Monday, November 19, 2007

 

The Starbucks Factor

Last Friday, in a moment of celebration of the Christmas spirit, I purchased something which I most certainly do not need: an extra coffee mug, and moreover, a coffee mug emblazoned with the cheery red-and-white tinsel-and-snow livery of Starbucks in its 1 November-31 December Holiday mode. When I got home and proudly displayed it – for, superfluity aside, it certainly is a very nice mug – certain questions were raised. Putting aside the ones relating to student incredulity (“Wait, you actually bought it? You didn’t just slip it into your bag when you left the store?”), the most pertinent question was the hoary old one, infused with implicit truth: Why am I happy to pay upwards of three pounds every day for a cup of coffee?

It does seem like an extortionate amount, when you think about it. Three pounds a day. That’s fifteen pounds a week; sixty pounds a month – seven-hundred and twenty pounds a year. Before you know it, you’re spending well above your monthly rent annually just on your morning beverage. Cigarette (or, indeed, cocaine) addictions start to seem like natural points of comparison. This perspective is exacerbated by attaining a vague understanding of the economics of the industry, as a recent TLS reviewer did, pointing out that the cost of the coffee in that three pound cup actually accounts for perhaps a penny of the price. When you repackage that statistic from the perspective of the poverty-stricken coffee growers in Ethiopia, it becomes not just an outrageous piece of corporate selling but an actual affront to human decency. That warm fuzziness in your stomach is what it feels like to be both happily ripped off and morally vacuous.

Of course, it would be a bit much to expect even a TLS reviewer to have a full understanding of both modern economic theory and the history & sociology of the British coffee shop phenomenon from the time of Columbus to the time of Gladstone, and there will be no prizes for guessing which of the two fields a TLS reviewer is likely to have mastered. It may be true that distressingly little of the value of coffee passes down the chain to the original grower, but what that tells you has more to do with what consumers are actually paying for than it does about the moral degradation of the coffee trade. Coffee is a commodity, and as such is subject to the laws of supply and demand: when the price balances out at such a low rate, then either there is a supply glut or a shortage of demand. The natural and obvious result is a buyer’s market in which sellers are unable command high prices, and the way around it is for the less competitive producers – the ones who can’t make a profit at that price – to get out of the market entirely and focus on something else.

By all means, if producers in some countries are receiving coffee-growing subsidies enabling them to operate at lower prices, then that is unfair for the poorest producers and should be stopped; and if some producers are being horrendously ripped off by large buyers who capture the entirety of the welfare gains from production, then certainly enforce competition amongst buyers and create industry-standard codes of conduct. But the standard fair trade solution – guarantee higher prices for the producer – is an economic nonsense. If you succeed in raising prices for all producers, then the higher market price will suppress demand while encouraging yet more entrants to the market, leading to an even higher supply glut, which can only mean that prices ought to go down sharply rather than remain at “fair” levels. And if you don’t succeed in raising prices for everyone, then you’re being horribly unfair by deciding that some producers deserve a “fair” price while others, implicitly, do not, playing favourites with development without hitting on any sort of sustainable solution. The “Starbucks information machine”, as the reviewer called it, is at least clear on the fact that the coffee chain has certain minimum standards for who it buys coffee from, which is the most that a responsible first-world purchaser can helpfully do as regards its core business model. (Reinvesting some of its profits into development activities – as Starbucks does – is something helpful that can be done outside of the proper business priority of maximizing revenue.) Hopelessly impractical (not to mention callous) as it sounds, those Ethiopian coffee growers who can’t make ends meet at world coffee prices are clearly being out-competed, and either need to overhaul their business models or get out of coffee and into an industry where they have more of a comparative advantage. NGOs would do much more good devoting their energies to helping them adjust to the market reality than they do campaigning quixotically against the laws of economics.

