In reality, XMG chose the retro theme as a means of encouraging contestant to keep their apps simple. In previous years, students would get started on sprawling epics, only to realize that 48 hours run out pretty quickly when you're knee-deep in a swamp of unworkable code. This year, appathon organizers are trying to hammer home the idea that less is more.
It quickly becomes clear that communication, rather than coding, is the appathon's main challenge in the early going. The first three or four hours of the contest will be spent outlining the various tasks, responsibilities and features associated with the games and the team members. Whiteboards quickly fill with exotic representations of data, from nested lists of menu options to serpentine diagrams to brief biographies of the games' main characters. Team Aardvark, the whiteboard shows, is building a side-scrolling beat-em-up in the style of Double Dragon or the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade games, featuring a character named Trixie whos bio reveals she has been “framed by popular boy.” It is still early and details are scant.
Teams are not supposed to have worked on their game ideas before the contest starts. Perhaps as a result, most of them quickly settle on variations of popular themes. In addition to Trixie's left-to-right rampage, there are tower defence games in which a player uses a warring spaceship hold back wave upon wave of invading hordes. Another team plans to build a fairly loyal replica of the old Asteroids game, in which a player mans a triangle-shaped ship and blows up poorly-rendered rocks. Yet another team will build a Whack-a-mole clone set in a garden, with weeds instead of moles.
In theory, contestants can build anything they want, as long as it is a game that loosely fits the retro theme and can be played on a tablet or smartphone. In reality, XMG would very much prefer the students build something that runs on iPhones, iPads or similar devices powered by the Google Android operating system, in large part because those platforms make money for game developers. In previous years, XMG has signed deals with appathon winners to polish and publish their games in exchange for splitting the profits 50-50. The studio has even hired some of the students. At the Great Canadian Appathon, self-interest abounds.
At one table, a group of students who have been rearranged into one team after their partners failed to show up are trying to get on the same page. They are building some sort of turn-based, chess-like game. But it is only an hour or so into the contest, and the details of the game, such as the player's perspective, as still sketchy.
“Ok, what if we take the platform and rotate it?” asks Budd Roycelam, a 30-year-old student at Toronto's triOS College and one of maybe three extroverts among the two dozen or so students at the DMZ.
His partners look at him, unsure of what he means.
“Think Sonic the Hedgehog,” he adds. They nod.
Mr. Roycelam and another triOS student, 28-year-old Brandon Perkins, have been teamed up by organizers with Abhishek Gupta, a quiet, 20-year-old Indian exchange student. Together, they now form the team Whisky Tango Foxtrot.
The two triOS students are attempting to come up with a name for their app. Their theme, so far, is farm animals.
“It's always Something Versus Something,” says Mr. Roycelam, referring to games such as XMG's Cows Versus Aliens and Rovio's Angry Birds, which may as well be called Birds Versus Pigs. “So, Farm Animals Versus...”
“Aliens?” replies Mr. Perkins.
“They already did aliens,” says Mr. Roycelam.
“Everybody's doing zombies.”
This brainstorming session goes on for a while longer, as Mr. Gupta looks on with the grim resignation of a man who will eventually be asked to actually write the code for Something Versus Something.
Slowly, the room begins to quiet down, as the teams quit brainstorming and start coding.
Appathons have been around for years, and the idea of spending days at a time writing massive chunks of computer code is almost as old as computer code itself. It is part of the early lore of tech industry heavyweights such as Apple's late founder Steve Jobs, who reportedly commanded long and painful coding sessions – a byproduct of the same ruthless perfectionism that eventually produced the iPhone.