Thursday, 9 January 2014

Westerosean economics

Donal over at Economics New Zealand draws a few lessons from Game of Thrones. Where I'd thought about the economics of Westeros proper, Donal's looking instead at Hollywood and HBO.
And then there are the economic lessons from GoT itself.

The big lesson from GoT is that if you're spending up big, spend the money on the right things. If the choice is (and it often seems to be), (A) spend US$20 million on the bankable name that you think will put bums on seats no matter what the movie is, or (B) spend US$20 million on sets, locations, effects, no-name but highly competent actors and a quality product, then HBO has successfully demonstrated that the second choice works better, no matter what the bean counters might advise. The more I look at successful products, the more I'm convinced that out of the SPQR mix (service, price, quality, range), quality trumps all in the longer run.

Another lesson is that the public is not made up of ninnies in a convent school. Do we want to watch only MLVS movies? No. But do we want to see sanitised, infantilised, prettified versions of MLVS issues? No we don't. GoT treats its customer base like adults. And like most business strategies that rely on people being intelligent judges of the product, it's a winner.

Another is that it made me wonder about the supposed wonderfulness of our new Ultra Fast Broadband (UFB) rollout. My copper-based ADSL internet service delivered GoT to my laptop, with completely acceptable video quality (and I'm not even getting the top end of copper-based delivery). Remind me why I need to pay more for the same experience delivered over fibre?

Finally, I was struck by the quality of the GoT opening credits. And it seemed to me that there was a good economic motivation for the high quality (as there was for the equally stunning opening credits for the Rome series). Bankers used to adopt the same strategy, and for the same reason. How do you signal to new customers of an intangible service, who know nothing of you or your reputation, that you are a quality service provider? In the case of banks, and I'm thinking here of the likes of Irving Trust and Morgan Guaranty and their erstwhile palazzi on Wall Street, by having extraordinarily opulent-looking head offices. Look how rich we are! How dependable!

And so it goes with the opening titles. Put your production values into the opening - sophisticated computer graphics, lush colouring, an original and striking theme tune, a bit of ambiguity, a hint of special effects - and before they see the rest of it, consumers are convinced that here's a quality product that's had thought and money spent on it.

Maybe, to come full circle, you can't judge a book by its cover. But you can choose a TV series by its opening.
Donal's been watching it on PollyStreaming, which I'd not heard of.

I'd posted on Westerosean economics a couple of years ago. We've since watched all the shows, read Storm of Swords and Feast for Crows, and have almost finished Dance with Dragons. Further thoughts since then are a few lines down - give them a miss if you want to avoid minor spoilers.

  • I remain baffled by the relative lack of decent food preservation technologies. In Martin's world, we should have had more rapid food tech development. Even if most winters are relatively short, better food preservation doesn't just enhance longevity, it also gives you better ranges of preserved product. If we figured out canning in the 1700s or so, with only fairly minor winters, how did Westeros not get it sorted much earlier (relative to other tech development)? I can understand that there's bigger risk in having great food stores given the apparent political instability / raiders problems. But they didn't even have glasshouses at the Wall, their only apparent food storage is a giant ice cave inside the wall (great for meat, not so much for fruit and veg), and nobody expected any kind of attack on the south side of the Wall. 
  • Even more puzzling is the absence of large-scale glass production in Westeros. When Robb contemplates a glasshouse for the Wall (vegetable growing in winter), he despairs of importing glass from over the sea. Only Winterfell had a glasshouse. Glass + fire = heated greenhouses for basic vegetables and fruit over the winter; while Winterfell's hotsprings make it much easier, they're not the only way of doing things. Wikipedia tells me that England had glass windows before the Norman conquest. I suppose there's some point where glass is sufficiently expensive, and wars sufficiently likely to destroy glasshouses, that there's no point in it. But think of places like the Eyrie. Why no glasshouses? 
  • R'hlorr's priests walk around, performing very real very visible miracles, and people still worship the Seven. At least the Seven don't demand blood sacrifice, but doesn't it seem strange that no Kingdom has R'hlorr as the official state religion? Kings seem to have plenty of reason to kill plenty of people all the time, so it's hard to see that squeemishness on that front is the constraint.
    • I suppose I'd need to know more about R'hlorr's objective function. If it were simply worshiper maximisation, nothing here makes sense. Every kingdom would have been taken over by R'hlorr followers ages ago, and nobody would have dared switch. Zero evidence that the Seven have any use, plenty of evidence for R'hlorr, and while there's decent evidence for that there's supernatural stuff associated with the Old Gods and the Weirwood, what have they done for anybody lately? Nothing, that's what. "OOOh, we can make spooky noises in the trees." Amazing that it takes until near the end of the (currently) last book for any of the Ironborn to figure out that R'hlorr's where it's at. R'hlorr must then have more specific aims... I'll look forward to the next books.
  • It's pretty cool how the Iron Bank makes sure that sovereigns don't default on debt: thick markets in mercenaries allow those with deep pockets to make credible threats for debt collection. Alas, while that let Robb get credit when needed, Westeros would have been a better place had Baratheon (or, rather, Littlefinger for Baratheon) not had access to debt-based financing. And I was surprised that the Iron Bank continued extending credit to Cercei. Wouldn't they have wanted a flip through the books before giving her the money for the fleet?
Comments section open for other observations.

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