Fans of imported games and systems recently received a spot of good news about the PlayStation Vita: Sony’s handheld will be region free. Meaning, it should be fairly easy for someone with a North American Vita to import and play games from Japan on their system. Or, someone with a Japanese Vita shouldn’t have a problem playing European games on their system. Or, someone with a European version of the Vita shouldn’t have a problem playing North American games–well, the definition of “region free” hardware should be clear by now.
A region free Vita provides quite a contrast to the Nintendo 3DS, which locks out games that are imported from a foreign region. If you have a North American 3DS and you want to play a rare Japanese acquisition (and you don’t mind wading through Japanese text), you’re out of luck.
The ability to import games is only of interest to a small percentage of console owners, but there’s still enough of us raising the question why it’s still necessary to lock hardware from region to region. Of course, Nintendo has an answer: among other reasons, locking down hardware makes it easier for parents to understand and enforce the ratings systems that vary between Japan, North America, and Europe. What’s more (Nintendo says), restricting hardware according to the region it’s bought in guarantees that games purchased in that region will operate without any trouble.
There are other, unspoken reasons: locking down hardware discourages piracy (not that pirates don’t find ways around lockouts within minutes), and also prevents people from “shopping around” on overseas online markets for super-cheap game deals.
While Nintendo’s reasons for employing region locking with the 3DS are understandable, they also serve as a tremendous discouragement for veteran gamers who are interested in importing software. The benefits of region locking outweigh the negatives, and console engineers should keep those benefits in mind when drawing up the earliest plans for new systems. As the gaming community becomes more connected, we’re all the more aware of intriguing games that see release the world around. Take Xenoblade Chronicles for the Wii, which has received a translation in Europe, but is impossible to play on the region locked North American Wii unless one resorts to a third-party bypass.
Xenoblade is just one example. With North American publishers being more choosy about what to bring over from Japan, fans of JRPGs and the more unique offerings from the Land of the Rising Sun would no doubt appreciate unrestricted access to the genres they still love.
Game development is gradually breaking down cultural walls, and countries are cross-breeding ideas and properties. It would be suitable for game consoles to break down walls and unlock gates in kind.