Talking Point: It's Time for Nintendo to Drop Region Locking
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
Microsoft and Sony have moved on
There are some realities that, despite their annoyances, are part of the typical life of a Nintendo gamer. For the second home console generation in a row Nintendo's offering is less powerful — in terms of raw graphical processing — than its direct upcoming competitors in the PS4 and Xbox One, with a focus on innovation and a unique control scheme being the order of the day. Once again third-parties will come and go, and Wii U will in all likelihood be defined, arguably just like the Wii before it, by the high profile first-party releases that the big N provides.
Another common reality is that there'll be intriguing games released earlier or exclusively in Japan, with localisation taking a significant amount of time or, in the worst cases, not coming at all. Perhaps there'll be more campaigns like Operation Rainfall, a movement that tried — and succeeded, depending on how much success you attribute to the group — to pressurise Nintendo of America to release a trilogy of fascinating Japanese titles in the region. There are importing options, of course, but if you want to play Japanese games you need a system from the region, necessitating a serious investment.
Nintendo's rivals have employed region locking to various degrees — the Xbox 360 is region-locked, while most PS3 games work across regions, with the only significant issue arising with needing to buy regional DLC to match the retail game's area. As the first of the 'big three' manufacturers to release a new system, Nintendo stuck with its region locking policy, separating PAL regions, North America and Japan with restrictions to prevent cross-compatibility of software. "Boo hiss", many likely thought, but as a fact of life it may have been dismissed with a shrug, and like with the 3DS we sit back and cross fingers hoping for swift worldwide localisations.
But now Sony and, belatedly, Microsoft have come to town and ditched region locking. It may have slipped notice due to the farcical issues of DRM and online requirements — the Sony 'boasts' and Microsoft's reverse on keystone One policies have been bizarre, even in the context of the games industry — but both of the upcoming systems will be region free. Which makes sense, because the global community has never been so connected, with social networks and the internet as a whole taking down barriers between cultures. Separate systems and games for each region are a relic of 2012, because let's face it, what was standard a matter of months ago can be downright backwards today; the modern age waits for nothing.
So when the PS4 and Xbox One launch later this year, the Wii U will be the only one of the three that is region locked; while hardly a concern for a lot of consumers, there'll be a group of keen gamers for whom that certainly matters. For fans of the Japanese games industry, in particular, the PS4 will surely be particularly attractive, and we know from experience with the 3DS — as a recent example — how many desirable games can seem out of reach. Many of us here on Nintendo Life will be beholden to the localisation efforts of our respective Nintendo regional offices, while PS4 or One owners can buy any game they want, with import postage costs being the only real barrier. Sucks to be U.
The question is whether Nintendo will change its policy, with the assumption — which we don't claim with authority or 100% confidence — that the region locking on Wii U is a firmware affair. We know of development Wii U units that simply switch between PAL and NTSC formats with a simple selection, suggesting that it's in the operating system software rather than any physical differences between regional systems. Is that the same in retail units? As we've suggested, we wouldn't definitively make any claims on that, but we'd be surprised if the region locking was more than an application of certain 'rules' in code, even if retail discs have a related identifier that's triggered in the console.
If that's the case, it's possible that a system update could, in theory, remove region locking in one swoop. Advocates would also like the same to potentially happen with the 3DS, though we'd throw out a cautionary note that, in comparison to the Wii U, the portable system's infrastructure is likely to be more primitive. Again, though, perhaps an end to region locking could only be a system update away.
That's all speculation, and you've better odds of buying a 3DS in an Apple store than actually getting firm details in an official statement from Nintendo, which is understandable in terms of pure business. Yet while the technicalities and details will be in Nintendo's vaults until a prospective dreamy day when an update suddenly removes these restrictions, there are fans that believe the power is in the company's hands to roll back its region locking policies. Well known NeoGaf user Cheesemeister published a lengthy post following E3 that outlines the campaigns to pressurise Nintendo into dropping region locking. Neutral communities on Miiverse have seen a number of posts on the topic, there's a pre-prepared letter to send to Nintendo electronically or in standard mail, and there's even an online petition, though it's currently well short of the required 10,000 signatures. It's not a full-on revolution of Nintendo gamers, but there are some early hints of rebellion.
The anti-region locking argument is ultimately about consumer choice. The enforcement of region-specific content gives Nintendo — and other publishers on its systems — a greater degree of control over content, managing the image and 'message' of the consoles and their libraries. Being region free leaves gamers to play whatever they want, and gives that choice — you could import a Japanese game and get utterly baffled, but that would be your decision. We've seen Nintendo try to control the image of its systems and how they're perceived — as do all companies to some extent — with actions such as claiming ad revenues from YouTube videos of its products; Reggie Fils-Aime equated it to protecting IPs, yet evidence suggests Nintendo may be u-turning on that policy. If region locking is dropped, Nintendo would have to willingly cede some control, with the knowledge that some gamers may opt for content not originally intended, sanctioned and formally prepared for their region. Mario's white gloves would have to loosen their grip, just a little.
Yet that's how the tide is turning. With Sony and even Microsoft going region-free, it'll be interesting to see if Nintendo can retrospectively release a system update to do the same; perhaps the bigger question is, even if the company can make that change, does it want to?