Where Now For N-Gage? - A Road Map for the Next Few Years
Published by Ewan Spence at 11:25 UTC, June 6th 2008
Where does the 'next generation gaming platform' that is N-Gage go now? Ewan takes notes from the recent S60 Summit in Barcelona.
Taking to the stage at the recent S60 Summit, Xavier Carrillo Costa took great delight not only in showing off Digital Legends' latest N-Gage title (the revamped fighting game ‘One’), but also laid out, in the clearest manner yet, why the idea of mobile gaming on the Nseries devices can challenge the likes of Sony and Nintendo over the next few years.
For those of us who follow the N-Gage story in depth, especially the lean years between the N-Gage QD and the return of N-Gage as a “next generation gaming platform”, a lot of what came up wasn’t new – but the point of the platform approach was made clear, as was the fact that this is still early days and a lot of hurdles remain.
First of all, is there a market for a gaming device on mobile phones? I think this is the most interesting part of the argument – and it can be boiled down to “if you build it, they will come.” Naturally it takes a little bit more than that, but as the hardware running S60 matures, it will get into the hands of significantly more users that a regular mobile phone will. It is this user base that will start to demand high quality content, and this demand that triggers the entire renaissance.
At least that’s the theory – broken down it looks just as attractive (until you get to the last point, but more on that in a moment).
First up are comparisons to the most popular handheld system currently out there, specifically the Nintendo DS. Frankly, your regular Nseries device stomps all over the Japanese wonder at the specifications level – over three times the processor speed, a minimum of 13 times the 4MB RAM the DS uses, storage is a maximum of 256MB on DS game cards compared to anything up to 8GB onboard for an N95 8GB (and then there are microSD cards)… In a straight fight there’s little contest, and makes the Nseries look like the ultimate platform. No matter that those same specs placed alongside Sony’s Playstation Portable put those machines on a comparatively similar level.
Presentation Slide - Nintendo DS v Nokia Nseries
If the specifications aren’t enough for you, we were then presented with some stills from actual games and asked to spot which is the ‘mobile phone’ game – to be honest this is a bit of a cheat as well, because the relative screen sizes should give it away if they weren’t all scaled to the same size (PSP 480x272, S60 320x240, DS 256x192x2), let alone actually seeing them move, where I suspect the respective frame rates and camera angles would make it obvious.
All of this might make you wonder if I’m thinking that these comparisons are a bit sneaky and underhand – and you’d be right! But this is an asymmetric fight, Nokia are going up against some big names in the industry that have an inherent advantage… they’ve already proved themselves. Nokia need to not only be taken seriously by the industry, but by the individual users as well. You know, the ones that are going to demand content.
So what aces does the N-Gage platform have ready? Well the first is the user base – while the breakdown on N-Gage-capable devices hasn’t been made explicit yet by Nokia, it’s a fair assumption that they’re going to have 20 to 30 million active Nseries devices in circulation; which should be comparable to the PSP’s numbers, but still far behind the DS, currently up there with in excess of 70 million units and still selling strongly. Look beyond that, to phones which ‘should’ be able to run the N-Gage platform, to the rather more amorphous ‘converged devices’ discussed by Costa, and you get an addressable audience of 118 million devices.
"One" in action
So how do you build up the expectations of these users, how do you make them want to seek out new games and experiences on the platform? First up is to provide new ways of playing games – this has been one of the successes of the Nintendo Wii home console with its motion sensitive controller, technology that is (partly) incorporated into the Nseries devices. The opportunities for some rather radical use of the motion sensing, or GPS, or the built in microphones… well it’s all up to the game designers. We’ve already seen the vibration motor put to good use in Creatures of the Deep, and you’d be hard pushed to find a better ‘look at what we can do on mobiles now’ than Marble Maze, using the accelerometers to roll a ball around a maze, and the vibration motor to give your hand a nudge when you impact the walls.
(As an aside, I’m still waiting for LastMinute.com’s beta of ‘Bluetooth sword-fighting’ using the accelerometers in a pair of N95 8GB’s to be publicly released…)
The platform isn’t fully evolved yet, and Costa did have some requests for the Nokia design team – and they’re all geared towards getting a better gaming experience out of the upcoming new smartphones. While his talk looked at the new frontiers of sensors, input, communication and interaction over the internet, his S60 wish list seemed reassuringly familiar to anyone used to long gaming sessions on current mobiles.
Basically, the controls need sorting out. He’d like to see the directional cursor replaced with a proper rocker control (similar to the original N-Gage machines), and for this to be responsive in 8 directions through hardware (not fancy software tricks on a four way controller, as is currently used). The two gaming buttons (traditionally the A/B keys on a controller) need to be responsive and ‘solid’. Finally, the ability for genuine multiple simultaneous keypresses should be addressed.
