our child study. Instead, her approach is for them to "learn together." As I observed this, I've realized that parents should not act as if they are simply managing their own child. However, my wife doesn't have much experience with video games. I was hoping to create a game that's appealing even to people like her who are not very interested in games but are interested in early childhood education.

That seems to be the perfect time to think about this game.

Kubo: Yes. I was thinking about this game in relation to my own family. I wanted this game to be enjoyable for the whole family to play together, including myself.

This is indeed in line with the idea that Fujii-san and Yoshinobu-san had at the time when they were planning the Nintendo DS version.What things were particularly important for you when developing this game on Nintendo Switch as part of the Big Brain Academy series?

Kubo: Of course, I consider whether the game is something I can enjoy myself and this is important, but I put special emphasis on whether the game can be enjoyed by my child and wife together, since they are my closest customers. Making this a game that both children and adults can truly enjoy was something that I really wanted to achieve.

I see. Just like Fujii-san and Yoshinobu-san, you're a parent, so you all shared the same motivation, even across generations.Now I would like to get into the main part of our interview and ask about the details of the new game.