THE LAUNCH, CRASH AND BURN OF N-GAGE
It was potentially one of the most exciting moves into games – and one of the boldest. Nokia was keen to tap into the handheld market made lucrative by the Game Boy Advance and stabilise the shaky world of mobile games. The solution: launch a games-dedicated phone.
The N-Gage was first unveiled in 2002 but Nokia’s attack plan didn’t actually kick in until 2003.
It certainly knew, on paper at least, how to do things on our turf. Kick things off with an E3 press event, spend big on marketing, work closely with publishers for key content and launch games, sign up one of the best games industry distributors to move the contract-free hardware, and get retail on board.
But things weren’t meant to be. A stupidly high price, and a series of public relations gaffes (a silly launch event on the London Eye and even sillier E3 presser) pretty much killed demand.
The ads were strange – boasting about about sexy acts in car parks is something we save for industry events, not consumer marketing, after all. Non-sensically criticising ChartTrack when the device didn’t sell was a bone-headed move, too.
Of course it probably didn’t help that the handset was truly awful. You had to open it up to change game cards, and it wasn’t a very good phone either thanks to and awkwardly-placed earpiece and microphone. Excitement for the GBA and rival PSP proved that at the time the best people to make games formats were games companies, not new pretenders.
A 2004 redesign tried to fix the handset, and the brand eventually became a (now dead) distribution platform. But it was the debut mistakes of 2003 which made N-Gage’s failure an inevitability.
THE ANGEL OF DEATH
Putting the 2003 Lara Croft game in our list of the year’s key releases would seem a bit cruel – the only thing important about Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness was that it spelt one of the lowest points in Eidos’ history. The firm was so hamstrung by its financial timetable the publisher forced internal studio Core Design to quickly finish up its work on Lara’s already-delayed first PS2 outing and release it for summer.
The result, a buggy badly-reviewed game, sold well at first but prompted all sorts of chaos – including the movement of developement to US sister studio Crystal Dynamics, and a restructuring for Core. Not UK games development’s proudest moment.
'CUBE IN CRISIS
The GameCube felt the biggest pinch in 2003 – it was Nintendo’s darkest year.
Retailers started cutting back shelf space as sales momentum slowed, leading publishers and developers to likewise turn away. Nintendo Europe tried to block indies from selling imports and refused to change the price until late in the year, which didn’t help goodwill, either.
Key first party releases kept the platform viable – but not as a real contender opposite the established PS2 or the increasingly popular Xbox.
But the GBA remained popular – buoyed by the surprise release of the GBA SP, which addressed criticisms of the original device’s badly-made screen.
Of course, as we know now, Nintendo was learning lessons fast, and was hard at work on some unique new hardware releases that would pick it out of the doldrums in the following years…
With PS2 a global hit, Sony struck while the iron was hot at E3 2003 by revealing it was working on a handheld version, the PSP. No images were released, but we did get tech specs boasting about something that developers could take advantage of called NURBS (a fancy way to draw curves, it turns out).
An investors meeting later in the year let slip the above render, along with details of a plan to put PlayStation at the centre of the Sony business as it prepared for a long-term switch to digital distribution.
Sure, hindsight means we know how things went (slowly, and financially troubling) for Sony – but at the time this was bold, cutting edge stuff.
'AD ENOUGH YET?
We've spent a fair bit of space in these retrospectives slagging off bad/stupid industry ad campaigns and we’ve already written off the N-Gage ones so let’s single out a genuinely great one.
This funnier-than-most treatement for SoulCalibur II saw respectable business men fight it out using foodstuffs to represent the outlandish flamboyancy of the fighting game. There’s a decent beat ‘em up in the idea of unemployed city traders trading blows with their lunch. Fighting Mama, maybe.
2003: THE KEY GAMES RELEASES
Beyond Good and Evil - Ubisoft
It’s a cult hit, but it did well enough to ensure a) lots of affection from the hardcore and b) a sequel, unveiled last year.
EyeToy - Sony
This UK-made camera and software bundle laid the foundation for new interfaces in games – years before Wii.
EVE Online - CCP
The Icelandic-made MMO made a quiet debut in 2003 – but today it is one of the hottest MMOs.
Championship Manager 4 - Eidos
Sports Interactive’s last take on the sports franchise before the studio’s split with Eidos was the year’s biggest PC launch.
The Simpsons: Hit and Run - VU Games
It may be missing from 2003’s bestseller list, but this one went on to become a sales juggernaut in the years to follow.
2003: UK's BEST SELLING GAMES
1. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar)
2. FIFA 2003 (EA)
3. Grand Theft Auto 3 (Rockstar)
4. Harry Potter: Chamber of Secrets (EA)
5. Medal of Honor: Frontline (EA)
6. LOTR: The Two Towers (EA)
7. Metal Gear Solid 2 (Konami)
8. Gran Turismo 3 (Sony)
9. Spider-Man (Activision
10. Monsters Inc (Disney)