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Back for Round Two: Ilkka Raiskinen on Nokia's Gaming Ambitions

You might reasonably expect Nokia's head of games to be somewhat guarded around the games press. It's been a tough year for the ambitions of the Finnish company in that sector, after all - one in which the firm has been repeatedly savaged in the media, first in the specialist press but later in mainstream newspapers and magazines, for a series of disastrous decisions related to the launch of the N-Gage console. From the deeply flawed design of the system, through the cringe-worthy press conference at E3 last year, to the damaging post-launch dithering about sales figures, Nokia has had a tough time of it - and the press has been there every step of the way to make sure that their failures are highlighted. You could understand, then, if the man at whose desk the buck for the company's entire gaming operations stops wasn't happy to see games media representatives on his doorstep.

In fact, the opposite is true. Ilkka Raiskinen, Nokia's vice president in charge of games, was honest, open and talkative when we met him in the icy Finnish capital of Helsinki to discuss the company's new update to the N-Gage platform, N-Gage QD, its forthcoming portfolio of software and online services, its plans for the future and - perhaps - the lessons it has learned from the past year. Raiskinen, in fact, embodies the attitude of every Nokia executive we met at the company's stunning headquarters building - although there's some obvious trepidation at showing the QD to the games press for the first time, he, and the company as a whole, exudes a quiet confidence that is very different from the brash, self-assured and arrogant brand of confidence which was in evidence from the firm at the original N-Gage launch in London in February of last year.

Then, Nokia assured us that they were entering the games industry with a product which would quickly grab an enormous slice of the marketplace that the rest of the platform holders had completely ignored. They would take over this new "mobile online gaming" sector, become a major player, and even the might of Nintendo's Game Boy Advance was inconsequential. Nokia wasn't a company used to losing battles in the mobile space, and it showed. A year later, the mood has changed - there's a tacit admission that a battle was lost (although how badly is a matter of argument), but a quiet determination that the war will be won. Lessons have been learned; Raiskinen, and Nokia, are now confident not because of the company's past successes, but because they believe that in the QD and their forthcoming software line-ups, they have a genuinely excellent combination of platform and titles. Lessons have been learned, and with them humility - and Nokia is no longer an outsider barging into the games industry without understanding what it's getting into, but rather is a games industry company with the experience of an exceptionally tough product launch behind it.

Learning Experience

In fact, Nokia has been learning lessons right from the moment that N-Gage took its first public bow - even if it hasn't always showed it in public. N-Gage QD, a device which answers most of the key criticisms about its predecessor, has been in planning since well before the launch of the original N-Gage, Raiskinen tells us. "We started to get feedback after the initial launch [in February 2003], and after the launch we discussed which features we should incorporate in the first version and which in the second version," he explains.

"We started to develop QD before October 7th [the global launch date of the N-Gage] - it was a pretty tight schedule and that's something we want to continue to have, if need be," he adds, referring to the company's intention to continue adding new N-Gage decks to the product line-up as it perceives a market desire for them.

Although Raiskinen is very honest about the fact that the company made mistakes with the N-Gage, he's adamant that plenty of things went right, as well - and he says that Nokia never even considered dropping the N-Gage brand and starting fresh with the QD. "No, not at all," he responds when asked about the possibility "We have been getting critique on various features of N-Gage, but I still believe that N-Gage - of course we have been conducting some studies there, and we want to prove that N-Gage means mobile online gaming, and the content and the games are the key, not the device."

"We didn't consider [changing the brand] at all, and we believe that the N-Gage brand has a good appeal, especially amongst younger people and maybe casual gamers," he continues. "I think the feedback very often has come from the hardcore gamers who have compared the game experience on N-Gage to the game experience on the consoles, and of course they have been right in criticising N-Gage from that perspective."

Hardware vs. Business

The idea that games are the key to the N-Gage's future success, not hardware, is one that Raiskinen returns to time and again - and it's a theme which will be familiar to many industry watchers, since it echoes the one constantly visited by that other recent entrant to the platform holders enclosure, Microsoft. Indeed, Raiskinen freely admits that the N-Gage platform has been designed from the outset with the need to be a strong business model within Nokia's operations at the forefront, rather than any other concern.

