Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Nokia: "If you want your N-Gage games on your new phone, you'll have to buy them all over again."

Nokia's next gen N-Gage platform potentially ushers in a new age of high quality connected phone gaming. However, it now seems that there's a rather large flaw at the heart of the platform: if you upgrade to a new phone, you cannot transfer any of your N-Gage games from the old phone. The only way to move your N-Gage library is to buy all your games again.

Way back in 2003, Apple's iPod was becoming pretty popular but it had a significant flaw: you couldn't replace the battery once it stopped holding charges. If you asked Apple to replace it for you, they would charge $250, which was close to the price of a brand new iPod, and this infuriated some of their fans. Two of them, the Neistat brothers, made a short film about this called "iPod's Dirty Secret" which they published on the internet generating a great deal of embarassment for Apple. Perhaps as a result of hearing about the film, Apple reduced the cost of replacing a battery from $250 to $100.

Well, it now seems that the new N-Gage platform has its own significant flaw: if you upgrade to a new phone, you will not be able to transfer your games to the new phone - your library is locked to the original handset forever.

This is in stark contrast to Nokia's Music Store service, which does let you move your music library to a new phone. Why does Nokia treat a 10 euro album differently to a 10 euro game?

How N-Gage game purchases work

Ngage game collectionIn case you're wondering what this is all about, here's a brief explanation of how the new N-Gage platform handles the sale of games:

* To install an N-Gage game you download its demo onto your phone. This contains the entire game but in a restricted form where you can only access features in the demo.
* If you enjoy the demo and want to buy the full game, you select the demo's "purchase" option, and then choose to charge the cost of the game to your phone bill or credit card. When the transaction is complete, an activation code is sent to your e-mail address, which can be used to turn the demo into the full version.

The first time you purchase a game the N-Gage application will enter the activation code automatically. However, if you ever have to reinstall the game on that phone you may need to manually enter this code to turn the demo into the full version again. This reinstallation process can be done as often as you want, so it never really matters if a game gets wiped, the only important thing is the game's activation code.

To combat piracy, the activation code is linked to just one phone. It does this by checking that phone's unique IMEI number (every phone in the world has its own), so if you try to use the same activation code on another phone it won't work.

The problems start when you try to upgrade to a new phone. Because it will have a different IMEI number, you cannot use your existing game activation codes on it, so you cannot transfer the N-Gage games you've already bought onto it.

Unless you want to carry two phones, your entire N-Gage game library has to stay at home. And if you sell your old phone, or if it breaks while out of guarantee, you lose your games forever.

What about Nokia customer care? Won't they transfer the games to your new phone?

In 2007 at Nokia's Go Play event, All About N-Gage received the general impression that games would be linked to an account rather than a particular phone, so if you upgraded phones you could take the games with you. A specific method for transferring games to a new phone was never mentioned, but we simply assumed there must be one.

Some time after the event, discussion threads about this issue on the official N-Gage Arena forums suggested that you could contact your local Nokia customer care branch, who would handle the transfer.

Unfortunately this just isn't the case. Nokia's customer care department told us that they can only transfer games if a phone is replaced at a repair centre under the terms of its guarantee. Nokia will not transfer games simply because you've bought a new phone.

We wondered if Nokia's customer services team was mistaken, but we have now had this confirmed by representatives of Nokia at a higher level: N-Gage games cannot be transferred.

Nokia's official stated policy is that N-Gage activation codes should only work on the device where they were first activated, because they feel this is an important way to combat digital piracy and ensure that their partners are not losing out on sales.

So has Nokia broken any promises?

N-GageNokia never promised that the games would be transferrable to a new phone, but then they rarely commented on this issue at all. The terms and conditions for purchasing games do indeed state that the game can only be used on one phone, so in legal terms Nokia are completely safe. Here's what they say in the middle of the Terms and Conditions:

"4.1 All Content shall be subject to the End User Software License Agreement (“EUSA”) and limited to one private installation on one N-Gage compatible Nokia device only."

However, most people never read these kinds of legal documents because they're so difficult to understand, and the average user encounters so many "Terms and Conditions" links while using websites and applications that they never bother clicking on most of them. Some people will be surprised and shocked to find that they cannot take their N-Gage library with them to their new phone, especially if they've spent tens or hundreds of euros building it up.

There is currently no "plain english" warning about this issue when you buy the games, it simply invites you to click on a link to read the terms and conditions. This is particularly awkward if you're doing the purchase on a mobile phone as its screen isn't suited to displaying large amounts of text.

There have been hints from moderators on the N-Gage Arena forum that Nokia is working on some sort of game transfer system, but this isn't at all what we heard from people higher up the corporate chain.

What the heck was Nokia thinking?

