The global gamer’s lot

The world is getting smaller, they say. We are becoming a global village, they say. Tish and pish, I say, we still have a long way to go. The lot of the global gamer is not a happy one. You may think living in, what some would consider, a paradise of gaming strips me of any right to complain but I am British, damn your oily hide, and complaining is what I do best!

Living with a language not your own is hard work. When I have my downtime I like to avoid anything that requires thinking and do simple, brainless things like playing games or writing a blog. Sure, I could, if I really tried, play a Japanese RPG, but believe me, that isn’t fun. I want to lie back and just, you know, play a game. So I end up importing games a lot. Big business, however, would like to see me strung up for this. Importing, they say, is illegal and must be stopped! They go after import websites and close them down with the heavy hand of the law behind them. They build their hard- and software to exclude anything not bought in your specific region. They do not want you to enjoy the games they had not intended you to enjoy.

I’m no idiot, occasionally, and I know full well there are behind the scenes implications with global releases and reasons behind region locking.

Licensing
If American publisher X have a contract with Japanese publisher Y to release game Z in Japan, publisher Y will not be too pleased if its customers can circumvent them and buy their game straight from publisher X anyway. Part of these publishing deals includes guarantees, a lot of money and target sales figures, so naturally publisher Y wants to be in control in their own market to maximize their profit and control their customers. It’s a little like signing an exclusivity deal and then ignoring it; the value of the deal rapidly drops.

Ratings
With the current popularity of game-related political bandwagons there is no end of scaremongering of our industry going on. We have not seen such relentless persecution of a medium since, well, comic books, oh, and rock and roll, and films, and, well, any new medium that the crusties can’t fathom. So our politicians do what they do best; regulate what we can and mayn’t enjoy. The rating system is a mess. Every region has its own, none are compatible and even within a single system there are inconsistencies. And somehow the fact retailers and parents ignore these ratings has become the entire industry’s albatross. That little rant aside, different regions do have different standards. Gore is toned down in Japan, as is more explicit sexual content, which considering this is a nation of happy go lucky perverts is a little strange. Germany of course is the most (in)famous example, with showing red blood being all but a capital offense. Europe’s “teen” rated game may be America’s “mature”, and vice versa. With all these differing levels of censorship a global free market of gaming is pretty much impossible.
That said, the most egregious content, the ones that get most older people’s knickers in a twist, has been pretty much outlawed by the console manufacturers themselves anyway. Adults-only content is a no-no within the industry, so at least there are no problems with having to pixellate pubic hair or removing that gay facial from a videogame.

Market saturation
Playing on from the first point, controlling the market, or rather priming it for maximum sales is an important business tactic. You can see this with films, where American DVDs often come out even before the Japanese theatrical release. Film theatres wouldn’t be much pleased if people could just get the latest DVDs easily and watch them at home on their massive flat-screens. Similarly, I am sure many publishers believe if a game is widely available customers are less inclined to buy the localized version once it’s finally released. In Japan this is hardly a concern; if a game is text-heavy players will want to wait for the localized version, as few are comfortable enough with their English abilities. In much the same way you’d have to be pretty damn hard-core to import a Japanese RPG if you’re an American who doesn’t speak Japanese.

Regional red tape
Each of the console manufacturers has regional headquarters. Sony, for example, announced that each regional chapter is now responsible for their sales quotas, rather than keeping a global approach. This ties in with the above. If Europeans had easy access to US Playstation games, technical signal differences notwithstanding, Sony of America would be encroaching on Sony of Europe’s territory, which ties in with the point above about market saturation.
On top of that each region has its own rules and technical requirements. Often these differences are infuriatingly obtuse and make little sense. Each SKU for your project will need some specific tinkering with to ready them for the appropriate region. Of course, the most obvious difference is the inclusion of multiple languages for the European version and the technicalities that come with that, but there are others too., like how the default OK and CANCEL buttons are different for Japan and the rest of the world. Why there isn’t one global technical requirement process is beyond me; it seems to create more work than it offers any kind of tangible benefit. If a manufacturer’s regional offices can’t even orchestrate a globally consistent approach where do we even begin?

