Monday, April 23, 2012

Region restrictions for video gamers in Japan and the West

Region restriction is not a new phenomenon for gamers all over the world, but in a time where every player is literally connected via the internet and with the new generation of game consoles as the 3DS and Sony’s Vita introducing new shops for digital download, I was asking myself if those measures are still zeitgeisty. So I was having a look at the topic from both angles, the restriction problem as video games abroad and in Japan experience them, and the reason why some makers still apply this outdated measures.


1. What types of region restriction exist and to what type of player do they apply?
When we talk about region restriction of video games it mainly refers to hardware or software locks in consoles or games itself to prevent players to import games from other countries or play certain foreign content on their locally marketed device.

Region Lock
Regional lockouts in consoles mostly appear as some kind of physical barrier, computer chip or a programming practice. As for the latest generation of consoles, makers like Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft handle this matter differently.

Even in the past Nintendo has always took a strict position regarding regional lockouts. All of their home consoles had a natural hardware region lock since different regions in the world use different TV standards (Pal/NTSC). Moreover cartridge systems were harder to crack back in the days and importing games through shipment was more expensive, so all handheld consoles didn’t require any hardware locks. Even though through digital distribution those barriers almost disappeared, Nintendo still is holding on to region locks, this time deliberately implemented into the consoles through both hardware and software locks.

While the previous generation of Nintendo’s handhelds, the NDS and its Lite version, still were free of locks, the 3DS is not, nor is the Wii. In the past, many people in the US and Europe took this chance and imported games if not released in their region or if several months lay between the release dates.  As for Japanese games this even despite the language barrier.
Currently many players abroad are upset about Nintendo’s 3DS’s separation into three regions.
Even the DSi was with regards to its downloadable games region locked, and the 3DS follows the just logical development here: Nintendo’s eShop only allows browsing the shop of the same region as the console. So even Japanese players do not have any access to American or European games.

The same applies to Nintendo’s Wii whereas its language system is locked in certain regions as well. For example a Wii bought in the US can’t display any Japanese language in the OS nor in English games.

Even though Microsoft’s  Xbox 360 is a complete region free console it is riddled with various region restrictions. However, most problems occur due to the different TV standards and software region locks inside certain games. Hence many PAL games do not work on NTSC systems v.v. !

Unlike in Nintendo’s case this is rather a decision made by the game publishers than the console maker. These publishing practices have lead to a lot confusion among players, and getting games from abroad turned into a tricky gambling business. Therefore many players share their experience by providing game lists and guides of which games are “region-free”, or lists of trustworthy places to buy from.

As for Sony’s consoles the trend is similar. While the PS2 still was region locked the PS3 is – same as the PS Vita and its former model the PSP – region free, except for movie discs. So it is fairly easy for gamers from North America to import and play games from Japan. However some complain that downloading games and content is a different story.

For the PS3, PSP and Vita there are different versions of the Play Station Store for each region and you can only use downloaded content from one of them. For example for the Vita only one PSN account is allowed. Players are not restricted to buy from different stores e.g. the Japanese or English store. Moreover it is almost made impossible to switch between them. Buying would require resetting the system to switch between each store account.

PC gamers usually have a much easier life, since regional lockouts are almost impossible to enforce. Both the OS and the game itself can be manipulated, to anyway allow playing. However many game publishers try to restrict access by banning certain country IP addresses, especially for online games. 

Even on Steam some games are region restricted. It's determined by where a user access the store, but for certain territories certain games can’t downloaded. Many users find that irritating since no information can be found neither on the games presentation page, nor when buying the game until processing the payment. The steam account doesn’t have a set location, but takes whatever country somebody is logged in from. So basically a Japanese player traveling to the US could try to access the store to buy a certain game in English but Steam won’t accept credit cards issued outside of the country to purchase in, nor would the software region restriction allow them to play the game in their home country.

But foreigners in Japan on the other side can purchase games distributed in their home country if they contact the user support. They receive a link where they get the content and prices from their home country, not local contents or prices.

The biggest issue for Japanese players on Steam however is the pricing. Even though some Western games can be purchased they sometimes are not sold with their foreign normal price but with a higher domestic catalog price aligned with prices from other stores. This for example happened with the Japanese version of “Call of Duty®: Black Ops” which is sold for $59.99 in the US but for $99.99 in Japan on Steam. 