Perhaps Nokia are trying to copy the Nintendo Wii's Virtual Console, where retro and budget games are sold as cheap downloads locked to the console they were bought on. However, there is no culture of constant upgrading in the console world. A console has a typical lifespan of 4 or 5 years, and many people carry on using them for many years after that. An increasing number of people have several consoles at home under the TV, so buying a new console doesn't necessarily mean giving up the old model.
Nokia N81 running Asphalt 3

No one carries several phones with them, and few people use the same phone for 5 years, especially not the higher end models that N-Gage games run on. A typical N-Gage user may upgrade their phone every year or two, and some may even change phones several times within a year.

A more probable explanation is that Nokia is copying the policy of many third party phone game publishers who sell games cheaply but locked to one device. However, none of these publishers have ever tried to build up a multiplayer gaming community the way N-Gage is supposed to, and none of them are marketing themselves as a high profile online gaming service. It's also worth mentioning that many third party publishers do let you transfer software to a new phone if you contact their customer support with the new phone's IMEI.

A third possibility, perhaps the most likely, is that Nokia wants to allow transfers, but third party game publishers have asked Nokia to limit games to one phone forever.

Whatever the reason for this policy, it's a really really bad idea for everyone involved, including Nokia, the N-Gage platform, N-Gage gamers and third party publishers.

Ten reasons why Nokia's policy of locking N-Gage games to one phone forever is a really really bad idea

1. It punishes N-Gage's greatest fans the most

If you buy lots of N-Gage games from Nokia, you will be hardest hit when you decide to upgrade to a new phone model.At the moment N-Gage games cost about 7 to 10 euros each. If you have bought ten N-Gage games the price of moving them to your new phone will be 70 to 100 euros. If you have bought twenty full price games, the price goes up to 140 to 200 euros.

If an N-Gage user buys an N-Gage game every week for a year and then upgrades to a new phone, the cost of moving their library would be 364 to 520 euros, and that's on top of the 364 to 520 they've already paid buying the games in the first place. Moving such an N-Gage library would probably cost more than the phone itself, even if the phone was unlocked and sim-free.

2. It punishes Nokia's greatest fans the most

The more often you upgrade to the latest Nokia phone, the more often you will have to re-buy games if you want to maintain an N-Gage library. People who buy Nokia phones most often are the ones contributing the most to Nokia's profits, yet they're also the ones being forced to give up N-Gage games after the shortest period of use.

3. It encourages piracy, and may even legitimise it in some people's eyes

The moral case against using pirated copies of games is very obvious: those who buy games contribute to their development costs and encourage publishers to create more games, while those who pirate games are parasites that aren't contributing anything to anyone.

However, the moral case against piracy when you've already bought the game is very unclear. Even people who would normally never pirate games might consider using illegal copies when upgrading their phone, because from their point of view they just want to keep the games they've already paid for.

4. It discourages people from buying new N-Gage phones

N-Gage games were supposed to encourage sales of Nokia phones. Unfortunately, Nokia's one-phone-forever policy arguably discourages sales, because if someone gets a new N-Gage-compatible phone it can't access their old phone's N-Gage library. People with very large N-Gage libraries might give up on getting new phones altogether because they don't want to re-buy their games at massive expense, and they don't want to carry two phones.
5. It discourages people from buying new N-Gage games

If you upgrade to a new phone regularly, you're much less likely to buy N-Gage games on impulse as you suddenly have to think about how long it will be until your next upgrade. As you get closer to upgrade time there will be less and less incentive to buy N-Gage games, because any titles bought on your old phone will be inaccessible on your new phone.

6. It severely erodes loyalty to the N-Gage brand

N-Gage games were supposed to build a sense of loyalty to phones compatible with the platform. The idea was that people would buy the games, get hooked, and make sure that their next phone was also N-Gage compatible so they could carry on playing the games. But under Nokia's current policy, people can't carry on playing their N-Gage games even if their new phone is N-Gage-compatible, because the games can't be transferred from old phone to new phone. The entire N-Gage gaming experience is reset to zero every time a user moves to a new phone.

N-Gage users' long term loyalty to the platform carries no reward. In fact in the long term N-Gage users' loyalty will constantly be tested by being invited to pay yet again for the same games they've already bought.

7. It gives N-Gage a bad name when Nokia desperately needs to restore confidence in the brand

The N-Gage brand was spoilt by the original gen N-Gage's extremely disappointing sales, poor reviews and badly-handled launch in 2003. The name "N-Gage" is still generally associated with flops and disappointments in the gaming community. If Nokia want to carry on using the N-Gage name then they have to go out of their way to greatly improve its reputation. They need to be building bridges, mending fences, trying to win people over to their side

They've made a good start with the new generation of games, which have proved to be far higher quality than the original gen's launch lineup, and are on sale at far more reasonable prices. They've also made a good start with the N-Gage client, which has received very positive reviews from both gaming and phone sites, even from those that were sceptical about the original gen N-Gage.

