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Programmer Recalls Harsh Circumstances Behind Nokia's Handheld

"The hardware wasn't really suited for gaming."

Once upon a time, Nokia decided to combine its mobile phones with the world of gaming. That's how N-Gage was created. Made to compete with Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, it offered both games and phone functionality. However, the device's design wasn't met as well as Nokia had expected. Despite the company's efforts at redesigning the console, it was discontinued in 2006.

Recently a book about N-Gage was released telling the story in detail. Moreover, Sebastian Aaltonen, the lead programmer of the device's flagship game Pathway to Glory, went to X/Twitter to recall how hard it was to develop the title due to multiple limitations.

"Nokia spent massive amount of money [on] marketing. They wanted to look like a gaming company. Big stands at GDC and other places. Massive launch parties, lots of press invited, etc, etc. Their first problem was the hardware itself. N-Gage [had] identical hardware to their camera phone, except the camera was gone. Display was still vertical and very small. There was no GPU and no floating point unit in the CPU either."

He also said that the SDK the team was given had only two functions: "One to get the start memory address for display memory for direct write. Symbian GFX APIs were dead slow. The second one was for reading multiple key presses so that we could read diagonal (up+down) on dpad. That's it."

So "the hardware wasn't really suited for gaming." Nokia's desire to compete with Nintendo and Sony in the handheld department was doomed because the two companies offered GPUs and bigger screens in landscape orientation. N-Gage was basically just a phone in a new casing.

While you could finally play online games on a handheld device, it was way too early, according to c. "GPRS latency was almost 1 second (in average case). Unlimited GRPS data plan was +50€/month extra on your phone bill in Finland. Only rich people could afford that. And the phone didn't even have an internet browser."

The console wasn't fully ready for the release, full of bugs and other issues, but Nokia wanted it launched sooner rather than later. This resulted in crunch where the Pathway to Glory developers had to work without weekends for over a month. Thankfully, the game turned out great, but the taxing experience discouraged Aaltonen from participating in the sequel.

"I wish they could have spent some of that massive marketing and PR budget to design a proper gaming device with GPU and FPU and a bigger landscape screen," he concluded. "SEGA's network tech was nice and they had big market share. Could have been a different story."

The programmer also shared some information about the tech behind Pathway to Glory. It had terrain rendering similar to Comanche and Outcast. "The pathfinding algorithm was basically a 2D version of the modern Recast algorithm. We rasterized surroundings with software triangle rasterizer for A*. Back then we did this again for different radius units, as distance fields were not very well known back then."

The team had a very early version of dynamic virtual texturing too, which was projected from above to the voxel terrain. The terrain was textured with decals, "just like modern VT terrains. We rendered the decals to the sides of projected VT offscreen texture when the camera moved."

"We basically reused my old terrain tech for the Xbox 360 Trials games. Trials Evolution (Metascore 90) was almost the first 100% virtual textured game to ship."

Nowadays it's hard to imagine another company apart from Nintendo, Sony, and Valve releasing a successful handheld console, and it seems it was the same back in the early 2000s. Follow Aaltonen for more game development stories and join our 80 Level Talent platform and our Telegram channel, follow us on InstagramTwitter, and LinkedIn, where we share breakdowns, the latest news, awesome artworks, and more.

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