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N-Gage Or Disengage: Jani Karlsson On Nokia's Gaming Future


February 20, 2006
 

The 3GSM mobile conference in Barcelona is a truly epic show. Some 50,000 visitors descended on the Fira de Barcelona to variously sell, discuss, plan, or just learn about the emerging opportunities and issue facing the mobile technology and entertainment market. Gaming is an important, but in fact, it's a relatively small part of the whole. With ‘content’ tucked away into a corner of Hall 2, the show isn’t the place to actually experience the games themselves. It is however, a place to talk about platforms.


Nokia's Jani Karlsson

Jani Karlsson is the Senior Manager for N-Gage at Nokia. Having worked on Forum Nokia on communities and multi-player development, it made sense for him to move over to this emerging gaming platform when it first began development. By his own admission, he has seen it all, from significant hype through significant backlash for Nokia's tactics in the video game market.

However, though Nokia are on the cusp of making a series of significant announcements at next month's Game Developers Conference which form an effective muzzle on any discussion of the more sensitive issues surrounding the future, Gamasutra nonetheless had the chance to interview Karlsson in detail on the history and future of the N-Gage project, one of the most audacious and provocative convergent devices of recent years.

GS: Starting broadly, how has the N-Gage journey been so far?

JK: Well, as we're fond of saying - it's been a great learning experience. We've had first hand of experience of all the difficulties that game developers, publishers, platform holders and tool developers face - basically the end to end chain - all the challenges everyone is facing. So that taught us quite a lot in how to do things, and how not to do things. And obviously there have been tremendous successes with things like the arena, with the subs base being huge - the largest gaming community there is.

The basic learning is that experience is everything. Experience is the key. Not features for features sake, not power for power's sake - but always leading with the experience, with what the user actually wants and enjoys. We have something of a legacy in nokia to think in technology terms, we're a very human company but its often been very much about technology, now we're very much embracing the human experience side of technology even more so than before… Experience matters, and if you get only a tiny part of that wrong then the user rejects it. Perhaps our launch device, the original N-Gage, there were some challenges in the experience side. We learnt from that with the N-Gage QD.

GS: Looking forward, there must be a huge amount of consumer feedback to build from?

JK: It's very interesting to see those results, we always do a huge amount of research to see what the consumers think about our products and actually the original N-Gage got some of the highest rating on any of our devices. People who liked it really liked it a lot - some didn’t, but those who did really loved it.

GS: So N-Gage now, it seems like it’s been fairly quiet?

JK: I wouldn't say it has been quiet. There are some very interesting titles coming out this year - Warhammer, Civilization - I wouldn't say it's been quiet...

GS: But in terms of public visibility?

JK: Yeah, that is true - especially in the European and U.S. side, there hasn't been so much communication. Thought in Asia and in China especially its selling very strongly. It's a shift in focus rather than being quiet.

GS: I'm interested in what your message is to the development community? How is the N-Gage platform going to sit alongside the other breadth of mobile platforms that exist and moving forward what support will there be moving forwards?

JK: So tackling the fragmentation issue from the SDK side is one of the key lines we are pursuing. Working very closely with Forum Nokia and building a more future- proof development platform and environment - also working with some of the great publishers like EA, Konami, Microsoft to address the issues of fragmentation on the terminal side.

But we're also working to address the issues of fragmentation on the community side - working with operators, publishers, developers and back-end providers trying to make the federation of ideas a reality. Basically, a seamless experience for the user.

Again - how that translates into developers - it's really about giving power to create what you want to create - beefing up our toolkits and tool chains. You have a development environment that is more robust than ever before in the mobile gaming industry. That's where our efforts have been, and we're going to be announcing quite a few things at GDC. So bear with us for one more month….


The N-Gage QD hardware

GS: So what's going to happen to N-Gage as a visible brand? Both in terms of visibility and as an actual device, does it have a future?

JK: Obviously, all of our handset side is a fast based industry. With any product, as long as there is a demand it will be in the market. As we're seeing in Asia and China - there's a huge demand. Perhaps lesser so in the U.S. So we're a flexible company, we roll with the situation as need be and re-evaluate it constantly.

GS: So the new handsets which are coming out with the N-Gage technology inside. What's the visibility of the brand of N-Gage within those?

JK: I really can't comment on that because I'd be stepping on other peoples turf. Every single product that Nokia has a strong individual marketing message to it. The power to decide the visibility or non-visibility of any brand, external or internal, is really down to individual brand departments.

