PC Games & Region Locking: Are Games Region-Free (Or Should You Be Worried)?

Region locking feels a little outdated, but plenty of game developers and distributors are still doing it. Do we have to be worried about region locking ruining our play?

Most PC games are not region locked and there are few effective methods for developers and distributors to enforce region locking on PC. Depending on your needs, you can easily get around most region locks by either using a VPN or changing your home region on game distribution platforms like Steam.

We’re going to cover everything you ever wanted to know about region locking from how it got started to how you can get around region locked PC games.

What is Region Locking?

Polygon map with various locks
Map with various locks

Region locking is a type of digital rights management. This allows game developers, distributors, and other stakeholders in the software industry to limit access to PC games depending on the region that the player lives in.

Region locking can be enforced physically or it can be enforced digitally:

  • Physical region locking was once a necessity due two different analog TV standards like PAL and NTSC. Analogue televisions sets used to be built differently and required mutually incompatible versions of a given game.
  • Digital region locking is much harder to accomplish, but often involves tracking the IP address of a player or requiring them to enter a region-specific country code. Platforms like Steam also enforce their own region-locking.

Region locking might seem strange in our hyper-connected world, so let’s take a look at a few of the reasons why companies still region lock their games.

Why Are Games Region Locked?

Region locking is often a huge hassle for fans of PC gaming. This often leads to content stuck behind a region locked wall and even prohibits our ability to gift games to friends and loved ones.

Here’s for big reasons why games are often so region locked.

Staggering Game Releases, Localization, and Marketing

A queue for the Cyberpunk 2077 launch
A queue for the Cyberpunk 2077 launch

One of the more benign reasons a game can still be region-locked has to do with staggered game releases, localization, and marketing.

Developers and publishers will still region lock games in order to slowly release them all over the globe. This allows developers to take additional time with tasks like localizing a game in a different language or setting up a marketing strategy for a foreign market.

Licensing Issues and Distribution Deals

A major source of regional lockout has to do with licensing issues and distribution deals. In short, distributors might only have the ability to sell a game in certain global regions. Company A might only have the legal rights to distribute a game in North America while company B has the rights to distribute that game in Europe.

Examples of this pop up all the time. During the initial release of the PC port of Metal Gear Revengeance, Steam was restricted to selling the game only in the USA and Europe because Sony retained the distribution rights for Konami properties in Asia.

Profit, Profit, Profit

A happy man hugging lots of money
A happy man hugging lots of money

Another major source of region-locking has to do with the profit motive.

You can technically purchase a game from anywhere in the world. So, why wouldn’t everyone just buy the game from a market that has the lowest prices or a market where the player’s currency is much stronger than the local currency?

This would seriously eat into the profits for game developers and distributors. Region locking prevents players from simply buying the game in the cheapest market.

Regional Laws and Censorship Requirements

An often-overlooked reason for region-locking games has to do with regional laws and censorship requirements.

Different countries and different groups of countries each have their own rules, regulations, and restrictions about what can be included in a given video game. Region-locking allows game developers to cater aspects of their game to different markets.

There are regional versions of games that are designed to work with both local laws as well as prevailing local tastes. It’s common for games to be regionally censured in ways that remove references to sexual nudity, drug use, and gore. Games can also be regionally different especially regarding features that could be considered gambling.

Did You Know? One of the Grand Theft Auto games was temporarily banned in Brazil, and a range of games including Battlefield 4, Football Manager 2005 and Roblox have been blocked in China.

Three Types of PC Game Region Locking

There are three different types of region-locking that you need to look out for when buying a PC game.

  1. Games that can only be purchased—and played—by players in a certain region.
  2. Games that can only be purchased by players in a certain region, but can be played outside that region.
  3. Games with no region locking.

How to Check if Your PC Game is Region Locked

It’s actually really easy to check if your game is region locked or not.

The easiest way is to simply search the Steam store for a game that you want to buy. There will be a large disclaimer in the game description inside of an orange box that lists any region locked purchasing or playing restrictions.

You can also use an online region lock checker for platforms like Steam (such as SteamLocks, although this site seems to pop up online – then go offline a few months later). They’re also websites like Steamdb that list all of the background information for a game, like region-locking, by entering the game’s Steam ID.

Problems With Region-Locked PC Games

Various locks overlayed on a world map
Various locks overlayed on a world map

You can probably guess by now there are some serious issues with region locking. Let’s take a look at three of the big complaints against region locking as a practice.

