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The Beatles: Rock Band’s tenth anniversary

The Beatles: Rock Band was released ten years ago today. It’s still my favorite game I’ve ever been a part of.

Since I was still in QA during Beatles development, here’s a little anecdote about our process.

Our QA department assigns each bug a severity and a priority. Severity specifies how serious a bug is: a crash is high severity, for instance, while a UI sound effect that’s too quiet is low severity. Meanwhile, priority specifies how “important” a bug is. Priority is usually negotiated between QA and production, and it determines the order in which developers work on fixes.

Severity certainly influences priority, but they’re not interchangeable. Imagine that you’re a producer and your QA team discovers a crash. If the crash is common and easy to replicate—say, every time you go into the Settings menu the game locks up—then that’s an easy call: high-priority bug.

But what if the crash only happens one every hundred tries? Or one every thousand? The rarer it is, the more likely you are to lower the bug’s priority. In other words, at a certain point you’d rather your developers spend their limited time fixing a bunch of more common issues—even less severe ones!—than continue to chase down a single crash that most people won’t encounter.

The opposite case is more unusual: we don’t often see a bug with a very low severity but a very high priority. On Beatles we did, though, because our partners came by the studio to review our progress and give comments. And by partners, I mean actual relatives of the Beatles.

On one occasion I remember, Yoko Ono had some feedback about John’s appearance. I believe one of her notes was that his nose didn’t seem right, although I don’t recall the specifics.

Technically, that was what we in QA called a suggestion. Suggestions were logged as bugs, but they received the lowest possible severity in our system since they aren’t actual specific defects. Most suggestions end up being waived—that is, ignored—because there are inevitably enough real problems late in development that no one has time to address them.

But if Yoko Ono has suggestions about John’s appearance, you probably want to take them seriously—”defect” or not. Thus: the lowest possible severity, but the highest possible priority. We changed his nose.

Fun story aside, that commitment to quality is one of the reasons I love Beatles so much. There was an enormous amount of pressure from everyone—up to and including the band members’ spouses and children—to get things right, and our standards have never been higher. It shows in the final product, I think. I still keep my plastic Rickenbacker around, just in case.

Ichiko Aoba in Link’s Awakening commercial

Ichiko Aoba, who you might remember as my favorite musician, is featured in a new commercial for the upcoming remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. She’s singing “Ballad of the Wind Fish,” a tune which used to sound like this on the Game Boy.

As far as I know, this is the first time that melody has ever been set to lyrics. I hope there’s a longer version of it during the credits or something!

Hobonichi

I don’t normally get excited about stationery, but for one day a year I get extremely excited about stationery. Today is that day.

Hobonichi, or Hobo Nikkan Itoi Shinbun, is a company founded by Mother series writer/director Shigesato Itoi. Its flagship product is the Hobonichi Techo, a daily planner. I’ve been using it for years.

Each August Hobonichi reveals the next year’s techo lineup, in which the main attraction is the dozens of custom-designed covers. In the past few years I’ve looked forward to these reveals with an excitement that’s usually reserved for, say, new iPhones at an Apple event or new video games at E3.

It’s not that I collect Hobonichi stuff; I buy exactly one planner and one cover a year. (There’s always a Mother cover, and I usually just get that.) Rather, it’s that I love seeing the storefront come online. The full 2020 lineup was revealed today—or late last night, in my timezone—and I’ve been paging through it ever since.

Here are some things I love about it:

The staged photos are delightful and evocative—way better than they need to be. There are more than a hundred items for sale and each has multiple shots, so I’ve already lost a lot of time here! Some favorites from this year’s set: one, two, three, four, five, six.

The copy is fun. It has a charming archaic quality but also an extremely precise translation, like a cross between an ‘80s magazine ad and an Iwata Asks interview:

The complex color scheme and sparkling silver threads make this a playful cover that also exudes a sense of fashion.

Or:

The vibrant color can fill you with energy when you see it, so this cover is perfect for users who are looking to spend an energetic year ahead.

Or:

Just as a honey bee seeks and collects nectar, so you should seek out all of life’s joys and gather them into your techo.