So what the Starbucks objection comes down to really is still that rip-off price. Yet for all that, as I sit here eagerly slurping my grande latte, I somehow don’t feel resentful. This doesn’t have to do with general London sticker-shock fatigue – an adjustment to the exorbitant prices here that leads to incomprehension amongst City workers of the reality of high prices, the ostrich-like “You earn less than £30k but you’re living in London? Please explain” position. Rather, it has to do with something else about Starbucks that remains irresistible. After all, with the coffee price as low as it is, if it was really all about the coffee we’d all be sipping our lattes out of 70p cups bought from those dodgy corner shop vendors. For my own part, it certainly isn’t about the coffee. My palate is so undiscerning that as far as I can see the only difference between a latte and a macchiato is that in a macchiato the milk goes in first. I can only conclude that any difference I see in Starbucks coffee as opposed to anyone else’s is entirely in my own mind.

So the answer is, as anyone in business knows, that you don’t pay for the coffee in Starbucks: you pay for the brand. You pay three pounds for the privilege of having that Starbucks paper mug. And is it worth it? Totally.

The upmarket coffee shop chain is one of the few places in modern Britain where you can relax in comfortable yet familiar surroundings, either with friends or alone, outside of both the workplace and the home, without having to drink alcohol. You know what to expect from your fellow Starbucks customers. Anyone who drinks a three pound coffee, after all, is making a basic statement about themselves: I’m happy to pay three pounds for a cup of coffee. So the self-selection is complete, and you are surrounded not by great unwashed hordes but by the comfortably wealthy and the fundamentally civilized. Sure, you can be wealthy and civilized without drinking at Starbucks, and sure, you don’t have to be wealthy to drink there regularly if your priorities are in the right place. But that basic value judgment remains: I’m happy to pay three pounds for a cup of coffee. That forms a bond. When we stand in the queue at Starbucks, we’ve all seen someone kvetch. “THREE POUNDS for a cup of coffee! That’s ridiculous. What a rip-off! I’m not paying that.” And, standing behind them in the queue, we shift our weight in silent amusement. “You’re right”, we think. “But I’m willing to pay that”. Anyone arguing that point is clearly not a part of the community. In our modern, fragmented society, it’s somehow hugely reassuring to know that the dour man in front of us ordering the four-shot latte and striding out without adding any sugar, or the young woman next to you conjuring up her venti extra-shot skinny hazelnut extra-hot caramel macchiato and then carefully garnishing it with nutmeg, has something in common with you after all. What Starbucks provides, then, is an imaginary community; a group of people who we can be relaxed around, and a space in which we can be comfortable. It’s soothing like a warm blanket; like a reassuring embrace; or, indeed, like a big steaming mug of hot coffee.

Monday, November 05, 2007

 

The joys of being a lawyer (of sorts)

While the Wii has been the console getting all the attention recently, the success of the DS – which laid the groundwork for Nintendo’s leap of faith with their flagship home console – rumbles on very nicely in the background. Nintendo announced last week that their twin-screened, touch-screen handheld has now sold 53 million units since launch, including 4 million in the UK alone, which works out at roughly one for every fifteen people. Such numbers far exceed the total for its nearest rival, Sony’s PSP, which once looked unstoppable with its gorgeous hardware, flash graphics (it runs almost at PS2 quality, while the DS runs like an N64) and enhanced multimedia functionality.

I’ve certainly warbled on quite enough about the merits of the Wii in the past, but I have to admit that it’s definitely my DS which has been providing me with the most entertainment recently. In what is hopefully a model that the Wii is going to follow, some nifty early generations of games have given way to a range of superb titles which are cementing the handheld as a gaming platform with a genuinely excellent line-up.

The success of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training may feel slightly incongruous – it felt a bit odd to shell out for the hardware only to find yourself doing nothing but sudoku for a good month, as I did – but its success has been transformational in the videogame market, really broadening the scope of people who would consider buying one. (It sells a lot of copies to older demographics – indeed, it was even advertised in National Geographic this month – and, along with Nintendogs and Animal Crossing has been a key crossover title which appeals to women as well, who form a rather large group of people which games makers have traditionally tried to woo through such insulting tactics as making pink versions of their consoles and releasing games about horses and barbies.) Brain Training is quite addictive, and a great example of what game designers can come up with when freed from industry conventions. Digging into other titles was also tremendous fun, including New Super Mario Bros, Advance Wars DS, and Mario Kart. After a while I finally bit the bullet and started shelling out £30 for more games (I got my DS in the States, where $30-40 was a more reasonable price), I was introduced to such joys as Mario vs Donkey Kong 2 (a fine puzzle game) and Elite Beat Agents, which is an excellent title for showing off to people courtesy of its sheer random hilarity. But the biggest revelation so far, by a long way, has been Phoenix Wright.

