Wanna Be My Friendster?

Wanna Be My Friendster?
Anywhere, Anytime, Any Phone

Max Steele | 28 Feb 2006 07:03
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I'm sipping a latte at Starbucks when an instant message arrives on my mobile phone. There's a mobile game tournament starting soon with a $30 prize, and I'm invited to play. No computer necessary, just my phone. Thirty bucks will just about cover my Triple-Shot Venti No-Foam Latte, and I've got some time to spare, so I decide to play.

When I log into the tournament chat room, dozens of other gamers are already there, wirelessly connecting from around the globe - Thailand, India, England, Australia and countless other places that might not even have Starbucks, if such places exist. All these gamers got the same SMS I did, our message traveling via satellite to virtually every carrier in the world. We stop to chat briefly, handsets engaged momentarily in slow motion mobile chat, and then we play. My mobile gaming feng shui is weak, and I lose quickly. Some guy from Poland named "Zergus" takes the prize. I wonder how many lattes you can get in Poland for $30. I wonder what time it is in Poland and all the other places I'm connected to. Who's playing me at 4 a.m. halfway around the world? I'm fascinated and intrigued by our unlikely communion in much the same way Texas Hold 'Em addicts must be, as they sit in their dorm rooms, offices and Starbucks around the world. Unlike them, however, I flip my phone closed and am quickly on my way.

This all sounds like science fiction fantasy, but it's happening right now. Cross-carrier communication problems and international access issues have not impeded the path of progress - the wireless global gaming network is up and running real-time tournaments already.

Who's responsible for this revolution? EA? Microsoft? Xbox Live Mobile? Actually, it's Nokia - courtesy of one of the most interesting acquisition and strategic redirection plays I've seen recently. Following on the heels of the much ballyhooed failure of its N-Gage game deck, Nokia has in the past year quietly transformed near debacle into sleeper strategy. Instead of focusing on one dedicated game gadget, it has started moving toward making all of its mobile phones into potential wireless gaming devices. It's an audacious plan. And it just may change everything.

Why Nokia? Where did this come from? Where is it headed now?

Those who've been reading The Escapist from the beginning may remember my prediction in "The War at Hand" that Nokia's new strategy will make it one of the most important companies in handheld gaming. Since then, I've been doing a bit of digging. It turns out our story began in Japan during the Dot Com boom of the 1990s and, ultimately, revolves around a small band of rebels from the former Sega.com.

What Dreams Were Cast
Back in the mid-'90s, Sega.com was the Xerox PARC of the online games industry: A pioneer with innovations never commercially utilized by its corporate parent. Originally known as Segasoft, a research and development division of the preeminent Sega of Japan games company, Sega.com led the vanguard in the multiplayer gaming world between 1997 and 2001. It created one of the first online game/community services (Heat.NET), launched the first massively multiplayer game capable of supporting one million players at a time (10Six), built the first gaming ISP (SegaNet), and supported the first online-enabled console (Sega Dreamcast) and first online console sports title (NFL 2K1). Sega.com entered the mobile gaming space in 2001.

In the end, after six chaotic years and facing overwhelming debt from other failing businesses, Sega of Japan decided to pull the plug on the promising but bankrupt Sega.com venture. And so, in March 2003, Sega.com was on the market for an acquirer.

It found one: Nokia.

Getting "N-Gaged" to Nokia
Nokia, the biggest phone maker in the world, was only a month away from launching its N-Gage game deck when it acquired the people and technology of Sega.com, in August 2003. Now known as the Nokia Network Games Solution Group, part of the larger Nokia games unit, the former Sega.com team designed and implemented the N-Gage Arena during 2003 and early 2004, and by spring 2004, its full community features were in place and the first community- oriented titles were being released.

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