The covers themselves are always nice, but some are especially clever. This one is made out of scraps of designer clothing and handbags. This one is made like a miniature backpack. This one has strips of fabric sewn on to mimic washi tape (and there is also real washi tape for sale that mimics the fabric).

There are even little surprises hidden around the store. One cover includes a contest where you can win a handwoven bag from the Pwo Karen tribe in Thailand, which inspired the design. Another, a collaboration with German teddy bear company Steiff, has its own fairy tale.

I’m sure someone finds it gauche to be so taken by literal marketing materials, but Hobonichi is disarming in a way that no other brand is for me. If I could subscribe to a print catalog from them, I would.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses music

Trails of Cold Steel III was delayed from September into October, so my plan to finish the two fan-translated Trails games ahead of its release now has a bit less time pressure. I’ve been using that buffer to play Fire Emblem: Three Houses, another of my most anticipated 2019 games.

There’s still a long way to go, but I love it so far. (It actually resembles Trails of Cold Steel in some ways, especially the military academy setting and the Persona-lite time management.) In particular, I’ve been intrigued by its soundtrack.

I would say I’m generally neutral to positive on Fire Emblem music. At its best it has a triumphant, anthemic quality; at its worst it sounds boilerplate.

The Three Houses soundtrack is anything but boilerplate.

I’m going to share a few excerpts. Pay especial attention to the percussion in all of these.

This is “Life at Garreg Mach Monsastery,” which plays while you’re roaming the school grounds:

Here’s a bit of an early battle theme, “Blue Skies and a Battle”:

And here’s another battle theme, “Tearing Through Heaven”:

For a series that generally hews closely to fantasy music conventions, these are wild to me. It’s like they set an EDM producer loose to scatter trap beats and drops everywhere. Even wilder is how well it works!

I was wondering where all of this was headed, so I skipped ahead on the soundtrack CD and landed on “Shambhala (Area 17 Redux).” I’m not far enough into the game to know the context in which this track appears, but I’m excited to find out:

Dubstep Fire Emblem. Unbelievable!

Ive

Apple announced last week that Jony Ive, its famed designer, is leaving the company. Among the usual hagiography, I’ve noticed a handful of pieces that are more critical of his legacy.

Here’s John Gruber at Daring Fireball, for instance:

Ive is, to state the obvious, preternaturally talented. But in the post-Jobs era, with all of Apple design, hardware and software, under his control, we’ve seen the software design decline and the hardware go wonky. I don’t know the inside story, but it certainly seems like a good bet that MacBook keyboard fiasco we’re still in the midst of is the direct result of Jony Ive’s obsession with device thinness and minimalism. Today’s MacBooks are worse computers but more beautiful devices than the ones they replaced. Is that directly attributable to Jony Ive? With these keyboards in particular, I believe the answer is yes.

And here’s Jason Koebler at Motherboard:

Under Ive, Apple began gluing down batteries inside laptops and smartphones (rather than screwing them down) to shave off a fraction of a millimeter at the expense of repairability and sustainability.

It redesigned MacBook Pro keyboards with mechanisms that are, again, a fraction of a millimeter thinner, but that are easily defeated by dust and crumbs (the computer I am typing on right now—which is six months old—has a busted spacebar and ‘r’ key). These keyboards are not easily repairable, even by Apple, and many MacBook Pros have to be completely replaced due to a single key breaking. The iPhone 6 Plus had a design flaw that led to its touch screen spontaneously breaking—it then told consumers there was no problem for months before ultimately creating a repair program. Meanwhile, Apple’s own internal tests showed those flaws. He designed AirPods, which feature an unreplaceable battery that must be physically destroyed in order to open.

(Incidentally, check out Casey Johnston at The Outline if you’re unfamiliar with the “MacBook keyboard fiasco”—she’s been on that beat for years.)

I’m glad to see this sort of criticism get louder. I use a lot of Apple’s stuff, and in the past few years it’s felt like functionality and usability have been shunted in favor of vague, elusive aesthetic goals. Heck, I still keep a 2015 MacBook Air around because Apple doesn’t make any laptops I like typing on anymore.

Back in 2003, the New York Times Magazine ran a piece on the iPod that included this quote:

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,” says Steve Jobs, Apple’s C.E.O. “People think it’s this veneer—that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

It doesn’t seem like Ive ever fully internalized that.

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