What is Region Locking? [Gaming Definition, Meaning]

For some of you American based gamers who may have a 3DS, you probably want to play some of the newest Dragon Ball Z or Pokemon games from Japan. The problem is, your 3DS can’t play Japanese games (despite previous Nintendo handhelds being region free)!!! Or for some of you other non-Japanese readers who may have older consoles from 20 years ago, you can’t play Japanese games without any modifications. Or if you bought some anime and/or tokusatsu DVDs from Japan, they can’t play on your DVD player. Well, you can thank region locking on why you can’t watch Japanese DVDs or play some Japanese games on non-Japanese units. Or maybe if you travel to another country, that country doesn’t let you watch Netflix, Hulu, and/or YouTube due to distribution rights and/or government censorship. These are some common forms of region locking as they have evolved the past 30 years.

So what is the purpose of region locking? Some of you may think the concept is ridiculous but there are numerous purposes on why companies do it for economic reasons, and at times political and bureaucratic reasons (which we won’t get too much into because we’re not a political commentary blog). Due to the way society and the world economy has changed over the years, its concepts and practices have evolved to be more internationally friendly the past decade.

Economics Fair Competition and Fair Pricing

Persona 4 Arena

  • Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Arcade
  • Publisher Atlus
  • Developer: Atlus, Arc System Works
  • Release Date: July 26, 2012 (Japan), August 7, 2012 (North America)

One basic reason for region locking/coding is to prevent price discrimination and to maintain fair market competition worldwide. In a past interview, President Iwata of Nintendo has shared that region locking has been applied for the sake of the seller as opposed to the consumer so they can get a fair shot, and stay in business in addition to cultural and legal differences between territories. One pure example of economics in a modern sense is with Persona 4 Arena for the PlayStation 3. Even when PlayStation 3, in general, was compatible with both Japanese and American software, Persona 4 Arena was released during a time when the yen was stronger than the dollar (circa 2009-2012). Around that time $1 USD equaled to ¥80 yen, though it has changed dramatically since Shinzo Abe assumed the office of Prime Minister towards the end of 2012.

On average, a new release game could cost around $50-$60 while in the US, and it could be around 6000 yen to 7000 yen in Japan. But between 2009 and 2012, the conversion from yen to dollar at that time would range from $75-$87.50!!! And convert American retail prices to Japanese yen, which would range between 4000 yen to 4800 yen!!! So it would be cheaper for a Japanese gamer at that time to import the game even after shipping costs. Due to these economic factors, releasing games in different territories with practically the same contents would consequently hurt domestic sales and profits wouldn’t be fairly divided.

Persona 4 Arena Trailer


Society Backlash, Censorship, Rights Issues

Dead or Alive Xtreme 3

  • Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
  • Publisher Toei Tecmo
  • Developer: Team Ninja
  • Release Date: March 24, 2016 (Japan)

Though this is more of a thing from the past for most nations, region locking and coding is used to prevent certain games from being sold in certain countries where the censorship laws are different. With Japan being the Emperor of Erotic games and the content of some of these games do cross many unthinkable lines and back. Even with region coding and locking, sometimes laws can prevent these countries from being sold there. For example, many of Japan’s controversial games that revolve around rape are banned in numerous European countries and many American businesses refuse to sell them under the pretense that they don’t reflect their values. Even with no region locking both through analog and digital means, certain games from certain countries are banned from being sold there.

Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 Trailer


Metal Gear Solid V Ground Zeroes

  • Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
  • Publisher: Konami
  • Developer: Kojima Productions
  • Release Date: March 20, 2014 (Japan), March 18, 2014(North America)

Along with the GamerGate fiasco and the rise of the controversial Social Justice Warrior movement that has spoken against gender roles in video games, many Japanese-based companies have been reluctant to release games and downloadable content to the US. One easy example is Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, which Tecmo refrained from selling in North America do these social differences. However, thanks to American PS4s being compatible with Japanese PS4 software, American gamers can buy an import version that has English options. In addition, certain cutscenes with Paz’s death from Metal Gear Solid V were modified for the Japanese releases due to progressive censorship laws over there. Even so, these changes really don’t mean a thing when American and Japanese games for PS4 are compatible with each other’s consoles, so Japanese gamers can easily import an American version showing that region locking in this sense is counter intuitive.

