Friday, December 2, 2011

A Retrospective on Regional Lockout

I haven't had to worry about regional lockouts for very long, but only since my issue with Namco X Capcom has it really bothered me much. And because I'm a fan of Japanese anime, I have found plenty of series airing in Japan. Despite some American anime distributors have fallen apart recently, many more have come either out of them or formed on their own. This creates a much larger market where some companies such as Funimation and Bandai Entertainment release more popular series while others such as Sentai Filmworks and Anime Works would release some series either too obscure or weird for the others to bother with. These many distributors still leave many series unlicensed and only available in Japan. For anyone outside, they would have to watch fansubs which are legally ambiguous.

Having to deal with these restrictions that would normally keep me from experiencing other countries' entertainment and culture. This is what brought my attention to regional lockout and region codes. I originally wrote this blog to create a decent source for others to learn about regional lockout as well as its impact on the public, but to find content to post in it, I had to do much further research into it and get perspectives from a few people. I learned much more than what I was already aware of.

My perspective has already been that regional lockout is a problem, and I've found many that agree with me. The only advantages of the system affect the distributors and license holders. I do understand that if these distributors aren't able to profit off their work, they won't be able to stay around to make more, but if regional lockout would be removed, these distributors shouldn't lose too much if not actually make more sales off international sales.

American Media Internationally

Anime in America has grown significantly since the 1990s when it was originally developed a small fan base. Other international movies and shows have been known present in America well before then. But in America, a vast majority of our media industry is domestically produced, though sometimes made in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean animation studios.

The American media industry, on the other hand, is much more popular internationally than foreign media is in America. The proportion of anime fans in Japan is roughly the same as it is in America if not only slightly larger. They also have shows such as 24, The Simpsons, South Park, and even Power Rangers, the American adaptation of Japan's own series Super Sentai. The genre called "mahou shoujo" or "magical girl", though it is a genre unique to anime and rarely made in any other country, is actually originally inspired by the old American sit-coms Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie.

There are also plenty of countries with little domestic television and movie industry. As mentioned by Dr. Marc Hairston in my interview with him, Turkey, as well as I suspect other countries, sell DVD players with a free service to make them region free.

The market of America produced media is evidently significant in other countries, and retailers have completely different policies and services to satisfy it. If regional lockout was enforced everywhere, these countries will need localizing distributors for each of these regions which I don't expect them to afford to have.

Jonathan Clement's blog Schoolgirl Milky Crisis
as well as my interview with him
interview with Dr. Marc Hairston

Many Games We Miss Out On

As I demonstrated in my previous post, I have a copy of Namco X Capcom ("X" is pronounced "Cross") for the Playstation 2 that I purchased while visiting Japan. This was a game I had been anticipating many years since I found out about it back when I mostly watched the TV channel G4 (G4 Tech TV back then).

Namco X Capcom is a crossover ("X-over"?) game that includes characters from both Namco and Capcom franchises and was published by Namco. The game overall works as a tactical RPG with units being either solo characters or teams of two, but when a unit/team engages another, it transitions to a short, simple, and somewhat one-sided (one side only attacking, the other defending) fighting game. Players are also able execute spectacular special attacks that include either just one unit or several that work together in occasionally humorous ways.

Altogether, this appears to be a game many people would look forward to, and as you can see from my copy was rereleased as part of "The Best" series which is a budget edition much similar to "Greatest Hits" in North America or "Platinum" in PAL regions. Statuses like this are only given to games that have a reached a certain number of copies sold (somewhere between 150,000 and 400,000 for "Greatest Hits" in North America) which makes me figure, Namco X Capcom was already popular enough in Japan.

When I first heard about this game, I looked for stuff about it on the Internet including videos of things like opening cinematics and gameplay. I eventually also found an online petition for it being released overseas. I was later greatly disappointed when I found out Namco wouldn't distribute the game in America, though.

