This week, Nokia is re-relaunching its mobile gaming service, N-Gage, in a format that it hopes will be more popular to the legions of cell phone users who like to kill time on public transit by playing Tetris.
Four years ago, Nokia entered the mobile games market with a taco-shaped device called the N-Gage that was basically a poorly designed cellphone. It didn’t fare so well, so Nokia redesigned it a year later, eventually selling two million units, pretty paltry, considering that Nokia sold 100 million cell phones this past quarter alone.
So Nokia thought better of it, ditched the hardware in 2005, and retooled the N-Gage not as a standalone device, but as an integrated piece of software for its smart phones such as the N95. In the process, it added social-networking features (all the rage today, apparently), such as the ability for players to recommend games to friends, play against each other, and brag about their high scores.
Cell phone gaming is a $4 billion industry, as reported by The New York Times today, so it’s no surprise that Nokia wants to get back into this lucrative market. What remains to be seen is if there will be enough interest in such a small niche of phones. Even if every one of the company’s 125 million Series 60 smartphones–the only phones capable of running N-Gage–were enabled with the gaming platform (which they won’t be, initially), the number of people actually using the service will most likely be quite low. An M:Metrics survey in March 2006 revealed that only 24 percent of U.S. cell phone owners actually played a game on their phone that month, and only 2.7 percent downloaded a game, citing a lack of interest and cost of games as their main reasons.
Take a look at your cell phone. Chances are there’s a few, very simple games on there, most likely Tetris or Bejeweled. How often do you play them? Also, what kind of phone do you have? Is it a $500-plus smart phone (of the type required to use N-Gage), or one you got for $50 after indenturing yourself to a carrier for two years? Which kind of phone do you think is more popular?
Unless Nokia goes a good job of convincing consumers that the new games and features of their N-Gage service justify not only the upfront cost of buying a high-end smart phone, but the estimated $10-$15 it plans to charge for games, the third iteration of N-Gage could end up just like the first two.