Friday, 5:00 p.m.
The students, about two dozen of them, sit in rapt attention as Ray Sharma explains how they too can create the next Cows Versus Aliens.
Mr. Sharma, the head of Toronto-based mobile game developer XMG studio, is the opening speaker at this year's Great Canadian Appathon, the largest and most lucrative app-building competition for Canadian students. Over the next 48 hours, more than 500 students across the country will pull a marathon coding session in the hopes of creating the most compelling smartphone or tablet game and taking home the competition's $25,000 first place prize.
They will also, in the process, learn a few valuable lessons about the state of the modern technology industry, where startup culture and intense competition make brutal working hours and ultra-tight deadlines the norm, not the exception.
Many of these contestants will spend the next weekend riding Red Bull-fuelled roller coasters; some will start the competition with grand visions of building the next Angry Birds in a weekend, and will instead burn out before the reaching finish line; others will conceive prize-winning and even ultimately profitable apps, and may well land a job with XMG or some other developer as a result. Virtually all the competitors will demonstrate Herculean feats of code-writing and bug-fixing, driven consciously or subconsciously by the same ideological thesis statement that drives the industry they hope to join: that all it takes to succeed in tech is a good idea and a tolerance for hard work.
If you want to observe first-hand a microcosm of the tech industry's fastest-growing sub-sector, go to an appathon.
Mr. Sharma is speaking at the Digital Media Zone at Ryerson, one of about 40 colleges across the country that have signed on for this year's Great Canadian Appathon. The DMZ is what tech-heads call an incubation chamber – instead of premature babies, it helps tiny startups get better. The DMZ offices are located on the fifth floor of a landmark building in the heart of downtown Toronto. A glass wall that runs along the office's south-facing side offers a fantastic view of Yonge-Dundas square. On most days, entrepreneurs from about 30 companies sit around the open-concept tables chained to their computers, slowly building the next Facebook or LinkedIn or Fruit Ninja. The atmosphere is not all that different from most corporate workplaces, except with more whiteboards.
This weekend, however, the occupants of the DMZ will be mostly students ranging in age from about 20 to 30. This is the third year XMG has hosted the appathon (this year, the Globe and Mail is one of the sponsors) – during that time, the number of participants has almost doubled. (You can download the winner of the first Appathon – “Super Punch” – if you have a Windows Phone.)
To an outside observer oblivious to the details of the two-day event, the DMZ would appear to have been outfitted for a spectacle at once intense and thoroughly tame. Near the rows of high-end laptops sit bowls of lolipops. The whiteboards are full of inspirational but somewhat vague quotes, such as, “On the other side of fear is freedom” and “Celebrate the journey.”
There’s also a slight undercurrent of the tech industry’s “bro-gramming” subculture – a term used derisively to describe male programmers who spend most of their working time around other male programmers and say and do the kinds of things you’d expect in a mostly male environment. Participants are given swag bags full of hoodies, T-shirts and buttons that say things like, “I've got 99 problems but a glitch ain't one.” There are only two women among the two dozen or so contestants at the Ryerson hub, and it is unlikely the ratio is skewed heavily in the favour of women at any one of the other GCA contest sites around the country. A couple of young women who appear to have been hired by Red Bull are handing out Red Bull cans retrieved from backpacks that are themselves shaped like Red Bull cans. The most commonly uttered words over the next 48 hours will be Red and Bull.
The theme for this year's contest is “Retro,” hearkening back to the days of Nintendo cartridges and 8-bit heart icons and the original Mario Bros. On the surface, it seems a somewhat cruel choice, given that many of the contestants were not born when these cultural icons first made their mark (indeed, it isn't long before one of the teams adds “look up def. of retro” to their whiteboard To-Do list).
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.
More recently, the sort-of-fictional Facebook movie The Social Network popularized the notion of coding marathons, this time stylizing the endeavour with gratuitous shots of flowing alcohol and cheering groupies in an attempt to give the whole thing a kind of rock-star, hard-core feel. In reality, appathons are hard-core coding sessions in the same way that a coma is a hard-core nap.
But even if gimmicky in their format, appathons are not completely removed from the experience of working at a major tech firm or, even more so, a tech start-up. Ironman work hours have become a staple of the industry. Indeed, there's a reason companies such as Google offer their employees perks such as free food, gym memberships and outings to Disney Land – when they're not taking advantage of these perks, employees are usually working their faces off.
“It's tough,” says Tekin Salimi, who is organizing this year's appathon for XMG before leaving the tech sector to head to law school.
“One unfortunate reality is that, if you want to write code for a big company, the hours can be crazy.”
But there's more to this than students writing code. Events such as The Great Canadian Appathon represent the ground floor of the Canadian technology community – a community where there's still a fairly large disconnect between talent and funding, between innovation and success.
Some of the students here this weekend may soon find themselves on the other side of the same office, running their own start-ups with the assistance of incubation chamber programs such as Ryerson's DMZ. Those startups, in turn, will go looking for funding from venture capital firms in Canada and (more likely, given the somewhat limited funding opportunities north of the border) the United States. And in rare cases, the start-ups might even become acquisition targets, attracting the attention of heavyweights such as Google and Facebook, who have expanded their presence in Canadian tech hubs such as Waterloo.
