Disclaimer: The Devil's Advocate is a place where the MMO-Loving world can go to hear the unpopular opinion. Please note that this article does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of MMORPG.com, columnist Drew Wood, or any of the game companies that may be discussed. The Devil's Advocate is an opportunity for the oft-shunned and little discussed “Other Side of the Story” to be heard, promoting open discussion on a heavily contested subject.
As someone from the Philippines, a country where regional gaming restrictions exist, it seemed appropriate for me to tackle the subject of region-locking and regional restrictions in order for people to see the other side of a given situation, no matter how uncomfortable the truth might be. While I do have a vested interest in having a global gaming world with no boundaries, I do try to accept and see the reality of the situation posed by regional restrictions in a positive light.
Regional restrictions, such as region-locking the sale of a game or disallowing certain IP addresses from specific countries from a given version of a game, are somewhat common in the MMO and MOBA markets. For instance, League of Legends has licensed regional clients in some Asian countries, with IP locks preventing people from those countries with regional clients from accessing the US version of the game. Certain MMOs and specific games on digital distribution services like Steam and Impulse (now Gamestop), such as Aion, Final Fantasy XI, and Dead Rising 2, are also region-locked.
The news of Star Wars: The Old Republic having only a limited “official” set of countries as part of their launch inititative brought forth a new round of discussion on their official forums. I thought it would be a good idea to look at some of the angles regarding regional restrictions in an attempt to foster understanding between differing perspectives.
The Perspective of the Consumers
A consumer's access to a given product, especially one that has the brand recognition of the Star Wars franchise, is an essential part of engaging in the business of selling goods. A good business knows to supply a product where there is demand for it, and consumers are used to this unspoken rule as part of being a consumer (and moreso being a fan of a given product line).
For consumers living outside the launch territories who are locked out of buying Star Wars: The Old Republic digitally (especially those who are not used to the idea of regional restrictions), the issue is seen in at least three parts.
The first issue for a consumer is that the unspoken rule is being broken, and people are annoyed by this reworking of the implied status quo of access. The second issue is that, due to this implied breach of trust, consumers will recommend to their peers to not purchase from a given business because of the breaking of this unspoken rule. Lastly, and this is perhaps the crux of being a consumer, regional restrictions can make a person feel either left out or unimportant in terms of being a valued customer, which also erodes consumer confidence in a product line.
Looking at it from the Star Wars: The Old Republic launch countries scenario, there is at least one thread on the official Customer Service forums for SWTOR where people from different non-launch countries are voicing their concerns about not having easy access to the game or about how EA/Bioware doesn't want their money.
While I do not represent the company, I think I can guess at what the perspective of EA/Bioware might be.
The Perspective of the Company
EA/Bioware has held a particular stance regarding the region locking issue, which is to say that they have a short blurb explaining how they want to maintain “a high quality of service” throughout the game's lifespan. They have not explained what that means, so we'll have to extrapolate based on a couple of different factors, such as game performance, customer satisfaction, and public relations. The simple explanation is this: by limiting access to the game, they can have a smoother launch for the game and keep interest high through maintaining good PR.
Game performance is mostly a technical thing beyond my own understanding, but the gist of the idea is that by limiting the access of the game, the companies involved can focus on making the game performance better for the subset of consumers who are taking part in it. This is due to a number of things, such as having a smaller subset of countries with varying internet speeds and latency to think about, fewer servers to worry about, and a smaller set of customer complaints to sift through. When I think about all the moving parts they have to manage to get a game up and running smoothly (given the general notion that almost no MMORPG launch has ever gone smoothly), I can see the logic of trying to lessen the potential issues by controlling, to some extent, who will be playing on opening day.
Customer satisfaction and public relations are ultimately intertwined with game performance, but they take a mind of their own in the face of regional restrictions. If the logic behind limiting who gets to play is to maintain a good user experience, it stands to reason that EA and Bioware are after good customer satisfaction ratings from their paying consumers.
By having fewer countries and regulating the number of people playing at launch, they can focus on addressing issues faster and can presumably attend to customer complaints sooner, improving the view of the game in the consumers' eyes. By doing so, they hope to garner additional attention in the media by having one of the smoothest launches in the history of AAA MMORPGs, which is a risky PR move, but one that seeks to sell The Old Republic as a great game in the hands of a great company.
If there's one thing that EA has done to keep goodwill in the face of this regional restriction, it's to make concessions to the public at large.
The first concession made was to limit launch countries but not to IP lock the game. So long as you can get the access codes by importing a physical copy of the game or asking a friend, you can still play SWTOR wherever you may be. True, importing may be a horrible money sink, but the reward in the mind of a Star Wars fan is that he's playing the game he wants to play, money be damned.
The second concession made by EA and Bioware was the Thanksgiving beta. This was an event that allowed gamers everywhere, not just the launch territories, to play and test the game. While we see it as a boon for us, it was also a test for EA and Bioware, as this was also practice for them to get worldwide operations of this MMO done right. To their credit, they did rather well, as I had very few issues despite my location and connection.
The final concession they made was actually very recent. Stephen Reid, Senior Community Manager for SWTOR, tweeted that the Thanksgiving beta version of SWTOR would be patched to the Early Game Access/ Live version of the game. This means that for beta testers who can get pre-order codes through friends in other countries, they won't even need to worry about digital downloads or importing, as they'd simply need to patch the game when the time arrives.
As you can see, the situation behind regional restrictions, especially for a high-profile game like SWTOR, isn't as clear-cut as we'd think. I know consumers are upset, and that's understandable given the circumstances. I also doubt EA and Bioware want to slight prospective customers by not giving them access, but they've already shown that they want people to enjoy the game they've worked hard to make. I only hope that those of you reading this will try and think about the perspective of the other before you dismiss them outright, as it takes a lot more insight to have a perspective check than you might think.