o what’s up with this Brain Training phenomenon over in Japan? We spoke with members of Nintendo’s localization team, bilingual product specialist Scot Ritchey, localization writer Alan Averill, and Nintendo of America’s Matt Atwood, to find out. But more importantly we wanted to know how they brought over this language-heavy title, how they’re pursuing non-gamers, what kind of Easter eggs are in the game, and what they would do with a Revolution version of Brain Age.
GI: Why do you think Brain Training is so huge over in Japan?
Scot Ritchey: They’ve been very lucky in terms of riding a crest of interest in mental fitness over there. The way that this title came about in the first place was Mr. Iwata was trying to find a way to broaden the market of people who were interested in Nintendo products and noticed that this guy, Ryuto Kawashima’s Brain Training was doing really well in Japan. So he took it to a new dev team and said, “All right, I want you to make a title out of this and you have 90 days.” And they just jumped right into in and came up with a prototype and he hand carried that over to professor Kawashima who became very interested in the project. And that’s how the whole thing started.
But I have to say that it was that initial interest in the idea of mental fitness that really carried it through. There was an interest in it before Kawashima’s book came out. It did really well and sort of solidified the concept for a lot of people. And then when the software hit it just did amazingly well, astronomic sales figures. I think they just hit 2 million recently in Japan.
That’s the story in Japan, and I think the same kind of thing can happen in the U.S.. This is a place where people do crossword puzzles and Sudoku to keep themselves sharp and they have sort of an instinctive understanding of how that works. But there is sort of an underground conscious knowledge about the need to do things like that to keep your brain sharp.
GI: What is the strategy here in the U.S. to get the game into the hands of older non-gamers who may have no idea what a DS even is?
Matt Atwood: One excellent thing that Scot and Alan said a few days ago that made me think is there are a few things we know about this game. One is that hardcore gamers really like it for a few reasons. They love it first because it’s a great game and they enjoy the challenge. What they do as they play it is it opens this dialog within a family and friends who don’t play games. This happens a lot with my fiancé. If I bring a game home she’s not really interested. She won’t really care. It’s almost frustrating to me because I’ll be totally excited about this new game and she will not care. It bothers me.
But Brain Age was an excellent way for me to show her how I play these things. She plays it as much or more than I do right now. You can image with your parents, if you think about how you’ve been playing games for years and they never really got it. You could easily bring this to them and they would get it. So with that in mind we believe marketing to a broad range of people is extremely important as opposed to if we’re doing Metroid we’re going to focus on the hardcore gamers more. You look at all of your demographics, this is one that’s almost more challenging from a marketing perspective because we’re really trying to appeal to everyone.
Some examples of things we’re looking at are AARP newsletters, in-flight magazines, women’s books, and gamers as well. They will be a huge driver in the word of mouth for this. The biggest and most important area of marketing this title is word of mouth. In order to ensure some awareness we are going broader, but we’re certainly not forgetting the hardcore gamer.
GI: Porting Brain Age from Japanese seems like it would be a special challenge due to the focus on speaking and writing. What were some of the unique localization issues that you came across?
Ritchey: Alan and I were deeply involved with the localization, and the very first thing that happened was someone handed us a Japanese copy of Brain Age and we sat down and were like, “Wow, what is this? What the hell?.” And we had to think about, “Okay, we need to get North Americans to do this. How are we going to do that?” By necessity there were a number of training exercises that we had to replace because they relied on unique features of the Japanese language. But in almost every case we found very good analogies that you could use to take its place. Something you wouldn’t rely on knowing the reading of a particular Japanese character or that sort of thing. With English, looking for syllable breaks in words can be a little bit harder than it seems. So forcing people to do that made them engage in that same sort of activity that you do when you read aloud, which is one of the best activities for increasing blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. So all of the exercises that we came up with were replacements for the original Japanese exercises were also tested with the little brain colander device that sits on top of your head that measures blood flow.
That’s our goal. This is the quantifiable tangible objective that we had to make every training exercise meet. And we were able to do that.