All these issues used to be academic. If you go to a shop you simply only buy what is available. There was little chance of seeing, let alone being able to purchase a foreign game from your local high-street store. These days digital distribution is making headway and the lock-outs become jarringly irritating, like Tantalus we are presented with unattainable pleasures. The ease with which you can access foreign on-line distribution is only matched by the frustration when they tell you to bugger off because you’re not allowed to download something. Then of course there are websites that offer the importers some respite, dutifully warning which titles are region locked and which aren’t.

Here is the Japanmanship International Gamer’s Console Manufacturers’ Scorecard

Nintendo, D+
The DS is of course region-free, which deserves an A+. The Wii, however, is completely and utter locked per region, to the extent that with firmware updates even Datel’s Freeloader bootdisk cannot be used to play foreign Gamecube games on it anymore. I enjoyed many a foreign game on my Japanese Gamecube thanks to Freeloader but with the tyranny of being always on-line allowing Nintendo to combat any new similar product with a simple software update has made the Wii a bad choice for the importer. Once American Wiis are in good supply I may need to buy one just for the privilege of giving more money to Nintendo and being able to enjoy their games without the constant headache of a dictionary, which incidentally is very hard to balance on your knees while holding both a Wiimote and nunchuck.
It would be interesting to see if the DS’s liberal region approach has had any adverse effect on sales. Judging by its enormous success I‘d say probably “no”.
On average then a D+, just about a passing grade, thanks to the DS alone.

Microsoft, C+
Microsoft seem psychotically indecisive about region encoding on the Xbox 360. A lot of games have no locking whatsoever, some Japanese titles even play fully in English if you have the system’s language set to it. A couple of games, possibly due to ratings or the sheer volume of translated texts, are region-locked though, so I have to constantly confirm the status of a game before ordering it.
Live Arcade has this same problem. For most games you can download the demo using a faked US account, but can then be unlocked by purchasing them on your real Japanese account, except for some. How this choice is made seem utterly arbitrary. And seeing as the Japanese line-up offers only slim pickings and as setting up a second account with a US address is so easy (everybody knows at least one postcode: Beverly Hills 90210), most people I know have done so. Castlevania, for example, didn’t have a Japanese release until quite a few months after it has appeared on the US marketplace. Other demos don’t even pretend to localize and just throw the US version on Japan’s marketplace on the day of release. A few less have localised versions available on launch. It’s all a big, confusing mess.
With the recent updates we now have Xbox Originals, which are region-locked. Try to download one and no matter what your log-in says, your IP shows you’re not in the US and you’re politely told to go fornicate yourself. Considering Japan had a fraction of Xbox titles, and these days you won’t be able to buy them anywhere, this is just another middle finger to the Japanese market. Personally I am upset because I can’t play Psychonauts, as it was never released here so the Japanese marketplace is unlikely ever to get it.
Though some research is needed, the importer has it pretty easy with region-free games. Some curiously infuriating marketplace issues bring down the score, to a C+.. Must try harder.

Sony, A-
Unexpectedly Sony has gone the opposite direction and gone all hands off. Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable games are by and large region free. Though I personally have neither of these consoles I hear reports of the occasional locked content and problems with games reverting to IP location language selection rather than system setting preferences, but all in all this is a nice surprise for the global gamer. Sony may have its hubris leading to a terrible start in this generation’s race, and the machines may be too expensive for the average consumer, but you can’t fault them for going region-free.
The danger exists, however, that a small firmware update can negate this entire ideal some time in the future, but we can live in hope. So in contrast to the scores Sony receives for marketing and promotion, a solid, well deserved A-!