There’s an interesting balance needed here, because if you were to make an out and out smartphone purely for games, you’d get a re-jigged Nokia QD, and I don’t think that’s where Nokia want to go. Somewhere in the middle should be achievable, and I totally agree with having a good rocker direction control, even if the stylists behind the Nseries ‘square’ look might baulk at changing the style.
The final request was a little bit more interesting – the ability to tap into other gaming social networks, such as the Xbox Live Community. Right now I really don’t see that happening, Nokia have enough to work on with the whole Ovi concept, but the open nature of social networks, and the portability of data in the Web 2.0 world is a growing issue. It would be fair to say that transferring your ‘gaming karma’ between networks from Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and Nokia (to name four) might be the big thing in 2010; right now these networks help build communities (or lock them in, depending on your view), but it's an intriguing concept nonetheless.
Right now, the market for mobile gaming is relatively undefined. With many manufacturers, carriers and development teams (and reviewers!), the message can be fragmented. Nokia’s N-Gage platform certainly reduces some of the questions in the minds of publishers, and it addresses their concerns, but only within a subset of Nokia’s range – the wider market still appears as a series of unconnected islands to the developers. With Symbian OS, S60, UIQ, Windows Mobile and other platforms starting to lend a commonality across handsets, and creating an addressable user-base that is comparable to the existing handheld market, there is a clear path forward, but it is very long, and particularly twisty.
Still, Nokia’s N-Gage platform is one of the leading contenders to chart this route, and should allow developers to not only get access to millions of handset owners, but also allow them to build up skill sets and techniques that are going to be vital to future mobile game design.
-- Ewan Spence, June 2008.
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Theres no point to compare the DS to say an N95 (Ngage) because it doesnt compare:
1) DS has over 700 games in its catalogue. NGage by comparison has LESS than a dozen games (and has been out for 3 months officially). I can already see that the new Ngage will go the way of its predecessor - a lack of games support (Quantity)
2) Nokia had NOT been consistent with their choice of hardware for the NGage platform. 3D Acceleration is not available on everything other than the N95/N82/N93. N81 misses out. Creating two different versions of games (accelerated and non) is time consuming and expensive for development not to mention being more limited to the amount of handsets you can get out there. Not only this, but the accelerometer is not available to all handsets either (so it applies to any potential Wii like games).
3) History has proven time and time again that just superior hardware does not sell a system (eg. Sega MS vs Nintendo Enterainment System). It is also the QUALITY software for the platform and "sole ownership" of games ("available only for NGage" etc).
4) You cannot seriously play anything arcade on a phone. How many times have you cursed pressing the menu button when "trying" to play Street fighter thru emulation?
Anyway.. enough B*tching..
Ultimate game (for me at least) will be to revamp Creatures of the Deep and use full 3D Acceleration along with the accelerometer. Rather than pressing just the main button to reel in, flicking the rod to sides and back and forth would be a more realistic gesture.. That would be so good.. really.. :)
If Costa wants hardware designed for gaming, he should move into the console business. Nokia shouldn't be designing phones for gaming because people don't buy the phones for gaming.
The controls do not need "sorting out" because phones aren't meant for games. They're not consoles, and most people don't want them to be consoles either.
It might come as something of a shock to game designers and game enthusiasts, but dedicated gaming hardware is very unpopular. Consoles play games well but they sell in absolutely tiny quantities compared to phones. Consoles sell perhaps 50 million a year added together, but phones sell over 1000 million a year. Consoles are a niche item, they're NOT a mainstream product. How many people in the developing world use consoles? How many elderly people? How many Windows Minesweeper addicts actually buy dedicated gaming hardware?
Phones are becoming cheaper and cheaper, smartphones too, but consoles and their games remain the same unreachable price. It's actually cheaper now to buy a brand new sim-free unlocked phone than to buy one console game.
The one single trump card that N-Gage has, the only thing that gives it a chance to get to the top of the gaming world, is the potentially massive userbase from Nokia's huge phone sales (currently 400 million a year and rising). If S60 eventually spreads to all their phones, and N-Gage is eventually on all S60 models, that would allow hundreds of millions of people to buy and play these games.
If you start compromising the phone design for the sake of gaming, you might end up throwing away those massive sales which were the only thing justifying the gaming platform in the first place.
A good phone game designer realises this and works with what they've got, they don't wish they were designing for a console. Does it really matter in phone games whether diagonal movement comes from software or hardware? Most good phone games don't even require diagonal movement.
You could of course come up with a gaming-oriented phone, but the vast majority of phone gamers would continue using ordinary phones, so how would that help the developer?