GI: So what was the hardest Japanese mini-game to translate over?
Alan Averill: The one that took the most time was reading aloud because in Japan they had 60 samples of classic Japanese literature. Over here we face some unique problems that they didn’t have. One being the legal situation. The copyright laws are a little different over in Japan. So here we had to find works that were already in the public domain. And then we had to strike a balance between getting works that were publicly available, but not making them so difficult that it kind of destroyed the purpose of reading them aloud. For example, Shakespeare, I’m a theater major so I’m like “Yay Shakespeare!” But it uses a lot of very unusual words that we don’t use anymore, a lot of strained sentence construction, a lot of odd punctuation. Were we to put that in, people wouldn’t be able to really read it aloud and get an honest score. Same thing with Chaucer, same thing with some of the more recent classics like Nathaniel Hawthorne - stuff like that. So we had to strike a balance between getting classic literature that people would recognize, yet make sure it was legal for us to be using this stuff and also making sure that it could be read aloud.
Once we had all that we had to go into the works and pick out what samples we wanted to use. And we tried to make sure they were things people would either recognize or if they had a classic line like, “Call me Ishmael,” or something like that we’d try to get that in there. And then it was also a matter of conforming the samples that we collected were actually the legitimate samples right down to punctuation and spelling and everything like that. Because they used to spell things differently - I think in Moby Dick they hyphenate outside. And we don’t hyphenate outside anymore. When Melville wrote Moby Dick he did so, and we had to hyphenate it and then we had to go into the book and check and make sure the hyphenation was correct. Then we had to go to our grammar checking team and say, “No, no. Don’t write that up as a bug. That’s how they used to spell it.” We have this lady over in bug testing, Teresa, and I love her to death. She’s our hardcore editor and this project just blew her mind. She was on this thing for like three weeks solid doing nothing but this and just going crazy. She wasn’t a big fan of us, but she did an awesome job.
And that was fun. That was a localization challenge that we’ve never had to face before so to some extent it was fun but to another extent it was very, very difficult and very challenging just to make sure that everything was correct. The last thing you want to do is put a classic piece of work into a game and then muck it up somehow.
GI: Which training exercises do you guys personally find to be the most challenging?
Ritchey: I steer clear of the time lapse, the one with the two clocks. I hate to admit it but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to the level of comfort with reading an analog clock face that most other adults have.
Averill: This is actually almost as embarrassing as the clock one because I’m a writer, but the hardest one for me is syllable count. By far the hardest one for me is counting syllables. I just constantly drop them, and I’m always like one under on that stupid thing. And don’t even get me started about how hard it was for me to actually write those and break them in the game. That was another one that took forever because there’s a difference between an actual technical syllable and then like a word break where you have to hyphenate it at the end of a line. And I learned that over and over again. There are also different ways to hyphenate words. It’s a long really, really nuanced English grammar ugly thing that no one really cares about. Long story short, syllable count is very tough for me, but I’m a low to high ninja.
GI: So who’s got the best Brain Age in the Nintendo Tree House?
Ritchey: Well, I have to say that since we’ve been working on it for so long we’re pretty much all down to 20 now. And some of that is the accumulation of practice effect. If you spend enough time with a certain mode you’ll be doing pretty well. Not that we’re big cheaters or anything, but you tend to do the exercises that you like the most. Or maybe you like them because you’re good at them. But you find yourself when you’re doing the Brain Age check gravitating towards the exercises that you like. You know that if you hold down Select and tap Brain Age check you can choose which Brain Age test activity you’re going to do.
GI: Since you guys have probably played Brain Age more than anyone in the English-speaking world, do you feel significantly smarter after all that training?
Ritchey: You know, that’s an interesting question. I don’t feel the same kind of mental fatigue that I did after certain types of tasks. I think that there is something to it, especially if you’re feeling a little bit slow in the morning. You just had your coffee and you’re waiting for everything to kick in. Do Brain Age first thing in the morning and see if it kind of refreshes you a little bit because I find that does help me. When I was working on this game – I was working on something right before I started this project – and I’m not much of a morning person. I’d come in and I’m like growling, trying to get some coffee in me. But the next week I started on a new project and the first thing I do in the morning is slap in some Brain Age and I felt better. It’s kind of a weird thing to say but I definitely think there’s something to it.