With today’s global society and the free exchange of information, being presented with a game which you are then not allowed to buy is like being refused service in a shop for being from the wrong side of town; it’s annoying and, though there may be legitimate reasons behind it, feels unfair. On top of that the small Xbox 360 community in Japan is already badly served compared to other countries, where the market is admittedly larger, so not even allowing keen, hard-core users to access content they have never been given access to before, like the Xbox Originals, is just another slap in the face. In other media I at least have the choice. I, for example, won’t let my viewing habits be dictated by the television and film corporations, and have bought a region-free DVD player so I could bring my entire DVD collection with me from England when I moved here. Even now there are many things I want to see that obviously don’t contravene any local ratings and censorship issues, like British comedy series, which I can purchase on-line and watch in the comfort of my Japanese home as a consenting, educated adult. With video games this kind of behaviour is not only discouraged but persecuted. Where it has been possible I have broken these international boundaries by means which I presume are legal enough; boot-discs purchased through retailers allowing me to play purchased video-games on a system the manufacturers didn’t want me to play foreign games on. But these days modding would seem the only option for certain systems.

As I mentioned before, it’d be interesting to see some studies examining whether or not the DS’s region-free approach has had a positive or adverse effect on business. As a consumer I simply can’t wait for the first of the Big Three to take the plunge and truly embrace the spirit of digital distribution: an access-for-all system serving the global consumer over the bureaucratic needs of the corporation.

17 comments:

  1. Licensing:
    It's Publisher Y's fault if their localization sucks or is more expensive than importing it. People aren't importing games because they like Publisher X more.

    Market saturation:
    Recent example: Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Europe has to wait half a year, but localization can be done in a fraction of the time. Super Mario Galaxy was available a few days after the US launch as a contrast.
    And again, additional costs when importing normally goes against common sense if there is no advantage.

    Regional red tape:
    Man, the (most of the time) more expensive import is really an allround-argument.
    All the technical requirements are also insignificant since console could be programmed frame-independent.
    Even the cheapest graphic cards have tv-outs and can switch signal systems via a driver option. 480p, 720p and etcetera don't have these problems anyway.
    Localization can also be sped up by using Unicode. Want to make a russian version? Add a Cyrillic font and translate. No need to hack it in.
    The OK and Cancel button problem is also nothing more than a variable. Some PS2 modchips even offer it as an option to switch these.


    In general, all the potentially money lost by people importing the games (which is a trivial amount anyway) are the publishers own fault.

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  2. Interesting post: clearly there is a rationale behind the awkwardness, as you've explained, but my mental image is of some military general deciding that instead of adapting his tactics to fit the terrain he can adapt the terrain to suit the tactics he knows, having read about the diversion of a river in Herodotus.

    I was playing Contact and Final Fantasy III (DS) in the UK months before their official release here, having bought US imports for a lower price than the eventual UK RRP; at a guess I should imagine tax differences account for some of that, and that's another thing publishers can't change.

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  3. To my knowledge PS3's region-freedom doesn't apply to playing PS1 and PS2 games on it; those still remain region locked. So much like the Xbox Originals, Sony doesn't allow you to play imported classics either.

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  4. Damn, there goes my final reason to buy a PS3 then. That would bring their score to a B-, if you ask me.

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  5. PS3 games can have different content activated when played on different region's hardware. Like Uncharted, which doesn't show blood when played on a Japanese system. In this instance it's not really a big deal. But it could be used in more unfortunate ways. For example, the German version of Resident Evil 4 doesn't have the Mercenaries mini game, a fun little distraction that added incredible longevity to the package. How much more frustrating would that be if you knew the thing was on your disc, but you just weren't allowed to get at it?

    I'm not sure if this method will be used to get around different rating boards. ESRB says they need to be shown all game content, even if it's meant to be completely locked out for everyone. Perhaps CERO has different rules.

    (I found this blog in Edge btw, really great stuff!)

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  6. Hey citrus, welcome!
    I have heard rumours that the Biohazard 4 minigame lockout has nothing to do with censorship. It's one of those unfortunate red-tape mishaps that would have cost too much to rectify, allegedly.

    But regional content lock-out would be at least a solution, if not an ideal one.

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