At first glance, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney isn’t necessarily the most thrilling proposition in the world. “It’s a lawyer simulator!”, I’ll say. “Oh,” says whoever I’m talking to, and starts edging away from me. But that’s not quite fair. It’s not just a lawyer game – it’s an episodic murder mystery, with healthy doses of humour and a tendency to really grab you in a way that few other games do. There are various reasons for this, including excellent writing (as many twists and turns and last-minute revelations as you could ever wish for, all translated from the Japanese superbly) and a great roster of over-the-top yet strangely compelling characters. The game opens in near-tutorial mode, with Phoenix’s first case as a member of the Fey & Co. office of defense attorneys: his childhood friend, the clueless Larry Butz, stands falsely accused of murdering his girlfriend, and Phoenix has to get an acquittal. Playing as Phoenix, with your mentor Mia Fey’s assistance, you cross-examine the witnesses and present evidence to find contradictions in the prosecution’s case. Before long you’re shouting “Objection!” into the microphone with gleeful abandon as you demolish the prosecution and even turn the tables, correctly fingering the prosecution’s star witness as the real murderer. Although the story is very complex, it essentially follows a linear path, with you unlocking the next steps by presenting the right evidence and making the right choices about which parts of the prosecution’s case to challenge. From the very beginning, it’s great fun.

What happens next, though, is what gives it its depth. That night, Mia – who, as a very strong character, you’ve become quite attached to – is brutally murdered in her offices, and her younger sister Maya Fey, found unconscious at the scene, is fingered as the culprit and arrested. But something isn’t right, so Phoenix takes on her case and suddenly you’re on your own, without Mia’s help, as you gather evidence and do your damnedest to prove Maya’s innocence in the face of the evidence, the police, a mysterious corrupt tycoon, and worst of all, a ruthless and brilliant prosecutor, Miles Edgeworth, who will stop at nothing to preserve his perfect win record by sending Maya to the chair. As you examine the crime scene for evidence and interview the witnesses, slowly peeling back the layers of the case to find the real killer, you end up truly and perfectly hooked. It’s like the most engaging murder mystery you’ve ever come across, and because it’s you who plays it through, it’s that much more immediate. In the meantime, the over-the-top characters and amusing dialogue keep things from getting too heavy, while the excellent music sets the mood.

(If by this point you’re thinking you might like to get a hold of this game, then don’t read on – spoilers are ahead.)

After winning that case, things keep on getting more entertaining. The characters who you interact with all have their quirks – Maya, who becomes your sidekick, is a spirit medium-in-training with a love of eating, the judge has the bushiest beard you’ve ever seen, the detective Dick Gumshoe is possibly the clumsiest policeman you’ve ever encountered (with an incredible shrinking salary), and Phoenix himself has a wry, cynical take on the world without being too pessimistic. The episodes (or ‘turnabouts’) are hugely involving as well. The next one moves on from Maya’s acquittal to a sly send-up of children’s TV as a Power Ranger-type hero stands accused of murdering the real-life actor who plays his on-screen nemesis. After finally beating off Edgeworth again on that one, the next episode is a shock – Edgeworth himself is accused of murder, and Phoenix has to rise to the defense of his greatest enemy against the ruthless tactics of Edgeworth’s mentor, the terrifying Manfred von Karma, who is willing to sacrifice one of his own to maintain his perfect win record. Phoenix enlists the help of the previously hostile Detective Gumshoe to get Edgeworth off, in a case that mixes a kooky Loch Ness Monster sub-plot with a series of revelations that unveil the events that made Edgeworth the man he’s become, a link to Maya’s personal history, and the reasons why Phoenix has become a defense lawyer himself. The immensely satisfying ending allows for the righting of a great wrong from long ago. The fifth turnabout, which feels like a bolt-on, becomes the most difficult one yet, as with Maya back off at Spirit Medium training Phoenix is joined by a young girl whose elder sister – the Chief Prosecutor – stands accused of murder, with all of the evidence – and even her own confession – against her. With her friend and colleague Edgeworth increasingly under fire and corrupt links to the Chief of Police coming under scrutiny, Phoenix has to blow open an old cover-up at the police to achieve the acquittal that he knows is right. While not quite up the standards of the previous turnabouts, it certainly reaches new heights of sophistication and difficulty.

