EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Nokia execs talk new N-Gage

EXCLUSIVE Q&A: Nokia execs talk new N-Gage
Michael French

By Michael French

February 28th 2007 at 9:30AM

In this in-depth interview Nokia's third party publishing boss Gregg Sauter and SDK product manager Peter Nielsen take Develop behind the scenes on the new N-Gage games platform…

Firstly, can you give us a quick recap on your plans for the new N-Gage?
Gregg Sauter: We are moving from the emphasis on one device. We knew where our hardware performance was going and we knew where all our device specs were going and from a games publishing perspective volume is really critical - so why consign ourselves to one device? We also knew there were so many challenges in the industry such as fragmentation and being able to access content for these new high-end devices so we decided to create a premium games platform across our converged devices.

The foundation of the platform will be built on our S60 devices which are generally our high performance devices and can get us some really good games running. From a development perspective the platform has a lot of features that provide ease of development and consistent development environment. We've built an abstraction layer that hides a lot of the differences in our devices ranges and built a C++ development environment. It makes things easier because number one it's not that easy to get things up and running on Symbian, but also we expect changes in terms of our OS in the future and by having an abstraction layer it helps provide some of those changes.

The other thing is that we know where the performance of these devices is going so by going to C++ it allows developers to bring code from other platforms and help share code across different platforms.

So in many respects you've come up with a platform that you're hoping will, be more accessible and future proof?
GS: Exactly. And we just don't want to be starting over every year and a half. We're really trying to build consistency here and from day one we wanted the target to always be to allow a developer to build one SKU, one game that will play across all these devices. We're not saying that we're going to get there on day one, but we're really going to try and alleviate the pain that a lot of people are experiencing in porting to literally hundreds of devices.

Whenever Develop talks to mobile developers one of their biggest complaints is that the market is so fractured that it's almost a self-defeating place to make games - it's a big market cut up into portions that are too small. I assume that by making a consistent platform you feel they'll have access to a bigger market almost instantly?

GS: Yes, and it also allows for there to be more new development going on - the platform essentially represents essentially global distribution, over the internet and over the air, of native content. If you're a publisher or developer and chose to build a 10MB game we now have a really consistent platform to deliver that to consumers around the world from. That's a huge part of it as well.

I mean, it's still going to be a premium platform - Java is going to be a bread and butter for many developers, but the platform is a great starting point to let people start taking advantage of these huge devices.

You say it's a premium platform - does that mean people will have to pay to access it, like Xbox Live?
GS: It's a bit of a combination between the open mobile phone platforms we have now and a console platform.

It's like a console platform because it is Nokia-run and we have a number of community features and there's the client application that is embedded on our devices. We run the platform, which means an SDK you get from us and our certification requirements to maintain quality - and by quality we don't just mean game quality we mean ensuring that the user experience is good when they get a phone call or a text message, and that the network runs properly, etc. So it is controlled in that way.

On the other side, at GDC we'll be talking in detail about the N-Gage application which is embedded in the device. It has all of the community functions and features there in order to communicate with friends, build friend lists, create tournaments and play with your gaming friends. So there is a lot of community built into it - that's the core of it. At Nokia our ethos is 'Connecting People' and that's what we're doing for gaming. The way it works is that the minute you have the N-Gage application on you are in the experience and with the community as opposed to this thing that you log onto, which was how we operated N-Gage Arena. Straight away you have access to reviews of games and so on and so forth.

So from that point of view for users there will be as much to do in terms of monitoring their friend lists and sending messages and reading about games as there will be actually playing them?
GS: That's part of it, and of course our goal is to help publishers sell more games - so for them much of the action will revolve around people saying to their friends ‘hey, I've seen this game, it's great' - word of mouth really drives sales and becomes a self-perpetual thing.

What can you tell us about how users login access the service - will there be a gamertag-style way to access, etc?
Once you want to participate in tournaments and things users will have to log in. But you don't have to do that to read reviews, get news and so on and so forth. There's a fair amount of open-community aspects available before you have to login, though.

