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An Open Letter to Bluehole, Frogster and En Masse Regarding Region IP Blocking

Andrew Ting posts an open letter to the developer and publishers of the upcoming MMO TERA Online regarding the practice and effects of region IP blocking.

From: Andrew Ting

         14 January 2011

To:     Bluehole Studio
          Frogster Interactive Pictures AG
          En Masse Entertainment, Inc


Dear Bluehole, Frogster, and En Masse,

My name is Andrew Ting. I serve on TK-Nation, a games news site devoted to the international gaming community at large. I'm also a big fan of TERA Online. Your PR department has done an excellent job; given my job as TK-Nation's resident cynic, my naked anticipation for TERA is rather unbecoming. My one saving grace is that the rest of the staff shares my absurd enthusiasm. 

However, beneath this enthusiasm lies a distinct undercurrent of fear. The international gaming community has been burned far too often by quality MMOs which release with great promise and fanfare, and then turn around and ban entire regions of the world from playing with each other (if at all). We want to talk to you about region IP blocking and respectfully request your consideration. This is a discussion that we feel is long overdue within the gaming community, and we feel that now is a good time to start.

WHAT IS REGION IP BLOCKING?
In case our understanding is different from yours, region IP blocking (region blocking) is the practice of banning an area of the world from accessing online content based on the region-specific characteristics of their IP addresses. There are many legal, technical, and community motivators behind region IP blocking; however, we argue that this is an ineffective practice which does far more harm than good for everyone involved.

WHY REGION BLOCK?
Region blocking is a common practice among MMO developers. Riot Games' League of Legendsand S2 Games' Heroes of Newerth has banned Southeast Asia from the rest of the world, and Nexon's celebrated Vindictus has blocked everyone save Canada and the continental United States (not including Alaska and Hawaii).

Region blocking is usually implemented to fulfill an agreement between the developer and a local publisher which purchases rights to the franchise. Technical concerns may play a part in this; P2P-based services such as Vindictus become unplayable with a bad host, and infrastructure-heavy server-based services may be easier to maintain in that area with a managing local company. Finally, although no developer will ever admit to this publicly there are also community concerns, particularly regarding Eastern gaming culture and its permissive hacking community.

THE CASE AGAINST REGION IP BLOCKING
Taking the MM out of the MMO is bad for business. Although Riot Games and S2 Games like to point to the local service they've set up for SEA, these are dozens of millions of fanatic gamers who will never get to interact with the community at large. This is detrimental to the community as well as business, and it's difficult for me to see how the benefits outweigh the cost.

It may sound surprising to some, but in today's interconnected world this chilling effect is real. A personal anecdote: although I'm an American, it was in fact my friends in Malaysia who first turned me on to Heroes of Newerth. Although new and hesitant, with them I soon became a avid player and we all purchased premium accounts soon after. However, once I learned that I would never be able to play with my friends again I walked away and never looked back. 

I don't know how many similar examples are out there, but I know I'm not alone. We have yet to find hard numbers on Heroes of Newerth's player levels, but the general consensus is that although SEA has taken to their sandbox in rising numbers the rest of the HoN community has had a far lesser response. There are many, many factors involved in this, but it's easy to guess that the region block hasn't helped matters. The DotA scene is monstrously popular in the SEA region, which makes me wonder why S2 Games decided to dismiss one of their most fanatic demographics.

Treating swaths of the world like second-class citizens is terrible PR. Depending on how you do things, gamers' reactions to a region block will vary from silent disappointment to cries of ethnic discrimination. As a case study, Vindictus is easily the most salient example of How Not To Do Things. Nexon's superb marketing campaign dazzled the world up until the "viral invite" closed beta on September 15th, after which Asians and Europeans found themselves mysteriously unable to connect despite having registered their beta key. Despite rising complaints on the forums, the company issued no official statement until our formal inquiry to the company on the 18th. In the prior months of expert hype, Nexon had neglected to announce that, yes, the release was exclusive to North America.

Reactions were mixed, but most gamers outside of North America felt betrayed. Nexon has licensing rights to deal with but has dealt with them badly; as a result, some of the international community now refuse to play Nexon games and most of them will be far more resistant to Nexon marketing in the future. The take-away lesson here is that region-blocking is rarely desirable to gamers, but if all else fails then it's best to at least avoid the bait-and-switch.

It doesn't work and is harmful for everyone involved. Without sophisticated anti-proxy software, gamers can easily circumvent IP blocks. It may be hard to acknowledge, but as with all forms of DRM even extreme measures only delay the inevitable workaround. For example, when logged on Vindictus during the evening and early morning hours it's easy to find a horde of oddly uncommunicative, high latency players roaming around, i.e. the international crowd sneaking their way in. 

Blame these players if you want, but in the end this was a predictable result. Instead of implementing a regional service enforced by IP blocking, a plausible alternative for the P2P-based game would be to allow everyone, with the addition of mechanics to allow players in the same region to recognize and group with each other more easily. Instead, Vindictus' IP block has spawned a group of users who can only play by themselves by hosting their own games. I assume this is not what Nexon wanted at all.

WHY WE'RE SAYING ALL THIS
Bluehole, Frogster and En Masse, we hope you're not planning to implement any regional restrictions on TERA Online. If you are, then we hope that you'll take note of our observations and reconsider your decision. 

However, at a minimum this letter is intended to make you aware that region IP blocks are a significant issue that needs to be dealt with appropriately. There are many gamers in the world who want to be enthusiastic about TERA and drool over your trailers and screenshots, but are simply too afraid of getting burned yet again. 

Speaking on behalf of TK-Nation and its staff, our efforts to reach out to you have thus far earned only vague responses. Although we do understand that some things may have yet to be decided, the fact is that if you do implement a region block and break the news too late there are going to be a lot of angry gamers out there. I know this, because I'll be one of them.

So tell us. We want to know, and I eagerly await your reply.


Yours faithfully,
Andrew Ting
Co-Editor and Relations Manager

 

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