I can already see that the new Ngage will go the way of its predecessor - a lack of games support
You can see nothing of the kind, because the new N-Gage platform hasn't really launched yet, and it isn't based around gaming hardware.
The strength of N-Gage will be when it's embedded in phones straight out of the box, which will give it a potential userbase of tens of millions, perhaps eventually hundreds of millions. It means people don't even have to know N-Gage exists in order to play it, because it will be there as an icon on their desktop by default.
People won't be buying those phones for N-Gage, so the quality and quantity of N-Gage games makes little difference to its userbase.
Nokia sold 50 million S60 phones last year, and over 400 million phones in total. These are big numbers, far bigger than console sales, so even if only a small fraction actually buy the games it will still be a respectable userbase.
This embedding won't happen until this autumn, so it's WAY too early to judge the success of N-Gage.
History has proven time and time again that just superior hardware does not sell a system (eg. Sega MS vs Nintendo Enterainment System). It is also the QUALITY software for the platform
Well, comparing N-Gage to consoles does totally miss the point.
Absolutely no one buys a phone for its games, they're buying it for the phone itself. That was arguably the biggest flaw with the original N-Gage, most people want a phone to primarily be a phone rather than a gaming device.
People might want to play games after they've bought the phone, which is where the new N-Gage and other phone gaming platforms come in, but the hardware sales themselves are NOT determined at all by the quality of the games because they're not gaming devices.
Selling a phone based on games would be like trying to sell a television based on the quality of its teletext/digital text: people want teletext as a feature, but it's not the primary thing they think about when choosing a TV.
4) You cannot seriously play anything arcade on a phone. How many times have you cursed pressing the menu button when "trying" to play Street fighter thru emulation?
You can play games very easily on a phone IF THEY'RE DESIGNED FOR THE PHONE.
Yes, if you just blindly port a controller-based game from a console onto a phone it will play awkwardly, but that's due to a lazy developer rather than any innate problem with phone gaming.
Games designed for phones like Creatures Of The Deep are very easy to play, because they have been created from the ground up to be used with the buttons and d-pad that you get on a typical model. The developers of COTD do nothing but phone games, so good phone controls are something they think about constantly during the game development process.
There's also the upcoming touch-based S60 models, which would allow exactly the same control systems as the DS. A lot of people were sceptical about the DS being able to handle mainstream games, many dismissed it as a novelty, but it did work, and if it worked on the DS it can work on phones too because they'll have a similar-size screen with a similar resolution.
Yes, there's no second screen on a phone, but most DS games hardly use the second screen anyway (for example Animal Crossing just has blue sky there most of the time with the occasional bonus balloon, and Nintendogs just has the status screen or a view of the puppies).
"Phones are becoming cheaper and cheaper, smartphones too, but consoles and their games remain the same unreachable price. It's actually cheaper now to buy a brand new sim-free unlocked phone than to buy one console game."
please let me know which N-Gage compatible phone you can buy for less than a console game?
I'm not convinced about N-Gage it has been badly launched and doesnt seem to doing that well with not so many games and not on many phones as yet... It seems to me that if Nokia want to gain market share in gaming then they need to do it well. Am I being unfair by saying that they haven't done it well?
I would prefer Nokia to make good phones and concentrate on sorting out other issues rather than going in so many directions at once... It not just about adding features its about keeping high standards.
wow i found krisse's comment a more interesting read than the main article
N-gage for me is more like the icing on the cake. I dont buy a phone for N-gage but i appreciate that its there. The issue of awkward controls are overrated for me. You make do with what you have and just get use to it. I've got no problems with controls using those emulators n ported games like Quake. Just the fact that I'm able to play those amazing games on such tiny devices make me forgive their shortcomings. Awkward of course at first but by the end of the day I'm blasting away like there's no tommorow. I think the last thing Nokia needs to do is coming up with a gaming dedicated hardware. That's exactly where the first generation N-gage failed. What they need to do though is enable ALLLLL S60 phones to be N-gage compatible. There are millions of frustrated S60 users out there. Do Nokia even realize this? There's a great potential here but they are not doing it right, as usual..btw, how about having a joystick like the one on psp that doubles up as the d-pad? They dont look too shabby n work great..just a thought..
What will happen to ngage when Nokia starts shipping OpenGL ES 2.0 capable handsets next year will they also ignore hardware acceleration in these handsets as well. One thing is for certain Apple certainly wont when the iPhone transitions to their SGX based gaming enabled handsets. Nokia needs to be forward looking and focus ngage for 2009 and beyond otherwise it will just become a basic fad and not a real incentive for users to adopt.
Some of Krisse's gripe:
- Nokia shouldn't be designing phones for gaming because people don't buy the phones for gaming.
- controls do not need "sorting out" because phones aren't meant for games.
