Behind the Failure

Some of you may remember my fondness for Nokia’s portable gaming device. It looks like everyone was right, and Nokia was wrong. Now that it’s a complete failure, opinions are starting to trickle out from larger game developers. Even Nokia’s talked about some “difficulties.”

I predict that either Forbes or Fortune is going to have a “What Went Wrong” article about Nokia’s foray into portable interactive entertainment. Undoubtedly, this article will be well researched and will probably contain an interview or two with the head of the N-Gage development team, more than a few graphs comparing the sales of the N-Gage in comparison to the GameBoy Advance, and a reference to the millions of Atari 2600 cartridges of ET: the Extra Terrestrial buried somewhere in the New Mexico desert. In the meantime, I’m going to state the obvious.

I’m not going to blame Nokia for trying something ahead of its time. I am going to blame them for abysmal design and poor market research. A focus group might have helped. The N-Gage design looks like it’s trying too hard. Sure, it’s black, it’s shiny, but it’s aimed at the wrong crowd. This isn’t a $3,000 stereo receiver. It is a game playing device that happens to be a phone. Nokia marketed the device as something for “hardcore gamers,” people who live, breathe and eat games. People who play games for hours and hours. The truth of the matter is that the N-Gage is a device that is at best, awkward to play games on.

If we look at Nintendo’s offering, we get a device that has a large screen, and an easy to use controller. As soon as you put it in your hand you know that you’ll be able to play games with it. Having played with the N-Gage demo unit for a few minutes, I can attest that the ergonomics are piss poor. Raised bumps on a numeric keypad do not make “A” and “B” buttons. The joypad is a circle with vague raised, curved sections defining the cardinal directions. Microsoft moved away from this type of joypad after their initial run and changed their production model to one with a cross. This gives the player a clear tactile definition of up-down-left-right. They also made it smaller, because it was so damn big in the first place, but that’s another issue.

Just looking at the N-Gage screen is bad enough. You’re not going to want to play games on it, nor are you going to be able to. There’s just no way. There is also the issue of having to remove the battery before you can change the cartridge. The truly “hardcore” gamers like to play more than one game when they leave the house. They, like the rest of the American consumer whores, enjoy a little variety every now and again.

Don’t get me started on the whole “sidetalking” issue.

A limited production beta device would have revealed these inherent ergonomic and usage flaws before spending hundreds of millions on a gaming deck that nobody would buy. All that Nokia accomplished by rushing to market was creating an inferior product, and a disenchanted user base. Congratulations Nokia, on creating the Ford Edsel of portable gaming devices.

I think the far future is wireless, community gaming. There’s a rising trend in console games that support online play. Eventually, that trend will move to the portable gaming devices. People are tired of playing <Ed. Note: *cough*> by themselves. As we continue to migrate our social lives away from landline phones and wires in general, there will be a niche for people that want to play games on the metro against other people. It’s the future.

However, that future will not include the N-Gage.