Metal Gear Solid V Ground Zeroes Trailer


How It Has Changed

As stated in relation to the old days, all that companies had to do were region lock the consoles and games and an American console couldn’t (at least in theory) play Japanese games and vice versa with both hardware and software modifications. Though that aspect of that practice is phasing out in a physical sense, it still exists in the digital world. For example, most modern consoles can use services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and YouTube. However, some nations around the world may not have access to these services because those respective companies haven’t expanded in some countries as of yet, or in the worst case scenario, are probably banned.

In addition, other forms of downloadable content vary between countries and players of a certain country can only have access to what their home countries services have. Once again, this mostly relates to fair market practices for all international branches of those respective countries.


How To Get Around Region Locking

Fortunately, getting around region locking in the old days was really easy. For consoles such as the NES and Sega Genesis, all you needed was a simple converter. For the Super NES, all you needed was to remove the prongs from the cartridge receiver and you can play Super Famicom games. For Sega Saturn, you just needed a converter to put into the cartridge slot. For PlayStation and Dreamcast, you could either put in a mod chip or use special boot discs. It was that easy to do and was available if you looked in the right places through magazines and websites during the beginning of the Internet Age. But with the patents of a good portion of these older consoles past their expiration, most third party retro consoles you can now purchase can play all games regardless of region. With the present Nintendo 3DS, you just have to hack the firmware and any YouTube (if you can access youtube in your country) tutorial can help you with this.

With your DVDs from Japan or any non-Region 1 DVD, you can actually change the settings on your PC to play region 2 DVDs! However, non-region players (such as the APEX models) are available both on the net and local retailers to purchase. As for Blu-Ray, America and Japan share the same code so if American viewers want an anime Blu-Ray from Japan, they are free to purchase one and play it on their US based Blu-Ray player! For some services such as Netflix and YouTube, all you need is a VPN and you can change your region to the US within a non-US country and feel like you’ve never left!

Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin!

  • Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3
  • Publisher SEGA
  • Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studios
  • Release Date: Feb 22, 2014 (Japan)

As for the present services such as digital downloads, take for example with Sony’s PlayStation Network service, you can just make an account through the official sites of Sony Japan, America, and Europe and you can just switch between those accounts. When you’re logged into a certain account, you can purchase and play with some of the game content from those countries’ digital services. For example, if you want the Yakuza spinoff that takes place in the 1800s known as Ryu Go Gotoku Ishin!, it is that easy. In the case of some services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime for your home console, that is a different beast altogether. For example, even if you can use a European and/or a Japanese PS4 account from the US on your console, you may not be able to use such services when logged in but switch back to your US account, you can use Netflix.

Ryu Ga Gotoku Ishin! Trailer


Does It Really Do Any Good for Anybody?

Region locking does have some understandable logic behind its practices (from the point of view of the corporations) but the unfortunate reality is, gamers just want to play and when push comes to shove, they will do anything possible to get their hands on a certain game that is exclusive to a certain country. With the progression of the Internet Age, this only makes things easier and virtually impossible to enforce on any legal scale. Between the 1980s and 1990s, you either had to go to Japan first hand (or give some money to a friend or relative who was planning to go) to get a game or mail order through a special service that specializes in Japanese games. As stated, a majority of these region lockings were very easy to get around.


Final Thoughts

Nobody can disagree that region coding does help the local retailers, but what about consumer choice? If gamers want to buy a game, or if anime fans want a particular DVD that isn’t available in their country, should they have that choice to use their money to buy that product? Or if they find a version they can find at a cheaper price, it is their right to buy through those methods? After all, who does the government and/or corporations think they are if they can tell consumers what they can and can’t do with their money? Yes, importing can cost a lot of money and some people have that liberty to do so if that is within their affordability.

What do you think? Do you think region locking is fair or serve any purpose? Is the customer (who is willing to pay of course) always right? Should we allow the free market to dictate with no restriction? Or do you think some regulation is the best course? Give your thoughts in the comments!

Justin

Writer

Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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