"We need to use the economies of scale that we have," he explains. "The whole strategy is about being able to use those components which we have anyway, and test whether we can create a good enough games platform. Creating an optimal games device is easy - big screen, lots of horsepower, big battery - but making money and creating a business case that's viable, that's the tricky part. And now we are betting, or you might want to say gambling, on the fact that we can build on our mobile phone heritage in this space.

"Whether it succeeds or not, we will know in a couple of years time, but surely the strategy from our perspective is simple - we use the things that we have in-house, and try to see if they work. Once again, big screen, big battery, big processor - putting that in a device, that's fairly simple."

Although perhaps not intentionally, Raiskinen's comments about the ease with which a company can build an "optimal games device" sounds like a comment about Sony's PlayStation Portable - a console which certainly sounds like it will fulfil the criteria of "big screen, big battery, big processor," and unlike the N-Gage will be sold, initially at least, on the basis of a per-unit loss. Given the advent of such a device on the horizon (and further competition from Nintendo's DS), doesn't Nokia feel serious pressure on its N-Gage plans?

"We have been feeling all the time that we are in a hurry," Raiskinen admits. "That's why - some people have asked, why didn't you delay the launch of N-Gage until you had a better portfolio, and our thinking is that we needed to prepare, and work, and get feedback on the Arena, on GPRS performance, on wireless performance, on the various dynamics that you have in different markets - like, how do you manage the problems and challenges of combining games distribution and mobile phone distribution - all of those, we need to solve in order to be successful.

"We have had a sense of urgency, and you could ask if that was the right priority - the future will tell us. But definitely, we need to move forward, and we feel the pressure, and we feel the need to be faster and execute in a more efficient way."

Soft at Heart

For Nokia, then - keenly aware that its hardware offering will be overshadowed shortly by Sony and Nintendo's new handhelds - the true task as it sees it is to establish a unique identity for N-Gage, what Raiskinen calls "the unique N-Gage flavour", and the way to do so is through exclusive software and services offerings which utilise the mobile communications abilities of the platform. To that end, the company continues to evolve the N-Gage Arena service and add new layers of functionality, and is focusing strongly on the development of multiplayer, and even massively multiplayer, mobile gaming titles. And although it's not the first time that Nokia has talked up the possibilities presented by online mobile gaming, this time a cursory glance at the N-Gage product pipeline shows that the firm's claims have rather more substance than previously.

Key in that pipeline are two games - Sega's Pocket Kingdoms, a massively multiplayer title in which players compete with each other all around the world over mobile data networks, and Nokia's own Pathway to Glory, a partially turn based strategy title which allows a number of players to duke it out online in large, persistent campaigns. The company has promised a number of other important unveilings at E3, but for now, these two games best represent the type of title which Nokia is hoping will mark out the N-Gage as being unique even in the face of its forthcoming competitors. They're certainly both impressive titles, with far higher production values than you'd expect from a mobile game and core gameplay mechanics which take advantage of the communication possibilities of N-Gage. Interestingly, they're both also entirely 2D games, utterly eschewing the 3D capabilities of the platform.

"No - it's been kind of like a coincidence," says Raiskinen, when asked if this means that Nokia has in some way "got religion" on 2D games, which were conspicuously absent from its launch portfolio despite the obvious suitability of 2D graphics to the N-Gage display. "We also have Ashen, which is a 3D game, and Crash Nitro Kart - so it's a question of balance. We don't have an opinion on 2D versus 3D - we are not religious about that. We believe that there are good games that are excellent with 2D, and also 3D is something that there is a reason for."

"However, in the beginning, I think that we were more vocal about the 3D stuff, because that was happening for the first time in a mobile platform," he continues. "We were focusing on why the N-Gage is different and what the deltas are - and in some cases I think that our focus on that difference has kind of been implying that this is a mandatory feature. I've also read some articles saying that Nokia insists on having 3D games and doesn't want to publish 2D games at all. Of course that's never been the policy - it's always been about gameplay, always the total concept that has been crucial for deciding whether to move forward or not."

The Third Man

While Nokia is leading the way in terms of publishing games that really show off the possibilities of mobile multiplayer and N-Gage Arena, a task which it considers to be part of its duties as a platform holder, it hasn't been ignoring its third party partners either - and it hopes that other publishers will follow it in developing N-Gage titles that take advantage of the platform's possibilities.

