Saturday, June 7, 2008

Where Now For N-Gage? - A Road Map for the Next Few Years

Where does the 'next generation gaming platform' that is N-Gage go now? Ewan takes notes from the recent S60 Summit in Barcelona.

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.

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’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.

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