Nokia - the gaming company

Prepare to N-Gage

Prepare to N-Gage

Fancy playing Tomb Raider and Sonic the Hedgehog on your mobile phone? This will soon become reality - Nokia launched its first mobile gaming device on Wednesday, throwing down the gauntlet to portable console maker Nintendo. The Bluetooth-enabled N-Gage, which resembles Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, blends the functions of a mobile phone with a handheld gaming console. According to Loren Shuster, Nokia's director for Entertainment & Media (Asia-Pacific), this combination is vital to the appeal of the N-Gage. "You can play the N-Gage via Bluetooth, which allows multiplayer gaming of up to six people. You can also use GPRS for other enhancements to the gaming experience, for instance through uploading high scores or downloading power-ups or cheats," Shuster said. The N-Gage was first unveiled last November in Beijing and Munich, along with the announcement of a partnership with game publisher Sega. Yesterday's launches in Sydney and London saw the Finnish handset maker reveal further alliances with Eidos Interactive, THQ, Taito Wireless and Activision. Fifteen game titles were previewed, including ports of Eidos' Tomb Raider and Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog. Games for the N-Gage will be stored on MultiMediaCard (MMC) cards, and distributed through mobile and gaming resellers. A full list of the games currently in development for the N-Gage can be found on silicon.com sister site, GameSpot.com. The Symbian-based N-Gage, which also sports an FM receiver and MP3 player, will come with tri-band technology and multimedia messaging service (MMS). It is equipped with a 100MHz ARM9 processor and 24MB of memory. In contrast, the Game Boy Advance offers a 16MHz processor and until its latest incarnation, the Game Boy Advance SP, lacked a backlit screen. However, observers believe that shipping the better device is only the start for Nokia. Nintendo has sold more than 150 million units of the Game Boy family around the world, and has seen off rivals such as Sega's GameGear and SNK Corp's NeoGeo Pocket over the years. "One advantage [for a console maker] would be having exclusivity to a particular hit title. Games like Tomb Raider and Sonic are already available on the Game Boy," pointed out Eric Heng, general manager of Singapore-based Replay Interactive, a video and PC game distributor. Replay is also a potential distributor for the N-Gage when it is released in the fourth quarter. In response, Shuster said Nokia is publishing some third-party games, such as Snowboarding, which will remain exclusive to the N-Gage. He added that the ability to download game enhancements distinguishes the N-Gage titles from other platforms. He didn't rule out the possibility of Nokia becoming a full-fledged game maker. "We may very well develop our games ourselves, or we may develop them using third parties... that will be determined in time," he said. Aside from the fact that the N-Gage is undoubtedly a powerful games machine, the main reasons given by each of the publishers for being keen to support it were that they very much believe in the idea of portable multiplayer gaming, and that the business model for the N-Gage is essentially identical to that of a conventional games console, so they already know it works. Neither the representatives of Nokia nor of any of the publishers were willing to comment on pricing for N-Gage hardware and software but the general view seemed to be that both will be priced in such a way as to be competitive with Nintendo's recently announced Game Boy Advance SP and its software. Given the wealth of features on the N-Gage, though, it's unlikely that it will be the cheaper of the two. Eventually, Nokia's vision is to allow users to play real-time games over existing mobile networks, with the possibility of participating in massive multiplayer environments, said Shuster. However, real-time multiplaying gaming (over mobile networks) is not going to be a reality in the first stage though that's clearly the long-term goal, he said. While Nokia is content to play a patient game, Replay Interactive's Heng believes that the handset maker will have to seize the first chance it gets. "The game industry is unforgiving. If a company fails the first time, it will be hard to get publishers to support a second attempt," he said. CNET Asia's Aloysius Choong reported from Sydney. GameSpot.com's Justin Calvert contributed to this report from London.