Nokia's N-Gage™ is a forthcoming addition to Nokia's range of mobile phones available in GSM territories, scheduled to launch around Autumn 2003. Billed as a 'mobile game deck', it is basically a mobile phone with a 176x208x12bit colour screen and a d-pad, arranged horizontally in a similar fashion to the original model Game Boy Advance. It runs the Symbian 60 operating system, and can play games stored on MultiMediaCard (MMC) flash memory cards. It can also be used as an MP3 player and an FM radio, as well as (obviously) a tri-band GSM phone. As with other Nokia multimedia phones, it is also supports e-mail and MMS, and runs J2ME apps.

Perhaps the machine's most promising feature is the ability to play multiplayer games over Bluetooth, with games over the network planned for the future. Unfortunately, in most other respects the hardware has some serious design flaws. The choice of flash memory cards as the storage medium is little short of bizarre, as the cards are expensive, flimsy and require the back panel and battery to be removed to be installed. The screen is at least backlit, but the battery life is very short (3-6 hours of gameplay). The controls are somewhat cluttered and there are no shoulder buttons.

The machine boasts third party software support from Activision, Eidos, Sega, Taito and THQ. Unlike most other video games platforms, Nokia do not demand a licensing fee for creating third party software. In accordance with their company policy, they have not subsidised the cost of the hardware (it will retail at a steep 500 euros), but consumers can expect that the mobile networks will sell the machine for much less, bundled with a yearly contract. This situation is at odds to the usual 'razors and blades' model commonly used in video games, and is attractive to third party publishers. One possible downside however is that as well as there being no licensing, there is no quality control procedure- anyone is free to release software without having to run the content (or quality of the coding) past Nokia first.

It should be noted that the N-Gage is not intended to be a fully-fledged dedicated handheld games platform to directly rival the Game Boy Advance (for one thing the device will not be sold at all in Japan). It is basically a phone aimed at the teen demographic, using games as added value. Although the N-Gage is an interesting experiment, it still seems that it would be favourable for mobile gaming to concentrate on downloadable games that are not tied to one particular model of handset. Until convergence is more easily possible, I'll make do with two seperate devices (and bulging pockets).

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