Wednesday, July 2, 2008

N-Gage: Best or Bad

"It seems to me that some kind of editorial comparing the two eras of N-Gage might be appropriate - along the lines of N-Gage 1: middling hardware, great games / N-Gage 2: great hardware, poor games – might be in order."

In short order Krisse and I looked (electronically) at him and said that it’s way too early to make that sort of comparison. After all, the games Steve is probably remembering from the N-Gage classic are titles like Pathway to Glory or System Rush, while the new N-Gage titles springing to mind are titles like Midnight Pool (AAN's review) and Sims 2:Pets (AAN's review). This isn’t a fair comparison – not because they are different games, but because they are at different stages in the life cycle of their respective platforms.

The classic N-Gage games we all remember are from the very end of the cycle of the platform, when the programmers had been playing with the system for years, when they knew all the tricks and didn’t have to worry about basic things like control interfaces, UI and such like. When you can do the foundations of code easily, that’s when you push a system.

The early games for the N-Gage, the games which we should compare to the current crop on the next generation platform, show just how far mobile gaming has come. The launch titles were all the N-Gage had for the first four or five months, and while there was a Tony Hawk conversion in there (and a Tomb Raider conversion) which were both good 3D representations, the titles written from the ground up were dire.

Puyo-pop and Puzzle Bobble, which are staple game styles for any gaming platform, were two of the most dreadful mobile games on S60. Ever. Scoring a mightily high 30 and 22 respectively(!), these titles, along with the initial marketing and the ‘Taco Side Talking’ meme did enough damage to the N-Gage brand to ensure it would not get a fair hearing in gaming circles for a long time.

Some would argue it has still to recover.

But games on any platform invariably take 12 to 18 months to come up with the titles that define a platform. Sony Playstation Portable had a bundle of average launch titles. With more money and muscle, Sony had 24 titles, including a number of conversions, and only one title in that launch really stood out (Wipeout Pure, for those interested). Around 18 months to two years later (i.e. Q1 2008) the PSP got its triumvirate of superb games – Wipeout Pulse, Patapon and God of War. Unfortunately, they’ve now stalled in game releases, and risk losing momentum.

Anyway, back to Nokia’s gaming platforms. The original N-Gage had the aforementioned Tony Hawk, and looking at the Next Gen platform, I suspect that, with hindsight, Hooked On: Creatures of the Deep will be seen as the stand-out launch title.

Looking back at the N-Gage Classic, it took around 6-7 months for the first big title to come out that showed the promise of the system. That was the 3-D Horror-inspired shooter, Ashen, which was previewed to the world some months previously. That started a run that increased in quality, including System Rush and Pathway to Glory, but also titles like Catan, Rifts and High Seize.

While N-Gage is essentially S60 3rd Edition programming, the majority of developers that will be working on N-Gage will be new to the platform. Even those coming from the older N-Gage platform have more to learn, and the gaming industry never stands still. The standout titles previously may be seen as just run of the mill now. It’s a constant battle to be ahead and setting trends. And that needs complete familiarity with the code base. That takes time, and that’s why platforms need the two year window for a full suite of games.

But there are always gems as you go through that period. The N-Gage Classic had a massive impact with Pocket Kingdom, especially in the gaming press. It was that title, headed up by Scott Foe, which showed the commentators that N-Gage could be serious. Heck, even Penny Arcade liked it!

And it’s to Scott Foe that I think the Next Gen gaming is going to be turning to. His vision, and implementation, of Reset Generation is going to be here very shortly. And if you take the beta launch of the N-Gage Client in December 07 as the starting point, then that title is about on course for the 6-7 month 'see, this is what the platform can do' title.

So what now? Well, like any platform, Next Gen N-Gage will take time to bed in. The balancing act for Nokia is to keep the positive stories and influence about the platform afloat until the tipping point is reached. Something they failed to do with the original N-Gage. They’re just about weathering the storm now, and Reset Generation should give them some breathing space to get some monsters ready for later in 2008 and the one year anniversary. The best is yet to come, but the road there is very easy to get lost on. Focus is needed all round. Let’s see if Nokia have learned that lesson.

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