And that’s just the first game. The sequel, which I finally completed last week, reaches even greater heights of achievement. Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Justice for All only has four turnabouts (one of which is the compulsory tutorial to ease you in), but they involve you at a level that equals the very best in the first game, and in the final chapter even exceeds it. At the conclusion of the (slightly tedious) introductory turnabout, we’re plunged right back into the action, joining Maya at spirit channeling school. While channeling the spirit of the victim of an apparent car crash, Maya seems to have murdered a man against whom the spirit had a motive for a grudge. Unable to believe that his sidekick is guilty – despite all the evidence to the contrary – Phoenix enlists the help of Maya’s young cousin Pearl and sets out to prove Maya innocent, uncovering a bitter family tragedy in the process. Ominously, Phoenix’s old enemy Edgeworth has disappeared, and the new prosecutor is Manfred von Karma’s daughter, Franziska, who is out for revenge against Phoenix for his defeat of her father.

After an entertaining romp through a circus murder following the first turnabout, the emotional heights of the series are scaled in the final turnabout – in a manner which presents you with the gravest moral dilemma. A murder at an awards ceremony provides a number of clues that point solidly at one of the contestants – under normal circumstances, an open and shut scenario for Phoenix to take on the case. But when Maya is kidnapped, and the kidnapper announces that she will only be released unharmed if Phoenix manages to get an acquittal for the defendant, Phoenix comes to suspect that his client may actually be guilty of murder. As he manages to turn the case around against the odds, he – and, of course, you – face a choice: do you do your duty to justice and send the defendant to the jail place he deserves? Or do you save Maya’s life and let a guilty man walk free? The story frames the choice expertly, and it is truly agonizing. Most of all, it provides an engaging scenario which forces you to consider the nature of justice and the morality of the legal profession – helped along by the return of an enlightened Edgeworth – as you do your best to defend a man who you strongly suspect is guilty. It makes you think, in a manner which is probably about as deep as the interactive medium has ever allowed.

What all of this adds up to is an old-school adventure game par excellence. The graphics aren’t amazing. The levels of interaction are sub-SCUMM. It’s really a very linear game, with you just tapping things forward to move the story along bit by bit. But what keeps things going are the same elements that can lead to a good piece of entertainment in any medium: an engaging story, excellent characters, and a clever self-awareness with an excellent sense of humour. The story, moreover, proceeds in a way that only a videogame could really achieve, as you piece things together from your interactions with the different characters and make the links between the pieces of evidence that expose the contradictions and elicit the needed responses. The game – with its limited graphics and total linearity – is hardly a showcase for the potential of the interactive model as a medium, but what it does do is prove one thing very solidly: that an interactive medium can tell a traditional, story-heavy tale engagingly. Moreover, it shows that even a cartoon light on sophistication in a literary or cinematic sense can still engender genuine emotional reactions – that its interactive nature has the effect of really drawing the audience into the story in a way which traditional media cannot. As a showpiece videogame, it’s an unlikely candidate: but that’s exactly the sort of surprise that the DS has a habit of supplying.

With the arrival of a proper Zelda game in October – one which I can’t wait to get my teeth into – the DS is in a good place right now, and only getting better. Developers have really figured out how to make use of the touchscreen, and its game line-up is unsurpassed by any handheld console yet. Nintendo’s flagship console is, clearly the Wii – so now let’s hope that the DS now trailblazes the way in software success in the same way that it has with hardware innovation.

