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Ask the Developer Vol. 3, Big Brain Academy: Brain vs. Brain–Part 2

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

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

2: A complicated system that looks simple

Part 2: A complicated system that looks simple

Tell me—what did you do first after it was decided to develop this game for Nintendo Switch?

Kubo: First, I went to interview Yoshinobu-san and Fujii-san, who developed the Nintendo DS and Wii versions, and asked how they worked on those games. Since I started this job, my motivation as a game developer has always been, “How can I make games enjoyable for people who don't play games as often?” As I listened to their experiences, I started to feel confident that we would be able to make this game something that both young children and parents, especially those who are passionate about educating their children, could be interested in and enjoy playing.

Did they request that the game be a certain way or tell you that you have to do this or that?

Kubo: Actually, they didn't really do that. They let us work on this project pretty freely, which I greatly appreciated. Oh, but there was one thing...

Yoshinobu: I asked, “What's your plan for Dr. Lobe?" (Laughs)

Kubo: I certainly remember Yoshinobu-san asking me, “Of course, you are planning to implement Dr. Lobe, right?” during our first conversation. At the time, we hadn’t decided anything yet, and obviously we were nowhere near a character-planning phase. (Laughs)

He was very specific about it. (Laughs)

Kubo: Yes. So, we of course decided to implement Dr. Lobe for this title. And after releasing the first official trailer, we received a lot of reactions from our players on social media expressing that they had missed him. I was glad we kept Dr. Lobe for this title.

I see. It wouldn't be a Big Brain Academy game without Dr. Lobe.By the way, I heard you conducted monitor tests 8 with young children for this title. What was your impression of that experience?

Kubo: What was most noteworthy was that I didn't realize how slowly young children play games. It made me realize that my assumption about how quickly children play through games was too optimistic. The Nintendo DS and Wii versions were also made for younger children to enjoy, but I wanted to make something which younger children, like our child who is a five-year-old, could have a lot more fun with.

8 A type of play testing where users are recorded playing the game to observe how the players feel about the game in order to improve the content of the title before launching.

Other than how fast they were playing, was there anything else you noticed?

Kubo: How they reacted when they didn't get answers right was also memorable. For example, the game plays buzzer noises depending on whether you selected the right or wrong answer. Children are sensitive to those sounds. I was afraid that it might discourage them if the game highlighted their wrong answers too much. It hurts your motivation to study if someone points out your wrong answers too harshly, right? The same thing can be said about games. We worked together with the sound lead to improve upon the wrong-answer sound effect so that it doesn't sound too negative.

I see. This is something you wouldn't have noticed if you didn't observe with your own eyes how the children were playing the game.After you realized young children might have difficulty playing the game if it was released as it was, what kind of adjustments did you make?

Kubo: First, we did a thorough review of the level of quiz difficulties. To do this, we analyzed the internal mechanics of the Nintendo DS and Wii versions, and we found out how careful and detailed the game mechanics were in terms of how the game chose which quizzes to give.

Yoshinobu: Ah, I remember that you contacted us via internal chat regarding this! You asked us how we created the mechanics for the levels of quiz difficulties.

Kubo: Yes. It's not visible from the outside, but each minigame in Big Brain Academy for both the Nintendo DS and Wii versions is internally equipped with quizzes in several difficulty levels. As a player solves quizzes, the level goes up and down according to how quickly they can provide correct answers. We took special care with reevaluating the contents of quizzes categorized as the easiest level of difficulty. We looked at them and asked ourselves, “Can my five-year-old solve these?"

How exactly did you evaluate these quizzes?

Kubo: We implemented the same mechanics where the difficulty level changes for the Nintendo Switch version, and decided to organize them into six different classes 9. Additionally, we named the easiest level “Sprout Class” and reevaluated the quiz difficulty levels in detail. For example, in Practice mode, every minigame starts with the Sprout Class. In this difficulty, there are a set of quizzes that are specifically prepared for the first round.

9 There are six classes: Sprout Class, Beginner Class, Intermediate Class, Advanced Class, Elite Class, and Super Elite Class.

And are those quizzes meant for everyone to be able to solve easily?

Kubo: Yes, that's correct. In other words, quizzes that are suitable as tutorials appear first. It was important that the quizzes be child friendly, but it was also important that adults unfamiliar with the game could understand the rules and solve the quizzes easily too.

I see. That's a good place to start.

Kubo: After that, as the player provides more correct answers, they receive quizzes that are slightly more difficult. On the other hand, if they provide incorrect answers, they receive quizzes that are slightly easier so that they're more likely to know the answers. If they then answer correctly, the difficulty goes up again... Even though it's not visible to the player, the game is giving them quizzes with difficulty levels suitable to them. This mechanic was used in both the Nintendo DS and Wii versions as well, but we retuned the setting so that the player can start with much easier quizzes and have an easier time getting used to them.

Wait a minute. You mentioned that the game gives the player the easiest quizzes at the beginning so that everyone can answer correctly, then it gets harder as you answer correctly, right? Does that mean younger children will eventually get difficult quizzes and may become discouraged?

Kubo: Yes, you're correct. (Laughs) This was another result noticed during monitor testing. We've observed that younger children tend to get easily upset and start crying out of frustration when they provide incorrect answers. Therefore, we decided to introduce a feature called “Sprout Support” for this title.

