Locked out

In the first of what we hope will be a series of first-person discussions, Nintendo Life editorial director Damien McFerran shares his opinion on the recent calls for Nintendo to remove regional locks on its systems. Seeing as this is the first feature, we should point out that the views shared here are not necessarily those of Nintendo Life itself; rather, this is an opportunity for individual staff members to voice their opinions and concerns, and for you, the reader, to contribute yours.

Before we get down to business, here’s a little background on my life as a gamer. My first console was a Japanese Sega Mega Drive, purchased by my father prior to its launch in both the US and the UK. I grew up playing Japanese games and when the 16-bit system eventually hit British shelves, I quickly became aware that restrictions were in place which prevented me from borrowing Mega Drive titles off my friends and plaything them on my Japanese system.

When the SNES was released I opted for a UK model, and then had to wrestle with a variety of converter cartridges in order to get games from America and Japan running on the machine — and even then, I had to endure slower performance and big, thick borders at the top and bottom of the screen: the curse of many a PAL gamer. During the 32-bit years I would either choose Japanese hardware or modify my UK consoles so they could run games from any region, and this continued right up until the Dreamcast was released at the end of the decade. I picked up a Japanese system months before the western launch and would gladly drop a week’s wages on a single imported game.

I guess the picture I’m trying to paint here is that in the past I’ve been a staunch supporter of importing. There was a time when I would practically turn my nose up at a UK region game and pay drastically over the odds in order to obtain the more desirable Japanese edition. I honestly dread to think how much money I’ve wasted over the past two decades buying expensive versions of games already available for much less cash in the UK.

Microsoft recently confirmed that Xbox One games will be region-free

Given this history, you might assume that I’m totally in favour of recent calls to end region locking on Nintendo systems, but I’m not. I should probably state right now that I’m not against making consoles region-free. Consumer choice is always good. However, I can clearly see the reasons why Nintendo wants to lock down its systems, and these reasons have been set in stone for years — just because Microsoft and Sony have decided against locking doesn’t make Nintendo’s reasons any less valid.

One of the main reasons I can’t see why the abolition of region-locking will make any difference is purely personal; despite my background as an importer, I have yet to purchase a single Japanese or American game for my region-free PS3, and all of my PS3-owning friends are in the same position. You’d think that I would be the perfect person to take advantage of this feature, but these days there is 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 should point out, I can’t read).

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 the original developers intended. Therefore, one of the key reasons for importing — at least in the UK, where I live — has been totally removed. Secondly, release dates are now closer together than ever before. We’re seeing games hit Japan, North America and Europe in quick succession, which again removes the need to pay extra cash to get a game early. In the case of the Wii U, Pikmin 3 will launch across all three territories in the space of three weeks. Are you honestly going to pay more cash to get the Japanese version just to own it for an additional 21 days?

The 3DS is region locked, a first for a Nintendo handheld

"But I want to play games that won't be coming out in my region," is usually the next line of attack made by the anti-region locking brigade. While this argument held weight about a decade ago, these days publishers have become really good at making sure western gamers get localised versions of the best games Japan can offer. As I said before, unless the game you’re hankering for is super, super obscure, there’s an excellent chance that it will be brought to the west at some point. Just look at Pandora’s Tower, Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story. All risky RPGs with lots of text to translate, but they were localised all the same.

Had you decided to buy the Japanese version of any of these games — which would have been unplayable unless you had an intimate understanding of the language — then the publishers which worked so hard to bring them to the west would have lost a potential sale. That’s the unpleasant situation that region-free gaming gives us; ironically, it’s a scenario which could potentially result in western gamers getting less choice rather than more. Publishers might be reluctant to spend cash on producing region-specific versions if they know that consumers can simply import the title from overseas. Localising software costs an incredible amount of cash, especially when there’s a lot of text involved. Why bother when there's no guarantee that it will sell if you make the effort?

It’s also worth noting that the number of people who actually understand what region locking means is tiny — in fact, it's almost insignificant from a business perspective. The vast majority of gamers who plough their cash into the global interactive entertainment industry would never even consider buying a game from outside of their respective territory. You could argue this is down to the balance of power shifting from Japan to the US and Europe, where games like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and FIFA all launch first, therefore totally negating the need to import, but in reality most players are quite happy to buy what is placed in front of them at their local retailer. It's not like players are struggling for choice when it comes to games these days, especially when you take into account download services like XBLA, PSN and the Wii U eShop. Most people don't need to look beyond their own territory to find games they want to play.

Pandora's Tower came to the west, but would that be the case without region locking?

Money is another reason why Nintendo supports region-locking. Like most multinational companies, Nintendo has separate offices with separate budgets in each region it trades in. Therefore, when a game launches in the UK, Nintendo’s UK arm is assigned a budget for marketing and promotion. Why would Nintendo UK want to spend cash on making sure people are aware of a game being released when players could view the advert on TV and then simply order the same title from the US or Japan? Region locking allows Nintendo to manage its international business in a more effective manner, as it knows that money spent marketing games in a particular region will — for the most part — result in games being purchased in the same region, not from another.

As Nintendo president Satoru Iwata himself has stated, 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 that there was a time when use of the word “hell” was frowned upon in North America — those of you old enough to recall the Steve Jackon and Ian Livingstone's Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks might recall that House of Hell (as it was known in the UK) was retitled House of Hades in the US. Nintendo is incredibly protective of its image and region-locking is one method to exercise this control.

From a purely personal perspective, one of the main reasons I simply don’t understand the recent call for Nintendo to end region locking is because I feel that if you’re going to be an importer, you’ve got to go the whole distance, like I had to back in days of the SNES, Mega Drive, Saturn and N64. As a youngster, I actually quite liked the fact that I had to go that extra mile to play Japanese games — it meant buying an expensive console, using a step-down power converter and sometimes even paying an obscene amount to have special leads made which would allow the system to run on UK television sets. You could argue that I simply had more money than sense — and you’d be correct — but at the time it felt like I was part of an elite sector of the gaming community; I bought mysterious new consoles before they were released in the UK and dazzled my friends with unheard of and exotic games.

Importing has its own appeal, but just how many people do it?

I’ve said it once and I think it’s worth repeating: I’m not against the removal of region locks. I just find it fascinating that there has been such an uproar online recently about this very same topic, and such a negative reaction to Nintendo’s reluctance to follow Sony and Microsoft’s lead. I think if players sat down and seriously considered how many import titles they would actually buy during an entire hardware generation, they’d quickly see that this whole furore isn’t worth their time or effort; to most players, region locking is such a non-issue that they probably aren’t even conscious of its existence. That being the case, can anyone really expect Nintendo — the most stubborn of all the console manufacturers — to turn its back on a policy which has done it no discernible harm for the past three decades?

Do you agree with Damien's perspective on region locking, or do you feel it's something which really should have been done away with by now? Or perhaps you were blissfully unaware that it even existed? Vote in the poll below to share your view, and don't forget to post a comment to give us a little more detail on your opinion.

What are your thoughts on region locking? (581 votes)

  1. It should be a thing of the past, I want the option to buy games from all regions50%
  2. I always buy games from my own region, so I'm not really bothered either way32%
  3. I can see Nintendo's point of view and don't see the need to remove region locking17%
  4. I didn't even know what region locking was before reading this, but I'd like to see it removed  0%
  5. I didn't even know what region locking was before reading this, but I'm fine with it remaining in place1%

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