Money can't buy you love in the mobile games industry.
Many companies, after cooking up a totally unique, can't-miss angle to unlock the market's fabled treasures, have tried to take a shortcut to success by purchasing it outright--with marketing blitzes, experimental technologies, lavish parties and junkets, grand licensing and retail deals, imperialistic acquisitions strategies, or any combination thereof--only to be flummoxed by byzantine structural limitations, buffeted by technical problems, batted from one mobile carrier to the next, and eventually thrown out on their ear millions of dollars lighter.
No Easy Route To Success?
It sounds harsh, but this treatment is practically a rite of passage into the mobile marketplace, where tempting cul-de-sacs outnumber real opportunities by at least an order of magnitude. Those firms that have the resources to pay the high costs of learning through experience, and can survive making a few rotten decisions, usually come back into the market with more realistic expectations; even if quick success remains elusive, they are ready to do things they know will make money and build market share.
Just ask Nokia, whose N-Gage platform was the poster child for unwise expenditure. After a period of reflection, Nokia has readied a new mobile gaming strategy designed to set the debacle right and earn back its good name in mobile gaming--and this time, it sounds like it might be workable.
Gaming blogs have been choked with N-Gage anecdotes for years, so I'll limit my contribution to a single example. One of my former GameSpot colleagues, a longtime video games journalist and critic, once told me a little story about the N-Gage's grand debut at E3 2003. As soon as he saw the original device's form-factor--the infamous "game taco," complete with side-talking functionality!--he turned to another editor and remarked, "well, that's that."
He didn't have to play any actual N-Gage games, or even pick up the device, to know that the N-Gage was DOA, especially at its $300 price point. Judging by the N-Gage's anemic sales numbers and poor retail presence, a lot of other gamers reached the same conclusion.
Making Amends For A Bad Start
Nokia realized almost immediately that the launch was a catastrophe. It made a superhuman effort to save the expensive project by quickly reengineering the device, lowering its price, wooing the games media, and rushing out new titles, but the damage had already been done. The N-Gage was the laughingstock of the entire video games industry, and before long, Nokia was having trouble getting any new N-Gage games out the door at all.
By the time the N-Gage finally built up a decent games library, Nokia had spent two full years throwing good money--bales of it--after bad. At the end of 2005, the head of Nokia's Multimedia division finally stated the obvious: Nokia needed to "make some changes."
So, Nokia has clearly taken its medicine. What's the new plan? The company started tracing the outlines at E3 2005, when N-Gage chief Gerard Wiener first introduced a range of prospective advances that would move the N-Gage platform away from the console space--where had it utterly failed to compete--in favor of the mobile games space, which is much more familiar territory to Nokia.
Steps To Change For N-Gage
The first major advance was to start selling N-Gage games via Internet and over-the-air downloads, allowing Nokia to bypass its thorny retail problem entirely, reduce manufacturing and distribution costs, and hit impulse buyers at any location. It's now very clear that the N-Gage never should have launched without this capability in the first place...but hey, better late than never!
The second advance was to spread the N-Gage platform across a range of Nokia handsets. This step would not only produce a larger user base, it would also enable Nokia to reach different types of customers; a lot of normal people would never touch an N-Gage (in fact, this is probably a good indicator of normality), but could certainly be talked into buying a good Nokia smart phone. All of this made plenty of sense, but Wiener was short on details at the time, and couldn't tell us when this stuff would actually start to happen.
Sauter On Nokia's Comeback
As it turns out, the target date for Nokia's triumphant return to mobile gaming is now Q2 2007, at least in North America. So says Gregg Sauter, Director of Games Publishing in Nokia's Multimedia Division, who graciously answered my questions concerning Nokia's new games strategy in a recent phone interview. According to Sauter, the comeback is staked upon a Nokia-developed application called Play, an application for the Symbian mobile OS which will be available any Nokia Series 60 smart phone.
Through Play, you'll be able to access all of the functionality presently associated with Nokia's mobile multiplayer service, N-Gage Arena, as well as purchase and download new games and demos. In essence, Play sounds like it will be a downloadable N-Gage dashboard with some kind of emulator or enabler included. Sauter told me that the hard launch--with full carrier support, and, presumably, a fresh marketing initiative--will come midway through next year, but that some of the new platform's features will be available before then.
Wherefore N-Gage Branding?
When asked whether Play will retain the N-Gage's branding, Sauter was coy. "An announcement on branding will come over the summer," he said, adding that "all games will be certified (by Nokia) as N-Gage games were." Logically, some kind of rebranding play must be in the works--Nokia surely wants to escape the millstone that is the N-Gage brand name, at least when courting new customers.
At the same time, however, the company won't want to lose the small but loyal customer base that's devoted to the N-Gage and N-Gage Arena during a changeover, so they may maintain an N-Gage-branded compartment within Play's architecture. As expected, Sauter also signaled Play's move away from retail. "If publishers want to, they can go retail, but we expect most sales to come over the air or through the Internet," noted Sauter.
On New Game-Oriented Nokia Devices
A final interesting tidbit from the interview has to do with Nokia's gaming device strategy. Sauter mentioned that Nokia will release new "game optimized devices" that feature landscape-oriented screens, game controls, and so forth. Also, some of these devices will sport ATI hardware video acceleration; Sauter confirmed that this will mean the bifurcation of the platform between accelerated and non-accelerated games, at least temporarily.
Although Sauter cautioned against assuming that hardware acceleration will soon reach the mass market, he went on to say that he expected accelerated devices to become "a more visible presence" by 2008. As Sauter put it, Nokia "sees a lot of promise" in high-end devices, since the company's data indicates that Series 60 device owners purchase five times more mobile games than other users; Nokia's gaming content will be priced at a "premium" level as well, which has excited Nokia's publishing and carrier partners.
It may be hard to believe that Nokia still has publishing partners after the N-Gage disaster, but there's one important thing to remember: the N-Gage may have flopped, but Nokia is still one of the largest corporations in the world. In fact, it ranks two spots ahead of Coca-Cola on Forbes Magazine's latest list! Money can't buy you love, but it'll certainly pay for more chances to win the market's heart. Nokia is older, wiser, and almost ready for Round 2. In 2007, they are sure to come out punching.
[Steve Palley is the Founder and Lead Analyst of Foci Mobile, a mobile games consulting firm. He was previously Chief Editor for Mobile Games at GameSpot and Wireless Gaming Review.]