Since Mass Effect 3 is still taking much of my already depleted available time for games, I don’t have anything on hand to review, so what better time to share with you an issue that has been troubling me for a while now. Today we’re going to talk region-locking and artificial product boundaries.
Before getting on to the main subject, I had better get you up to speed with some background information. Region-locking has existed in our medium for a while now; originally for technological reasons. In the times of analog TVs, from the age of the noble Atari up to the time of the PS2, TVs, depending on the region of the world you were in, had different refresh times and basically worked on the base of two almost identical, but slightly different, formats, PAL and NTSC mainly.
Most of western Europe (+Australia and some other locales) overwhelmingly used PAL, while the US and Japan used NTSC (though their formats were slightly different). Anything plugged into a TV needed to use the same format as the TV it was supposed to be plugged into, which meant that if you bought an VHS tape in the US and wanted to play it on your British VCR, you were out of luck.This affected consoles too, NES cartridges bought in the UK would not work in an US machine and vice versa. Even if you were connected or had the spare cash to get a machine from the US to play your VHS tape, unless you also got a TV from the US, you’d not be able to play it without specialised equipment, which most people did not really known about anyway.
This situation led game companies to create specialised models of their consoles that worked with the favoured TV format of the region itself. And this need of a region specific machine, coupled with the fact that distribution was often handled by a different company depending on country (Erbe distributed the NES in Spain for example), made it possible for the same product to have very different prices, even if the costs involved in manufacturing and distribution were equal independent of the region. Customers were ultimately powerless to do anything about it.
What if X game had been released in a country with your same language but it would not get released in yours because the distributor felt it would not sell enough to justify it’s distribution? Again, you were left longing for it, like the infamous original release of Chrono Trigger; initially unavailable in Europe but launched in the US. Note that this only mattered in devices plugged to a standard TV of your region, since for example you could buy and use (as I often did in my trips to the USA) PC games to install on your computer, providing the OS was the same (although you could get some flaky behaviour because of language differences). Since most home gaming platforms would be consoles, this meant the majority of gamers would suffer at the hands of region locking.
Fast-forward to today, and you’ll notice that things are very different. TVs are now digital, and connectors from external devices to a TV are quite standard worldwide, PAL and NTSC are dead and buried. So obviously you could raise the question, “hey! If there is no technological limitation, what stops me from buying a game through the internet in, say, Hong Kong, and play it on my UK system?” Well, that’s where artificial region locking kicks in my friends. You see, game companies, and specifically distributors (who still hold a lot of power in many territories) dislike this modern globalised world. You can now buy anything from the other side of the globe with a couple of clicks and they hate it. They liked the fact that if you wanted to play X game you needed to go through them and had to accept their prices. So, many consoles are digitally “locked” to stop games from X or Y region working with “foreign” games.
Infamously, Microsoft announced when launching the 360 that their console would not be region-locked, making many import fans and savvy game buyers cheer in excitement. However, the backlash from distributors was so nasty that Microsoft backtracked on their decision, offering something of a compromise: 360 games could be region-locked if the developer or distributor wanted. See where I’m going with this? You’d think that this was only the interim, and that little by little region specific locking would be dying by now, but no, it’s actually getting worse.
Some of you might have been wondering for a while, “hey, portables have their own screen, thus, they probably use the same tech and are compatible with each other, independent of region, right?” Correct! And for a long time in fact, gamers unafraid of importing held the portables in high regard, since no matter where the game was from and where your portable was from, they were all compatible with one another.
In something of a personal note, the DS for example, was, for me at least, hands-down the best portable (maybe even game console) of its generation. However, finding original games in my native Spain was incredibly difficult. There is still a massive language barrier on top of the embarrassing level of piracy in the region, so most game companies and local distributors refuse to provide Spanish localized translation or even to bring some titles to the country. This left the DS with a laughable library of games, at least, locally. However, thanks to the net, you could find at quite affordable prices import games from the US or other regions of Europe that did get those game launches, like for example, Atlus titles. Since the DS was not region locked, I was able to experience the best the system had to offer and was quite pleased with it.
However, for some reason I cannot fathom, the 3DS is region locked digitally, meaning you cannot play games from other regions unless you hack it. Why? Their explanation was something along the lines of “protecting our customers from games that might have inappropriate ratings in other regions that might arrive as imports”. Err…. what? No seriously, what? This reason is ridiculous to say the least… sure, importers might be trying to get around local ratings, but this screams nonsense for, just of the top of my head, two reasons: 1) most importers are adults, if only because of the logistics involved in importing (even if they are simple) and 2) if they did this the crime would be on them, not on the game company. Sure, some filth might spill on the game company too, but in the end, if you buy, let’s say, a gun in the USA (where it’s legal) and bring it to the UK, who’s gonna get arrested and trialed? The buyer, or the manufacturer?
This whole situation also “smells” for ethical reasons. Most game companies (most companies period, in fact) have moved their manufacturing facilities to emerging countries where their costs are way lower than in the western world. Whether this is ethical or not is a can of worms that I will not open, however in regards to our situation, it becomes unethical because of the hypocrisy involved. So, dear game company, you can move your factory to china to lower your costs, right? Fair enough… then you shouldn’t mind me buying your games in Hong Kong (as an example) since it’s cheaper there? Right? Well, apparently not, according to them.
The situation is reaching really nonsensical levels, take the recently released Deus Ex: Human Revolution for instance. The PC version was going to be locked depending on the region your steam account was reporting according to your IP, furthermore, they were going to consider UK and continental Europe two different regions. This would have meant that a gamer in France (for example) would not have been able to buy the game in the UK and play it in his native France. This would have been illegal under EU law, as the main tenet of the Union is an economic one, and free movement of goods without customs or barriers of any kind is an obligation for anyone doing commerce here. Yes people, they were about to resort to illegal tactics on this front. Fortunately, because of the backlash, Square-Enix backed from doing it at the last minute, but I wish this sort of thing were not so common.
So I say to you, my fellow gamers; this must stop. It’s an unethical/ hypocritical practice that we must oppose and make game companies understand that they must treat their customers equally, independently of where they live. While there have been some strides made against it – props to Sony for making all PS3 games region free – the problem is still very much alive and kicking.
- Jose Luis Pérez Zapata