I finally got around to trying out the new N-Gage platform today. The First Access package is only available to N81 users, but the "protection" was very weak, so I could try it out although I don't have an N81. My primary interest wasn't in the actual games, but in the user experience of using the platform, use N-Gage Arena and install games, like a typical user would do it, ie. on the phone itself. (It might come as a surprise to some (engineers like me), but the process of downloading a file, using the web browser on a PC, and transferring the file to the phone, is way too complicated for most users.)
After installing the SIS package (which takes 20-30 button presses or so, because of the irritating S60 installer and the fact that there are several embedded SIS files in it), I fired up the N-Gage app. At first I assumed it was a j2me midlet, because of the slow startup and the sluggish UI, but after some further investigations I'm not so sure. Anyway, it takes a good 10 seconds or so to start, which really doesn't give you a good first impression. They've tried throwing in some animations in the UI, to make it look cool, but it looks quite cheap. The graphical design looks almost decent, but doesn't look as if it had been designed by professionals, but more like something that might have been impressive if used in a C-64 demo.
Anyway, I registered an account at N-Gage Arena, which was surprisingly painless. They've done a good job here, and it should pay off, because this is not a good place to scare off potential customers. Browsing the available games is also quite a pleasant experience. There's not all that much information about the available games, but who needs that when there are free trial versions of all the games? This also seems like a very good idea to me, and should be a much more clever business decision, than doing it the way the operators do it, and just try to squeeze money from their customers with cheap movie licenses. Nokia might not be the coolest and sexiest company in the business (just look at their phones, hehe), but there's a good reason why they're so successful, and I'm afraid the best word to describe it might be "innovation" (sorry about that, I'll promise never to use that word on this blog again). Or just good engineering? Possibly.
The whole N-Gage platform is very well thought out, and I believe that by finally making games available to customers in a simple way, that isn't bound to piss them off, this could be a new start for the whole mobile games business. It will of course depend quite a bit on the actual games as well, but what I've seen so far looks good, and it seems that they've managed to put together a nice mix of casual games and games that should appeal more to typical gamers. The last group of people might not be impressed by the idea of using their phones, instead of their PSP:s or DS:es, to play games, and the input capabilities of the phones are quite horrible, but I'm guessing it's just a question of time. Nokia are good at long-term planning. They didn't give up on the idea of the phone as a gaming device just because the original N-Gage wasn't as successful as they had hoped. It wasn't a bad idea, it just wasn't very well implemented.
(I'm of course also planning to have a closer look at the games that are available, at the N-Gage Arena web site and at purchasing games. Hold your breath!)