Editorial: Why Nintendo needs to go region free
Historically, Nintendo have implemented region locking practices into every home console they have ever produced, meaning that consoles can only play games from the same region. This practice however, was absent from Nintendo's handheld consoles until the release of the Nintendo DSi and has continued to the Nintendo 3DS.
Last month, Microsoft confirmed that they were removing the controversial DRM policies that had plagued the Xbox One console since its announcement, including the region locking. This, coupled with Sony previously revealing that their upcoming PlayStation 4 lacks any region locking, has left Nintendo as the only one of the "big three" with a region locked console. This led to a campaign being started to persuade Nintendo to drop these practices on the 3DS and Wii U, which I made the official petition for. The petition has since been featured on gaming sites across the world and has attracted over 22,000 supporters (at time of writing)—which is equal to over half the population of Liechtenstein!
How Can Players Benefit From Region Free?
There are numerous ways in which a player can benefit from a region free console. The most commonly recognised benefit is the ability to import games that are unlikely to be localised, such as titles based on anime that don't belong to the Shonen Jump line-up. For a self proclaimed otaku like myself, that is obviously a huge plus. However, that is far from the only reason why region locking should be done away with. However, it isn't all about importing Japanese games—there are often cases of games being released in one foreign territory but not another which speaks the same language. Notable examples include Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora's Tower, which were released in Europe but not America until the now famous Operation Rainfall campaign and this is still continuing, with games like One Piece: Romance Dawn slated for a European release, but not an American one. This situation is also reversed with games based on the Adventure Time franchise and Scribblenauts Unlimited, which have seen a release in North America, but not Europe (in fact, it would be great if someone at Nintendo could specify what the Scribblenauts situation is). At least with DS games that didn't make it to Europe, such as 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, the Digimon World series and Etrian Odyssey II and III, the DS was region free so those titles could be imported. Why should someone be prevented from playing a game in a language that is native to them when such a game is already available, just on a different rock?
Another reason that is often discussed is the portability of the Nintendo 3DS in particular. If someone is travelling abroad (say, due to work) or going on holiday and they decide to pick up a game either to play as they relax during the journey back to help make time fly well...they can't because the game won't work. This will be especially troublesome with families abroad, where a child may have taken their 3DS, while their parent who isn't knowledgeable about gaming buys them a game, not knowing about the region lock as the only mention of the restriction is a tiny mention on the back of a box. This could also apply to the more home-orientated Wii U if someone buys a game on holiday, completely unaware—and there are people like that. I personally know a couple who went on holiday to America and purchased loads of DVDs, not knowing that they were Region 1 while their player at home was Region 2.
There is also the issue of it being a restrictive practice. Understandably, not every game will be released worldwide due to different things being more or less popular in different regions, which is why I don't expect to see a localisation of Hatsune Miku and Future Stars: Project Mirai for example. However, why should I be prevented from enjoying a game just because other people in my region might not?
Less Restrictions, More Choice!
One thing the 3DS has become quite known for is the large variety of different designs of consoles. During the Nintendo DS days, Nintendo released varying colours and designs of DS consoles in different territories, but fans were able to pick and choose which one they wanted, as the console was region free. For example, I live in Europe and was able to purchase a black and red DS Lite console, which wasn't sold in Europe. I wanted it because I felt the plain black looked boring. This trend has continued with the Nintendo 3DS with each region receiving exclusive colours and designs. Japan has numerous limited edition consoles, such as the Pokémon Center Charizard and Eevee themed 3DS XLs, while Europe has the exclusive Fire Emblem 3DS XL but not the Fire Emblem 3DS which is available in other territories and America has the exclusive Midnight Purple 3DS. If Nintendo removed the region locking, you will be able to pick and choose which colour or theme console you want out of a larger variety than before, keeping the guarantee that your locally bought games will still work.
What About Piracy?
Another big plus of going region free would be that it would reduce piracy. The Nintendo DS really struggled with piracy, but that wasn't caused by it being region free—it was caused by how easy the console was to infiltrate, which as hackers have found out with the 3DS, isn't as easy as it used to be. In fact, the main reason a lot of people hacked their Wii consoles wasn't to play homebrew or illegal games, it was to remove the region restrictions.
What Will Happen To Localisations Of Obscure Games?
