The Futurist: The N-Gage Lives! But Can It Survive?

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In hindsight, the original N-Gage was doomed from the start. It’s games were simply spectacular for a mobile phone, but the device itself was bulky, had a pretty small screen, and looked more like a Choco Taco than either a phone or gaming handheld. A Nokia executive today said that they feel a company needs to ship 6 million devices in order to create a financially sustainable gaming ecosystem. Worldwide, Finland pushed 3 million of the tacos, leaving them far short of their goals

Still, the N-Gage, which was always more popular overseas than in the US, never really died. It’s had a sustained presence at trade shows and, remarkably, N-Gage Arena, the device’s online gaming platform, has been continuously running the whole time.

“We’re just really dedicated to gaming,” Gregg Sauter, Nokia’s Director of Games Publishing told me. “Look at the value of the games businesss — it’s a 30 billion dollar business. If you look at where money and margins are, this is big time entertainment.”

So how does Nokia intend to turn N-Gage — the little mobile platform that refused to die–into the dominant mobile phone-based gaming platform?

MULTI-PHONE SUPPORT

If you wanted to play an N-Gage game before, you were forced to use a single phone–the N-Gage. Considering that Nokia alone makes dozens of models, this seriously restricted their available market. Instead of N-Gage existing as a hardware device, it is now a gaming platform that works on any N-Series phone. There are tens of millions of these babies scattered around the world, meaning they’ve got a fine built-in base.

Of course, while nearly everybody who bought an old N-Gage likely also plopped down for some games, most people with N70s probably don’t care too much about gaming. Still, Nokia is confident that the sheer mass of units should create a large enough market. “About 50% of N-Series usesrs are involved in gaming,” Sauter said. “As we look at who is buying mobile games today, about 5% of users in general are purchasing games. But if you look at Series 60 users, its 20% percent or more.”

PUBLISHER SUPPORT:

The reason the PS2 kicked GameCube’s butt may partially have to do with superior hardware, but it also had far better third-party publisher support. The fact is, if any gaming platform is to survive and thrive, it needs publisher support. This is particularly true with Nokia, which lacks the first-party gaming history of Nintendo, which could concievably survive off Mario and Zelda alone.

Nokia’s got some gaming heavy hitters in their roster of friendly publishers. Guys like EA, THQ, Gameloft, and Capcom are all on board. Considering that it couldn’t have been the N-Gage’s proven track record of commercial success that convinced them, I’m curious as to how they managed it. Either way–they did it, and that’s what matters.

LIBERATION FROM CARTRIDGES

The N-Gage used to use SD card-like cartidges. Considering that an N-Series phone is a 3G, highspeed device, this is a bit antiquated. WIth new N-Gage games, while that cartridge option is still on the table for publishers, most games are now to be downloaded over the air. This will give publishers greater freedom to create both games that were too massive and amazing for tiny cartridges (MMORPGs, for instance), as well as tiny casual games that are likely too cheap to throw on one (Snakes II: The Revenge.)

I also have confirmation that there will be at least one online game that wil feature both PC and N-Gage-based versions that interact in the same world. So play at home, then continue where you left off when you hop on the bus.

COPING WITH BAD BUTTONS

Playing games on most mobiles means juggling tiny buttons that were made for dialing numbers, not shooting bad guys. As gross as the old N-Gage was, its dedicated gaming buttons and controller-like feel made playing a snap. By turning N-Gage into a cross-phone platform, they’ve lost some of that ease. Still, Nokia is intent on at least partially remedying the situation. According to Sauter, this includes disabling buttons that aren’t used in the current game you are playing (no more accidentally calling mom when you meant to kick a goal), and integrating touchscreens that will be prominent in future Nokia phones in a Nintendo DS-like fashion.

So will N-Gage the platform succeed where N-Gage the phone failed? That depends. They’ve got publisher support and are liberated from the one-phone-only jail the platform lived in before, but the secret to its success may be Nokia opening it up to other manufacturers. While this is obviously a possibility, especially considering that more non-Nokia phones are using Symbian these days, I just hope it won’t take another few years of for them to realize it.

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