N-Gage: Is it Ovi, Once and For All?

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Insofar as it’s possible to feel sorry for a company that commands nearly forty per cent of the global mobile market and saw operating profits of £49m ($79m) for the first quarter of 2009, you have to feel sorry for Nokia. Due to the global recession and the company’s relatively weak presence in the burgeoning smartphone market, Nokia is on a downward trajectory. Its operating profits for the same period in 2008 were £1.32 billion.

But, for the gaming community, which is little interested in cold financial data or the vicissitudes of business, there’s a much better reason to feel sorry for Nokia: N-Gage.

The N-Gage platform has been around for a long time, on and off, and it represents perhaps the most concerted attempt by a mobile manufacturer to turn mobile gaming into a legitimate proposition. In terms of its investment in the idea, if not its success, it easily outdoes Apple.

The first iteration of N-Gage came in 2003 and it took the form of a dedicated handset laughingly referred to as the ‘pastie’. (For the benefit of American readers, a pastie is a semi-circular pastry foodstuff filled with meat, peas and carrots and much favored by rural folk.) [Ed Note: It was usually compared to a taco stateside.]

It was Nokia’s attempt to do in 2003 what the mobile industry has been attempting since the late ’90s and Apple succeeded in doing in 2008: to bring gaming, telecommunications, and media playback together on a single portable device. It went at it with gusto, too, fueled by a belief that has always been self-evident to everybody involved in mobile gaming: it should, by rights, be huge, and the fact that it isn’t is mystery.

The reasons for the device’s failure are less mystifying. At the time of its release it cost twice as much as the GBA SP, and its software library was pitiful. Over the next couple of years there was a hardware update – the cheaper and better-received N-Gage QD – and a few critical successes, but by the time Nokia released its last N-Gage game at the end of 2006 the brand was essentially a joke.

It was a surprise to many, then, that when Nokia decided to take another shot at a serious mobile gaming platform it chose to use the N-Gage name.

The focus would be different this time; rather than being a games console that you could make calls on, it was to be a phone – one of a number of compatible phones – on which you could play superior games downloaded from the N-Gage platform, a community-oriented retail channel obviously inspired by XBox Live.

Though the 2008 launch was low-key, late, and fairly chaotic, the second iteration of N-Gage was better received. The game library was – and remains – very limited, but its quality is generally high.

Launch titles like System Rush and Creatures of the Deep were impressive, and though some generic titles and lazy ports have made their way into the N-Gage showroom they share the floor with quality like Bounce Boing Voyage and One. More high profile titles are in the pipeline, too, including Spore and Dance Fabulous, a rhythm action game made in association with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics.

Scott Foe’s Reset Generation, meanwhile, had the rare distinction (for a mobile game) of being both previewed and reviewed in industry bible Edge. It’s the perfect poster child for N-Gage: polished, playable, and utterly obscure.

In July 2008, N-Gage suffered the worst conceivable blow: the App Store. Apple’s platform, along with the devices it serves, has entirely overshadowed Nokia’s already beleaguered venture, and since it arrived every company in the mobile industry – Nokia included – has scrambled to emulate Apple’s success.

Nokia’s own app store is called the Ovi Store, and it launched last Monday. Despite a few technical niggles, the Ovi Store appears to work well, and it achieves the central goals of an app store: it makes a lot of content available through a single portal, and it undercuts the mobile operators on mobile game prices.

But what does its arrival mean for N-Gage? In April Nokia announced that “all mobile games will now become available through the Ovi Store, in addition to through their existing channels.”

Not a death sentence per se, but the industry opinion canvassed immediately after the announcement was discouraging. The general feeling is that the water of Ovi will close over N-Gage’s head within a year.

“To all intents and purposes,” said one publisher, anonymously, “N-Gage is dead.”

Pocket Gamer is Europe’s leading source of news, opinion and reviews on mobile and handheld gaming.

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