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The N-Gage dream lives on

A look back over two and a half years of Nokia's game deck

This week saw a small batch of announcements emerging from a special Nokia event in Barcelona, where the European press were treated to a glimpse of how the company's games division sees the future - even though for many, Nokia's handheld gaming ambitions may feel like a thing of the past.

It's over two and a half years since the N-Gage game deck was revealed to the world at a large, expensive press bash in central London, and the message seems to be clear from the handset market leader - it remains committed to the platform, at least in some form. N-Gage isn't going away. New software is being announced, a new online store for hardware and accessories has just launched, and the firm remains proud of N-Gage Arena, its mobile answer to Microsoft's impressive Xbox Live online gaming service.

To many, this may seem like a surprise. N-Gage has had a history which might kindly be described as chequered, but which it's probably more fair to describe as somewhat dismal. First impressions of the N-Gage device demoed in London on a chilly February evening a few years ago were not good; even giving it the benefit of the doubt as pre-launch hardware, it felt clunky and uncomfortable, with bizarre design compromises like the need to remove the battery to change the game card. E3 2003 didn't improve on the firm's performance much; the cringe-worthy press conference featuring the now-legendary "N-Gage Rap" and an appearance from former Ion Storm developer John Romero (when the hugely expensive PC flop Daikatana was still fresh in everyone's minds) was exactly the kind of misjudged pitch that can be forgiven from a new entry to the games market, but the $299 price point announced for the device was less forgivable.

Sure, by the time N-Gage arrived people had got their head around the fact that the device would be subsidised, at least to some extent, by the phone networks - but the PR damage done by announcing that price point was immense, and not helped by the fact that the game deck itself finally launched with all the flaws which had been highlighted back in February still in place, including the ludicrous "side-talkin'" design which made users hold the phone sideways to their heads in order to speak into it.

One success for Nokia, however, was signing up a good selection of third-party publishers to work on the platform. THQ, Ubisoft and Sega were among the first wave of support for the N-Gage, and the announcement that EA would also be working on the deck was a major boost for Nokia's ambitions.

The N-Gage launched around the world on October 7th, 2003, and within weeks tall tales were circulating about how poor initial sales of the system had been. To this day, we still don't know how many units the original N-Gage console sold, but we do know that in North America, it was an unmitigated disaster - within a fortnight, top retailer GameStop had dropped the price point by $100, and it dropped the system entirely from 450 of its stores the following February. In Europe, things were considerably better, but evasive answers from Nokia about actual sell-through figures failed to inspire any confidence within the industry. The N-Gage was labelled a flop by the end of 2003.

The start of 2004 didn't look much more promising; only weeks after the announcement that GameStop was pulling the system from many of its stores, Nokia took a serious punch in the gut from Electronic Arts' then-president John Riccitiello, who said that the N-Gage "just feels stupid" - a blow only partly soothed by the fact that he went on to express confidence that "Nokia will figure it out."

Perhaps the best sign that the company was prepared to try and figure it out came only months later. With Sony's PlayStation Portable and Nintendo's DS both looming at the end of 2004, Nokia made a massive revision to the N-Gage hardware - dispensing of the side talkin' design, adding a proper SD card slot and making the whole system more rugged and much more appealing to the youth audience they had hoped to capture with the platform. The N-Gage QD was instantly more successful than its predecessor, but perhaps most impressive of all was the turn-around in the firm's attitude about the device.

Back at E3, Nokia had arrogantly assured the world 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 had changed - even to the extent of a tacit admission that a battle was lost (although how badly remained a matter of argument), but a quiet determination that the war would be won.

Nokia knew right then that it needed to execute quickly if it was to get a foothold in the marketplace before the arrival of the next-gen handhelds. ""We have had a sense of urgency, and you could ask if that was the right priority - the future will tell us," the firm's games division boss Ilkka Raiskinen told us at that time. "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."

Did Nokia move fast enough? The firm claimed to have hit the million units mark the following September, but by and large, the N-Gage has fallen out of the consciousness of the gaming public and the gaming media. It's by no means a rival to the Nintendo DS or the Sony PSP - but perhaps, in its own way, the N-Gage project has been more of a success for Nokia than most people realise.

What the N-Gage did was to focus attention - even if it wasn't entirely positive attention - at the mobile gaming space at a point when it was just about ready to break out to a wider market. Through Nokia's involvement, companies like EA and Sega launched major titles onto a platform that was effectively a mobile phone, and development on innovative games like Sega's Pocket Kingdom and Nokia's own Pathway to Glory was enabled. Most importantly of all, gamers were made aware that mobile gaming existed, and was evolving.

And of course, for Nokia, it gave the company a new dimension to its product range - a handset which was sold on the strength of its capabilities as a gaming device, and the obvious choice for any person buying a mobile phone who fancied playing some mobile games - be those over the air titles or titles bought on N-Gage cartridges. In ways, perhaps, you could almost see the N-Gage as a spiritual ancestor to devices like Motorola's music-dedicated ROKR phone, or Sony Ericsson's range of phones sold on the strength of their digital camera functions.

As the announcements this week show, the N-Gage story is far from over. The much-maligned game deck hasn't turned out to be the world-conquering system that Nokia's hype machine initially promised - but in charting the progress of the mobile games industry, it has been an important factor over the last two and a half years. Whether that lives up to the ambition of Nokia's games division or not, of course, is a question which only they could answer - and we suspect that their lips will be sealed on that particular matter, at least for the present time.

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