Region Locking in 2011: A New Age Of Publisher Control

Region locking – the act of making a games console compatible only with software bought in the same continent as the hardware – is a problem that used to be associated with retro games machines. Anyone who lived through the 16 or 32-bit era will have far from fond memories of buying adaptor cartridges and boot discs, or modifying their consoles with extra chips, just to enjoy the Japanese and American games that didn’t happen to get a European release. But in the past decade or so, this has become less of an issue, partly because the games industry has become more Western-focused, reducing the number of region-exclusive games that beg to be imported, and also because of a relaxation toward region locking itself.

Region Locking in 2011: A New Age Of Publisher Control
Cave has experimented with regional difference like no other publisher, releasing region-free Xbox 360 games in Japan, licensing local conversions in other territories and, just recently, bringing unedited versions of its Japanese games to the west via digital distribution.

Microsoft is a typically relaxed platform holder, leaving the decision to region lock down to each individual publisher. Sony is the most open of all, having boldly made both PSP and PlayStation 3 completely region-free – the latter one of only a handful of home consoles in the history of the medium to do so. And, of course, the Nintendo DS continued the Game Boy’s tradition for region-free handheld gaming and enjoyed perhaps the healthiest import scene of the last decade thanks to a gargantuan selection of quirky Japanese releases and hardcore, American-published RPGs and adventures.

As optimistic as this situation may be, however, the games industry’s newfound openness has begun to slip in recent years. A lot of the best imports on Xbox 360 have remained disappointingly locked down at the behest of their publishers. Sony has banned stores like Play-Asia from shipping Japanese games to Europe, rendering the region-free nature of its consoles pointless. And of most annoyance to the gamer population, Nintendo’s recently released 3DS ends over two decades of unrestricted handheld gaming.

So how did this happen, and why do the world’s videogame publishers feel that region locking is so necessary? Sadly, Sony failed to comment on the matter, while Microsoft simply reiterated its stance that its “policy is to let publishers decide where to region lock their titles or not.” But Nintendo itself was surprisingly willing to talk to us on the matter, as were a number of videogame publishers with experience in region-free releases.

On the subject of the 3DS, Nintendo UK’s marketing manager, James Honeywell, clarifies what, up until now, has merely been rumour and speculation. “Pre-installed codes will region lock all Nintendo 3DS hardware systems, software cartridges and downloads. This means that hardware and software purchased or downloaded in one specific region will not work in another.”
The justification for this, says Honeywell, is “to include parental controls, comply with different age rating models and be more efficient and effective in delivering system and content updates in specific territories where it’s more suitable to those customers.” Which, if we’re honest, doesn’t sound like a justification whatsoever. After all, did anybody ever ask for these features in the age of the DS? Is it really necessary to region lock a console in order to implement parental controls? We think not.

Speaking to Shinji Enomoto, a producer at Konami, we ask how he feels about the region locked 3DS, given that his company is heavily invested in the platform. He says: “To put it bluntly, we do not make games for fun. We’re not a charity, we’re a business at the end of the day, and if we don’t sell games then we can’t make the next game. That’s how the business works. So from a business perspective, something like software piracy really effects and can destroy our business. The fact that Nintendo 3DS is region locked is perhaps something that could aid us in pursuing our business achievements.”

This is a more plausible explanation for the changes made to 3DS. After all, the DS was one of the most pirated consoles of all time, and Nintendo has a responsibility to provide a profitable platform to third-party publishers. Strangely, however, it’s Nintendo itself that denies the use of region locking as an anti-piracy method. “Nintendo 3DS has the most up to date technology to help in the ongoing battle against piracy,” Honeywell concedes, but adds, “The region locking measures have not been implemented as part of our anti-piracy measures.” Makoto Asada, producer of Xbox 360 software at Cave, has a lot of experience with region locking, having released several titles, both locked and unlocked, and he happens to agree with Nintendo on this point. “I don’t think region-locking works as an anti-piracy measure. Even if you lock the game, pirated copies get out there.”

Region Locking in 2011: A New Age Of Publisher Control
Great import games like Retro Game Challenge made the DS a great handheld. To enjoy similar releases on 3DS, however, would involve buying an additional unit for each region.