One of the arguments against going region free is that it might negatively affect the sales of games that will be localised, or affect their chances of receiving local releases. To the first point, I point out that the number of people who do import games on region free devices is in the vast minority compared to those who buy the local editions. To the second, I would argue that what actually happens is the opposite. An example is the Vocaloid franchise. The Japanese Vocaloid software and in particular, its mascot Hatsune Miku managed to find a large fanbase on the internet due to videos posted on websites such as NicoNico and YouTube. Hatsune Miku has also been the star of numerous video games (the vast majority of which for the region free Sony consoles). Many people imported her games and spread their love of the virtual idol to the point that hologram concerts were performed in America (which were later sold on blu-ray), she came second in an official poll asking for a preferred character to be added as Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed downloadable content and the latest game in the series, Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA F is being released on the PlayStation 3 in North America in Europe next month, despite the fact that a knowledge of Japanese is not needed to enjoy the original games (download only in Europe though... but hey, it's region free!) and the original Vocaloid software itself has recently had an English version confirmed. And that's before I mention the amount of unofficial merchandise you see at anime conventions. So yeah, people importing the original games didn't kill Hatsune Miku at all—in fact, they made her stronger.
What Was Nintendo's Response? What Is The Real Reason?
In the early days of the petition, Nintendo of America released a statement citing the company's dedication to enforcing parental controls as a reason for the practice, which has since been proven by other supporters as being a convenient lie. It is true that Nintendo are dedicated to their commitment to parental controls and we are not disputing that that is a good thing. However, not only does the continent of Europe have varying game rating organisations across the various countries, but players across the web have found that the game rating information for a game in various different regions are stored on a game card. A user on NeoGaf discovered this when testing out their Australian bought 3DS with European games (as both are PAL and work on each other's consoles). They found out that when they changed their system settings between Australian and European, their copy of Kid Icarus: Uprising would respond to either the European or Australian game rating, depending on which region the console was set to. So the solution for this seems simple. If you have a region free console, have it so that games that do not have a rating in the same region as the 3DS console cannot be played unless the system is allowed to play games of the highest rating. That way, you won't have children playing games like Senran Kagura: Portrait of the Girls. Most of the players who want to import games are over eighteen anyway—importing is an expensive business after all.
So that raises the question—what is the true reason behind region protection? I'm not an expert in economics and nor shall I claim to be (all I know is: I don't have enough money and need more), however, the average wage, cost of living and disposal income in each country will differ, as will taxation rates and currency. This means that games cost different amounts in different regions. For example, the recently released Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. retails for £29.99 in the UK, €44.99 in France, $39.99 in North America, $58 in Australia and ¥4,800. Converting all of those values into US Dollars, they become $45.31, $58.79, $39.99, $52.48 and $48.48 respectively. This means that French gamers will be paying roughly $18.80 more for the same game—almost 50% more! Some may see that as an incentive to import games, but when you factor in costs such as international shipping, the difference will be minimal (if at all), even when importing a U.S. game to France (the two extremes in my above example). A quick calculation for example, shows that to mail a 3DS game from the U.S. to France with 3-5 days delivery will cost $45, which doubles the price of the game. I imagine businesses will get a large discount on postage though, as a current U.S. pre-order I have of the first two Puella Magi Madoka Magica movies is only costing me $11 in postage (funny but relevant story—it's a U.S. import of a Japanese blu-ray, being imported by me in the UK, so an import of an import. Hurray for region free blu-rays!). Even looking at that price though, that only leaves a difference of around $7-8 dollars. Even Nintendo must know that the difference isn't that much and with the streamlined waiting time between regions now (a Nintendo made game will usually be released in Europe 5 days after America), importing the majority of titles just doesn’t become worth it. So not even that can really be used as a reason, so is there really even one?
Overall, I am very grateful for the effort that Nintendo has recently shown in localising games. Two examples that are very close to me are Bravely Default: Flying Fairy, which I actually campaigned for under Operation Brave. Square Enix made the game and published it in Japan, but Nintendo are handling the distribution overseas, with a European release slated for later this year and a North American one to follow in 2014. The second one is, as you probably predicted, Pokémon X and Y, which are seeing a worldwide simultaneous release on 12th October. Nothing has me more excited than being able to play and discover a brand new world along with everyone across the entire globe—maybe I'll find something before the big sites do? Maybe you will? Who knows?
Still, things aren't perfect and there will always be a small number of games that won't be released in other territories that I would very much like to play and there may come a time where I'm in a different country (for whatever reason) and won't be able to play games there without buying a new unit of a system I already own.
If you would like to support over 22,000 gamers worldwide in supporting a region free future, feel free to hop over to change.org and sign the petition!