You would also expect that any audience would love a good crossover game between characters from different franchises. Capcom frequently makes fighting games for their Capcom's Vs series (Marvel vs Capcom, SNK vs Capcom, Tantsunoko vs Capcom). I would understand if they didn't expect outside audiences to recognize out of the advertised over 200 character cameos about the half of them never released outside of Japan. "Who the heck are Wonder Momo and Bravoman?" But the same argument can be said about the other vs Capcom games. Tatsunoko Production is an anime studio that released series such as Gachaman, and I wouldn't be surprised if anybody didn't recognize Gold Lightan or Yatterman. Tatsunoko vs Capcom hadn't been intended to be released outside Japan, but positive reception at Electronic Entertainment Expo 2009 convinced otherwise. Tatsunoko Productions did have difficulty passing the rights for the characters in other countries as is usually the case with crossover games and other media, but I would expect that Namco would only need to confirm with Capcom for its characters rather than several distribution companies. I would also expect that putting these characters in this game wouldn't only confuse anyone unfamiliar because likely many Japanese wouldn't recognize all 200 of these characters but it could inspire them to try to find out more about them if they find them enjoyable enough.

While I was in Japan a few years ago as part of a Japanese language and culture class, one of the objectives I set for myself was to get a copy of Namco X Capcom for myself. I also wanted (and failed) to get a copy of Metal Wolf Chaos for the original Xbox, another game I expect Americans to enjoy though for different reasons. While I was there looking for these games, I noticed a Nintendo DS game that had recently been released called Mugen no Frontier: Super Robot Taisen OG Saga and released by Namco Bandai Games. What caught my attention to it was that I recognized a couple characters and mistook it for Namco X Capcom. Though it has 4 original characters in it, it also has 3 other playable characters as cameos: Reiji Arisu, Xiaomu (pronounced Sho-mu), and KOS-MOS. I picked it up there expecting it to not be released in America either, and since Nintendo DS games weren't region coded back then, I could play it just fine only with a little confusion with the Japanese text.

About a year later, I discovered that this game was released in North America as Super Robot Taisen OG Saga: Endless Frontier. What mainly confuses me about this is that of course fans of Xenosaga in America would recognize KOS-MOS, but even they will be asking "Who are Reiji and Xiaomu? And, more importantly, why does KOS-MOS know them?" which should have been established in Namco X Capcom since Reiji and Xiaomu were original characters introduced in Namco X Capcom and personally met and fought along with KOS-MOS during the game.

Namco X Capcom is only an example of a game I would expect to be popular enough to warrant releasing it internationally. But there are plenty of games that wouldn't be expected to be popular outside of Japan. Would you really want to play a fighting game using battle construction vehicles? Another market of "games" (of which I use the term loosely) is visual novels. Visual Novels are essentially programs that present a story with images, text, and occasional dialog options and branching paths much like choose-your-own-adventure stories. These types of stories are more often "dating sims" or just romantic plots with one or more girls (or boys). This at first doesn't seem that appealing, but lately more anime series are produced as adaptations of visual novels, and some are eventually brought over to other countries. I suspect that any fans of these anime adaptations would want to experience the story in its original form, the visual novel. More often they are PC games, but the more popular series have been ported to game consoles such as Playstation 2 and then inherently region coded.

If these games would be unpopular outside of Japan, that's fine and I can accept that. But for anyone that is interested and willing and able to import any foreign game to their country and play it in its original language, this shouldn't be a problem, and that's another sell for the manufacturer. For a hardcore import gamer, they can just by another console to play other regions, but someone just interested in a few or just one game, that kind of investment shouldn't be necessary. The regional lockout holds back the market for the smaller, less popular games that wouldn't be officially distributed in other countries.

Finding Region Codes

Most packaging of DVDs and games have some sort of mark on them identifying the region they are supposed to belong to. Most of these are small and a little difficult to find. I have made a "podcast" video to demonstrate where to find these region code labels. For anyone who can't play the video's format, I apologize since that's what iMovie exported it as.

To summarize the video, Playstation (or PS1) games have a label on the top-left of the front just under the "PS" logo as well as on the hinge. For the single disk games this is the same as the manual for the game, but multiple disk games have a cover separate from the manual.

Playstation 2 (PS2) games have the region label on the top-right of the cover and on the bottom of the spine.

Playstation 3 (PS3) games aren't region coded, so they don't need any label to identify their region. They do have some sort of image that's on the bottom of the spine of the package that appears to be of a globe and a number. This to me is very ambiguous, and I have no idea what it's supposed to be.

The Nintendo Wii is region locked as well as the Gamecube, but their games don't have labels like Playstation games. Instead, all they have is a not that says "For sale, rental and use only in USA, Canada, Mexico and Latin America." I also have a copy of Blazblue: Continuum Shift II for Nintendo 3DS which has a not on the package that says "Plays on Nintendo 3DS systems sold for the Americas only." Other Nintendo 3DS as well as Nintendo DS games released post-DSi should have a similar note somewhere on their packaging, as well.

