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Analysis: Is N-Gage on the way out?

Analysis: Is N-Gage on the way out?
Nokia's announcement on Tuesday of planned changes to its Services unit, affecting 450 jobs, was deliberately vague on the implications for N-Gage.

The announcement said that "all mobile games will now become available through the Ovi Store, in addition to through their existing channels".

One way to read that is that N-Gage games will be sold through Ovi Store as well as through the N-Gage client application. Not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination - in fact, it would be a step up in terms of making people aware about N-Gage.

However, judging by the reactions of publishers canvassed by PocketGamer.biz, not to mention crestfallen comments by N-Gage staffers on Twitter and other social media services, the announcement meant more than that. In a bad way.

"To all intents and purposes, N-Gage is gone," says one publisher, while others expressed similar sentiments. The widespread expectation is that at some point in the next 6-9 months, the N-Gage brand will be subsumed into Ovi Store. Second time unlucky.

In truth, the omens haven't been good for a while now. N-Gage's Q1 games roadmap was pretty uninspiring, and most of the games that are selling well on the platform are barely-upscaled ports of Java games which could be easily sold through Ovi Store instead, for a better revenue share.

In fact, the unease about N-Gage burst into the open at last year's Nokia Games Summit, when EA Mobile outlined the various failings of the platform during a no-holds-barred keynote speech.

Publishers have since expressed unease at Nokia's slow progress in fixing these issues, while publicly continuing to espousing futuristic social location and augmented reality concepts that - for now - remain commercially unproven.

And all the while, iPhone seized the headlines and hearts of developers, with force of numbers ensuring a steady supply of ever-more innovative games, while N-Gage users waited between releases.

So what now? Ironically, in terms of rollout, N-Gage is doing pretty well, with the client now preinstalled on millions of Nokia's most popular handsets.

The N-Gage team has worked hard on innovative online marketing for the platform and key titles, while fighting for mindshare within the company at a time when music, maps and other services are also being pushed hard.

If N-Gage is on the way out, will all that effort be wasted? Hopefully not. Nokia can still have a major role to play in mobile gaming, whether as a publisher in its own right, or simply a custodian of Ovi Store. Or both.

What would be a shame would be if the talented team assembled by Nokia for N-Gage disperses to the winds (or the nearest iPhone publisher).

Games like Reset Generation, ONE, Dirk Dagger, Creatures Of The Deep, Space Impact and System Rush Evolution (not to mention the upcoming Yamake and Dance Fabulous) can hold their own with the best that iPhone has to offer.

Nokia sold 93.2 million handsets in the first quarter of this year alone, and is planning an aggressive rollout for Ovi Store. A committed internal games team there going forward would be a huge boon for the mobile games industry.

Nokia Games can still be a strong brand, even if N-Gage falls by the wayside. We know that Nokia has a team of people in place who are knowledgeable about and committed to the mobile games market.

The question now will be whether execs higher up the company have a similar commitment, as Ovi Store rolls out. Ditching N-Gage may sadly be a logical decision, but ditching mobile games entirely would be entirely the opposite.

Stuart is a freelance journalist and blogger who's been getting paid to write stuff since 1998. In that time, he's focused on topics ranging from Sega's Dreamcast console to robots. That's what you call versatility. (Or a short attention span.)

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