Could you explain what kind of feature that is?

Kubo: It makes it so that they only receive quizzes from Sprout Class, which is the easiest level. We designed it this way so that younger children can keep enjoying the game. The player can't move up classes when they use Sprout Support. Instead, we prioritized them having fun, so the design is less strict.

Parents must be happy to see their children having fun playing the game.

Kubo: During the monitor testing for Sprout Support, we had employees record their younger children playing at home. We watched those children getting a lot of correct answers and heard the sound effects that play when they'd select a correct answer one after another. The children became so excited to get correct answers, and I saw their parents looked happy as well. It also made us happy. (Laughs)

Since you're also a parent, Kubo-san, you must be able to relate.

Kubo: Yes. I did the monitor testing while working at home with my own child, too, so I can really relate to how other parents must have felt. While we were checking monitor feeds, we sometimes witnessed parents surprised by their children solving quizzes that they didn't think their children knew the answers to. Seeing the excitement of the parents made us very happy.

They were able to discover something new about their own children.

Kubo: Since my goal was to create a game my five-year-old could play, this made me confident that we had achieved that goal.

Yoshinobu: We did monitor testing for the Nintendo DS and Wii versions by inviting children to the office, but the best monitor tests are done with developers' own family members. What you learn from your family is very important, and we rely on those lessons.

During the original title's development, Fujii-san and Yoshinobu-san made it so that young children could enjoy the game too. The same goal has been passed down to Kubo-san for the new generation.

Fujii: Before the Nintendo DS era, there weren't many games released by Nintendo like Big Brain Academy, so we launched the title after a lot of trial and error. For this game, Kubo-san incorporated his own interpretation and brushed up the title by conducting monitor testing with his own child like we did. As a result, he launched the title in a new form... I was deeply moved.

Yoshinobu: Kubo-san has a five-year-old, so he has daily interactions with one of the people who we really want to enjoy this game. I think that benefited him on this project because intuition from his experiences helped him to figure out how to best approach it. We had already lost this intuition ourselves and forgotten what it was like back then, so we decided to leave it to him without telling him what to do.

Fujii: Developers who worked on the original title for a series tend to insist that the new game be a certain way, but as generations change, society also changes. Therefore, I strongly believe we can create a better product when the development lead has a fresh perspective and turns their ideas into reality. I believed that he could make it happen.

Kubo: I'm grateful to have senior colleagues who are so flexible. (Laughs)

And now, I think Big Brain Academy: Brain vs. Brain is the kind of game that many adults can enjoy.How does this game appeal to adults?

Kubo: While we've described how this game is something both parents and children can enjoy together, we didn't forget to create something adults can enjoy as well. I mentioned the monitor testing with younger children, but we also conducted adult monitor testing with the debug team 10 for research into the game's replayability. This testing targeted those who play games on a regular basis.

Yoshinobu: By any chance were there testers there who had been involved in the Nintendo DS or Wii versions and were therefore skilled Big Brain Academy experts?

Kubo: Yes, there were. Some of the monitor testers ranked at the "King" 11 level in the Nintendo DS version. (Laughs)

Fujii: That's amazing. The Nintendo DS version came out 16 years ago. That's such a long-term career... (Laughs)

Kubo: But they couldn't play like they used to, so they were like, “Wait—is my brain getting less flexible?” (Laughs)

10 A quality-assurance team that plays in-development games and investigates issues with programs.

11 The highest grade a player could be given based on the test results from the Nintendo DS version of Big Brain Academy. (The Wii version used a rank of A++.) The Nintendo DS game's grades ranged from F- (the lowest) to King (the highest). The Wii game's grades ranged from Novice (the lowest) to A++ (the highest).


Kubo: Aiming for higher scores in Big Brain Academy is another exciting feature of the game. I mentioned earlier that we analyzed the mechanics of the Practice mode in terms of how the game chooses which quizzes to give players. Because of that analysis, we had a clearer vision of the structure of the game. For instance, we knew how high a score a player could obtain based on their speed and when they avoided incorrect answers. And I thought that it might actually make it easier for a player to aim for a higher score if that was shown to them.

Yoshinobu: It's true that it's fun and motivating seeing the class level the quiz belongs to while you're solving it.

Kubo: I think this game will also be challenging for adults who keep track of how much they've played or how many correct answers they've gotten. For example, they might know they're about to level up to Advanced Class, or they might realize that if they just solve two or so more quizzes, they may even achieve Elite Class.

Fujii: So it's important that even if players lose, they remain optimistic and motivated. The goal is to have them think, "I can win next time if I just try again!"

Kubo: Although it looks simple on the surface, there's a complicated program running in the back end that increases or decreases the class and score based on the player's answers. I came up with a way for that to not come across to players.

So, on the outside it all looks easy, but behind the scenes there's the complicated task of maintaining game balance.By the way, how did you choose which minigames would be shown?

Kubo: As this game was planned to be released globally, one of the things we considered was selecting minigames that players from all over the world could play and enjoy. Furthermore, in order to make it a game that anyone could enjoy, I put a lot of thought into things like selecting games with easily understood rules..

It really is wonderful that anyone can enjoy it without prior knowledge or experience.