Career Path

Creative technology applied to mobile games

by Norman Yam

Ernest Axelbank, chief technology officer, Artificial Life Inc
Photo: Johnny Kwok

Many fans of portable entertainment favour the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, but smaller cell phone devices are now coming into their own. Advances in mobile technology have brought faster transmission speed, and this has made it easier for handset owners to download and play games of a similar quality. As the wireless network expands rapidly around the world, the mobile gaming business is poised to become a major money-spinner and is opening up new career prospects for professionals who specialise in the industry.

Artificial Life is already a leading provider of mobile technology, content and applications for both gaming and e-learning applications. The company's chief technology officer is Ernest Axelbank, who joined only seven years ago as a web architect. At that point, his job was to design interfaces between interactive agents and back-end data natural language processing and knowledge-based systems.

These days, though, Mr Axelbank deals with far more than the high-tech details. His current position requires both technical and business skills and keeps evolving as well. "In our business, it is vital to stay in close touch with customers and ensure that all our work in conceptualising, designing and implementing products is attuned to their precise needs," he says. "Given the global nature of our business, it is necessary for us to maintain regular communication with customers who could be anywhere in the world."

Whatever gaming products we launch must be entertaining, appealing and highly interactive

Wide scope
The job responsibilities include overseeing pre-sales and business development plus liaising with partners and clients about detailed specifications. It is also necessary to work on proprietary product concepts and collaborate with licence owners to create branded titles. "The challenge is to explore the creative side of technology, combining what is artistic with the latest advances," Mr Axelbank says. "Whatever gaming products we launch must be entertaining, appealing and highly interactive, so that they totally engage the players."

One of the products he helped create is "V-girlTM — your virtual girlfriend", which was recently launched by Artificial Life and 3 Hong Kong. When using this entertainment platform, subscribers will be charged a fee to buy flowers and gifts for their virtual girlfriend. In return, she will introduce them to different aspects of her life, like letting them meet her virtual friends.

Integral to this is the use of natural language processing (NLP) techniques. These help to design and build software that can analyse, understand and generate human interaction. Eventually, they will make it possible to address your computer just as if you were talking to another person.

Mr Axelbank says that working with NLP has been a departure for him. Born in Finland, he graduated with a degree in computer science and art from Northeastern University in Boston and, since then, has picked up extensive work experience in platforms, methodologies, networking, security and interfaces. One previous job at Harvard University required him to manage a vast database and to "perform data mining and statistical analysis to aggregate and visualise information."

He predicts that the introduction of 4G technology will drive market demand for mobile gaming products in a few years' time. "When this happens, Internet access for cell phones will be faster with very low latency and will usher in richer gaming experiences for players with multiplayer and community features. It will also bring exciting career opportunities for young people looking to enter the industry," he says.

Computer science
When recruiting, Mr Axelbank generally takes on computer science graduates, particularly those with a sound grasp of Java language, object-orientated software design, and the principles of software architecture.

Candidates who join as game developers may start out as management trainees and be deployed to one of the various project teams. Depending on individual performance, they will subsequently have the chance to lead project teams and work closely with clients to develop products and new concepts.

"Overall, game design requires an understanding of what makes a game fun to play and gives it enduring appeal," Mr Axelbank explains. "It is also essential to know how to incorporate concepts into a mobile application that convey a unique look and feel. These skills come from experience, interaction with colleagues and customers, and by keeping up to date with the latest trends in the sector."


Taken from Career Times 18 August 2006, p. B20
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