Atwood: Disclaimer! Nintendo doesn’t claim that this will technically make you smarter. But there has been research that this supports strongly.
Averill: One of the things that I’ve noticed from working on this is that I’m better at multitasking. Again, this is just Alan. I do not speak for Nintendo or Brain Age. But I’ve noticed that I’m better at multitasking. In the beginning when I would demo this thing – you can imagine trying to demo and talk to people and solve math problems at the same time, not easy. So basically I’d demo and then I’d have to stop talking and I’d have to focus on Brain Age. Usually I’d just have to tank it anyway. Now I can do these demos and I can do the activity and I can continue talking and answering questions while I’m doing the activities. And part of that is familiarity with the software and familiarity with the demos because I’ve done like 50 of them at this point. Part of it also is when you first start Brain Age you’re doing things and challenging your mind in a way that most of us don’t do very often. So the more you do that and the more comfortable you get with it I think the better you’re going to get at it.
GI: So what do your custom stamps look like?
Averill: Mine’s a baseball. Scott’s is a big frowny face.
Ritchey: I can’t remember. I think I actually just tried to color in the whole box. So it’s completely blacked out that day on the calendar.
GI: Have you guys ever met Dr. Kawashima?
Ritchey: No we haven’t. I was kind of curious to see if he might do some sort of tour over here. The problem with Dr. Kawashima is that he’s extremely busy.
GI: Sometimes I have trouble getting the game to recognize when I draw eights.
Ritchey: Do you draw a zero and then another zero?
GI: No, I do the weave around. I’ve tried going back and forth to both.
Ritchey: You make the “S” and then the slash up through the S?
Ritchey: That’s usually the best way to do it. It’s kind of this way with any handwriting recognition program. It’s not perfect and there are ways that you can make things that will make the software more or less likely to recognize what it is you’re doing. One of the things you can do is draw your letters and numbers large. That’s a help. And then there are just little tweaks you can do. We did a lot of testing with this handwriting and voice recognition. Everybody in Japan makes kanji exactly the same way. It’s like this stroke, then this stroke, then this stroke, and always left to right or up to down. So handwriting recognition over there is pretty simple.
But over here we all learn differently and we all hold our pens differently and there are 20 different ways people can make an eight. It’s more tricky over here. We’ve done a lot of focus testing, a lot of general testing on this thing. We feel like we’ve done a pretty good job and the handwriting and voice engines are pretty robust on this thing.
GI: The game says that voice recognition works best with native English speakers. Are people with accents from the South or East coast going to run into trouble?
Ritchey: We did test across a lot of different accents for native speakers. We can handle southern accents, east coast. In fact, I did a lot of media tours where I was showing it to people from magazines, especially some of the places that we don’t normally go to like the Ladies’ Home Journal and such. And one of the most interesting days that I had on the tour was when we did a Hispanic media day. Everyone that we were talking to was really interested in the title but they were all concerned that the voice recognition wouldn’t work for them, and everyone I handed it to went through the Stroop test with flying colors.
Averill: What we found with voice recognition is that when people are having trouble it usually has very little to do with their accent and very much to do with how near or far away they’re holding the DS, and especially with the level of ambient noises. Ambient noise is a killer. But that’s the way any kind of voice recognition is. You need to be in a quiet place for it to be effective.
GI: What’s the ideal distance from the microphone that you should shoot for?
Averill: Right about a foot. You get a lot of aspiration, especially on “blue” because you’ve got that hard vowel at the end with a lot of breathiness to it. So if you’re holding it farther away you’re going to get a lot better recognition.
But, as you know, one of the other things they did in the game is they always give you the option whether or not you’re in a quiet place where you can speak. So it’s not like they ever throw the Stroop test at you and demand you do it. You always have the option to say, “No, sorry I’m on the bus,” or “My kids are here,” or “I’m in a movie theater.”
