Wednesday, 3 October 2012

OPINION: Hey, publishers, want people to pirate your game? Impose region restrictions.

In the past year or so, something completely unprecedented in the entire history of PC games has started to become common practice. I'm talking, of course, about region locking. It's made most bizarre by the fact that consoles, the very things that facilitated region locking in the first place, are actually moving away from it, with the PS3 being completely region free and the Xbox 360 having a sizable chunk of its library region free. Both the PS4 and the Xbox One will be completely region free. To understand why it IS happening, we must first understand why it SHOULDN'T be happening.

Being an Australian, this is a very common sight on the Steam Store
Let's travel back in time to when personal consoles were first starting to gain popularity. Back then, people had those big ugly blocks that our parents called 'analogue TVs' or just 'TVs'. Analogue TVs were split into two major broadcasting encodings: PAL, which is used in Australia and Western Europe, and NTSC which is used in America. There was also NTSC-J for Japan. Basically, all of these encodings have slight differences, such as an increased or decreased frame rate, which meant that creating a 'one-size-fits-all' game for all of them was impossible. Every game had to be modified for its respective region, and thus, 'region locks' were born.

But back here in the present, the majority of people serious about gaming have upgraded to a digital, High Definition TV. In fact, some countries such as Japan, have already completely switched over to digital, meaning you can't even get a signal on a standard analogue TV. Accordingly, there is no legitimate reason for developers to impose region locks on games in this day and age. 

So if there is no legitimate reason for region locking, then why are games, and specifically PC games that were never even affected by the reasons behind the original region locks, increasingly being shipped with locks? There are two reasons, and they are both shady, business centric, and all-around dick moves from publishers and developers (probably more so the publishers).

The first reason is to enforce region pricing. 

I'm an Australian. That means we get fucked over on the price of video games for some arbitrary reason. For perspective? The Australian dollar is more or less equal to the American dollar these days, yet our games are almost comically overpriced. Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which costs $89.99 in Australia is a whopping 77% cheaper in the US, where it retails for $19.99. Before the days of region locking, frugal gamers could utilize grey-import sites such as Play-Asia and Green Man Gaming in order to do what should be a god-given right on a system as free as the PC: find the best deal. With a lot of games these days, it's now impossible to do a grey import, as copies sold in specific regions will only work on a machine with an IP address in that region. 

Average new release price in the US: $39-49. In Australia? $90-$120
Let me give you an example. Last year, I purchased RAGE. As you know, I currently live in Japan, where the PC gaming scene is... minimal. At best. As such, I would be hard-pressed to find a copy of the game at retail. So, I did what I have done countless times before when trying to find cheap games and directed my web browser to I purchased the 'Asian Version' of the game. I figured that Japan, being a country populated mostly by Asians, as well as being in Asia geographically, was a sure fit for the 'Asian' region of the game. Unfortunately, id's description of Asia includes only Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei, the Philippines and South Korea. Pretty much every Asian country EXCEPT Japan. Consequently, I had a copy of RAGE sitting in my hand that I had paid for in full, that I could not play because my computer was telling id Software's servers that I was Japanese.

My RAGE experience...

The second shady reason behind region locking is to avoid hurting the publisher’s relationship with retail stores. 

I know it's inconceivable for all of us gaming enthusiasts, who purchase the majority of our games as either direct downloads or from internet import sites, but a sizable majority of our more casual brethren still buy their games from brick and mortar stores like EB and JB Hi-Fi. Thus, in order to not give grey importers or direct downloaders an 'unfair' advantage over shoppers at the brick and mortar stores, game releases are locked to whenever retail copies arrive in that region's stores. To quote the immortal Penny Arcade, 'We're slowing down every car just so we don't hurt a horse’s feelings'

You know what? Fuck horses
I’ve clashed with this second kind of region-locking twice: first with Skyrim, then with Borderlands 2. Both times I have bought the game via Steam (in the case of Skyrim, I actually prepurchased the game from the Australian Steam store while in Australia), yet because the little boxes hadn't moved around in Japan, I was unable to play said games. They were fully pre-loaded, sitting on my Steam account, yet I was being told 'No. You can't play these games, even though all of your friends are playing them. You have to wait like all the other good little Japanese children'. The case of Borderlands is particularly significant, as it is billed as a co-op game. What good is playing a co-op game a good month after all of my friends back in Australia have finished it?

So what can I, and many others, do, when faced with these situations? The first answer is to use a VPN to 'trick' steam into thinking you are in a different country. The only problem is this potentially risks having your entire steam account banned, as using a VPN to 'disguise' your location for any reason is technically against the steam subscriber agreement (You agree that you will not use IP proxying or other methods to disguise the place of your residence, whether to circumvent geographical restrictions on game content, to purchase at pricing not applicable to your geography, or for any other purpose. If you do this, we may terminate your access to your Account.) So what does that leave us? Piracy. Yarrrrr!

Steve and stevesgameblog in no way, shape or form endorses or promotes internet piracy.
One of the best explanations for piracy I have heard is that it becomes prevalent when the pirates offer a better service than the publishers. Let's look at Russia and Eastern Europe. Piracy is so incredibly rampant there, not because Russians are dirty thieves, but because most publishers neglect the region entirely. Games are released months late, if at all and face numerous region restrictions. I complained about Japan's version of borderlands releasing a month late, but the Russian version released ONLY in Russian (screw you, Estonians!) and was only able to be played with other people in Russia. In Russia, the only way to play a majority of games on release date with the full set of features is to pirate them. That's the pirate providing a better service than the publisher.

