Region Locking Really Hertz: Digital Rights Management and the Politics of Territories
On a visit to Sham Shui Po’s Golden Computer Centre and Arcade, one can always find a bewildering amount of independent storefronts stocking the latest and greatest games. As a kid growing up in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s, I would visit my family in Hong Kong nearly every summer holiday and would sometimes rather daringly go visit the area on my own, getting lost within the sweating crowds, weaving past much taller adults to stare mesmerised at the latest Japanese titles playing on the screens. A store owner would be perched atop a high stool, perhaps eating from a polystyrene rice box, fielding questions from customers peering through the glass cabinets—all against a soundtrack of background chatter, booming electronic music, and the fizz of yet another start button being pressed.
There was one key question that shop owners would always ask potential buyers: ‘What system do you have?’ If you bought a home console game cartridge from Asia, it simply would not work in a machine from another region unless it had been through some kind of conversion process. Therefore, one might be willing to risk using a converter cartridge or physically altering their precious machine (otherwise known as ‘modding’) in order to play these titles in their own region.
The pay-off was bringing back a title that none of your friends had, savouring the zany humour of Japanese games, or simply admiring the superior box art and graphics created by famed Japanese illustrators such as Shinkiro, Akiman, or Kinu Nishimura. It was like rummaging through a record store and discovering a new, exciting band. That came with a certain amount of playground kudos.
Over the years, I acquired a number of Asian titles for my UK Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES): Final Fight 2 (1993), Ganbare Goemon: Yukihime Kyūshutsu Emaki (The Legend of the Mystical Ninja) (1991), and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time (1991). These games all ran perfectly with the help of a converter cartridge, until one fateful day when I plugged in my import copy of Contra Spirits (1992) and faced the devastating scene that many gamers like myself have faced before: a disappointing black screen that no amount of blowing into the cartridge would fix.
Why? The answer lies in a series of technologies that thwarted cross-regional use.
A Tale of Two Gaming Systems
The story of regional lockout begins with the Family Computer (Famicom) and the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Nintendo released the original Famicom machine in Japan on 15 July 1983 with a catalogue of three arcade game titles: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., and Popeye. Subsequently, all Famicom games were developed by Nintendo until around 1984, when third-party developers started licensing official cartridges directly from Nintendo for a 30% fee. By 1985, the floodgates were open for games of varying quality developed by a plethora of companies.
Although the Famicom was successful—by the end of 1984 it was the best-selling console in Japan—the international video games market suffered a crash between 1983 and 1985, with industry revenues reported as dropping an astounding 97% in the North American market, decimating their console and arcade game sector. In 1986, Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi stated, ‘Atari collapsed because they gave too much freedom to third-party developers, and the market was swamped with rubbish games.’ At the same time, console developers were competing against an increasing appetite for personal computer systems, which could do much more than simply play games.
When Nintendo launched the NES nationwide in the US market at the tail end of 1986, it was adamant that it would not repeat the mistakes that led to the crash and implemented a bold product design and marketing strategy. Nintendo aspired for a design ecosystem that could slot into the North American living room, appearing as just another family ‘entertainment system’, like a TV or hi-fi system. As a result, the console’s exterior was revamped by designer Lance Barr to resemble a front-loading VHS player.
NES cartridges—marketed as ‘Game Paks’—were similarly redesigned to resemble chunky videotapes. The new size prevented the influx of low-quality software from third-party developers that was then saturating the Japanese market—which meant that the smaller Famicom cartridges from Asia didn’t fit and couldn’t be played on this system. In effect, the American market was rebooted with a roster of games tightly controlled by Nintendo.
The massive success of the NES reaffirmed to Nintendo the value of their region locking strategy, which they continued to implement in their graphically superior successor, the SNES/Super Famicom. For this, Nintendo curiously employed a hybrid mechanical and digital locking strategy: in North America and Japan, there were physical differences in the size and shape of the cartridge; in Europe, this was done through an internal lockout chip.
In the era of 8- and 16-bit home-gaming consoles, the releases of various game titles was much less democratic. It was common for the game selection to be larger and more varied in Asian regions than in other territories, such as Europe or the US. This was especially true for Role Playing Games (RPGs), which usually relied on heavy reams of Japanese text; many companies did not dedicate resources towards localising this text for other markets.
As RPGs became more sophisticated in the 16-bit era, scores of what are considered some of the best RPGs on the Super Famicom—such as Chrono Trigger (1995), Final Fantasy 6 (1994), Earthbound (1994), and most famously Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (1996)—never saw an official release in Europe. This was due in part to the multiple language localisation requirements in Europe, despite in many cases having been released in North American markets with a full English translation. It was also a matter of differing television standards.