I have games for the original Xbox, but their region labels are very similar to the PS2's so I didn't demonstrate them in the video. But they instead say just "NTSC" on mine instead of "NTSC U/C" or "NTSC J". I would expect this means that my games will work with any other NTSC region Xboxes and not with any that are for PAL or other regions. I am unable to test this, though.

DVDs have a consistent system in them. Distributors often print technical details such as run time and video and audio format somewhere on the package, usually near the bottom of the back. Among these details should be a label for the DVD's region which should look like a globe with a number inside. I have noticed the globe to be in different styles and shapes, but it is consistently a globe and the number 1 on my DVDs.

For anyone that wants to import their DVDs and games, make sure you confirm the region of your product before complaining that it doesn't work with your local player or game console.

Guest Blog: Samuel Eldridge

Guest Blogger: Sam

Regional lockouts have always been a pet peeve of mine, and while I understand the foundational reasons for their use, I have always found them to be a lazy way of achieving other goals.
Games and movies help plant the seeds for technological imagination, and in return, advances in technology help further along the capabilities of games and movies. It is an ever ongoing spiral, and as a species we should be moving towards removing any and all walls that may stand in the way of advancement.

As a student in game design it is a little uncomfortable to think that a game I create some day may not be distributed in some section of the world due to a reason like regional lockouts. To me the idea of running a company, spending millions of dollars in production costs and working with a team that has devoted itself for several years on a product that may only be distributed in one country is something that does not sit well, and I find it hard to believe that I am the only one who feels this way.

Recently Xenoblade was released in Japan, Europe, Australia, and much to the dismay of US game players; Nintendo announced they had no plans to release the game here in the states. While a few years ago this would have meant that most US gamers would not be able to get their hands on it, people who were willing to pay the extra cost were able to order the game right off of Amazon and have it shipped to them just like anything else. From there all it took was a quick “hack” to the players WII and they were off playing the game.

Sites like Amazon combined with increasing internet access around the world, is giving practices like regional locks a very hard time. As people become more educated, and availability becomes easier, new methods are going to need to be adopted, and companies will no longer be able to rely on something as basic as regional locks.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Yuki Watanabe-Sensei: A Perspective from a Japanese Professor

Yuki Watanabe-Sensei is another professor at The University of Texas at Dallas and teaches classes on both Japanese culture and language of which I have attended some of. Her answers to my questions helped provide the perspective of not only a native Japanese but also someone that had difficulty with playing foreign DVDs from traveling internationally.

Are you familiar with regional lockout or region codes?

Vaguely. When we moved to Germany at the beginning of 2005, I brought my brand new laptop computer with me, which gave me 10 chances to play DVD with different region code. When I got the warning saying this is my last chance to set the region permanently, I stopped playing DVD on my computer.

Do you own DVDs? About how many (approximate)? What genres do you prefer?

Since I am not otaku, I own only about 10 DVD's. Some of them were given from our German friends and have never been viewed due to the region issue. I also have a few from Japan, which I never even tried to play.

Do you own video games? About how many (approximate)? What genres do you prefer?

No, I do not.

Do you import DVDs or video games? About how much of your collection? From what countries?

As I said, I have a few from Japan and Germany.

Have you had trouble getting foreign DVDs or games to play?

Yes, on my previous laptop. I have not even tried to play foreign DVD's on my new computer.

How do you usually get around regional lockout?

I do not get around. Just give up.

What is your general opinion of regional lockout? Should it continue or be removed?

I watch a lot of Japanese drama streaming. If I do not care about ads they force you to watch at the beginning, I can watch pretty much all the drama that aired recently via streaming. Of course you have to put up with lower picture quality and occasional pause due to slow loading. In order to compete with all the streaming venues online, regional lockout should go away. If there are people willing to purchase DVD or games from abroad, the manufacturers should take advantage of them. Especially, I think small production groups will benefit if the lockout is removed. I think the time where producers tried to sell tangible products is pretty much over. However hard you try to protect your copy righted material, there is always a way around it just as the case of region lockout. In my opinion, content producers should try to market the familiarity of their product so people will recognize it and maybe willing to pay for some related merchandize or content that cannot be transmitted via online.

