Nokia plans to start selling a combination game console and cell phone in February next year, hoping to break open a lackluster wireless gaming market.
The all-in-one "N-Gage" device allows a game to be played over a cellular telephone network among several N-Gage users, Nokia said. The device also has a Bluetooth connection, so gamers located within about 10 feet of each other can compete for free without using a costly cellular network. It will run on the Nokia Series 60 platform and the Symbian operating system.
The multiple-player gaming that N-Gage offers is the next step in cell phone games, said Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak.
"You could see this coming," Nowak said. "'Snake' debuted in 1997, then we went to downloading games onto a cell phone, then downloading even more levels for those games. This is part of that evolution."
Simple games like "Snake," in which a snake travels the screen eating dots, have become standard on cell phones despite their small screen and keypad. But over the past two years, cell phone games have improved, with offerings like Activision's "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" trying to take advantage of a new generation of cell phones with better processing power and color screens.
The Finnish cell phone maker intends not only to sell and produce the N-Gage device, but also to act as its games publisher. The games will be packaged onto memory cards that can be plugged into the phone-console combo, which will come preloaded with five games. The Nokia titles, as well as games from outside publishers, will be released in February. The company did not disclose pricing for the N-Gage or the games.
Wireless gaming faces hurdles, chiefly the current speed of wireless networks. N-Gage gamers will use minutes from their calling plans to play. The fastest networks maintained by leading carriers Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless carry data at about the speed of a dial-up modem, which is too slow for multiplayer gaming, said Jupiter wireless analyst Joe Laszlo.
Despite the obstacles, there could be opportunities to nab new customers in the games market. "The gaming audience is a well-established one, why not seek it out?" Laszlo said.
Games hardware maker Nintendo, which claims 98 percent of the handheld console market with its GameBoy, has a limited wireless gaming offering. Customers of some Japanese carriers, including NTT DoCoMo, can attach their GameBoys to cell phones, which then act as a modem for Web-based play.
Wireless gaming is supposed to generate $8 billion a year by 2007, according to figures provided by Sega, which announced it will create games for N-Gage. But so far gaming hasn't taken off even in Europe, where cell phones outnumber computers by nearly five to one, according to analysts.