The game of the week for this week's Retro Weekly is one that is very close to my heart: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
Region-Locking Isn’t as Simple As You Think
The controversy surrounding region-locking video games is a complex one, and one that’s never helped consumer choice. I’m against it. I’d doubt any players are for it, and most tolerate it, and certainly no one saying it’s fair. At the same time, Nintendo’s reasons for locking down their own systems–and for quite a long time, mind you–may be no less valid.
For opponents of Nintendo’s region-locking practices, there is someone who does “feel your pain.” It was earlier this month that Nintendo’s longtime indie champion, Dan Adelman, sparked a string of criticisms that, among other things, included complaints regarding his Nintendo’s policies region-locking of both the 3DS and Wii U. Adelman himself “used to live in Japan,” and had “2 SNESs – one Japanese, one US” to play games from both sides of the Pacific on.
All the while, I can’t see why the region-locking’s demise would make as big of a difference as many make it out to be. I have yet to buy a single Japanese or European game for my region-free PS3, and most of my PSN friends are in the same position. These days there’s genuinely little need to pay over the odds for an import game, unless you’re fond of totally obscure RPGs packed with Japanese text (which I do not). You can say that all is personal preference, but how many people would really feel the same?
Over the years, the issue of slower PAL conversions has been eradicated and now all games sold in Europe run full speed and full screen, as their developers intended. Therefore, one of the key reasons for importing have been effectively removed in plenty of places. Release dates are also closer together than ever before. We’re seeing games hit Japan, North America and Europe in quick succession, again removing the need to pay extra cash to get a game early. In the case of the Wii U, Hyrule Warriors will launch across four territories in the space of just over a month. Are you honestly going to pay more cash to get the Japanese version just to play it 43 days earlier? Or 36-35 days in Europe and Australia?
Region locking opponents are quick to cite how many games they’ve lost, and their argument may have held weight a decade ago, true, but these days (most) publishers have become faithful at making sure western gamers get localized versions of the best games Japan can offer. Unless the game you’re hankering for is ultra, ultra obscure, there’s a good chance that it’s gonna be on store shelves everywhere given a short period of time. Look no further than Pandora’s Tower, The Last Story, and Xenoblade Chronicles, all of which were the result of when fan demand succeeds in the case of Operation Rainfall. All risky RPGs with loads of text to translate, but they were localized all the same.
If you did buy the Japanese version of any of these games–which would have been unplayable unless you were fluent in Japanese–then the publishers that worked so hard to bring them to westward would have felt the pain in their wallets. That’s the unfortunate situation that region-free gaming gives us. Publishers are too often reluctant to spend cash on producing region-specific versions if they know that consumers can simply import the title from overseas. Localizing software costs armloads, especially when there’s huge amounts of text involved. Why bother when there’s no guarantee your efforts will be rewarded?
As Nintendo president Satoru Iwata himself has elaborated, content ratings are another prime consideration. Each territory has its own age guidance system, and although the ratings are pretty constant across all regions–a game with violence and sex in is the same no matter where you play it, after all–there are subtle cultural differences which should always be taken into account, not only in terms of content but also in how a piece of software is marketed. This might seem absurd, but it’s worth remembering Infamous was escalated to Japan’s highest rating, the Z rating, when it was released there and almost exclusively for its “evil” choices available to characters. Nintendo is likewise incredibly protective of its own image and region-locking is one method to exercise similar control.
Money’s another of Nintendo’s motivations for supporting region-locking. Like most multinational companies, Nintendo has separate offices with separate budgets in each region it trades in. As a result, when a game launches in, say, the UK, Nintendo’s UK arm budgets for marketing and promotion. Why would Nintendo UK want to spend cash on making sure people are aware of a game’s release when they could see the ad on TV and order the same title from the US or Japan? And all that could just end up driving the cost up on you with lower sales. Region locking allows Nintendo to manage its international business more effectively, as money spent marketing games in a particular region will generally result in games being purchased in the same region, not from another.
Further, the number of people who do understand what region locking is and how many games it restricts is tiny, maybe insignificant from a business perspective. The sheer amount of gamers who throw their oodles of money into the game industry would rarely, if ever, consider buying a game from outside of their respective territory. You could argue the issue’s down to the balance of power shifting from Japan to the US and Europe, where games like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Skylanders all launch first, negating the need to import, but in reality most players are quite content buying what’s on their local store shelves.
It’s not like gamers lack diversity when it comes to games these days, especially when you see the masses of indies inhabiting download services like PSN, Xbox Live, and the Wii U eShop. Most people don’t need to look beyond their own territory to find games they want to play.
I can’t say region locks are fair; it isn’t. Maybe I don’t share the sense of urgency some attach to the problem, particularly when they’re more pressing priorities on Nintendo’s mind. I wonder how many would feel the same if they did sit down and think about how many import titles they might really buy this generation. Region-locking punishes a minority, a vocal minority largely (and ironically) ignored by a disinterested majority more invested in Mario, Zelda, and Pokemon. Nintendo owes its commitment to all its fans, and another generation could be the key, but how many has region-locking really cost? Not enough, not yet.