Friday, November 02, 2007

 

Videogame Update

So what, precisely, are Sony doing?

The story of the PS3 took another twist recently when Sony announced that a cut-down version of the PS3 would shortly be released worldwide, removing PS2 compatibility (and not a lot else) from the existing 60gb model and costing a fair chunk less. This comes after innumerable delays and problems, which started with Sony launching the PS3 in two separate versions in two main territories, followed by just one version with a slightly different hardware configuration in the third territory, before re-exporting that new hardware configuration back to the first two territories and dropping the lesser of the two models there, only to now re-introduce a cut-down model at a lower price around the world and remove the existing standard model from shop shelves as soon as it runs out. So they started out with two models, gave up on one, then decided they’d given up on the wrong one and reintroduced the other, giving up on the initially favored one. What on earth are they up to?

The answer is that after much tinkering around with the hardware they have finally settled on a final design, nearly a year into it being on sale. The new version has an air of finality to it, decisively dropping some features, adding others, and removing all other hardware options to finally create a single version of the console. Presumably the new arrangement reflects a competitive sales price balanced against a competitive production price, with un-needed features finally excised. Why didn’t they start out here? Given their previous technical and supply difficulties, they must have brought the console’s release forward quite sharply when Microsoft made a surprise announcement that it was abandoning the Xbox and making the generational leap forward. The result has just been a mess, with very few killer games (and even fewer exclusives) in place, and crucial parts of the console’s online infrastructure still very much in development. PS3 today isn’t quite so much of a work in progress as it used to be, but it’s still a good few months away from being at the stage that they should have launched at.

In the meantime, what’s going on with the PSP?


With the flow of games slowing to a trickle as the DS really takes off, Sony keep on unveiling new gimmicks to make the machine more attractive. Streamed TV content over the internet. GPS functionality. A camera enabling video telephony. What a mess! Sony clearly haven’t learnt the lessons of their attempts at convergence to date, as Bluray resolutely fails to make PS3 sales take off and the first generation of PSP gimmicks – including the much-vaunted UMD movie format – slowly fade away.

What seems to have happened is that Sony have taken their eyes off the ball. The videogame industry is – and always was – all about the games. People buy PS3s because it has amazing games – or rather, they would if it did – not because it’s a glorified DVD player. Similarly, people will buy the PSP for their handheld fix of GTA or Metal Gear, not because it’s (again) a glorified DVD player, or an MP3 player, or a photo-slideshow viewer, or an internet browser, or a GPS device, or a videophone, or even because it streams their TV over the internet (although that last one does sound pretty cool). People who buy it for the videogames may end up using it for something else – but what Sony fail to realize is that the target market for these gimmicks is a subset of the market that buys it for the games. In other words, the added functionality is a way of milking some cash out of people who buy a PSP for Loco Roco, but not a way of drawing in people who wouldn’t otherwise buy one. As Nintendo have shown so ably, the way to expand the market is to make the gameplay itself more accessible, not to bolt on lots of irrelevant extras. Anyone who really wants a device that does one of those other things will shell out for a specialized gadget that does them better. Sony seem to be emulating instead a failed Nintendo strategy from the previous generation, when Nintendo proudly created games to take advantage of gimmicks like GBA-GameCube connectivity, then sat back and watched as no-one bought the things.

At the end of the day, must-have games are both necessary and sufficient for a games machine to take off and succeed. Hardware gimmicks are neither – consumers don’t need them in order for the machine to be an attractive purchase, and they’re not enough to make it an attractive purchase in the absence of decent games. With Nintendo wowing the mainstream with Wii Sports and Brain Training, and Microsoft successfully nabbing Sony’s key exclusives while turning its own brands (Halo, Gears of War) into genuine blockbusters, Sony desperately need to get their act together and concentrate on the software if they’re to have any hope of being a leader in the current generation of games machines. It’s the games, stupid!


In other news, I know I've been very quiet lately - everything has been rather hectic, but now that things are calming down a bit I'll be doing my best to catch up on the blogging. More stuff soon!

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