The N-Gage was an ambitious device that was arguably ahead of its time. It was conceived to expand Nokia’s phone business into the handheld gaming market. The device used the Symbian operating system.
It was announced in November 2002 but did not go on sale until October 2003. The reason for the delay in shipping was primarily due to the additional work required to implement a comprehensive digital rights management (DRM) solution into the platform to appease developers who were worried their games would be pirated.
It is important to note that when the N-Gage eventually shipped, it was still a year ahead of the Nintendo DS and arrived two years before Sony’s PSP.
N-Gage games were distributed on multimedia cards based on the MMC standard. One of the early challenges identified with design of the N-Gage was that in order to change the game, a user was required to remove the back cover and
the battery. This meant the phone had to be rebooted every time a user wanted to play a different game.
The distinctive design, which saw it christened as the ‘Taco phone’, incorporated the earpiece and microphone on the side of the device. This meant that you had to hold the phone sideways to your ear and it looks a little ridiculous. This posture became known as ‘side talking’.
In Nokia's defense, at the time the N-Gage was launched there was widespread concern about mobile phone radiation and the specific absorption rate (SAR) which related to the radiofrequency (RF) energy absorption by the body. As phones became thinner, the antennas were getting closer to the user’s head. Nokia designer, Frank Nuovo, came up with the 'side talk' idea in an effort to move the antenna further way from the head thereby reduced the SAR measurements.
The keys on the device were designed using Nokia’s experience of manufacturing phones. As a result, they were deliberately difficult to depress to avoid users making phantom calls when the phone was in their pocket. However, this meant the keys were unsuited to gaming, leaving users with aching hands after intensive gameplay. One of the early games to ship with the device, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, proved extremely difficult to master as a result of the solid keypad.
An impressive number of leading game developers lent their support to the N-Gage, including EA, Sega and Ubisoft. This resulted in mobile versions of well-known games such as FIFA, Rayman, Sonic and Tomb Raider being offered. Nokia also invested in creating content and self-published its own game, Pathway to Glory, in November 2004.
Nokia had high expectations for the N-Gage. In order to give the impression of strong sales and boost confidence in the gaming platform, it counted stock it had shipped to the channel, rather than to end customers, as being sold. Ultimately this led to significant inventory issues with the device. Having hoped it would sell “several millions” in the first year of availability, sales volumes fell far short.
Nokia sought to address some of the issues on the original N-Gage with the release of the N-Gage QD
in May 2004.
By 2007, Nokia had only sold three million N-Gage units and it moved away from dedicated gaming hardware to offering an N-Gage ‘platform’ that offered games across its broader portfolio of smartphones.