What about user-generated content? One of your executives recently referred to N-Gage being 'Mobile Gaming 2.0' - can you elaborate on what he meant?
GS: Well we look at this as a very inclusive kind of experience as an exclusive one - what that means is that we really believe in open-communities. We have short and long-term goals and short and long-term road maps, so ultimately we want to be able to have the user who is in the N-Gage community see, for example, the FIFA community members who may be playing via their PC. So we really believe in openness of communities but having a core N-Gage community - the reason I describe it like that is to give you an idea of what our mindset is. We believe in user-created content, and convergence has obviously gone on in that internet space. As our platform evolves publishers will develop opportunities for users to add or share content.

However it's like any other platform - on Day One the basics will be there, and month after month or quarter after quarter more things will be added. And because it is a connected platform things will evolve over time - just like how people update their Windows Media Player every few months. What will be available six months on will be more than what is available on day one.

With the N-Gage Arena you could upload things like shadows of your performance in single-player games for other users to download and compete with - something quite unique at the time, especially for handheld - can we expect those kind of functions to reemerge?
GS: Absolutely - but that's really basic stuff. What we'd like to do is get even more creative than that as time goes on. Also once people get used to using different kinds of distribution, be it over the air of the internet via their PCs, it opens up more opportunities as well.

If you look at the whole Web 2.0 thing once you provide consumers with tools they will run with it, where that goes we will see and we will try and support it as much as we can.

You mention distribution - is it mostly going to be done through the N-Gage service and via the internet? Is it fair to say it's mostly digital distribution?
GS: Hmm... mostly. It's all digital, however, the technology, the platform, and the DRM doesn't prevent anyone from doing physical distribution either. The majority of sales will be over the air - cellular operators will be a key part of the platform moving forward and we expect the majority of content to go over the air and we also see a fair amount going over the internet which could be through the operator channels. So it's really up to the publisher in terms of how they want to distribute it - but it's digital and we have some unique things on the DRM side so it allows for content to be distributed just about any way you want to.

Will users be able to share games with each other? Or would that be restricted to sending demos?
GS: Everything is on a try and buy basis - there will always be a way for someone to trial a game. We are getting close to what we would call super distribution and as I keep referring to our DRM solutions, but technically with this platform you can distribute a game and, if I were a publisher for instance, email you an 8MB game which you could load onto your phone which you can try, and then buy if you want – even purchase it from your operator if you want to. So it's super-distribution in that you can send a user a game, they can try it, perhaps send it to a friend, and then that person can buy it.

But does that mean developers have to produce two versions of a game - a demo and the full thing - or just one, access to which is controlled by the DRM?
GS: There are two ways that can work.

You could download the whole game – say, a 3MB game - and you'll have a licence that will say you can only play for an hour.

The other instance is that you might have a bigger game - 10MB, say - which is a bigger download and is harder to get hold of over the air - in that example publishers will probably come up with a smaller trial version. But there are different ways for it to happen. The easy way that we would like to do it is have the whole game downloaded and give people the chance to try it for a period of time, but then it's already on their phone and you just click buy to open the full thing.

In terms of the SDK - what's in it that a developer gets when they sign up to make games for the platform?
Peter Nielsen: Following up on what Gregg said we're trying to establish independence from hardware. In the SDK it works as an abstract layer to the devices. For access to the screen of the devices you have to go through a back buffer in the SDK. The same goes with any access to keyboard input, memory management, audio control, video playback - anything you want goes through the SDK and we're providing APIs to deal with all of these functionalities as well.

Is the SDK widely available yet?
PN: We have it out with a number of studios already.

What's their reaction been?

PN: Well, those studios haven't had it long but we are getting feedback already. One of the key things is that now we are based on C++ as opposed to Symbian there has been a good response to the easier learning curve. Choosing Open C means more opportunities for development and more opportunities to find new talent and get developers involved in the creation of N-Gage games, as opposed to Symbian applications.

Has there been much of a feeling that switching to C++ might attract big developers used to making 'big' console games may be tempted to make games for the N-Gage?
PN: Absolutely and for many people development on the platform leads to an easier life when it comes to porting code across from, potentially, the original PlayStation - which is on par with what the specs we are looking at here.

If that's the case, how sophisticated can the games get in terms of what's possible or how it might compare to previous games platforms?
PN: Well, it's as much up to what a publisher or developer wants to do as what is possible. Given that we are focusing on distribution there is a 32MB file limit so, content wise, if they wanted to convert old titles they'll have to realise that they can't take all 20 levels of a PSone game across. There's a similar limitation when it comes to the memory for games - studios will have to squeeze it and make some sacrifices that way. But that is when we look at from a console perspective and moving those games to mobile. If you look at the existing mobile base and what's out there what can be done now with N-Gage means the complexity can radically go up from what was achievable in the past.

