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Memories of Game Dev: The N-Gage

Before coming to Microsoft and working on server software, I shipped quite a few video games during my time with Electronic Arts and Griptonite Games. Game development is a fickle mistress. Yes, you’re working on the things that you love, but slowly working on them begins to make you hate them. Also, the hours.

But I’m not writing to dissuade you from choosing a career in game dev (I think.) Rather, I was struck with a wave of memories today when reading about CES 2012 and the debut of the Nokia Lumia 900.

Now, nearly every phone I’ve had has been a Samsung – with the exception of an iPhone 3G and an iPhone 4 – and I’m currently on my second Samsung Focus (a Windows Phone). For the record, I’m on the second Focus because the first one met with an unfortunate aquatic accident and I was impatient and on vacation – with time, it turns out the old phone dried out and appears to work like a champ.

Despite never owning a Nokia, I harbor a seemingly irrational dislike of their products. True, it’s partly because I associate them with early phone owners, usually owners of Nokia phones judging from the ringers, who thought it was cool to show off every sound in their phone while at Olive Garden or a movie theatre.

But my TRUE dislike of Nokia up until this point has been because of their ill-fated gaming phone, the N-Gage. Don’t remember it? Few people do. But when the N-Gage came out, my employer (Electronic Arts) struck a deal to publish some games on the nascent platform. At the time, I was an assistant producer on the just-shipped Sims Bustin’ Out for the Game Boy Advance.

SIDE STORY: For the Sims Bustin’ Out ship party, T-shirts were made featuring the logo. And in a rare move in the games industry, they even printed up girls’ baby tees in addition to the grossly oversized men’s shirts! The only problem, of course, is that this equated to tight-fitting women’s tees with the words “Bustin’ Out” directly over one’s endowment. I’m willing to bet a well-intentioned (or perhaps not) dude did the print order for that shirt…

The GBA team was a hardy three people (my boss, our test lead, and myself), so there wasn’t much room for delegation. Basically, I was where the delegation buck stopped. So we found ourselves with a new SKU on a new platform to ship on relatively short notice. All I knew of the N-Gage was the terrible press it had already managed to garner vis a vis the “Sidetalkin'” meme inspired by the fact that one looked like one was holding a taco to one’s head when properly placing a call with the device. For a blast into the past, the Sidetalkin’ site still lives, replete with grainy photos of geeky folk holding nonsequiteur objects to their ears. Hardly an auspicious sign.

When we received our test devices, the bad press about the device proved to be wholly correct. The controls were subpar. You had to hold the device sideways to talk. The Symbian OS was… ech. But worst and most offensive of all, the phone was engineered in such a way that you had to REMOVE THE BATTERY TO CHANGE GAMES.

Yes, on a gaming-focused device, the only way to switch games was to disassemble your phone in public, cutting off your phone connection, and juggling the tiny SIM cards into position. There are no words.

We were sent quite a significant quantity of the phones (at least 25) for testing purposes, and they came with company-paid cell accounts for testing purposes. But even with prepaid accounts, no one wanted them. They sat, languishing, in my cubicle – thousands of dollars of advanced cell phone technology eschewed for embarassing design flaws.

But money was money, and hell or high water we were going to ship our SKU. Mind you, this was before mobile gaming (Snake doesn’t count) was a thing. So we were constantly encountering new and delightful edge cases that we never would have considered, like – what happens if a phone call comes in while you’re playing? And the hardware configuration was not at all similar to the Game Boy Advance, so getting the code to run was like putting a star shaped peg into a poorly-cut taco shaped hole. The contract only allowed for some minor customizations but even just a direct port proved frustrating in execution. (We contracted with a developer in England to do the actual code work, and I think the only way they survived was the full bar in their lobby.)

We did ship, though it often seemed more complex than parting the Red Sea. I could never even bring myself to use the N-Gage as a phone, though it was vastly technologically superior to my brickphone of the time (all I could afford on the starter game dev salary in CA). Lots of last-minute headaches figuring out what it meant to make a game play well on a phone OS. I’ve blocked out some of the particulars of the painful ship process in my head for survival’s sake, but I’ll always remember the neglected, dusty pile of unopened N-Gage boxes that greeted me every morning.

Back here on the other side of time, the Lumia 900 looks gorgeous, has the AMOLED screen I love so much on my Focus, has a front-facing camera which I very much lack, and has an AWESOME regular camera compared to everything else out there. And it’s LTE. Plus a partnership with Sesame Street? I don’t even know what that means, but clearly if you put Muppets on a Windows Phone, well, I’m supposed to have that phone. Excited to try one out when they make their way to stores.

And I’m excited not to have to remove the battery just to play a game.

(More info on the Lumia 900 here.)

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