Region locking (also known as “region lockout” or “region coding”) has always been an interesting (and annoying) concept to me. Where does it come from? Why do we have it? Is it still necessary?
The origins of region locking actually come from the different types of technology we use in different regions of the world. Here in Australia (and Europe for the most part) we use a system called PAL (phase alternating line), which runs at 25 frames per second and has 576 visible lines. In North America, Japan and South Korea they all use NTSC (National Television System Committee) which runs at 29.97 frames a second and have 483 visible lines. PAL is slower, but has higher resolution. Plus all of these regions also have different voltages.
This meant that when companies released a console in a different region, they would have to conform to that particular technology. Originally these companies weren’t trying to lock people out; it was simply practical. If you tried to put an NTSC Atari 2600 cartridge into a PAL console you’d get an array of diagonal flashing colours or it simply wouldn’t work at all. (Yeah, I’ve tried this.)
The first console to actively use a lockout chip was the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Whilst this was mainly for reasons of piracy, it also meant that people were unable to play games made for the essentially identical Japanese Famicom system. The NES games had more pins (due to the lockout chip) and the physical cartridges were much bigger. However, third party adapters were later developed to switch between them.
If you disabled the lockout chip (achieved by snipping the fourth pin from the left on the bottom row of the 3197A chip) you were able to play unofficial titles, as well as get rid of the blinking light issue. It also allowed you to play a small number of NTSC games on a PAL NES, and vice versa. The NES 2, which loaded cartridges from the top rather than the front, got rid of the chip altogether and was therefore region free.
Other than lockout chips, the physical cartridges themselves were used as region locks during the 8 and 16 bit console eras. A good example of this was the American SNES and Japanese Super Famicom: they both output to NTSC, used the same motherboard, and both used a similar voltage. Nintendo of America decided to use the same motherboard, but made their own version of the casing, and used squarer cartridges. Thus Japanese cartridges wouldn’t fit. Clever gamers found a way around this though; they simply opened up the Super Famicom cartridges and put the naked game board directly into the cartridge slot.
True region locking came in around the same time of early DVDs. Unlike PAL and NTSC, DVD regions were used for one particular global area, rather than one kind of technology. This was advantageous for the console makers as they distributed their own games and thus had even more pricing power. They could also use region locks to try and negate the internet’s allure of cheaper overseas games.
It should also be said that it’s a lot easier to erase region locks on DVD players than on game consoles. However, third parties have often released unauthorised ways of getting around the region lock in the past.
So why have region locking? There are a number of different reasons, with the main one being that it gives the companies greater control over their product. Many gamers know that products are often cheaper outside of Australia, so the manufacturer tries to make gamers buy locally. Companies argue that this also helps combat piracy, but consumer groups argue that this can lead to pricing discrimination and anti-competitive behaviour.
Sometimes there are also legal concerns; some games aren’t sold in certain regions do to censorship laws. This was even the case in Australia until last year when we finally got a games censorship system that allowed R rated games.
Effectively though, these companies want to get rid of the ‘Grey Market’. This is when people import legal, yet unauthorised or unofficial products from overseas. The internet has made this much easier of course, and some people will even go to the extreme of buying an American console and importing all the games.
Often the big loser in region locking is of course the gamers. Being in Australia we get hit with not only higher prices, but often with a reduced library of games, as we are often considered a smaller market, although this has changed a little with digital distribution.
The truth is that the beginnings of region locking continue to affect us to this day, even when physical media is no long part of the equation. Australians pay much more on most online services for what is the exact same product overseas.
However gamers have always been a clever bunch of people. Over the years people have made adapters, converters, altered the physical media and even re-written the core software just so they can play games outside their region. This is often rewarding because it can open up a whole new library of games and expand your own knowledge and collection.
In terms of the companies, I can understand wanting to have some control over their product, but to this day there hasn’t been a convincing argument for the higher prices we pay here in Australia. They know they can get away with it.
The consoles from this generation and the last that are region free are the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and Xbox One.
I’ll end this article with a personal gripe. While the Nintendo Wii and Wii U are region locked, and this is very annoying and out of step with the rest of the industry, my problem is with their handheld systems.
The very first Game Boy was region free, as was all its later incarnations. The original DS and DS Lite were also region free. However when the DSi came out, they started region locking their systems and games. And 3DS is completely region locked. (Mine is Japanese, and I still find it cheaper to just import games rather than buying them here.)
But my point is these are portable gaming systems, and people travelling the world bring these with them. If you can’t buy a game in the region you bring your device to, then you’re stuck playing the few games you did you bring, and that can get boring. If you get bored of your device, then you’re more likely to stick it away somewhere and forget about it. If Nintendo thinks you’re going to buy another one just for the region you’re in, then that is almost the height of arrogance.
There is wanting to control your product and then there is being a dick about it. Come one Nintendo, you’re alienating the few people left that actually have some sort of brand loyalty towards you. Pull the finger out.
Okay, I’m done ranting. I’m old, it took a lot out of me.
At the shallow end of gaming gene pool the 3DO and the Phillips CD-I were both region free (and crap). I have a 3DO and I think I’ll go home and play it tonight. You know, in defiance.
- Andrew “ProdTally” Yoshimura
Andrew runs the retro gaming site www.bitseizure.com, which is why he has a 3DO. You can yell at him on twitter: @ProdTally He has a 3DO. He deserves it.