So that widening has meant that for the existing market and casual games developers there is more space to play with - and conversely those with more asset-hungry games have more breathing room to get their game made in?

PN: Yeah, absolutely. I don't have data on the average size of any games, but I'm fairly certain that we can provide much more now with the N-Gage platform than has been viable so far.

Well, having a smaller file limit hasn't hurt Xbox Live Arcade - games on that platform have sold in the millions…
PN: Yes, and it's all about easing players in and getting games into their hands so they can try it out and feel how much fun it is, and simple. Today, I think we forget that that's what the origin of our industry - I started playing on a Spectrum when I first got into games and I had tremendous fun being on that machine. So there is a lot of creativity out there that can be bough across.

Has it been very problematic for Nokia to switch its games focus from a hardware driven one that is software based and service-driven?
GS: I think it's interesting because that’s where our company is going. Nokia itself is moving from being not just a hardware manufacturer, but also delivering experiences across the board. And games are a key part of that. Delivering awesome platforms that deliver awesome experiences is where we are moving to. We've been working on that for a year and a half and In some ways it's been challenging - but someone's got to do it. Look at the mobile industry now, it's so fragmented. The reason I think what Nokia is doing will be a success is that we touch every part of the whole mobile eco-system. Every operator on earth we have a great relationship with and we sell 50 per cent of the world's converged higher-end devices. So we're in a good position in making in-roads and changing things.

So really you see the new N-Gage as the answer to a question the inherent flaws in the mobile industry have posed?
GS: Exactly. And we know you can't bite off all the problems in one chunk, but we think we've got a pretty good plan for the future. And we've got lots of industry support.

Nokia has said that the age of an N-Gage device is over, but will the platform itself inform how the hardware business approaches how the user-interface lets people play games? Or is a numerical pad and direction buttons enough?
GS: Well, like I say we know you can't solve every problem at once - we're a big company and I can tell you already that we have people internally here that work on a daily basis with all our device programs to ensure that what they are doing with devices works with what we do on N-Gage. Sometimes it's a battle, I'll be honest with you, but slowly and surely we're getting there.

A perfect example is when we were working on a currently unannounced device which, for what ever reason, wasn't accepting simultaneous key presses. So we've become aware of that and have gone through internal procedures to make sure that we're all on track. We'll get hold of a lot of devices and if the keypad is stiff or not ideal we can help them improve it. We've also got some other things coming up for unique features like landscape gaming and optimised games on devices here and there. But little by little we're influencing how games can be played and device form factors.

After the recent behind-closed-doors unveiling of the final platform to publishers and developers there was word that the platform lets publishers and developers monitor user activity and feedback. How important has pitching that been when talking to publishers and developers?

GS: It is a key feature - but the one caveat is that we will be paying attention to all the relevant legal and privacy issues related to it. Certainly we will be able to collect data on what people are doing in terms of demos, what games they are trying, and what countries those users are based in. There's a ton of data that will essentially be in real-time. But ultimately what we're aiming to do is use that to make sure  we provide a platform that actually offers what people want.

For the first N-Gage Nokia had to invest a lot to convince publishers to develop games for the platform. What's that situation like now that the N-Gage proposition has changed - has it been any easier to convince people? Or is it harder?

GS: One thing we've found that all publishers want is to make money - or profits at least. The way to help them do that is to give them instant access to a market of millions and millions of people - that's what the N-Gage platform does. That right there is key. You might have the greatest platform in the world but if you can only reach a few people then it doesn't do you any good.

With that said, firstly I'd say the response from publishers has been fantastic - and there will be more announcements of the support we have in the coming weeks. What's attracting them is the ability reach tens of millions of people and all of what we have been talking about today about evolving the industry. No one else is doing it - and developers and publishers really appreciate the fact that we’re trying to make inroads. They really support that and know that things need to evolve. One of our colleagues here said that the mobile business, especially distribution, is set up for distributing wallpaper or ring tones. In order for mobile games as an industry to grow we need to evolve on from that.


Parts of this Q&A appeared in a news analysis feature printed in the latest edition of Develop, issue 70. A PDF of the magazine can be downloaded here.