Think about politics. Ever see something questionable get funding just to keep some people in business? I have a theory. The games industry has its own brand of politics, and it goes down in warehouses.
Game distributors stand to lose the most if the status quo changes in gaming. They're the wholesale middlemen between game publishers and retailers. If you live in a town that has a mom-and-pop game shop, go in and (if you're lucky) you can see the store's release schedule straight from their distributor. These schedules are the good stuff because they're from the guys who actually handle the cargo that appears on store shelves.
They're a powerful bunch. Mega publisher Take-Two even owns its own distribution chain. That means it has to pay for upkeep for all the employees of the distribution company or its games will suddenly stop appearing on shelves.
Moreover, there are lots of these guys. The US alone has multiple competing distributors. So do Europe, the UK, Australia, Asia and the rest of the world. Now we're talking lots of people who could potentially be out of a job if the system were to change.
But wait, I hear you object. Couldn't the same distributors just put region-free games on shelves all the same?
They could, but that creates a triple threat to their existence: from consumers, competitors, and publishers.
First, consumers who have to pay higher prices for their games would just look to the territory next door and send their money to the retailers (and thus, the distributors) of the territory with the cheaper currency. Consumers win, but publishers and distributors both lose. Let's not kid ourselves. This is the entertainment industry; the consumers aren't going to win.
Second, rival distributors could more easily expand business into another nearby territory, and the ensuing competition would hurt profits for all the companies involved. That means retailers win (because lower wholesale prices with the same shelf price means more profit) and distributors lose their piece of the pie.
Third, if all games were region free, there would be little reason to leave the existing distribution chain in place if the publishers could consolidate as a cost-cutting measure. Publishers win big; distributors lose big.
So, distributors have three reasons to fight to stay in business and, by physically holding games hostage, have the means to bring publishers to their knees. Without them, GTA4 doesn't get its record-breaking launch day.
If that logic seems a little convoluted, it is. Nintendo had good reasons when it set the precedent 20 years ago, but times have changed.
I'm happy to report I can now play GTA4. Ironically, it's using a copy labeled for a system called PAL, which means it only works on TVs in Europe, Africa or Australia. Japan uses a different system called NTSC (for American and Japanese TVs), so the game shouldn't have worked. But it does - flawlessly.
Perhaps GTA4 has exposed the greatest of all ironies of region locking. The difference between PAL and NTSC was a serious technical barrier. It was truly a good reason for region locking, but even that is now obsolete.
Console creators and publishers: It's time to set your games free. You need to sell your games worldwide if you want to satisfy the hardest of the hardcore - or if you ever want to beat GTA4's launch day record.
Blake Ellison is an editor at Shacknews.com and a freelance contributor to The Escapist.