"We anticipate more publishers coming on board," Raiskinen says in response to questioning about Nokia's relationships with third parties. "Of course this is a question that we unfortunately can't answer on behalf of the publishers, but I personally believe that the relationship [with existing N-Gage supporters] has been extremely fruitful. Our friends from the publishing world have been extremely helpful in giving suggestions and improvements, and of course we are proud that they have also started to endorse wireless and are adding in mobile and connectivity elements in their well-known franchises."

N-Gage is a somewhat fraught proposition for third party publishers, however - not only because the platform has a low installed base and suffers from software piracy problems (both issues which Raiskinen hopes that QD will go some distance to solving, commenting that new additions to the protection of N-Gage software will put the ball firmly back into the pirates' court) but also because of the constant competition from Jave based games, which are vastly cheaper and more widely available than the MMC card based N-Gage exclusive titles.

Raiskinen is unperturbed by the popularity of Java titles on N-Gage - in fact, he welcomes it. "Basically it's not really a concern because all of those will of course promote the fact of playing wireless games and playing online games," he explains, "and that will of course help devices like N-Gage because they are optimised for gameplay - we will always have better ergonomics there and so on and so forth."

He believes that the case for N-Gage games as against Java games is simply a matter of keeping ahead of the pack - with N-Gage titles presently offering functionality which won't be available in Java games for as much as a year and a half, he claims. "Right now, you can do much more hardware related stuff with N-Gage - you can do the Bluetooth multiplayer, you can have better audio, better graphics and so on and so forth. However, 12 to 18 months from now, what you see with N-Gage today is something that you'll be seeing in Java at that time. So, all the time you have to renew your portfolio and justify that you have an edge. "

He also defends the often questioned decision to opt for the MMC game distribution system in the first place - stating his belief that the types of games being seen on the N-Gage simply wouldn't have been possible if Nokia had advocated purely digital distribution for the platform. "I believe that there will always be a need for physical distribution, for various reasons," he says. "There are always games which are so big that for some reason or another, the download is not possible. If we take the current context, the games which we have been discussing will vary from 8mb to 64mb - and there are still areas in the world where downloading a meg will cost you more than one euro. The economics for downloading big amounts are not yet there."

World without Wires

The other problem which the N-Gage faces, of course, is one which consumers and publishers alike may well come to regard as the single greatest stumbling block for the platform - namely the ludicrously high cost of the GPRS data transmissions used for N-Gage Arena and other online functions. Raiskinen is adamant that Nokia is working with the rest of the industry to try and solve this problem - which could make playing online titles on N-Gage Arena prohibitively expensive in many parts of the world - but can offer only assurances, with no concrete details of how the costs will be driven down to be found.

"That's something that the whole industry is addressing, because everybody wants to increase the usage of wireless communications on the telecommunications side," he assures us. "Nokia is really committed to work to solve that, as are the carriers, and I personally feel, based on the discussions I've been having with the carriers and operators and service providers, I think we are all saying the same, and we will solve it - we want to bring GPRS to the masses."

Bringing GPRS to the masses would certainly be a major step down the road to bringing N-Gage to the masses - but that's a road down which some genuinely positive steps are being taken. Raiskinen and his team are under no illusions about how tough the task they face is going to be, however.

"First of all, of course we need to prove that we are serious about this business - we are willing to learn to and we are willing to continue to develop better games," says Raiskinen of the challenges facing the company in the run up to E3 next month. "Our challenge is of course in creating an organisation and environment that is somehow unique, so that we are different from the old Nokia but we are also different from the companies that are out there with the current generation of devices."

"Of course, for us the critical thing is to build and increase the installed base as fast as possible, because in the long run, the question is how fast you can achieve the installed base and how fast you can create a sustainable ecosystem on top of that."

Building a game hardware platform is easy, after all. Nokia now has one which should appeal to consumers; this, in effect, is where the real work starts. As Finland's finest shoulders the mammoth task of building N-Gage up to a position of strength in the short months before the arrival of Sony PSP and Nintendo DS, there's little doubt that they're the underdogs - but they've shown that they learn fast, and they claim to be very patient, both virtues which can go a long way in the games industry. The story of the N-Gage is still only beginning.

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.