Meet Simon Lui
Simon Lui is an Assistant Professor of Information Systems Technology and Design Pillar (ISTD) at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). In 2008, he founded EC2 Hong Kong to develop iPhone and iPad apps and sell them in the iPhone app store worldwide. Simon developed 7 apps, including #1 bestselling apps in several countries. Most of his apps are daily utilities and mini games that sell for US$0.99-$1.99.
Simon’s apps reflect some of his interests. For example, Simon has a great interest in music, and minored in music as part of his undergraduate degree. So, he developed “ec Shamisen” — a musical instrument app. so users can play the traditional Japanese instrument “Shamisen” on the iPhone.
Also related to Simon’s interest in music and sounds is “SoundMitate,” a sound imitation game where players choose a sound and see how well they can imitate it. And, he also developed Tinha War, which is one of his bestselling games. The idea came from a traditional Hong Kong 1980s childhood paper game. Simon is currently leading the Audio Research Group (ARG) of SUTD. ARG is now developing a music therapy game for stroke rehabilitation, and an audio aid game to visualize speech to help people with hearing impairment to speak naturally. As the lead of the game track in the ISTD Pillar, Simon is designing some game courses in SUTD. He will be teaching the first game foundation course in SUTD in Sep 2014.
Q: How did you decide to study computer science? Was it a tough decision?
In 2000, I choose computer as my major because I have many dreams to achieve. For example, to invent an “intelligent music search engine,” and to be one of the characters in a computer game, etc. I think the digital virtual world provide me the platform to do so.
It was not that tough to make the degree decision, since I believe the Chinese proverb. “Every profession produces its own leading authority.“ No matter which subject I take, if I enjoy it and work hard, I believe I can be successful.
Q: Did you play lots of electronic games as a child? What was your experience then?
Yes I did play a lot. I got a Nintendo in 1988. I remember the game I played most is the “Fire Emblem” released in 1990. I am still playing their latest release on the Wii and NDS platform. This game impressed me a lot; it is a strategy-demanding game with strong story background. On the other hand, I also love the “Pac Man”, since I can just play it without thinking. I think both “simple” and “strategy- demanding” games have strong markets.
Q: How did you get interested in gaming as a career?
I hoped to work on something that I enjoyed. I loved playing games, so I wanted to develop my own creation. I need it, so I write it! Eventually I found that game is not only for fun. It could be used to help people. For example, a good game can help stroke patient for their rehabilitation. It can also help people with hearing impairment to understand the surrounding situation better.
Q: Where do you get your game ideas from? What is your inspiration?
Game is fun, and I need some fun during my work. My research interest is on audio information retrieval. It can be quite boring to look at so many audio spectrums and digital data. One day I was really bored and started singing Beatbox in front of my spectrum analyzer. I found that there was certain visual pattern that I could tell which note I was singing without listening to the sound. This inspired me to invent a voice visualization game for the people with hearing impairment to learn to speak naturally.
In the voice visualization game, player follows the visual clue to speak and getting graded. The visual clues are constructed by some easy to understand audio features. Anyone can understand them with a few minutes of training.
Another example is the music therapy game for stroke rehabilitation. Once I was very tired in typing proposal. So I played some background music. I found that I was typing faster when my typing sound was synchronized with the music beat. This brought me to the research field of body movement enhancement by auditory-motor synchronization, which is the expertise of Dr. Konstantinos Trochidis in ARG. My research group developed two music therapy games to enhance body movement for stroke rehabilitation. In the game, player follows some clue to move their body and getting graded. Player gets rewarding sound for correct movement. The movement is carefully planned to synchronize with the background music to enhance body movement.
We are currently development a singing coach game on the iOS platform. It was also inspired by the need of singing during long hours of working. In the game, player sings a song and getting graded according to the singing accuracy.
I have a strong team, the SUTD ARG. I don’t think my idea and inspiration can be implemented without their help.
Q: Did your formal educational training prepare you for your current gaming work? Why or why not?
Yes. I learned programming, algorithm, design pattern, and most importantly, I learned “how to learn.” In the world of computer gaming, we need to catch up with the latest technology all the time.
Q: You started a company to help market your games…did starting and running your own business take away from your game development time? How do you balance the work?
Since I run a small-scale company, the business workload is not that heavy. Also, the good thing about selling products on the iPhone app store is that I can do business at any time online. For example, discuss with blogger via email, purchase Facebook advertisement on web, etc.
For game development, I keep the creative and high-level jobs for myself, such as game design and code architecture. I leave the time consuming jobs such as programming and data input to freelancers. Nowadays doing business online is really efficient.
Q: What challenges did you face when trying to market your games?
It is difficult to get my product in front of target customers. There is too much information on the web, so I have to work to attract the potential customers and stand out from my competitors online. In Singapore and Hong Kong, we can make use of social media and forum; in the U.S., perhaps it is better to do it via technical blogs. In Japan, better to use a lovely girl as advertisement thumbnail….so marketing strategy can be different in different countries.
Q: Do you often have to redesign a game or app? How many versions do you create before a new game is ready for launch?
Usually, I develop an alpha version for my friends to try it out. Then follow up with a beta version for a focus group to test — and then I will release the game.
Developers can update their app on the iPhone app store at any time. Usually it takes a few days for Apple to review your update. Then the latest version will be automatically downloaded to all your customers’ iPhone. I revise my game frequently by considering customer’s feedback. One of my apps has had 17 minor updates after it is released, and my customers are happy about that – they love to be listened to!
Q: You have many degrees….why did you decide to go for PhD?
It requires a Ph.D. degree in order to be a professor. Ph.D. is my final degree.
Q: How long have you been a member of IEEE? What prompted you to join?
I have been an IEEE member for 7 years. I had my first academic publication in IEEE Transactions on Multimedia in 2006. IEEE membership is essential for my academic career.
Q: What is the most rewarding thing about the work you do?
Once I saw a stranger on train, he was playing my game happily with his friend. I am delighted to find my game did entertain people in real life!
Q: Can you share a story about how the work you do has impacted the world of gaming?
To be frank it is not me who has impacted the world of gaming, but rather all those developers who write apps on the mobile platform that did the job. For example, I was one of the world first developers who released games on the iPad. Before that, no one carried such a big console and played game on the go. Thanks to iPad’s processing power and mobility, many people are now holding their tablet computer and playing games on trains and buses and in cafés. Also, with its big screen, more types of game start to appear. It enriches our lives.
Q: What advice would you give a pre-university student who was interested in working in the gaming industry?
The industry will keep on expanding, but the focus can be changed frequently. For example, customers’ primary interests are switching from household game consoles, to desktop Internet games, and then to mobile consoles, and then to mobile games with Internet access…
For a pre-university student, make sure you are equipped with fundamental technical knowledge during school days, and “learn how to learn”: be able to search for answers on your own, and discover interesting topics and ideas. Then, you will be able to catch up with the ever-changing but exciting world of gaming! I will launch the first game course in SUTD at Sep 2014: The Foundations of Game Design and Development. My primary focus in teaching will be “learn how to learn”. The particular programming skills in the course can be outdated at the end of the course, but my students will be able pick up with the latest technology easily with my learning strategy. Self-learning ability is more important than any programming skills.