However, all of the progress that Nokia is making could be wiped away if people see their games library emptying every time they move to a new N-Gage phone.
8. It undermines N-Gage's online multiplayer features

One of the key selling points on N-Gage games is the online factor: all of them contain some kind of online feature such as rankings or multiplayer. If people cannot transfer their N-Gage libraries to their new phones, a lot of them won't bother re-buying older games, so the number of people taking part in older games' online multiplayer modes will diminish much more quickly. It may become much more difficult to find people to play against online.

9. If your N-Gage phone breaks when out of guarantee, you will lose all your N-Gage games forever

Nokia has a manufacturer's guarantee on all their phones which is 2 years in Europe and 1 or 2 years elsewhere. If an N-Gage-compatible phone is no longer covered by Nokia's guarantee, then when it breaks down the games bought for the phone are gone forever. There is no legal way to get them back, because the activation codes only work with that phone.

If your N-Gage phone is out of guarantee, you'd better take good care of it because the existence of your entire N-Gage library depends on that phone continuing to work.

10. It allows future N-Gage rivals to more easily poach N-Gage's userbase

If anyone sets up a direct rival to the N-Gage platform, it will be far far easier for them to steal N-Gage's customers because of all the reasons above.
So what should Nokia do instead?

Despite its difficulties with the first generation N-Gage, Nokia could actually do really well out of the new generation N-Gage platform. If people could build up their N-Gage libraries over time, it would be a very significant reason for people to stay loyal to N-Gage and stay loyal to Nokia phones too. Someone who has invested hundreds of euros in N-Gage games will naturally want to continue using these games on their new phone.

Nokia has stated many times over the past year that it wants to become an internet services company. The essence of internet services is to get people into the habit of using your service, to keep them coming back for more, to encourage them to use your service by default. If a person's N-Gage game collection builds up over the years, the same way their music or photos or videos do, they will come to see N-Gage as their default mobile gaming service. You can't buy that kind of loyalty, it has to be earned over a long period of time, but that makes it all the more valuable when you do get it.

It could all be so cool for N-Gage users and Nokia too, if only we could move our N-Gage games onto our next Nokia phone.
How anti-piracy systems could allow game transfers to new phones

Nokia N85 8GB running Ngage appWe're not 100% sure how Nokia verifies that a game activation code matches the IMEI of a phone, and for obvious reasons they probably want to keep it a secret anyway.

However, we can make some suggestions for new systems, and we've come up with two obvious methods that would allow Nokia to protect games from piracy while also allowing game transfers to new phones:

- Game activation by consulting Nokia's servers:

If a game's activation code compares the phone's IMEI to an IMEI stored by Nokia's servers, then Nokia could themselves change the IMEI associated with an activation code so that it matched your new phone instead of your old phone. This would allow very easy transfer of games from one phone to another, because after such a change the codes would no longer work on the old phone, and they would work on the new one. The anti-piracy measures would remain intact, users would be able to transfer their game library, and everyone would be happy.

There's a possibility this may well be the system Nokia does actually use on N-Gage, in which case they have absolutely no excuse for refusing to transfer game libraries from one phone to another. Under such a system, a game transfer wouldn't compromise anti-piracy measures at all.

- Linking games to a single N-Gage account, and linking that account to a single phone:

An alternative which would also allow transfers, and which would greatly simplify the process of reinstalling games too, is to link games to an N-Gage account, and link the account to an IMEI, verified by Nokia's servers. You would have to log in with your N-Gage username before running the games you've bought. When you log in, the application would compare your current phone's IMEI to the IMEI associated with your N-Gage account on Nokia's servers. If they match, it would allow you access to your game collection.

When the time comes to upgrade to a new phone, you could simply ask Nokia to change your account's IMEI from the old phone's to the new phone's, and perhaps that process could even be automated so you could do it yourself. Because the games would only work with your account, and your account would only work with one phone, this would be just as much an anti-piracy measure as individual game activation codes.

A Final Thought

Nokia have been very careful with the N-Gage platform up to this point, there really weren't any obvious mis-steps until now. By forbidding transfers of games to new phones, it seems Nokia has made its first big blunder on the new N-Gage platform.

It's inconcievable that the issue of transferring games never came up in the platform development process, either practically with damaged handsets, or in brainstorming sessions about what could go wrong for the user. Nokia's answer, buy the games again, is sorely lacking on the customer services front. Let's hope that as the real world implications of this policy become clearer Nokia take a serious second look at it. It's not too late to allow transfers, and it would be much better to alter policy now while the number of users is still small and the damage is very limited.

Continuing with the current policy harms the platform, drives away customers, and goes against common sense. It has to change if N-Gage is to become a viable long term gaming platform and internet service.

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