Region locks and intrusive DRM, as well as the 'always-online' requirement of many of these modern games can also be bypassed by pirating. Pirating a game gives you a much better quality-of-life than actually buying it. In fact, as was especially frustrating in the case of RAGE, I was actively punished for purchasing a legit copy. Thus, as more and more games become region locked, you can expect piracy rates to increase accordingly. If you think that's scary, it's now time to have a look at the 'how,' as in, how all this PC region locking is possible in the first place, and how it implicates the unlikely villain in this picture.

Borderlands 2 is a game that's built around co-op. Region locks can unintentionally remove this feature

Did you manage to guess the villain already? 

I actually dropped his name a couple of times: Steam. Yes, Steam -- the platform beloved by pretty much every PC gamer out there for its ease of use, support of indie developers,  great customer support and of course, the delicious holiday sales -- is the reason why modern PC games can be region locked. Steam has become so popular that it essentially has a monopoly on PC game digital downloads. While it seems like a perfect company, ANY kind of monopoly is a very bad thing, and the increasing prevalence of region locking is the first sign of this. It's gotten to the point where even if you buy a game retail, you still have to activate it on Steam.  This means that you effectively have to be 'always online' to play your games, and publishers can use this requirement to constantly check your IP address and block you from playing their games. While this hasn’t happened in any Valve-produced game, the fact that Valve actually allows publishers to do this is a sign that Valve is willing to look the other way with Publishers trying to exploit gamers.

Scumbag Steam
So, as you can see, this is a very real problem that is bound to especially affect those in markets such as Australia and South East Asia. What can we do about it? I might be crucified for saying this, but maybe Origin isn't such a bad idea after all. While we are happy and content to have our entire game libraries all in one place, Steam continuing its monopoly unchallenged is only going to give rise to more shady business practices. The lack of competition may also slow down its drive to improve itself at the rate it is now. Origin is far from perfect, but given time I actually hope it grows to become just as big as Steam. If you still have hatred for Origin, try using alternatives such as gamefly, gamer's gate and especially good old games.

And all you big name publishers out there, next time you cry foul of PC gamers and their rampant piracy ruining your bottom line, maybe you should think about actually offering a service that is at least comparable to what is being offered by the pirates themselves?

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  1. FYI Orgin use region locks as well, and will cancel your purchase if you are buying from the wrong region.

    So if your account is located is in down under and you are currently in japan, you can still only buy in Australia your games. Theoretical at least, because you may end not able to actually access the Australian origin store because you IP is not from Australia.

    The rightfully solution to the problem of region locks is simply not to buy games that are region locked. Eod.

  2. Option 3: Games are region coded to make sure regional content is handed out properly. With countries like Australia and Germany generally having stricter ratings guidelines, modified or 'toned down' games are often released to those countries.

    You also may wish to investigate steams 'Offline Mode'.

    1. Steam's 'Offline Mode' is not an option for some of these games, for example, I cannot play with my friends at ALL (even in LAN mode) while playing Borderlands 2, as it's friends system is directly tied to Steam's friends system

  3. Thank you, Anonymous, for bringing up Germany. You should try all these: (Left 4 Dead 2) (Dead Rising 2) (CoDMW2) (Prototype 2) (Hitman: Codename 47, has been derestricted recently, but Steam might be lazy?) (Doom, derestricted months ago, still unavailable, same situation with Quake 1)

  4. i don't agree with your conclusion that steam is being the bad guy monopoly-player here because they don't intervene with other publishers publishing-models. in fact i think dictating these conditions to publishers would be abusing their quasi-monopoly - not the other way around.

    think about it this way; while it would be good for you (the customer) in this case, maybe you don't agree with the next policy they would enforce on publishers. what then? "you're only allowed to enforce something if it convenes us" is just a mess.

    so every publisher can do as they please, and the gaming populace can react as they see fit - buy or not buy. regardless of distribution channel (because honestly, country locking shouldn't be a thing with steam, origin or physcial purchases).

    1. Hmmm, my main problem with steam is that it FORCES you to use it, even with physical copies. They shouldn't enforce publishers region pricing, but allowing them to use Steam to check your IP address and block you out is what I have a problem with. If I can find a cheaper deal at a different outlet, why should I be punished? Grey imports are, afterall, legal if not encouraged.

  5. I think the problem lies at the publisher rather than the medium used to sell them. Same as Ubisoft and their always online shit. Steam ios ust a vehicle to buy them but the one enforcing the restrictions are the publishers. I guess that if it wasn't in steam because they denied using region locks, you would have to buy it on Uplay (for example) with the same or more restrictions.

    So take it with the publisher, sometimes it works (Ubisoft removing the always online shit, yay!)

  6. I love Steam, the client, the achievements, community, etc. The only frustrating about steam is ops Sorry this game is not available in your region!

  7. Used to buy games on Steam but since they made absolutely everything you purchase while being in Russia region-locked, I started pirating. If those pricks don't allow me to purchase a version that will remain playable when I move to another country even for full US price, I will pirate it.