GS: So… you can talk about the future of N-Gage?

JK: Sure - that's all about expansion, into the smartphone areas.

GS: So, there'll be an N-Gage smartphone?

JK: I wouldn't go that far. There's going to be a platform. There hasn't been a brand announcement of yet.

GS: This is the edge of what we can talk about?

JK: You know how it goes. (Smiles) We are going to combine our resources with Forum Nokia and announce that co-operation at GDC, as we were hinting at during the Amsterdam event. That's welcome news to both the smaller developers and the bigger publishers. Nokia is a very, very big company and there are lots of doors to access it by.

The more we can simplify that access to developers the better. Forum Nokia has been extremely productive and successful in what they are doing, so it makes no sense to have two different tracks. Obviously, the needs of publishers are different to the needs of the smaller developers, so there needs to be a tiered approach.

GS: So what's your view on the emerging game content market, given that many publishers seem to have little real differentiation in their overall game portfolios by genre in the mobile arena, tending to focus on the same genres of titles. I'm wondering if there's any specific kind of content that Nokia is particularly interested in supporting?


One for N-Gage

JK: I think our responsibility is two-fold. One is to enable the content industry in exploiting the mobile market as effectively as they can. On the other hand, being the leader in our field we need to lead by example - By focusing on the areas that may not make the most financial sense at the moment, but are essential for the evolution of mobile gaming and entertainment.

GS: So what are those areas?

JK: Richer content convergence in games versus other interactive entertainment - tied in with the community features. Kind of like what Square Enix and EA have been doing all along - combining games with movies, games with music, music with movies and games and etc.. But - doing that in a way that you get a seamless experience.

Perhaps the franchise name travels like with - well I'm not going to give you any examples, but the franchise name travels but the links between media aren't always that well thought out. We really want to push that envelope further. And the community aspect will drive the whole chain. That's one example that I think is really hard to monetize at the moment - I'm not talking about multiplayer gaming - but about community as part of the experience.

The experience always continues on mobile - whether its people ringing each other up to arrange to play on online servers, or talking about the games afterwards - the experience always continues on mobile - why not tie that experience more closely to the overall entertainment experience?

GS: In the wider gaming world, there has been a lot of innovation in the last few years with controller peripherals - often this has been cited as a key factor in diversifying audiences and making play more accessible, like with EyeToy. Do you think the form factor is going to adapt to play a more central role in enabling better mobile software development - particularly in regard to diversifying audiences?

JK: Sure, the experience starts in the form factor. So there probably will be. I'm not saying that there is going to be, but we are always looking for new innovations in the design side. Like the N Series devices are utilizing the video capabilities, and the N91 is really simplifying the music experience. So I can definitely see possibilities where there are more gaming orientated devices.

GS: As part of a diversification strategy?

JK Yeah - experience leads, as I said. Whatever we can do to enrich that experience that's what we’re about.


Civilization for N-Gage

GS: So finally, discussing mobile games culturally - in terms of where they sit with the rest of videogames. How do you see their position developing? Do you think mobile phone games exist in a different consumer cultural space, and if so, do you think that gap is going to continue to exist?

JK: I would say that the gap is both closing and widening at the same time. The performance power of the soon to market devices is really catching up on the console performance. But at the same time, the expansion of the user experience means we need to cater for the current mobile gamer being really light content. That content would really look out of place on a PSP - but on a mobile phone, the quick fix is totally viable.

GS: But, if I buy a PSP, I’ll own it for a few years - but my phone upgrade cycle is annual. Do you think there's going to be a better continuity between devices? A time when the mobile phone gaming device is an alternative to a PSP or DS - existing in the same consumer space culturally?

JK: I wouldn't compare those two experiences

GS: Neither would I at the moment.. But we can speculate right?

JK: Sure we can speculate..

(PR representation interjection..) actually, no we can't..

JK: Right. I can't speculate.

GS: Hmmm. No.. I don’t think you should either.

JK: [smiles] We just want to enable experience.

With that, the interview drew to a close. With a strong commitment to the gaming experience on their emerging devices, Nokia continues to be an intriguing player to be so interested in the mobile gaming experience. But, with the N-Gage still to be entirely proven as a hardware or game platform in terms of widespread acceptance, further information on the giant company's plans will just have to wait until next month's Game Developers Conference.

_____________________________________________________


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