Ritchey: I’m at a funeral. (laughs) “Yellow! Blue!”
GI: Obviously, the way Brain Age is structured it’s designed to be played in minutes a day, as the title says. This is great for the casual gamer or the non-gamer. What do you say to the hardcore set that is going to have to tinker with his DS clock if he wants to play for a significant amount of time and unlock things?
Ritchey: If the main reason that you’re going to play a title is because you want to unlock everything and see all of the content, then maybe you’re just the kind of person who just advances the calendar several times in a day and you open it all up. But at the same time, the reason that it’s set up the way it is is to give people a sense of variety every time they come to it. Every time you pick up Brain Age and you find yourself plateauing at one of them. It’s getting too easy. Then you just go to a different difficulty level, which you’ll unlock if you do well enough at that exercise.
So if you think about it that way and you’ve got eleven training exercises, that’s almost two weeks of doing a different one each day. And if you’re only doing 15 minutes a day you’re really only going to see the same thing once every two weeks or so. That’s not too bad for your relapse type stuff in a title.
Atwood: I will say Sudoku was an excellent addition. I ask my fiancé, “How can you play Brain Age this long?” And I forget that she just keeps playing Sudoku for hours. So it does give you that to do so you can play it as long as you want without messing around with your calendar – playing it as it wasn’t meant to be played.
Averill: Also, it’s not quite Resetti but if you start mucking around with the calendar too much, he’s going to call you on it.
Ritchey: Especially if you mess with the calendar a lot and then end up having to go back and put your DS back to the original date you’ll make Kawashima sad. Who wants a sad Kawashima?
Atwood: Next time you boot it up say the word “glasses.” And another thing is when you’re told your speed, where you’re running or walking, go ahead and poke those guys and see what they do.
GI: Do you guys know how many days it takes to unlock all of the training modes?
Ritchey: Approximately 25. You’ll unlock things about every three days and after about 25 days you’ll be able to open everything up.
GI: Have you guys done any strategizing with schools to get Brain Age into any math and reading programs?
Atwood: A couple things on that point. One, this isn’t designed to be a math lesson. That’s just one element of it. We are working with some schools letting them know that it’s a great way to have fun. But there are a lot of laws and Nintendo as a company is very careful with anything we do as far as approaching young people. You can’t just push it into curriculum. It’d be kind of cool. It’s not a teaching tool, though. It’s a way to exercise your brain so there’s a difference. Now we do think there’s value there and I have a couple friends who teach younger kids and they really want it.
Yes we have talked to schools. Yes we do work with things, but we deal with it very sensitively. One, because of the rules and, two, because Nintendo’s very conscientious about how it approaches children and we certainly wouldn’t sell it as an educational tool.
GI: With the runaway success of Brain Age in Japan and its high potential to do well in the U.S. one could argue that a Revolution version of this game could work very well. Hypothetically saying, what kinds of things would you like to see brought over for a Revolution version of Brain Age?
Ritchey: Well, I’m afraid we haven’t announced anything yet, but the very fact that one can call for hypotheticals, you can image that it would be a very good fit considering the type of interactivity that the DS has with the touch screen and the microphone. If you’re considering the Revolution controller, there are endless possibilities.
GI: What games do you think would be the perfect fit to transfer over?
Averill: I think a lot of the games that are in there now would transfer over pretty well if you can solve some of the [conversion from] touch screen. But the thing is, the activities that are in Brain Age are not just pulled out of thin air. We take the activities and then we test them. We take people and put them in a little brain colander we were talking about while they play it. So it’s not just a matter of us saying, “Hey this seems like it would be fairly good for you.” It actually has to be something that we can medically verify.
I understand your question where you’re coming from, but knowing this project as well as we do it’s a little weird for us because I could throw a bunch of stuff out but I don’t know that any of it is actually legitimate until we actually take it and test it. Mind you, we have we have these other science people to do that.