Those problems described above basically apply to two main types of players:
a)      Players who are unsatisfied with the availability of certain games in their home country and who like to import games of their desire for example from Japan. Those can be Western players with no or fair level of Japanese or Japanese players who want to play a rather rare title in English.
b)      Foreigners who live in other than their home country such as many video gamers from the West living in Japan wanting to play their favorite Western title on a systems bought in Japan. Or even travelers who buy games during their vacation in other countries as the EU.

But also Japanese gamers who like to play certain Japanese games in Japan are hit by this problem as the example of Fortune Summoners shows. This and other games of its type with a fair level loyal fans are restricted to purchase the game on Steam even though it was available on Steam before and is still available in the English store of Steam.           

Region activation
Region activation is basically a special type of regional lockout. In some cases – e.g. happened with the boxed retail version of Square-Enix’ Deus Ex: Human Revolution – games have to be activated online to be able to play. In this case even though having legally purchased (and imported) the game it won’t play in another country than the country it was originally sold in. Even in the European Union a market which promises free trades and fair competition players are hindered to buy games freely and on the contrary are punished with unjustified price hikes up to 30% for certain regions.[1]

In the special case one of the main problems however was that no retailer of Deus Ex actually informed users about the region lock. So certain French players who imported the game from the UK were stuck with their games not being able to play them.

iTunes region restriction
Steam however is not the only online store that separates regions and the availability of games, even Appleis doing so with its iTunes Store. Even though the barriers to publish in different markets are pretty low, developers usually have to choose which countries store they want to publish their game in. Hence not every game is available for every country and players have a hard time to purchase titles from abroad.

The only way to actually purchase a iOS game is if you own a credit card issued in the country the game is published , for example a US credit card for purchases in the US store. If you don’t have a proper card you have to choose the inconvenient way to register a new account without any credit card information. However, in this case you can only download free not paid apps.

Multiplayer restricted games
The problems described above get even worse. Players of legally in local stores purchased imported games often face a multiplayer restriction when they want to play their favorite Japanese game with friends or if they just want to challenge others with similar skills overseas online.  

For example a Japanese 3DS with a Japanese copy of Street Fighter wouldn’t be able to connect to let’s say an American version of the 3DS game via WiFi. This applies to hard copies of games as well as software downloads from the eShop. The cross-country online multiplayer mode however should work.

Where the 3DS still works Steam restricts access to multiplayer modes for certain games such as Dungeon Defender or Mobile Suite Gundam: Bonds of the Battlefield.  In some cases players get around by simply changing the download region to another region, but in the case of StarCraft II mainly Australian players complain about only being able to challenge players in the Asian-Pacific area. This restriction is the result of a region activation for StarCraft II, which can’t be changed after it is locked. Especially from a long term multiplayer perspective this restriction prevents the building of a global multiplayer community with balanced matches, and causes many grudges towards the developer.

2. What’s the main reason behind region restriction?

Probably one of the most popular reasons for region restriction among publishers is piracy. This point carries even more weight since more and more video games are available for digital download.

Region locking limits the damage a single pirate can do with a single copy of the game to one region instead to the entire world. In the past PC games usually were more affected by piracy than console games since copying a cartridge or modifying a console to accept illegal CD/DVD copies required much more effort and was too expensive. Hence many of Nintendo’s consoles were region lock free. But pirates cracked the NDS with a special cartridge (R4 DS etc.) and several illegal download sites with basically unlimited games. So putting a region lock into the 3DS was simply a logical step for Nintendo.

Besides, many Asian black markets still offer illegal copies of video games to import. So region locks or activation step in where government control to prevent illegal imports fails.[2]

Publishing and distribution agreements
Secondarily, but maybe the most reasonable motif for region locks are publishing licenses! One game often has more than one publisher or distributer around the world with different sorts of agreements, and different release dates for each region. Without region restriction any region that doesn’t publish first will face a flood of imported copies, making publishing the game in other territories less attractive. Licensing also explains why some games are not available in certain regions. In many cases no publisher can be found.

Localization incentive and stage releases
Especially for countries that have different publishers or distributors there is little incentive to localize and publish a game into other languages without any region locking.

Take for example Demon’s Souls. The very popular game had three different publishers for each of the big regions, first being released in Japan in February 2009, more than half a year later in North America and in Europe/Australia it was released even more than one year later of its first release (June 2010). Since the neither the game had any software nor the PS3 any hardware lock, retailers and players could freely import and play the game, making the time and money invested into a European releases pointless.[3]
The sample above very much shows why staged launches only make sense with some sort of region control, since developers and publishers can easily control the huge bow-wave of players wanting for the game the moment it releases.