If anti-piracy measures are implemented to make the 3DS more attractive to publishers, then should we assume that they are also in favour of region locking? Konami seems to think so, but there are other companies who are less convinced. XSEED Games, a US publisher that has recently become an import favourite with DS titles like Retro Game Challenge, can definitely appreciate the customer’s perspective as director of publishing Ken Berry explains. “As a gamer I’m against region locking since it may prevent me from playing a game when my options are limited to just importing a title. From a business point of view, there’s always a plus and a minus side to region locking – if a title isn’t region locked when it’s originally released in Japan, there’s a chance that more hardcore gamers in the US will import it and it may hamper our own sales when we publish it later, but we may also benefit if people in other territories such as Europe import our English version from the US.”
Cave’s Asada goes one further, suggesting that region locking might actually dissuade him from supporting a system. “Ultimately the decision on region locking is going to differ according to the platform holder, and that’s not something we control. Since you learn about the regioning policy before getting involved in a platform, you can plan a strategy around it in advance. But for us, we haven’t yet made a decision on whether to get involved with platforms that absolutely require region locking.”

Neither Cave nor XSEED has a publishing presence in Europe, so anyone interested in their games is forced to import. Both publishers have different takes on how important this revenue is to their business. Cave has experimented with region-free releases, and Asada seems happy with the results. “I think it has worked as an experiment,” he says. “It’s given us a good index to understand the sales we would get from making a game region-free if we don’t have plans to sell it overseas. Although the numbers aren’t that high, we have made a certain amount of money from overseas sales.”

“We really have no way to gauge how much of our product being shipped to local US distributors ends up overseas, so we can only guess that it’s a very small portion of our current overall business,” adds XSEED’s Berry. “As far as we know, it is not an important aspect of our business. “We do get some e-mails from European gamers from time to time, but it’s mainly to ask why a certain game isn’t available for purchase in Europe,” he elaborates. “Right now, most inquiries are about why KORG DS-10 Plus is not released in Europe because the US version will not work on a European DSi due to the region-locking that’s imbedded in the hardware, but we have no control over that. I believe Nintendo of Europe published the original KORG DS-10, so people should probably be asking them why the DS-10 Plus is not being published.”

Berry raises a valid point. If region locking is to become the standard again, seriously limiting which games we can and cannot play, then more will have to be done to make sure that the best games do actually get released in each territory. If the DS had been region locked, then we would have missed out on some excellent games such as Nintendo’s sensational Ossu! Tatake! Ouendan! rhythm-action series and Atlus’s range of hardcore RPGs, to name just a tiny fraction of examples. So does Nintendo Europe have any plans to localise a wider range of games this generation? “We will always release games in Europe if and when we believe there is demand for them,” claims Honeywell. “The localisation process on some games can be very lengthy, technically difficult and costly so we have to be sure that it’s the right decision to release a title in Europe before we undertake that process. The decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.”

Region Locking in 2011: A New Age Of Publisher Control
Digital distribution allowed XSEED to easily gets its series of PSP Ys titles to western gamers. Expect to see much more of this sort of solution in the future.

Considering that Nintendo is still yet to confirm or deny a European release of The Last Story, arguably the most important Japanese game to arrive on Wii in the past year, this case-by-case assessment probably doesn’t bode well for those with a hardcore taste in games, though Honeywell does suggest that third-party publishers specialising in niche releases may be able to fill the gap left by Nintendo. “Recently we’ve seen more and more companies like Rising Star Games bringing more specialist and Japanese-oriented titles to Western audiences, often with great success.”

Localising a game can be a hugely expensive prospect however, just as Honeywell says. So can smaller publishers really be expected to profit from bringing over certain titles? The fact that so many games currently go unreleased in Europe suggests that the obstacles may be too great for some. But there are other ways. The rise of digital distribution, for example, has alleviated some of the strain for overseas publishers, allowing them to sell their games directly to the European audience without trying to find a European publishing partner. XSEED, for example, recently used PlayStation Network to bring its three Ys games to Europe without needing to print them on UMD as it did in the States, and Berry is confident that digital distribution will continue to help XSEED reach more overseas customers.

As Nintendo continues to push further into online territory, we wonder if the 3DS’s e-shop will enable publishers like XSEED to digitally deliver full-size titles as well as smaller 3DSWare type releases, thus side-stepping the region locking problem, but Honeywell doesn’t seem convinced. “Digitally distributed products are still subject to the same age ratings and processes as packaged goods and as Nintendo classifies Europe as one territory, software will still be subject to necessary localisation so unfortunately that’s not a solution,” he says with some conviction, despite the fact that XSEED and Cave disagree. “I think that you’re going to see digital distribution on the increase in Japan in the near future,” says Asada. “If digital distribution becomes mainstream, I think the concept of ‘regions’ will disappear completely.”

Until that happens, we’re just going to have to make do with the situation. With the platform holders continuing to make life more difficult for import gamers without doing much to help third parties get their games to market, perhaps the days of mod chips and converter carts are going to have to make an unfortunate comeback after all.