Nokia Readies Curvier, Cheaper N-Gage

When the Nokia N-Gage slid into the mobile gaming market last year, it was touted as a GameBoy Advance killer. A few design limitations and a lackluster game library hindered that goal, but the company took notes and has released a sharper second effort, the QD GameDeck.

This curvier and cheaper version of the N-Gage doesn't look much different from the original combination mobile phone and game-playing product. It is 20 percent smaller and sports many design upgrades.

The QD GameDeck is priced at $199, with Tony Hawk Pro Skater bundled in.

Next Step Up

The major complaint about the original N-Gage was that users had to remove the battery to swap games. The upgraded device has an external hot-swappable MMC slot that automatically starts up the game when you plug it in, says Nada Usina, general manager of Nokia's gaming business unit.

"There's also a quick-start button so you can immediately go into gameplay from anywhere in the device," she says.

Battery life is also extended to support up to 10 hours of gameplay and 2 to 4 hours of talk time.

"The screen itself is brighter," Usina says. "We received very, very high marks on that, but we've continued to make improvements."

Using Its Advantages

The original N-Gage supported wireless gaming via Bluetooth and the N-Gage Arena, but didn't take advantage of this feature as much as it could have, says Michael Goodman, senior analyst with The Yankee Group.

"If they can truly take advantage of the wireless connectivity, the N-Gage QD could really distinguish itself," he says.

Titles for the original N-Gage also skewed younger than the device itself, Goodman adds. "Nokia tried to retarget the market for handheld game systems, taking it from adolescent male and shifting to an older market," Goodman says. "The strategy was there, but the execution was lacking."

This time, things are different, Usina says. Nokia plans more than 50 titles for the QD. Both the QD GameDeck and original N-Gage can play existing N-Gage games and Usina says new games will also run on both systems. She says 60 to 75 percent of them will have wireless support.

They might not all feature real-time gaming, but they get around it with features like "shadow racing" in Tony Hawk Pro Skater, where the second gamer races against the first gamer's performance. Nokia is headed in the right direction, Usina says.

"It's not real-time head-to-head, but it's still about the competition. Certainly, networks are going to improve and the device itself will improve with them," she says.

Upcoming: Multiplayer and More

Meanwhile, players can compete online in other ways. "In Tiger Woods '04, you'll be able to play and compete with up to four players via Bluetooth and Arena in live competition," Usina says. "Since it's turn-based, it works in multiplayer."

Nokia is also looking at mobile massively multiplayer online role-playing games, adding another M to the MMORPGs. "It's a live head-to-head experience that doesn't have any latency conflicts," Usina says.

Many of the new titles--such as a mobile version of the popular PC game Call of Duty--will be geared toward an older demographic.

Another advantage that Nokia has over traditional handheld gaming devices is the mobile-phone pricing structure. The original N-Gage cost $299 when it first shipped and dropped quickly to $199. The QD GameDeck starts at that price, and could eventually drop, Usina says.

"It's very conceivable that we can see it at $149, $129, or $99 and potentially even less," she says. "It really opens up the market. Consumers can get a high-end smart phone with game-playing capabilities at a very nice net price."

Analyst Goodman says he thinks Nokia can improve its chances with the QD GameDeck by playing on its strengths. "How are you that different from the GameBoy Advance? If you can prove that you are, you have a much better shot at success," he says.

  
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