Are there any other comments you would like to share?

Artistic creation may be discouraged if this trend continues since there is no guarantee that you make big profit from your creation. But if you ask what the true goal of artistic creation is, it should not be to make money but to express yourself and share it with other people.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dr. Marc Hairston: Interview with an Otaku Professor

Before I interviewed Jonathan Clements, I had know to get in contact with him. I was introduced to Clements by Dr. Marc Hairston, a professor of astronomy at The University of Texas at Dallas, though he includes anime and manga among his expertise and occasionally helps teach literature classes that focus on the topic of anime. He is also the advisor to UTD's anime club, SPOON, which I am currently the president of.

Are you familiar with regional lockout or region codes?

Yes, I've known about them since DVDs first came out in the 90s.

Do you own DVDs? About how many (approximate)? What genres do you prefer?

Like Jonathan said, I've lost count, but I'm sure he's ahead of me. I have over 500, but all of them are domestic other than about 30+ Japanese ones I have.

Do you own video games? About how many (approximate)? What genres do you prefer?

My son plays with a Wii. I'm so old school that the last computer game I played was an interactive text game back in the late 80s on an Amiga computer. I do admit to having Angry Birds on my iPhone.

Do you import DVDs or video games? About how much of your collection? From what countries?

Like I said, I have about 30 to 40 DVDs that I've imported from Japan, plus a handful of ones from Britain and Brazil and Mexico.

Have you had trouble getting foreign DVDs or games to play?

Back about 1999 I bought an all-region DVD player (for about twice the cost of a regular DVD player) just so I could watch the Japanese DVDs I was getting. I never had any trouble getting
the Japanese ones to play on it, but the British ones were PAL, so the TV couldn't handle the signal.

How do you usually get around regional lockout?

In addition to the DVD player, I ended up buying an extra DVD player-burner for my computer and set it to region 2 (Japan and Britain) and kept the internal DVD reader set to region 1. That's how I was finally able to watch the PAL DVDs from Britain.

Of course there's always the gray area of watching fansubs that are posted on-line.

What is your general opinion of regional lockout? Should it continue or be removed?

The lockout was developed by Hollywood lawyers back in the 90s when movies were released over a period of 12 months throughout the world. What they didn't want was for "Blockbuster A" to come out in the US in June and then be released on DVD six months later when it still hasn't come out in Japan and Australia and South America yet. The home DVDs would arrive by import in those places before the theatrical release did. Since then big films tend to be released worldwide within about month so this is not an issue (at least for the blockbuster films). I liked Jonathan's comment about anime being able to afford music if they buy just the Japanese rights but couldn't if they had to pay for the worldwide rights so that's one of the few positive side effects of region coding. But with distribution over the internet becoming the primary means of distribution I think region-coding will ultimately become a non-issue.

I'll tell you a story about how region coding is seen outside the US. Here in the US I would say less than 5% of the population is even aware that DVDs are region-coded. That's because the typical US viewer only watches US DVDs and isn't interested in any films or shows from outside the US. However, every other country on this planet (Europe included) watches a mixture of domestically-made TV and films as well as the Hollywood program that the US exports. So 100% of the population in, say, Turkey knows that the shows they want to watch come from two or maybe three different DVD region codes. In the late 90s we had a post-doc in our department who
was from Turkey and he told me that every store in Turkey that sold DVD players (from the hole in the wall local shop to the big department stores) would "fix" the player free of charge when you
bought it to make it region-free player. (This usually required them to just open the box and snip two or three legs on a particular chip, and they knew which ones to snip on which models.) So 100% of the DVD players in Turkey were region-free and my friend was buying up lots of DVD movies on Amazon to watch and then ship to his brother back in Turkey. So the whole system the US lawyers set up to prevent revenue loss from foreign sales was being circumventing everywhere *except* in the US! That's when I first realized that trying to protect rights and sales with region-coding was a broken system.

Are there any other comments you would like to share?

Again, I liked Jonathan's point about how getting worldwide rights for music or providing translations for multiple languages ahead of time for simultaneous releases puts a high upfront
financial burden on smaller productions (like most anime shows) and if we and they aren't careful we're going to end up reducing anime to just the lowest common denominator and killing off the more interesting and niche shows. But region-coding was just a stopgap along the digital conversion of media and something else will evolve to either replace it or make it unnecessary.