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Code Breakers

Being a real video game enthusiast, I had a similar problem with my Xbox – I couldn’t wait for the UK release of the Xbox, so I flew out to New York and picked one up there at launch. The result was that when the Xbox was released in the UK, I couldn’t walk down to my local game retailer and buy software – instead I had to pay a premium from an import game specialist, or order directly from the US via the Internet.

So, once again I found myself contacting Divineo, this time going for a DMS Xbit chip. This chip doesn’t even need a soldering iron, instead using pogo pins that piggyback solder spots on the PCB. Now, the fact that mod chips are becoming easier to install, means that the potential market will definitely increase, and the potential for illegal software could also increase.

Both Sony and Microsoft tried to discourage the use of mod chips with the release of their online services – basically, if a mod chip is detected you won’t be able to connect to either Xbox Live! or Sony Central Station, but this just resulted in a new breed of mod chips that could be disabled at will.

Again Nintendo tried to play it clever with the GameCube by using a proprietary disc format, and this seems to have proved pretty successful this time. Unfortunately, Nintendo still chose to region code the GameCube, but if you get your hands on the truly excellent Freeloader disc from Datel, you’ll be able to play games from any country without ever having top open your machine or touch a soldering iron. You simply place the Freeloader disc in your GameCube, switch it on, then swap the disc for an import game – it’s that simple. The fact that Nintendo still insists on releasing massive titles like Resident Evil 4 in the US and Japan months before Europe, highlights how important having a multi-region console is.

It seems that the only concession that console manufacturers make is with hand-held consoles. Traditionally there has been no region coding on hand-held console games, and with the recent releases of the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP it looks like this trend will continue. The rationale here is that a hand-held is likely to be taken with you when you travel to other countries, so you need to be able to play games from any region. However, Sony has had to bow to the Hollywood studios (not surprising since it owns one of them) and region code movies released on UMD discs.

But the question on all PSP owner’s lips is whether Sony will ever release a writable UMD drive. On one hand it would seem like an open invitation to piracy to release such a device, but it would also bring with it some merit. With the PSP being so much more than a gaming console, the idea of being able to copy home movies, or even recorded TV to UMD discs and watch them on the move is a pretty compelling one.

Ultimately though, the consumer electronics manufacturers’ obsession with region coding is all about control – it’s a way of them telling you what you can and can’t do with something that you own, and the huge growth in mod chips represents a consumer rebellion against that control. Personally, I want to be able to buy games or movies from any country and play them on my hardware, no matter where it was purchased – after all, that’s exactly what I can do with Compact Discs.

Despite my suggestion that region coding has actually encouraged software piracy, I can’t see hardware and software manufacturers changing their view any time soon. In fact, with the forthcoming media formats of Blu-ray and HD-DVD just around the corner, we can expect even more robust region coding technology and copy protection – but as the old saying goes, build a better mousetrap and nature (or a mod chip engineer) will build a better mouse.





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