October 6, 2003 5:46 PM PDT

Nokia debuts cell phone gaming device

Nokia's gaming device, N-Gage, will debut Tuesday as a shadow of what it hopes to be.

The $300 handheld game player is also a cell phone, so players separated by thousands of miles can theoretically battle in real time. But live, head-to-head action only takes place for now using the N-Gage's Bluetooth wireless connection, which has about a 30-foot range.

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Doug Dawson, corporate communications manager, Nokia Canada

T-Mobile USA is instead offering "shadow gaming" to placate gamers separated by great distances. N-Gage owners download a replica of a rival's just-completed game, which is then superimposed on a live game they are playing.

For instance, say a friend plays a motorcycle-racing game. After she finishes the game, she can post it online for you to download. You can then play the same game, racing against your friend's motorcycle to try to beat her score. Shadow gaming gets its name from the gray color assigned to the downloaded character as it races along. The service costs $10 a month, and includes game cheat sheets, among other features.

Shadow gaming will have to do for now, even though T-Mobile USA product marketing director Nick Saidiner said he believes head-to-head gaming, in real time, over a cell phone network is a major part of any carrier's game plan. But modern wireless networks aren't fast enough to recreate the same experience hard-core gamers get on the wired Internet, he said. So instead of disappointing them, most carriers are choosing to wait for faster networks to be built.

"It's on the road map for everybody," Saidiner adds.

A Nokia spokesman, Keith Nowak, said Monday he wasn't aware of any carrier's plans to offer N-Gage owners live head-to-head gaming over great distances. "It's really the networks at this point; they don't make it realistic," he said.

That's good news for Nintendo, Sony and other gamemakers that are just now developing their wireless products or have no plans at all for wireless network-based gaming. Nintendo, predictably, dismissed the challenge from N-Gage, citing price as a factor. "Mainly, we find that when you go over $99, it's a hard thing to sell," one Nintendo executive said.

The N-Gage device will be the first of several aimed at tapping an as-yet-unproved market for high-end portable gaming machines.

Sony this summer announced plans for the PlayStation Portable (PSP), a handheld adjunct to its market-leading home console that will include an advanced screen, multimedia capabilities and a new optical storage format. Sony has yet to disclose a price for the device, set to go on sale in late 2004, but it's likely to be in the same range as N-Gage's device.

Start-up Tapwave, meanwhile, recently began direct sales of its Zodiac, a game-focused device that uses the Palm operating system for handheld computers.

Analysts have been skeptical about the potential size of the market for luxury handheld game players, adding that Sony has the edge in competing for such customers given its position in the game business.

 

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