Before Mobile Gaming Exploded, There Was the Nokia N-Gage

Games Features Nokia
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The mobile gaming industry has become big business. According to figures from market research firm Newzoo, revenue from mobile games is expected to double by 2017 while in October a stalwart like Nintendo became one of the latest investors in smartphone and tablet games.

But before playing games on your smartphone became so commonplace, the market was nowhere near what we recognize today. Games on mobile in the late ‘90s were defined by the likes of Snake on a Nokia phone and the idea of a portable game was associated with a Gameboy.

In the early 2000s came the wider use of color screen mobile phones and gradually more advanced games. Nokia, then a giant in the industry, made a bold play in 2003 for the intersection between phones and mobile gaming devices with the Nokia N-Gage.

The device looked much like a Gameboy Advance with its screen in the middle and buttons to the left and right. While it was also a phone for everyday use, Nokia was aiming squarely for the gaming business, which at the time was dominated by the Playstation 2, Xbox, and Gameboy.

Unfortunately the crossover device failed to capture gamers’ hearts due to a mix of poor reviews, a lacking game selection, high price tag, and the device’s design. Nokia predicted that it would sell about six million N-Gages by the end of 2004 but all in all, it sold three million units, according to reports. Nokia declined a request for an interview.

“We fear that the N-Gage will go down in history as a poorly implemented great idea,” said PC Mag’s review of the device, stating it may define the mobile games market but its design was impractical. Users could hold and play it just fine but holding it up to make a call was awkward and gave birth to the “taco” gag online.

Changing cartridges was a nightmare too. Users had to power off the phone, remove the phone’s plastic back cover, pull out the battery, insert the game, and reassemble the battery and plastic back cover. The design and usability nightmare was a far cry from the swipe of an app we’re used to today.

“Has Nokia gone insane?” asked Fortune’s Peter Lewis at the time—the response wasn’t ideal. Nevertheless the N-Gage was still trumpeted as a big move for Nokia and in hindsight, it was a somewhat prophetic device for what was still a very nascent mobile games market. Some of its core features were impressive for its time, like Bluetooth wireless multiplayer connectivity and on-board mp3 and video player but the games themselves were often lacking and this would soon hit home in the form of sales figures.

The Core Gamer

Released in October 2003, sales dogged the N-Gage. People just seemingly weren’t ready for such a mix of games and cell phone, at least not yet. Furthermore, it launched at the retail price of $299. Gameboy Advance, released in 2001, was still priced at around $100 and continued to outsell the N-Gage by a considerable margin. It also had the name value and catalog of original games to lean on.

The N-Gage, however, was profitable says Anssi Vanjoki, former vice president of the firm’s phones division and once tipped to be CEO before resigning in 2010. “All in all the enterprise with the N-Gage was a profitable one but it didn’t come close to the profitability of other businesses that we were having at Nokia at the time,” he tells Paste, explaining that the device was a little too early for what would ultimately become a massive industry: “It just started to happen five or six years later than what we thought.”

Nokia appeared to have the right idea. It was certainly on to something with mobile gaming but the messaging wasn’t always clear. Who exactly was Nokia targeting with the device? According to Vanjoki, it was looking at people already playing devices like a Gameboy. This core gamer market would prove a tough nut to crack.

“It’s a core gamer though not necessarily a hardcore gamer,” explains Nada Usina, formerly Nokia’s general manager of entertainment and media for North and South America, overseeing much of the N-Gage’s launch. “It was rather those who would be enthused by the prospect of games being available through a new device or way of playing.”

This was a misstep, says Shane Neville, who was a producer at Nokia, working on titles for the N-Gage and is now an indie games developer in Vancouver. “If you look at mobile games now, it was never core gamers that made gaming work on mobile. It’s casual gamers. Nokia wasn’t going for that audience at all,” he says. “I think that’s the opportunity that Nokia missed. But that was the sentiment at the time, the only people that pay for games are gamers and we’ve seen that change a lot.”

Content is King

If you’re chasing this core gamer audience then you need to have a solid selection of games to lure people in, to give them a reason to buy the device. This was another fatal flaw. In the N-Gage’s first year or two, some of the games for the device included Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Call of Duty, and Pandemonium. These were all big titles but they were also available on other consoles. There was no must-have game that enticed gamers to buy an N-Gage.

“When the X-Box came out, it was Halo and Halo drove sales,” says Neville. “There’s always a game that drives the platform. Regardless of hardware problems or concerns that other people might have, if the content is there people will buy it.”

Some game studios were excited by the prospect of what the device would be able to but other studios felt that the N-Gage and its platform was “out of their comfort zone or capability”, says Usina.

Nokia had to start somewhere, adds Vanjoki, and taking already established games was an easier route as far as populating the games catalog. “Perhaps in hindsight we were looking at games that were a little too close to console games,” he concedes.

This is not to say that the N-Gage did not make any efforts with its own games. Pathway to Glory became one of the flagship original titles and received largely positive reviews but it was released almost a year after the original device’s launch. Neville meanwhile worked extensively on the N-Gage exclusive Rifts: Promise of Power. It sold poorly but garnered its own little following and emulators can be found online.

Time to Pivot


Image of the redesigned Nokia N-Gage QD courtesy of the Flickr user Andrew Currie.

The Nokia N-Gage only sold three million units. It continually contested with an uphill battle in the burgeoning portable gaming business and the writing was on the wall. In 2004 Sony launched its first portable console, the Playstation Portable (PSP), and Nintendo began launching the Nintendo DS in late 2004 and early 2005. Nokia wasn’t just up against tough competition but rivals that already dominated the gaming space. Sony and Nintendo weren’t making devices that were also phones but as far as the consumer’s appetite for portable games consoles in the mid-00s goes, the N-Gage didn’t stand out.

But Nokia decided to react and in May 2004, released the N-Gage QD, a redesigned version of the phone that certainly looked much better. With a rounder design, it fixed the issue with changing the cartridges and moved the earpiece to front of the phone. It may have corrected the most “glaring mistakes; but it wasn’t enough to catch up in the race.

Nokia needed to pivot and that’s what it did in 2008 by relaunching the N-Gage brand as its own mobile gaming platform for Nokia’s Symbian-powered smartphones. The big efforts to reinvent the brand didn’t succeed in rekindling Nokia’s vision though. It was incompatible with certain popular Nokia phones and only a couple of dozen games were ever released on the platform.

In October 2009, the company announced the shuttering on N-Gage entirely by 2010. Vanjoki himself admits that this may not have been the best move: “What we should have done probably is stayed in the game business without a dedicated console platform and just make that available on all phones.”

The N-Gage platform was done and was to be replaced by the Ovi store and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it suffered a similar fate, closing down in 2012.

“Somebody’s always got to be at the bleeding edge and I think Nokia was always known for innovating,” says Usina, adding that she felt the media criticism at the time was overly harsh. “When you innovate, there’s a risk that you are too far ahead of the commercial curve.”

“It’s unfortunate that the media took the stance that it did around where we were heading because frankly this is exactly where the world has gone.”

We can’t say for sure that the N-Gage’s failure was solely based on the media’s negative reception of it, but one thing is for sure: the N-Gage was certainly ahead of its time.