Staged releases and region locks are the result of profit maximization decisions and the time gap needed for localization and overseas distribution. Not in every case they are successful, but to justify the longer waiting time for fans, publishers often draw back on additional incentives. In case of the American version of Demon’s Souls the publisher provided an additional strategy guide, an artbook and a soundtrack CD.

Pricing is the most “attractive” reason for region restriction though. Simply put, it is difficult to maintain a single pricing structure that works worldwide. Different regions in the world have different price levels and gamers would simply buy in the cheapest region if they could. However, some publishers like Nintendo seem to have brought this concept to its perfection by maintaining artificial price differentials in different countries allowing them to take advantage of those price differences and to maximize their profit.

However despite the license problem mentioned above, publishers tend to forget that titles even without particular distribution in a certain region still would make money, since certain players would very likely import the game to their territory. 

Moreover pricing reasons for region locks can cause issues with local competition laws, especially in open markets like the EU as the example of the planned PC release of Deus Ex Human Revolution shows.

Cultural differences
In some cases region restriction is explained with cultural or legal reasons, for example language differences, age rating requirements, parental control and/or compliance with local laws in each region. Especially Nintendo took over this reason to promise “the best possible gaming experience for their users”, and to make sure that “the games purchased in that region will operate without any trouble”.

In some cases, especially if the game is not properly culturalized the content can confuse or even offend players. Video games may contain political or religious believes, or simply cultural aspects that can only be understood in the context of the country the game was developed in. So region restriction helps to separate sensitive regions from each other.[4]

Regional parental control
Most of modern gaming consoles are equipped with a parental control system. It helps parents to decide about which game their child can play based on its specific rating. The trouble is every country and NPO has its own rating system (e.g. the ESRB in North America, or the CERO in Japan). Since finding a worldwide universal rating system is far from being accomplished any time soon, it’s simply easier to region lock the console or game.[5]

3. What are the consequences and trends that occur from region restrictions?
Unfortunately there are not many alternatives or ways around of region restrictions. The consequence of not being able to play your favorite game, or having to wait a long time before the games local release not too seldom result in a bad reputation of the publisher among the gaming community. In many cases regional locks simply create inconveniences for users willing to legitimately purchase the game. Gamers often express their dissatisfaction by complaining in game forums or distribution platforms, simply boycotting to buy the game or in many cases even hacking the game or its console. I wouldn’t say it is the cause but region restriction definitely encourages video game piracy.

Since players try to workaround those problems, it often leads to players getting creative and leading them into the legal limbo, even though those players never intended to do anything illegal in the first place.

In case of multiplayer restrictions or online activation for example some users technically work around the problem by spoofing IP addresses via VPN, as for regional un-purchaseable games on Steam by gifting games to other players. This could – if pursued further – cause legal issues with internet service providers or distribution platform like Steam. 

Surely – as we saw above – there are many good reasons for region restrictions, but there are also many reasons against it.

The Internet and cheap shipping charges have made the world a very small market place for video games. Especially with digital download services almost every game can be accessed by any consumer in the world. Even though language barriers have been a natural region lock in the past, today more and more people understand multiple languages, so do for example many people like to play Japanese video games. Hence region restriction makes zero sense anymore but invites hackers to pave the way for illegitimate uses. 

I believe it is time to set video games free. Traditional game companies already feel the increased competition from both smaller developers as from other emerging sectors like social gaming, and there is no reason to turn away paying customers based on where they live or shop. Even though most current consumers won’t notice any difference, it opens up a chance to approach a new consumer group to buy more goods. 

And let’s not forget the most important reason: bridging cultural gaps between Japan and the West.

[1] And this despite the fact that Square-Enix itself takes advantage of certain labor markets by opening new offices in cheaper countries or by buying from the cheapest international developer.
[2] However, whether region locking significantly can help to stop piracy can be questioned. The PlayStation 3, which is region free, has had no issues with piracy so far.
[3] The game was however online multiplayer restricted since each release runs on separate online servers. The same applies to saved games and trophy sets.
[4] Many people though find this aspect most interesting. A broad variety of game types representing all kinds of aspects from different cultures are basis for most of the fun of gameplay.
[5] However, it is suspect whether there are actually kids in the world playing games from other regions which could harm them or which their parents would not approve.