How Nintendo almost beat Nokia to the gamephone
Could've been a contender
Letter Review: Nokia N-Gage
Interested in reading your review of Nokia N-Gage on El Reg.
I thought you might be interested in this little ditty. It's a bit long-winded but there is a point.
In the Autumn of 2001, we developed a prototype that turned the Gameboy Advance into a fully functioning phone. The idea was that we would be able to use a hybrid GSM/GPRS transport that would allow multigaming sessions with existing GBA games. Nintendo has for a while supported multi-user gaming though a simple serial connection. We believed that the connection could be replicated with the use of a network server and thus access the back library of games. Each end user would still need a copy of the game and our product. That's the very, very short version but enough to get on with.
The key thing you have highlighted is the functionality conflict caused by bundling two devices together. We got around this by having the phone plug into the GBA.
Once connected, the GBA could interact with the phone directly. You could also read the name of a calling party during game play and choose whether to answer it or not. It was a pretty cool product concept. And whilst it wasn't market ready, I think there was enough there to polish off and deliver. Couldn't have done worst then some of the fare that has since been released. It was our own diamond in the rough.
We presented this to a few people. The networks liked it (SFR in France, in particular), but said they wouldn't touch it without an equipment vendor. We then presented it to both Nokia and Siemens VC boards... here's where the interesting thinking they had became apparent. It was our view that the real competitor for both Nintendo and the handset makers was going to be Sony Ericsson. On the basis that my enemy's enemy is my friend, the thinking went that Siemens and Nokia would love it. I mean who would want to start building a mobile gaming franchise from scratch with all the issues that go with that when so obviously Nintendo could deliver all of that and more? And since Nintendo has not exhibited particular savvy or relationships with network operators, they would have loads to gain too.
The real problem was that Ericsson was going through a kind of public self-mutilation at the time and the credibility of Sony as a global cellular handset maker was limited at best. My own feeling was the competitors figured that Sony Ericsson was not a GSM player that was going to be around for the long haul. For some bizarre reason they continually identified Nintendo as the competitor and the one to gun for.
Despite the argument that it had taken Nintendo more then a decade to achieve what it has, and that Sony had a formidable franchise in PlayStation that gave it considerable momentum to go mobile, Nokia believed - and I guess still does - that it can buy the market share. Maybe - time will tell. Personally I'm doubtful, especially with PSP [PlayStation Portable] on the horizon, and the work involved in winning developers and developing compelling franchises. As to Siemens... we never really understood its thinking, although having met a fair few people in both Bracknell and Munich, schizophrenic would be a fair description. It had everything to gain from trying this... and its not as if they have a plan B. Anyway, c'est la vie.
I think I ve written enough, but to finish what happened to us? Well, after spending a lot of money and time building mock-ups prototypes and travelling (even went to Japan to meet Matsushita and Nintendo), we gave up on this and moved onto something else. We recently won a £76,000 SMART award from the DTI for it and are looking for another £400,000 to take it to market. So if El Reg has somebody who could help us then eternally grateful we would certainly be. We are also IR137 compliant so win or lose, the investor wins.
Anyway hope this has been interesting and entertaining. It's certainly brought a nostalgic chuckle remembering it all.