Why is Region-Locking Still a Thing and is it a Necessary Evil?
Gamers everywhere let out collective cheers of "Hear, hear!" when Nintendo President and CEO Satoru Iwata stated recently that Nintendo is beginning to consider ending their region-locking policy. The key sentence that is currently making rounds on the internet is Iwata's ending remark to the question posed during a Q&A session on the subject (conveniently provided here, in English, by Nintendo):
"While we have not decided whether we will unlock them or not, we do recognize that it is an issue that needs to be considered in the future."
This is great news for gamers everywhere. With increased globalization and the international nature of today's video game market, it would seem that hope is on the horizon for those who have been fighting the good fight on behalf of a region free gaming community.
But for those that read the entire statement carefully, Iwata does stress two points: 1) it may be a little while before we get to enjoy a region free gaming world, and 2) region-locking is not as simple an issue as keeping you away from foreign games because a company "just feels like it".
The Legend of Region-Locking
Nintendo is the first company to have a region-locking policy. They are also the first company to have really succeeded on an international level. Before the Famicom and NES, there wasn't really much in the ways of internationalization of video games. And since Nintendo was one of the few companies that emerged from the fledgling gaming industry of the 1980s successfully (anyone else remember the infamous Video Game Crash of 1983, or is that just the stuff of nightmares for younger gamers?), they were trailblazers for international policy. This meant that, whether they liked it or not, Nintendo was responsible for coming up with solutions to localization and copyright issues on their own.
As Iwata states in a previous address regarding region-locking, dealing with an international market means that sometimes, selling the same version of the same game is simply not an option:
"There are many different regions around the world, and each region has its own cultural acceptance and legal restrictions, as well as different age ratings. There are always things that we’re required to do in each different region, which may go counter to the idea that players around the world want the freedom to play whatever they want."
The Issues As They Stand
The legal restrictions behind distributing games and consoles run the gamut and are typically the most talked about aspects in the debate for or against region-locking. One of the simplest arguments is that for some games, it isn’t feasible to release them in each country, since licenses can be held by a different company depending on the area.
In one of the most headache-inducing examples around, there's the Jump Super Stars game series, with the most recent game requiring 13 different companies to agree to share their licenses in the English market as well as having to deal with the 9 properties involved that currently do not have English licensing. And that is only considering the manga and game distributors, not the anime property holders.
One could even argue that the lack of initial supply internationally can lead to increase in interest and demand.
Another problem with a region free market (and a much more complicated one economically and ethically) is that while being able to play a game from any country is an enjoyable prospect, region-locking and localization helped create the gaming industry as it currently stands. Everything from the translation of a game to its cultural adaptation is handled by a localization team who ensure you get the fullest experience out of a game as it is released in your country and language while being paid in an industry that doesn't always do so well financially. It can be frustrating to have a game not launch in your region, but with campaigns like Operation Rainfall, more niche or obscure games are being brought into the mainstream with localization efforts.
One could even argue that the lack of initial supply internationally can lead to increase in interest and demand. If games like Xenoblade Chronicles and the Last Story were not region-locked, it is possible that they would never have been localized, which could have alienated fans who didn’t speak the language, not to mention deny several industry professionals of jobs. Without localization efforts, revenue doesn’t move throughout the video game market and less studios benefit, and less money for studios and publishers unfortunately means fewer games for us to enjoy.
While understanding the legal restrictions for each country and how they pose problems can basically be chalked up to “lots of complicated business relations”, the cultural issues involved have arguably played a bigger (and somewhat more delicate) role in the historic establishment of region-locking and licensing internationally, especially when we begin to consider the effects of localization. As far back as the NES-era, video games have been changed to avoid sensitive subjects or offending others culturally.
In Japan, the original Ice Climbers game involved seals as an enemy. Because of the taboo subject of seal clubbing, all seal sprites were changed to the iconic yetis in the international versions. Nintendo of America had a reputation for editing American releases of games, with changes as simple as the removal of any Red Cross symbols on hospitals in Earthbound (because the symbol is considered a registered trademark of the namesake organization in some countries) to removing blood, Nazi references, and swastikas in Wolfenstein 3D.
Even now, consoles such as the PS3 (which is often praised for being one of the most region free consoles of the past few generations) have been shown to edit content regardless of the region using system and game updates in order to keep in line with legal age ratings. Resistance: Fall of Man and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune were shown to have blood and violence edited in Japan, while The Last of Us and Beyond Two Souls have received the same treatment in Europe. While these may not be seen as instances of truly region-locked material, keep in mind that these games will not play on a console without the requisite updates in those regions, essentially creating a different, but similar, censoring issue.
What Does the Future Hold?
As nice as region free media is, it may not be a universal concept in the market as it stands currently. Although we have proof that it is possible, with the PS3, PS4, and even the Nintendo DS having nearly their entire libraries region free, gamers will have to be patient for all three major gaming companies to distribute all their games and consoles completely region free. After all, if Microsoft can ease their region-locking policy for the Xbox One, there is hope yet for Nintendo.
What do you think? Do licensing, localization, and cultural issues really seem like big enough problems to warrant region-locking as the necessary evil it is viewed by some? How likely would it be to get around several of the issues presented by Nintendo on the policy as it stands right now? Let us know in the comments below!