John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · 11 November 2003
N-Gage Deathwatch
Nokia's highly anticipated handheld-gaming-cellphone hybrid, the N-Gage, has arrived and its DOA. Sales out of gaming retailers appear to be negligible. On the street it has been dubbed "the taco" for its taco-like shape. Virtually all critics have panned the device (if you exclude the dinner-bought "reviews"), but in my opinion they have mostly missed the really essential points in the failure. The key point is that it was a mistake to try to port the Saturday-morning kid's console experience onto a cell phone. Let's take a closer at why:

I tried the dreaded taco at a couple of the stores that are offering them (at $199).

The unit is a small and lune-shaped. If it were a taco you would only only have about three bites. I could not try it as a phone because it was locked into the demo cradle, however it was obvious to use it as a phone you would have to hold your fingers on the buttons and screen (thus smearing it and possibly pushing a button).

The demo stand is average quality (fixed controller) and has two units supposedly connected. The setup is the same used for console demos except there is no screen. The factory demo cartridge is Pandemonium. At the first store the program would not start. Interestingly enough it would not always crash at the same place. Sometimes it would fail as soon as tried to start it, othertimes you would get the splash screen and then it would fail when you selected "New Game". Both demo units at the store failed. At the second store I had more luck and the program started normally. Pandemonium is what is called a "platform game", you move the character along in a linear fashion jumping over obstacles and grabbing goodies--pretty boring for adolescents but children can be fascinated. Historically Pandemonium's main claim to fame is its 3D-generated graphics (kind of an oxymoron for a platform game--whatever), but on a 2-inch screen it's impossible to make anything out. Playstation games were designed for TV screens (19") so all the details and color just turn into a gray blur at 2 inches. For example if you look at GB games like Zelda they have blocky graphics that are easy to make out on a tiny screen. The controls were a wierd hybrid of cell phone controls and a console controller leading to some real button-pushing oddities (eg jump is the "5" key).

Analysis: it is obvious the design team came from a console, not hand-held background. Everything from the demo stand to the button layout screams console (Playstation in particular). Thus there is a lateral feel to the device instead of the usual vertical feel of most PDAs since the controls are put at the side instead of the bottom. While you can see the attempt to do something logical, the end result is a failure to recognize that console designs work naturally with the TV-controller combination and trying to put the TV on the controller might not be a good idea.

To understand why the N-Gage has got these problems compare it to the Handspring Treo, a highly successful phone-PDA. This device is doing well with the geeky yuppie crowd because it combines a phone with Palm-- read Palm not Playstation. Adults are not interested in cartridge Playstation games. They want multiple programs all simultaneously available such as email, browsers, spreadsheets, instant messenging--in other words productivity applications. Gaming for them is a 5% activity so a phone that can accept a single Playstation game is a non-starter for them. Also, note how the Treo uses the normal vertical format just like GBA.

The whole reason d'etre of this mess is the executive obsession with the code word "games". About 3 years ago all the phone execs got bombarded with the message that phones needed to have "games" so they could make more money selling software instead of just the device. But this whole buzz was wrong. What they needed was SOFTWARE in general, not games specifically. Unfortunately the "GAMES" keyword became embedded in their pea brains and would not leave. So now if you go to Sprint or Nextel's cell phone web store what do see as a menu choice? "Applications", maybe "Software", No!!! You see "Games" all because some exec high up at Sprint/Nextel/ATT etc who doesn't know the difference between a GBA and the NBA commanded "Make it play games". This is exactly the stupidity that is behind the taco and Nokia will pay dearly for blindly following hype without understanding the underlying needs. If they had made a Treo-like device instead they would be sitting pretty, but no its gotta be GAMES GAMES GAMES.

Developer's Diary 11 November 2003 · · bio · Revised 11 November 2003 · Pure Content