- They're not consoles, and most people don't want them to be consoles either.
- You could of course come up with a gaming-oriented phone, but the vast majority of phone gamers would continue using ordinary phones
- most people want a phone to primarily be a phone rather than a gaming device.
What on earth do you have against gaming on a mobile phone? Geez... All you provide is complaining about people actually wanting to play games on mobile phones.
You remind a granny who would have moaned in the 20th century about no one ever wanting to take pictures or shoot video using their phone.
Secondly, where do you come up with these wild and overly imaginative assumptions about user attitudes and purchasing motives? Care to provide the studies you referenced these claims from?
"Absolutely no one buys a phone for its games"
. Come on get real!
dedicated gaming hardware is very unpopular...Consoles sell perhaps 50 million a year added together, but phones sell over 1000 million a year.
You compare an entertainment device to a necessity item. Your group A consists of next-gen, latest technology consoles focused purely for entertainment purposes and group B consists of ALL personal mobile telecommunication devices. A fair comparison, huh? That is just a totally unworthwhile and meaningless comparison.
You could just as well build an argument comparing the number of all automobiles to the number of rollercoasters manufactured. One a necessity item, other a source of entertainment. Totally pointless.
PS. FWIW, I never play games on my highly capable mobile phone.
i agree with krisse a dedicated gaming handset is a no go at this stage
it'll be the one thing what would kill n-gage at this stage when they are trying to build a fanbase based around normal people and not just hardcore gamer's.
I don't see N-gage failing this time though like bchlui
there's too many good thing's about it and future plan's announced sound awsome and it's only the begining.
one thing i do agree with bchlui about is amount of available games,
i do understand it's the begining and new developer's are jumping aboard for the N-gage ride quite regular with new press release's all the time.
but i'm just eager to have more games now .
But i guess i'll have to learn to be more patient b/c down the road in near future i can imagine N-gage having a massive catalogue of games,N-gage will have the best of both worlds in term's of developer's, they'll have the big names of the console game developer's and the mobile game developer's all fighting it out releasing N-gage games SO FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT THERE.
I am with Costa about the controls. At least, allow diagonals. I'm not asking for a dedicated games phone, but I'd like a phone that isn't games unfriendly.
Of course, you can play games if they are designed for it, but it would be nice if the designers could have some more freedom. I remember playing Commando (MAME) in a Nokia 6600, a game that could be played very well if only the 6600 had diagonals. I had to stop playing and I don't think that NGage has a bright future if something so simple can not be played well.
What I really didn't expect is that people is against something that does not affect the rest of the functions of the phone.
I think the original NGage failed because it was not good phone and it was not a good game console. it was a forced mix of the two without making sure that they both do properly what they are supposed to. (like side talking phone or game console with portrait only screen) it alienated the phone user in most people, these phones alienate the gamer who would be interested in playing on a phone.
I take krisse's point of "work with what you have" but the more phones there are running NGage2 the more differences you will get in terms of hardware. some will inevitably be better for gaming than others so why not have one which is even better than those - as long as it is perfectly usable as a normal phone!
I think the fact that there is hardly any difference between phones in a certain price range makes it very hard to pick the phone you will enjoy the most. people CAN make up their minds whether they are gamers who want a device which is also a phone, or businessmen who want a communicator that is also a phone or music fans who want a mp3player good for making phone calls. if you try to create a device that does everything at the same time and on the same level you will end up pleasing nobody. on s60v3 software functionality will enable the gamers to play the little music they need or read pdf files once a year when they need to so everybody gets the all the features of the other phones except there is one area in which that particular devices excels because of its hardware.
"Nobody buys a phone to play games" ??!!! Excuse me, I've already done it twice and hundreds of other people have too. I bought an original N-Gage purely because I wanted to play games on my phone and not carry a separate games console around with me. When I discovered just how bad a compromise had been made to make a games-playing phone I ditched it and got an N-Gage QD which was a much better balance between the two. The reason N-Gage v1 failed was due to both lack of software support and hardware issues/marketing so it is absolutely stupid to say N-Gage will fail because phones are not games consoles.
Last year after much deliberation I bought a new N73 - purely because the new N-Gage platform was meant to be coming to it. I could have chosen from several other Nokia models with similar specs but I chose the N73 especially because I wanted to play games. Now I am still waiting but again this proves for some people, extra services like N-Gage games do sell phones.
The best bet would be of course to have one, standard N-Gage version available across all S60 phones so that as many people as possible have access. Of course, depending on what phone they have the access will be less or more enjoyable.
I just hope N-Gage for N73 comes out soon otherwise I will have to buy another new phone!
any news on nokia's anounced release's for this week on what day they'll be in device showroom ?
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