PAL versus NTSC
To understand why game cartridges were not universal, we need to understand how graphics were drawn in the past. Unlike the slim widescreen 16:9 OLED or LED screens of today, in the 8-bit and 16-bit era, consoles were hooked up to bulky analogue 4:3 ratio cathode-ray tube (CRT) screens.
These drew images using an electron beam, which continuously scanned line by line (scanlines) from one corner of the screen to the other.
The number of times this occurs per second is known as the refresh rate, measured in Hertz (Hz). Even though certain CRT screens could refresh at faster frequencies than 60Hz, the video game console picture processing unit was responsible for controlling the speed at which the image would be rendered: 50Hz for PAL machines and 60Hz for NTSC.
As many games were developed in NTSC regions first, PAL regions were generally adapted with ‘letterboxing’. Because NTSC displays had fewer horizontal rows, ugly black borders had to frame the top and bottom of the image to keep it at the correct aspect ratio on a PAL display (similar to how a cinema aspect ratio movie is adapted to look correct at home on 16:9 or 4:3 displays).
The other drawback is that NTSC to PAL conversions often ran at a significantly slower rate of frames per second (twenty-five frames per second in PAL, thirty in NTSC), meaning the games themselves tended to run about 16.7% slower, as game information updates only when the screen refreshes. Therefore, gamers outside Asia generally drew the short straw in terms of quality control.
Older CRT displays were a major reason why game and machine combinations from different regions didn’t work. Because even if the machine could physically accept the cartridge, the screen would still need to display the image correctly.
Luckily in Europe, nearly all TVs could be tuned to both frequencies, so imported games would usually run—albeit at 50Hz. However, as with my attempts to play Contra 3 on the SNES, there were other factors that could determine if a game would run correctly.
Feeling CIC: The development of the Checking Integrated Circuit
A more cynical view of region-locking a machine is price discrimination: if certain countries can pay more for games, they are charged more. However, other control-related issues beyond pricing are also major factors. Differing marketing strategies, intellectual property rights laws, and censorship codes could also motivate companies to region-lock their products.
Nintendo’s strategy was to be the sole provider of game cartridges, either through direct development or tightly controlled third-party licensing. To further enforce this, Nintendo introduced a territorial lockout microcontroller called the Checking Integrated Circuit (CIC), or 10NES, which was embedded inside both console and cartridges.
It works by performing a ‘handshake test’ when the cartridge is inserted into the machine, communicating like a lock and key system. If the appropriate response is returned, the game boots as normal; otherwise, the machine becomes stuck in a reset loop.
When Nintendo released the redesigned top-loading NES-101 in 1993, they took out the CIC system altogether. This was to bypass issues caused by the original 10SNES chip, namely that machines kept resetting due to trapped dirt in the front-loading mechanism. The removal of the CIC system allowed gamers to own a region-free NES capable of playing European, US, and Asian titles. However, with the release of the SNES/Super Famicom, Nintendo returned to its region-locking policy once again.
Except for in mainland China, Nintendo has now, rather surprisingly, eschewed region-locking for its newest console, the Nintendo Switch. This not only follows in the footsteps of Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation series, but also Nintendo’s own sporadic, region-free practices for the handheld Gameboy. In a globalised, online world where new software is increasingly distributed as digital downloads rather than physical media, this makes sense. The old argument of ensuring game quality has weakened in today’s gaming landscape, where the audiences are much greater in number and indie developers have multiple avenues for selling to niche segments.
Today, having returned to live in Hong Kong, I am once again confronted by the ways technology companies mediate our experiences by region. Some take the brick wall approach—TikTok was blocked on my Hong Kong number but accessible with my UK number. Others take a regional content curation approach—my Netflix viewing experience in Hong Kong was in some ways revitalised with the sudden appearance of local Hong Kong titles, like Stephen Chow’s 1990s mo lei tau comedies or the ‘heroic bloodshed’ gunplay dramas of the 1980s. Although I didn’t detect any noticeable Cantopop additions to my Spotify experience, I discovered the service was much cheaper here than in the UK, showing how pricing discrimination practices and licensing issues remain factors in territorial rights management.
Gaming, like the music industry, has certainly come a long way in accepting that artificially putting up barriers to access is, in the end, meaningless, as people will find a way to access titles, whether through VPNs, internet downloads, or even flying to another country and using a converter cartridge.
After all, if you think about it, we have been trained by gaming companies themselves. As I load up another game of Zelda, Metroid or Super Mario Bros, I am reminded of the fact that video game companies are responsible for creating barriers and challenges to progress in their game worlds, but we as gamers doggedly spend our time finding mechanisms to overcome them.
Sunny Cheung is Curator, Design and Architecture at M+.