Hi, my name’s Blake, and I’m hardcore.
In fact, I’m so hardcore I decided my college major – Japanese – based on the work of Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideo Kojima. Kojima is the auteur of the Metal Gear series, and Miyamoto is famously responsible for Mario, Zelda, and the Wiimote. These two legendary game designers have served as inspiration to generations of great designers around the world.
I’m no great game designer, but those two inspired me, too. Imagine a film buff who happens to have a thing for the classic Italian director Federico Fellini. At some point, someone’s going to get tired of the subtitles and go pick up some Italian, right? Same with me and Japanese.
Hello from Japan, by the way. I wasn’t kidding about being hardcore.
For over a decade it was my dream to come over here and play games from Miyamoto, Kojima, and the other Japanese greats as they were “meant” to be played: without meddling translators.
Now that I’m here, it’s made for some great moments in my own gaming history. The Katamari Damacy series is full of little references to Japanese life. Getting Gran Turismo 5 Prologue ahead of all my car-fanatic buds made me the coolest kid on the block. Playing Super Mario Galaxy in Japanese was like scoring an Achievement in life. I had made it. I had accomplished my dream.
Better yet, my gaming habits didn’t even get homesick in a land where Wii Fit and Nintendo DS trivia software outsells everything. Steam allowed me to play Team Fortress 2 on launch day. Halo 3 launched in Japan less than a week after the U.S. My gaming life was peachy.
Then I hit a stumbling block: Grand Theft Auto IV.
The game launched in April. It’s now the peak of summer as I write, and I still don’t have my copy.
Well, that’s not really true.
Truth be told, I actually got my copy of GTA4 a few weeks ago. Many months of pre-release anticipation over, I inserted the disc and let out a huge sigh of relaxation. Then my blood pressure shot straight back up. My disc was in the wrong region. I went into work the next morning still stressed, lacking the catharsis of carjacking some fools for the first time in a few years.
My night’s plans were ruined by region locking: the restriction of game consoles and their games to only cooperate with each other inside certain geographic boundaries. For example, Japanese Wii games won’t play on American or European Wiis, and vice versa. This also applies to every major home console, every movie on disc and even online stores like iTunes and Steam.
Why do we still have region locking in an era of global gaming?
Go look at the boxes your consoles came in. All of them shamelessly plug the ability to get online and play with friends around the world, but evidently I can’t actually be the player that’s around the world.
Consoles weren’t always designed for this worldwide stuff, though. Region locking actually makes a lot more sense in an old-school context. In fact, the practice started with the original NES.
The NES and the Famicom (the Japanese NES) were essentially the same system with two completely different shapes. Back then, you could literally see region locking in action. If you tried to put the wrong cart in the wrong system, it was putting a square peg in a round hole. Both cartridges’ electrical innards were virtually identical, but it didn’t matter.
In those days, Nintendo was notorious for writing the rules in the industry. The biggest example was easily Super Mario Bros. 3. It was the most hyped release in gaming history, and it had already set sales records in Japan way ahead of its American release.
There were a number of reasons for Nintendo to region-lock the system and the game. Marketing was one – the 18-month delay between the Japanese and American versions made separate campaigns vital. Economics was another: A stronger dollar and a relatively unstable yen meant Nintendo made more money per American copy of the game. Honestly, Nintendo had a pretty strong case for locking things down.
But that was 20 years ago. The game industry has since spawned an entire cottage industry for localization – the translation, re-programming and repackaging of games for various countries – which makes global releases work like any other part of the well-oiled game development machine. Lead times for international releases have dropped from 18 months to 48 hours. In the last year, global simultaneous releases of Halo 3 and GTA4 set records not just for games, but for entertainment in general. In economics, the volatile yen-vs-dollar economy that underscored the ’80s game industry has leveled out, and the Euro now provides even more stability.
Economics and marketing are effectively out the window as justifiable causes for region locking. What other reasons could there be?
“Regulations?” Gaming doesn’t have enough regulations to delay releases unless you intentionally make a censorship target like Manhunt 2. Publishers account for ratings and country-specific censorship well ahead of releases – they’re part of that oh-so-smooth localization process.
“Copyright?” A likely culprit in this day and age, but not a good reason. International copyrights are handled by publishers in advance, as are union relations for voice talent and other sources of outsourced game elements like music and sound effects.
So we’re out of reasons.
Well, that’s not actually true. We’re out of reasonable reasons.
Think about politics. Ever see something questionable get funding just to keep some people in business? I have a theory. The games industry has its own brand of politics, and it goes down in warehouses.
Game distributors stand to lose the most if the status quo changes in gaming. They’re the wholesale middlemen between game publishers and retailers. If you live in a town that has a mom-and-pop game shop, go in and (if you’re lucky) you can see the store’s release schedule straight from their distributor. These schedules are the good stuff because they’re from the guys who actually handle the cargo that appears on store shelves.
They’re a powerful bunch. Mega publisher Take-Two even owns its own distribution chain. That means it has to pay for upkeep for all the employees of the distribution company or its games will suddenly stop appearing on shelves.
Moreover, there are lots of these guys. The US alone has multiple competing distributors. So do Europe, the UK, Australia, Asia and the rest of the world. Now we’re talking lots of people who could potentially be out of a job if the system were to change.
But wait, I hear you object. Couldn’t the same distributors just put region-free games on shelves all the same?
They could, but that creates a triple threat to their existence: from consumers, competitors, and publishers.
First, consumers who have to pay higher prices for their games would just look to the territory next door and send their money to the retailers (and thus, the distributors) of the territory with the cheaper currency. Consumers win, but publishers and distributors both lose. Let’s not kid ourselves. This is the entertainment industry; the consumers aren’t going to win.
Second, rival distributors could more easily expand business into another nearby territory, and the ensuing competition would hurt profits for all the companies involved. That means retailers win (because lower wholesale prices with the same shelf price means more profit) and distributors lose their piece of the pie.
Third, if all games were region free, there would be little reason to leave the existing distribution chain in place if the publishers could consolidate as a cost-cutting measure. Publishers win big; distributors lose big.
So, distributors have three reasons to fight to stay in business and, by physically holding games hostage, have the means to bring publishers to their knees. Without them, GTA4 doesn’t get its record-breaking launch day.
If that logic seems a little convoluted, it is. Nintendo had good reasons when it set the precedent 20 years ago, but times have changed.
I’m happy to report I can now play GTA4. Ironically, it’s using a copy labeled for a system called PAL, which means it only works on TVs in Europe, Africa or Australia. Japan uses a different system called NTSC (for American and Japanese TVs), so the game shouldn’t have worked. But it does – flawlessly.
Perhaps GTA4 has exposed the greatest of all ironies of region locking. The difference between PAL and NTSC was a serious technical barrier. It was truly a good reason for region locking, but even that is now obsolete.
Console creators and publishers: It’s time to set your games free. You need to sell your games worldwide if you want to satisfy the hardest of the hardcore – or if you ever want to beat GTA4‘s launch day record.
Blake Ellison is an editor at Shacknews.com and a freelance contributor to The Escapist.