Problems With Cooperative Play

One of the biggest setbacks caused by region locking are problems with cooperative play. Individuals in certain regions might be entirely locked out of a popular game meaning that you can’t co-op with friends depending on regions they live in.

Purchasing Problems

Region locking can also cause purchasing problems. Buying games in one region often means being stuck continuing to purchase expansion packs and DLC for that region. Region-locking also artificially fixes prices at higher rates by preventing imports from cheaper regions or purchases in cheaper digital regions.

Traveling While Gaming

If you’re looking to game on the go, region-locking can be a serious setback.

You need to stay on your toes and make sure that you’re purchasing games in your home region. Otherwise you might be stuck with games you can’t play at home and purchases you can’t refund.

How to Bypass PC Game Region Lock

We’ve talked a lot about the nuts-and-bolts of what region locking is, but how do you bypass it?

Let’s look at a few tricks for getting around a region lock.

Use a VPN

A diagram showing a VPN used in a connection
A diagram showing a VPN used in a connection

The easiest way to get around the region lock by far is to simply use a VPN.

A VPN encrypts your internet traffic to ensure that your internet service provider or a potential hacker can’t snoop on you or digital traffic. It also lets you set your IP address to an IP address from a given region. You can simply set your IP address to the country you want to make a purchase in to dodge some basic region lock detection.

If you want to really make things fancy, you can build your own virtual router instead of just using a simple VPN. A virtual router is like a VPN for your entire Wi-Fi network. It will route all of your internet traffic through a VPN rather than having to install a VPN on each device individually.

Always Buy Using Your Home Country and Currency

Another way to manage region-locking is to make sure that your purchases are always set to your home country.

When you’re traveling abroad, you can still use Steam and other gaming platforms as if you were in your home country. This works mostly in terms of sales, but you still might need a VPN in order to play games that have region lock play restrictions.

Change Your Steam Location

Steam sets your region based on your first game purchase. That is to say, if your first Steam purchase was in the EU, Steam will set your region to Europe.

Steam and other gaming platforms allow you to change your region, but they have restrictions in place to prevent people from abusing the system. Steam, for example, allows you to change your region once every 3 months. Steam also reserves the right to ban users that they feel are abusing the ability to change their region.

To do this, click the drop down arrow next to your name (in the top right), click “Account details” From here, click “Update store country”:

The option to change the Steam store country
The option to change the Steam store country

Are Steam Gifts Region Locked? (And How to Bypass It)

Here’s another big problem that comes with region locking PC games. You might not be able to buy a PC game as a gift for someone who lives in a different region.

Remember how we talked about pricing as one of the main motivations for companies still using region locking? well, this is technically called price discrimination. Price discrimination is when a company charges customers different prices for a project for a product based on what they think they can get them to pay.

In the case of region locked PC games, games are technically much more expensive in North America, the EU, and Australia than they are in CIS Regions, some Asian regions, and South America.

In the case of Steam, you can’t gift a game to someone in a more expensive region. This means a Steam user can’t buy the South American release and gift it to a player in the EU.

There are two main ways to get around region-locking and giving games as gifts on Steam:

  1. The first is to Simply buy a steam gift card rather than getting them the game itself. You can get a steam gift card in almost any value you’re looking for which can certainly cover the cost of a PC game regardless of the region that the player is located in.
  2. You can also buy a digital game key from a third-party retailer (such as CDKeys.com or Kinguin). These keys can be exchanged on Steam or other gaming platforms for a copy of the game. It’s a great way to get around region locked gift exchanges and price discrimination.
Various Steam keys for sale on Kinguin
Various Steam keys for sale on Kinguin
cropped A picture of me Tristan
About Tristan Perry

Tristan has been interested in computer hardware and software since he was 10 years old. He has built loads of computers over the years, along with installing, modifying and writing software (he's a backend software developer 'by trade').

Tristan also has an academic background in technology (in Math and Computer Science), so he enjoys drilling into the deeper aspects of technology.

Tristan is also an avid PC gamer, with FFX and Rocket League being his favorite games.

If you have any questions, feedback or suggestions about this article, please leave a comment below. Please note that all comments go into a moderation queue (to prevent blog spam). Your comment will be manually reviewed and approved by Tristan in less than a week. Thanks!

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