As previously revealed, at GDC we met up with N-Gage guru Jaakko Kaidesoja (aka head of New Experience, Nokia Play) to get a heads-up on the launch plans for N-Gage, as well as the company's more medium term strategy for its new gaming platform.
Pocket Gamer: From Anssi Vanjoki's keynote, we were surprised that gaming only accounted for 4 per cent of time spent on phones.
Jaakko Kaidesoja: Well, we also know that 50 per cent of our Technology Leaders (early adopters) are playing games so it's how does gaming spread down to other users and how much money you put into the games to do this.
The 4- 5 percent is the nightmare number that always crops up. That's the dilemma but from our survey of Series 60 users in 2006, we know that 25 per cent of people are downloading games so we know the number is higher for certain groups.
If we consider what that number will be five years from now, if we do things right, I think we are looking at a much bigger number than 4 per cent.
The First Access to N-Gage has been live for a couple of weeks now, so what early feedback have you had?
I'm feeling good about that. It's been a really exciting two weeks seeing what people are writing about it, the game ratings, the number of downloads and how the community is becoming active. The idea was this isn't something we can create on our own. We want to co-create it with the community. If N-Gage doesn't serve the gaming community, what good is it?
The feedback has been positive and well received within the company and some of critical comments were well received as well. We know it's not perfect yet and there are some features people want more of. Those are the things we want to check and get on the roadmap.
The thing for consumers to understand is this is the beginning. The commercial roll-out will see more devices, more games and an update for the application with more features. What's important for us is to test the whole ecosystem – the client and the backend and the infrastructure – with thousands and ten of thousands of users. Not immediately blowing it up with millions. Therefore we need to take it step by step.
What's the timeline for the commercial launch?
I think I made a mistake in the second half of 2007 announcing launch dates and then we missed them as we discovered some surprisingly difficult things. The commercial launch will be in the coming weeks. It's not far away.
Do you think the launch games are too hardcore?
Our approach has been a little bit shotgun. There are some familiar franchises from Nokia, some industry blockbusters, some innovations such as Creatures of the Deep and some casual stuff like Tetris and World Series of Poker and Block Breaker.
Then we are following with the launch of One, which is the more immersive hardcore type of game. We have Dirk Dagger which has innovation in terms of the gameplay and a totally new story and episodic content. And then we get into the EA Sports line-up so I don't think it's particularly hardcore.
The specific launch line-up came about from the list of games passing our testing and certification process because we wanted to get the games out there to be able to open the First Access and get the feedback for the ecosystem. At this stage, the feedback isn't so important in terms of the games – although it's great to read the reviews – but it's more to test the ecosystem and the overall service. In Q2, we will see a lot of games being released.
What will be the frequency of releases? Two or three a week?
Well, there will be 25 to 30 games released by the middle of the year. There will be some balancing about how many games it makes sense to release. Initially it will be a bit quicker to get the catalogue going but whether it's two or three games a week it's hard to say.
Ideally it would be 50 to 60 games released by the end of the year, but the schedule has to make commercial sense for our partners. You also have to factor in that every platform launch is limited in terms of initial install base, although we can kickstart with some backwards compatible devices. But still you need to be aware of the economics.
There's been mention of Nokia working on mMMOGs and alternate reality games. What can you say about these?
This year we will release something along those lines; at least we are trying hard to do it. We are experimenting with rapid prototyping and seeing what actually works, not forcefully attempting something that would flop but testing with different people and finding out the concepts and then bringing it forward.
So you will start to see different innovation from different angles this year. Creebies is one example. It's a Tamagotchi but you can send your creature to the other person's phone, while Yamake is for creating content on your own and sharing with your friends. Project White Rock is one sort of experiment also.
What about N-Gage games that support 3D hardware?
I saw the 3D hardware version of One last week and it is fantastic, but 3D hardware games will break the single SKU. So first things first. We have already raised the quality bar for mobile graphics substantially and we need to educate the consumers bit by bit. Introducing something totally new, which would only be limited to a handful of handsets, maybe not the best idea at the moment but I think we will probably get something out this year.
Will that be a 3D hardware-only game or a game with 3D and 2D versions?
I think we need both in the sense we invest a lot of money in the software development and you can spice up the graphics relatively easily so it's better to have the same game available for the devices and the device will recognise what version it needs to download.
It makes it a little bit more complicated from the backend point of view, and more complex to communicate to consumers why the games might look different and then there's the pricing angle. We don't want to confuse consumers at the beginning but going forward we will start to see stuff like that and looking at future technology like OpenGL ES 2.0 [the new standard for 3D mobile hardware]. It makes you excited for the coming years.
But the economics have to be balanced. We can't put ourselves into the console trap which is always increasing the development cost. If we can't work out the commercial aspects – the distribution and the billing and the price point – if the price is stuck at €5, no one is going to do OpenGL ES 2.0 games. But if it goes up to €15 and the distribution is sorted out and the billing revenue shares are more equal, then yes.
However it's not only the graphics. The fifth version of One on OpenGL ES 2.0 would still be the same game. Instead, we need to create new concepts that are not riding purely on the graphics paradigm because people are used to the graphics paradigm. I believe our competitive advantage is to focus on the differentiation of N-Gage compared to consoles.
Operators are usually considered the biggest problem when it comes to the distribution of mobile games, so what contact have you had with them about N-Gage?
We are working with Telefonica, Vodafone and Orange where we have a common understanding of how we can do business together with N-Gage. It's a win-win-win model. They win, we win and the publishers win. And the consumers, of course.
What's important is that everyone plays to their strengths, their role in the value chain. Operators are very strong in distributing, billing, data tariffing and direct access to their consumers so certainly we want to work with Vodafones and the like.
We are jointly looking at what works with their consumers, what they feel about the game line-up. We can look at some co-marketing stuff, too, so there are various potential business models there.
Finally, in the long-term what do you expect the split to be in terms of Nokia first-party game releases versus third-party releases?
In the beginning we will have more first-party. Will it be 20/80 or 30/70 [Nokia/other publishers]? It's hard to say, but our ambition is that it will be closer to the Sony model than the Nintendo model. We want the other publishers to prosper on N-Gage. That is what will make-or-break the platform.
It's finding the right balance but it will take some time, although that doesn't mean we're not ambitious about our titles. Mark Ollila [who heads up Nokia's firstparty publishing] has a free hand and his goal is to make No.1 games and compete against the other publishers.
Our thanks to Jaakko Kaidesoja for his time. You can read our first impressions of the N-Gage First Access client here.