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Mobile phone company Nokia is set to take on both Sony and Nintendo in the portable handheld games market despite having stuffed up its first attempt at being a player in the fast growing market.

The company has begun a second assault on handheld gaming, with the launch of a second generation N-Gage platform. The company has shifted its approach, from focusing on a dedicated games system to titles which can be played on a range of Nokia devices.

At launch, only owners of the N81 can use the service but the firm plans to roll it out to other N-series phones. N-Gage has the support of developers such as EA, Gameloft and Vivendi, who are making titles for the platform.

Nokia first launched its N-Gage handset in 2003, designed to compete with the highly-successful Nintendo GameBoy. But the device was criticised for its design and poor sales led to the phone being quickly overhauled with new versions, including the QD.

 

Last year the firm said it was concentrating on N-Gage as a platform for titles, rather than as a specific handset.

Jaakko Kaidesoja from Nokia’s Play New Experience division, said the firm had learned lessons from the original launch.  “There is lots of hidden demand for games, which isn’t yet reflected in revenue and purchases Nokia persevered with the device, in different incarnations, and had sold more than two million so-called game decks by August 2007.

“This is step two. Step one was the original Nokia N-Gage launch. We are still talking about mobile devices as a convergent platform. People want to have more balanced use for their devices” he said.

‘Active market’

“If you have a game orientated design you will only reach a niche market. It’s an active market but still niche. “If you want broader reach you need to give people choice – some people want a more image-orientated phone, some a more music-focused device.”

David MacQueen, Screen Digest’s senior mobile content analyst, said Nokia had failed to reach its targets with the original N-Gage.   Mobile gaming is quite a big revenue generator. “There wasn’t a market there to support it. But there are enough N-Series phones in the market place to make developers like EA and Gameloft invest money in games for the platform.” he added.

 

N-Gage will be competing for a slice of an industry worth more than $1bn. “Mobile gaming is quite a big revenue generator,” said Mr MacQueen.

Mr Kaidesoja said Nokia was not trying to compete with dedicated handheld devices, like the Sony PSP, or DS Lite. Nintendo expects to sell almost 30 million DS Lite consoles in the coming year, while Sony says it will ship 13 million PSPs. The original N-Gage did not sell as expected N-Gage is now a software download, which once installed acts as a gateway to games.

Mr Kaidesoja said N-Gage titles were designed around the context of mobile gaming. “Lots of people talk about killing time. We are trying to create an experience that allows people to find time. It’s more casual and light.

“It doesn’t require an hour or half an hour. You need to complete something in five minutes and it has to be meaningful and exciting and joyful.”

Nokia has said it is now easier to find and download games using N-Gage, and customers can also “try before you buy”.  “There is lots of hidden demand for games, which isn’t yet reflected in revenue and purchases.”

 

‘Poor man’s version’

“Developers have realised they can’t just make mobile versions of big brand games, because it was seen as a poor man’s version of the full console experience,” said Mr MacQueen. “Companies have realised that mobile games have to be much more of a mainstream proposition,” he added. Mr Kaidesoja said phones like the N95, which has a built-in 3D graphics accelerator, were powerful enough to create immersive experiences.

“We are learning what consumers want, what is appealing to them. We are trying to find the golden nugget. “One of the best things we learned from the original N-Gage is that you can create a community and people appreciate the connectivity. “All of the games on the N-Gage platform have some sort of connectivity – such as instant messaging and a friends list.”

He said Nokia was looking at ways to create games which combined connectivity, with GPS, and web 2.0 applications. “We are looking at a new form of gaming, unlike our traditional ideas of games,” he said.

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