What is Nokia playing at?

10 Jan 2008

The phrase ‘mobile games’ usually brings to mind bad graphics, cheesy music, limited playability and rip-off prices but Nokia sees a €2bn-strong niche market opportunity.

This year represents a shift in focus for Nokia, first with the introduction of ‘Comes with Music’, a new subscription service offering unlimited music downloads and now with N-Gage, which launches officially in early 2008.

N-Gage is an application that will sit on Nokia’s N-series phones and act as a portal in which users download games, share scores with friends, browse through new and upcoming releases and create their own gaming profile.

Jakko Kaidesoja, games director for Nokia, observes how much the mobile games market has moved on since the advent of Snake for the early Nokia handsets. With bigger screens, better sound and more computing power the handset can become a pretty powerful games platform, he says.

Kaidesoja reckons the leverage of the handset as a games device is due to the fact that almost everyone has one. He feels the only barriers to uptake in mobile games today are consumers discovering them in the first place and downloading them.

This is why Nokia has been investing time and money in three key areas: choice of games, platforms and a strong community element.

With the motto ‘games for everyone’, choice is a key concern for the company when attempting to engage both the casual gamer and seasoned expert, as well as someone who has never played a game before.

The suite of games available is strengthened by Nokia’s choice of partners: Capcom, Gameloft, Glu, Vivendi Games Mobile, Digital Chocolate, EA Mobile and THQ Wireless, among others.

These publishers will supply third-party content ranging from Star Wars and Brothers in Arms to Fifa ’08 and Sims 2 Pets, aiming to cover a broad range of interests from shoot-’em-up to strategy to adventure genres.

Jon Arber, analyst with UK firm Ovum, says Nokia is not aiming to draw consumers away from the existing games consoles, “It is trying to grow the market for mobile games – and this means attracting people who do not consider themselves gamers, and may not own any gaming hardware.

“Hardcore gamers don’t want the same thing from their phone that they want from their home console – they may be looking for a five-minute time killer while on the bus.” In addition, the popularity of casual online games with the older demographic proves there is a market for games among older consumers.

“While there are some consumers who will never use their phone for anything other than calls and SMS, Nokia must ensure it offers a good customer experience and ease of use in order to attract and retain those who are interested.”

However, as both publisher and developer of games, Nokia has chosen to limit the games released on its own N-Series handsets and to use its own technology. In contrast, the majority of other mobile games are Java-based and can be downloaded and played on most brands of mobile phones.

Mark Ollila, head of Nokia Games Publishing, said there are no plans to open up this service to other mobile manufacturers adding that Nokia is aware Java games currently account for 75pc of the mobile games market.

This may seem like a risky investment on Nokia’s part given the hurdle it has to overcome in the minds of customers who assume the Nokia mobile-gaming experience may be like Java-based games.

“There is a slight risk, but this is outweighed by the potential benefits. There is still a large amount of untapped potential in the mobile games market, and N-Series owners are the ideal target group,” says Arber.

“This is part of Nokia’s Ovi Internet Services offering, which also includes music, navigation and more. At present it’s limited to N-Series devices but we expect to see it extend further down the portfolio as time goes on.”

Nokia has anticipated that customers may be wary of paying to download a mobile game they may never use, hence the various free trial offers that are either time or level based. This allows the user to play the game for a bit, decide if they like it and then go on to pay between €7 and €10 for the download.

Given the nature of varying data transfer speeds from mobile operators, Nokia provides the option of game downloads via the N-Gage website to a PC, which can then be side-loaded onto the handset. The company also gives customers a choice between credit card payment or billing through the mobile carrier.

This flexibility is not what will make or break the uptake of the N-Gage gaming service. What will really turn heads is the social networking element Nokia has tapped into.

Letting users share games, scores, message each other and in cases turn user-generated content such as photos and audio into mini-games to share with friends is what will pique the curiosity of the jaded mobile gamer.

By Marie Boran