Artificial intelligence programmes and humans have been interacting since 1952, when PhD student A S Douglas created the first computer game OXO based on the pen-and-paper game Tic Tac Toe. Things have gone a long way since then.
Artificial Life Inc, a public corporation since 1998, has now taken up the baton by offering the latest interactive graphical games played on mobile devices as small as mobile phones.
Artificial Life has been creating interactive mobile video games since 1993, using their pioneering intelligent Avatar technology which enables them to create interactive characters on mobile devices. It follows that production of mobile games and associated technology became Artificial Life's core business. For example, working with CBS, one of the largest US broadcasters, Artificial Life creates interactive games based on the popular TV series "America's Next Top Model". These games relate to the lives of the models as revealed on the show, plus the real-life challenges they face.
Besides maintaining a strong relationship with the show's American operators, the company has built up a formidable client portfolio among local mobile phone companies, including Smartone, 3 Hong Kong and People's.
Ernest Axelbank, chief technology officer of Artificial Life, sums up his role as "evaluating and deciding on the design methodologies to leverage in product and platform development initiatives." He also coordinates collaboration with partners to explore potential working relationships, heads up the security and reliability of overall IT infrastructure throughout the organisation and regularly meets with the management team to discuss projects and developments.
He says that the two hottest jobs in the market today are for game developers and game designers, because there is heavy demand not just for new games but for trend-setting games that can catch buyers' imagination.
Game developers work mostly at the mobile level, turning titles and plots from TV shows into little games. Game designers, meanwhile, create a concept that is passed to the developer who turns it into a real game playable on a mobile phone. Candidates for these two hot jobs should be able to envisage exciting plots and interesting games that will appeal to the mass audience. "Different territories require tailored business models. For example, we need to decide whether a game should be made available for subscription or a one-off charge," says Mr Axelbank.
Essential aspects for their roles are an understanding of the limitations of the mobile device as well as knowing about the technology needed for the game to run. Where problems or challenges arise, the developer must use his knowledge and ingenuity to come up with feasible solutions.
Artificial Life offers good prospects for intelligent newcomers with creative minds. "Fresh graduates need not be scared about not having the skills since they will acquire them while learning the job," he says. "Candidates should show that they can vocalise their ideas from nothing to the finished product as the job entails being able to communicate ideas to others along the chain."
Working in the IT industry has the added benefit of first-hand access to the latest technologies before their release on the market. "It is very exciting for industry professionals to have the opportunity to use the latest breakthroughs in technology, especially those elated to mobile phones," says Mr Axelbank.
Among the many challenges now facing the industry, Artificial Life's professionals give a high rating to segmentation relative to the sheer number of devices now on the market, particularly mobile ones, plus the challenge of being able to support all of them as well as getting still more games to actually run on mobiles. Artificial Life works on the principle of anticipating such challenges, identifying solutions and quickly getting games up and running on mobiles.
The company is an acknowledged leader in the field and has won various international and local awards including one for the "Best Entertainment Software", another for Excellence in Digital Entertainment, and one for the "Best Mobile Game awarded" by Ericsson in 2004.
Mr Axelbank anticipates further business opportunities as the development of 3G technology matures in mainland China. "Career opportunities may be opened to local talents with management based in the Hong Kong office," he says.
He acknowledges that continuous upgrading is the key to remaining competitive in the industry, and that in turn it is important to understand the staff's capabilities and to keep their skills at IT's cutting edge. In line with this, some staff receive sponsorships for job-related courses at local institutes. ''But these tend to be limited because the technology we use is so new that the courses have seldom caught up with it," Mr Axelbank explains. These new technologies mean that a lot of the upgrading must be done on the job so that staff can quickly pick them up and immediately apply them to the job in hand.