March 25, 2004 9:10 AM PST

Nokia eyes N-Gage turnaround

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Nokia is counting on a few upcoming games to turn around lackluster sales for its N-Gage portable game player.

In an interview at the Game Developers Conference here, Pasi Polonen, director of games publishing for the cell phone giant, blamed slow sales for the device on initial software selection. But Nokia is still confident in the system's prospects, he said.

"We expected it to be hard. We expected it to be challenging," Polonen said. "We got all we expected from that perspective."

Nokia launched the N-Gagelast year in a high-stakes bid to claim a chunk of the portable gaming industry, long dominated by Nintendo. The pricey device, which combines a cell phone and a game player, includes a high-resolution screen, wireless Bluetooth connectivity for networking with other nearby players, and a built-in MP3 player.

But the device has attracted widespread criticism since its debut, with complaints focusing on the $300 price tag, the taco-like form that makes use as a cell phone awkward, and design decisions that include requiring players to remove batteries before they can swap out a game cartridge.

Nokia executives declined to provide sales figures for the device, but they have acknowledged that the numbers have been at the low end of company estimates. Many mobile phone carriers are giving away N-Gage units with extended services contracts.

Polonen said Nokia will address some of the design concerns with future revisions of the N-Gage, particularly the difficulty of switching game cartridges. But he said the N-Gage will always emphasize gaming functions over cell phone use.

"Everybody has been looking at this as a phone that plays games, but it's the other way around," Polonen said. "The design is clearly positioning this as a gaming device. The phone aspect is not the key driver."

Polonen said initial game selection, particularly the paucity of titles that took advantage of N-Gage's connectivity options, has been the main limiting factor for the device. He expects to see a turnaround with several upcoming games, particularly "Pocket Kingdom," a strategy game that takes advantage of N-Gage's phone connectivity to connect players to a fantasy world with thousands of simultaneous players.

"I truly believe the content has been the key," he said. "Now we're going to be seeing more games that just wouldn't be possible on any other device."

Polonen said he isn't concerned about the upcoming arrival of the PlayStation Portable (PSP), a handheld gaming device from Sony expected to rival the N-Gage in several areas. "I think the PSP will actually help us by creating a lot more discussion in this game space," he said.

 

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