When multiplayer gaming first appeared on the mainstream internet, it was just as chat rooms had afforded us: the ability to engage with people all over the world, in a way that meant we’d never go without a game. At least, this was the thought. In reality, this was a mistaken idea that many of us held through unfamiliarity of technological restrictions.
In practice, playing with people outside of your country or general geographical region could be an awful experience for reasons that many of us didn’t understand. Today, decades of technological evolution later, some of these issues have been addressed, but many haven’t.
One of the methods which publishers and developers use to combat long-ranged connection problems is called region-locking. The general concept of this is that, for certain games, players can either choose to search for their local server region, or get automatically locked into a specific area with few means of recourse. Taking a look at this idea, we want to examine why the region lock can make sense, where it can fall short, and why it will always play a part in the online gaming landscape.
Legality and Cheating
The biggest advantage for region locking comes in terms of legality. This is owed to the wide variety of online laws which vary by country, even if the countries are neighbors. The problem here is that legal differences, even slight, can prohibit some users from cooperative or competitive play.
Illustrations of these legal issues in gaming are still developing, however, as more commonly they can be seen in other entertainment industries like online casinos. For example, an online casino for Canadian players might share many popular games like Blue Wizard and Epic Ape with American casinos, but regional laws might prevent people outside of Canada from collecting winnings. In this way, offering dedicated regional efforts can benefit everyone.
The other potential advantages that region locking can have are found in terms of preventing cheating. In some places like the USA and UK, players generally have to purchase a full game to play. In a country like China or Korea, players can often get access to the games they want from an unlocked internet café.
This means for a player in a Korean PC Bang, somebody could create a free account after spending a minuscule amount for access, cheat in Overwatch or PUBG, and then get banned without a care in the world. If instead, you had to eat the loss of a full-priced game, you’d generally be less inclined to give cheating a try. One of the advantages of region locks is that it can prevent these players from integrating with international player-bases, though it’s unfortunately not helpful with legitimate players within their own borders.
As locking systems operate today, the most common workaround is one which applies to all manners of region restrictions in any form of internet access, virtual private network services. By faking a user’s location, these widespread and often quite cheap systems completely side-step region locks and, so far, there’s little that can be done about them.
A Matter of Physics
Even assuming that some of the cheating and legal issues are worked out in the future, the ultimate problem of latency in fast-paced games can never be overcome. Simply put, the fastest possible hardware connections cannot overcome an unacceptable level of delay for the likes of FPS and fighting games.
The exception here is that of slow games like turn-based titles, which could very well be opened up on an international scale due to inherent mitigation of the lag issue. In the future, we wouldn’t be surprised to see region locking grow far more uncommon, however, thanks to the unshakable laws of physics, it will never vanish completely.