There's something genuinely surreal about sitting down to write an article about region locking in 2015. It feels archaic and almost nostalgic; I might as well be writing something about blowing into cartridge ports to get games to work, or bemoaning the long load times for cassettes. Yet here we are. Years into the era of digital distribution, long after we reached the point where it became technically harder to prevent customers from accessing games from anywhere in the world than it is to permit the same, region locking is back in the news. Thanks, Nintendo.
The focus of this week's headlines is the Humble Bundle promotion which Nintendo is running for a number of indie titles on 3DS and Wii U. It's a great deal for some excellent games and is raising money for a solid cause; plus it's wonderful to see console platform holders engaging with the Humble Bundle approach, which has been so successful at bringing indie games (and other creative works) to wider audiences on the PC. It ought to be a win, win, win for Nintendo, gamers and indie developers alike.
"In truth, there's only one reason for region locking in this day and age - price control"
Unfortunately, though, the bundle only works in the Americas; North America and some bits of Central and South America. Customers elsewhere are entirely locked out, a matter which has been a source of deep frustration not only to those customers, but also seemingly to Nintendo's own staff working on the project. The result is that what ought to have been a straightforward PR win for the company has turned bittersweet; there has been more widespread news coverage of the region locking debacle in the past few days than there has been for the bundle itself.
Although this is a terrible shame for the developers involved - and I sincerely hope that Nintendo can pull its thumb out of its backside and launch an international version of the bundle in short order - no sympathy is due to Nintendo in this situation. It's a problem entirely of the company's own making; the firm made a deliberate and conscious decision to embrace region locking even as the internationalisation of digital distribution made that look increasingly ridiculous, and until that stubbornly backwards piece of decision making is reversed, it's going to continue causing PR problems for the firm, not to mention genuine problems for its most devoted customers.
Remember, after all, that the rest of the gaming world has ditched region locking en masse - Sony gave it up with the PS3, even making it painless to use digital content from different regions by creating multiple accounts on the same console, while Microsoft made region locking optional on Xbox 360 (making a bit of a mess where some publishers enforced it and others didn't) before ditching it entirely on the Xbox One. At the same time Nintendo, ever the merry contrarians, went the opposite direction, not only maintaining region locking on the Wii and Wii U, but even extending it to the 3DS - in contrast to the company's prior handheld consoles, which had been region free.
The idiocy of a region locked handheld is staggering; these are systems which are quite simply at their best when you're traveling, yet lo and behold, Nintendo don't want you to buy any games if you go on holiday or on a business trip. The excuses trotted out were mealy-mouthed corporate dishonesty from start to finish; it was all about protecting customers, honest, and respecting local customs and laws. Utter tosh. Had those things been a genuine issue, they would have been an issue in the previous decades when Nintendo managed to sell handheld consoles without region locking; they would also have been an issue for Sony and Microsoft when they removed region locking from their systems.
In truth, there's only one reason for region locking in this day and age - price control - and Nintendo's calculation must have been that they had more to lose from the possibility, real or imagined, of people buying cheaper 3DS games from countries overseas, than they had to lose from annoying a chunk of their customer base, be they keen gamers who wanted to try out titles unlikely to be released in their regions, expats who want to play games brought from their home countries or parents who find that a game bought in the airport on the way home from holiday results not in a pacified, happy child on the flight but in an angry, upset child with a game that won't work.
"The thoroughly wonderful software that the company has been turning out in the past few years...has been regularly undermined by bad decisions in marketing and positioning of its platforms"
In Nintendo's defence, Satoru Iwata has recently been musing publicly about dropping region locking from the Nintendo NX, whenever that turns up. That the company is clearly planning to move down that path does rather confirm that it's been fibbing about its motivations for region locking all along, of course, which might be why Iwata is being cautious in his statements; it's a shame if such face-saving is the reason for Nintendo failing to keep up with industry moves in this regard, because the company is going to keep being periodically beaten with this stick until the problem is fixed.
Admittedly, there would be problems with removing region locking from its existing consoles - not least that Nintendo's agreements with publishers probably guarantee the region locking system, so even if it could be patched out of the 3DS and Wii U with a software update, that can't happen legally due to the contracts it would breach. What Nintendo could and should do, however, is to offer gamers a gesture of good faith on the matter by dropping region locking from all its first-party software from now on - and perhaps emulating Xbox 360 era Microsoft by making it optional for third-party publishers as well. I can envisage no legal barrier to that approach; it would earn the company enormous kudos for responding to its audience and dealing with the problem, and would cost them precisely nothing. There aren't that many easy PR wins floating around the industry right now; Nintendo should leap on this chance to show itself to be on the customers' side.
Wheels turn slowly in Kyoto, though, and it's probably too much to expect the company to react in a startup-like way to the region locking issue. In some ways it's Nintendo's strength that it reacts slowly and thoughtfully rather than jumping on every bandwagon, but in recent years, it's also been a weakness far too many times - and the thoroughly wonderful software that the company has been turning out in the past few years, perhaps the finest line-up it's produced in decades, has been regularly undermined by bad decisions in marketing and positioning of its platforms, many of which can be traced to a failure to understand where the market is and where it's moving.
Region locking isn't the biggest problem. Fixing it would be cheap and easy but would hardly be a panacea for Nintendo's issues - but it's a problem that's symptomatic, emblematic even, of the broader problems Nintendo has with putting its customers first and applying the same care and attention to its corporate aspects which it always applies to its software development. Fix a problem like this in a proactive, rapid way, and we might all start to believe that the company has what it takes to get back on top.