The appathon is, in part, an attempt to draw a trajectory line between the stuff Canadian technology students are doing now and what they hope to be doing later. It works in part because the app industry is accessible. If you want to build the next big hardware company, you need years and millions of dollars in funding. If you want to build the next big app, maybe all you need is a weekend.
“This is how companies like Google come up with great ideas,” says Sherif El Tawil, a member of the appathon's organizing staff. “They lock themselves up with pizza and coffee and code the night away.”
Saturday, 11:00 a.m.
Nobody's been drinking but a bunch of people look hungover. Virtually all the starting-gun giddiness of yesterday afternoon has evaporated, leaving behind a smattering of mostly sweatpants-clad students hunchbacked over their laptop monitors, clacking away at keyboards. Some have gone home for a few hours' sleep, or crashed on the DMZ's bean-bag chairs. Other's haven't. One of members of the organizing committee has been trying to sleep on a makeshift bed composed of plush, backless chairs. All the good lollipops in the candy bowl are gone, only grape flavour remains.
“I feel good. A little jittery,” says Evon-Jai Morgan, a 22-year-old trioOS student with an easy smile who's doing all the artwork for team Bombard (the people building the whack-a-mole game). Mr. Morgan is in the tail end of an all-nighter – near him, a pyramid of Red Bull cans balances precariously near the end of the table, six cans high. He and his teammates are jovial and outgoing in the way heavily caffeinated people are right before they crash.
Nearby, team WTF has abandoned farm animals altogether. Their game now features duelling corporate managers who attack each other while mounted on rolling office chairs. Mr. Perkins is busy editing photos of said office chairs to create artwork for the game, heavily pixellating the images to give the app its mandatory retro feel.
Team WTF has lucked out – Mr. Gupta, the Indian exchange student, is a machine. He turns out to be a two-time Indian appathon winner, a former Microsoft intern and the creator of his own social network. A long-shot at the beginning of the contest, WTF is now ahead of schedule.
At around noon, a changeover takes place, as the students who went home for some sleep start to file back in, relieving colleagues who pulled all-nighters. Jordan Sparks, a 20-year-old visual artist at Ryerson whose wardrobe this weekend appears composed primarily of ironic, Ninja Turtles-themed T-shirts, has managed to complete virtually all the graphical elements for his team, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (makers of the tower defence game). Miraculously, he has done this without the aid of energy drinks, and is now itching to go take a nap. At the adjacent table, team Aardvark is getting close to animating Trixie.
Still dangerously caffeinated, team Bombard powers through, representing the only trace of enthusiasm in what has become a very subdued room. At one point, a particularly animated Bombard member will accidentally smack the team's Red Bull pyramid, sending cans crashing everywhere. He will then giggle uncontrollably for a full minute.
Sunday 3:00 p.m.
After a day and a half of slowly waning enthusiasm, there’s a buzz of excitement running through the DMZ now – partially because it’s the 48-hour deadline is fast approaching, but mostly because in a couple of hours everybody gets to go home.
Team WTF is, for the most part, done, thanks to Mr. Gupta’s programming prowess. The team showcases their app, which pits two players against each other on a chess-like board, with images of office staff representing the playing pieces. The game looks unpolished, and the frenetic work of creating a tutorial mode looks likely to be dashed by the looming deadline, but for 48 hours’ work, it’s not bad at all.
Nearby, team Bombard are ironing out the bugs of what they have decided to call “Weed Wacker.” They have also managed to re-build the Red Bull pyramid, this time seven cans high. At the other side of the room, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are tweaking the cool-down time on their spaceship cannons.
It’ll be another month before any of these teams learn whether they’ve won. The judges will have to sift through some 200 entries from students all over the country before picking a winner of the $25,000 grand prize, the $5,000 second-place prize, and the 10 other sub-categories (whose winners will walk away with a custom Xbox video game console).
For now, the most important thing is to make sure these games actually work. At the team Bombard table, two students are typing and re-typing the same line of code. Every time one of them hits Enter, the programming software returns an exclamation mark and some new and exotic error. This goes on for about 15 minutes straight, interspersed with slightly less profanity than you’d expect. Finally, the software acquiesces, accepting the code. One of the students raises his fists in the air triumphantly and hums the first few bars of the Super Mario Bros. tune.
These last few hours of the appathon are supposed to simulate “crunch time” – the tech industry’s term for the last few hours, days, weeks or months (depending on the size of the project) before deadline. It’s a kind of unspoken rule that employees work even harder during crunch time. In effect, it’s not that much different than what accountants go through during tax season, or chefs during lunch hour.
That said, the tech industry is rife with examples of crunch time run amok. A few years ago, the working hours at Electronic Arts got so bad that some employees’ spouses started a blog documenting them, and several staffers eventually filed multimillion-dollar lawsuits against EA for unpaid overtime.
But there’s something special about video games, something that drives a lot of these students to pursue a career in the industry even if the working conditions turn out to be not all that different from the conditions of this appathon. More than any other entertainment medium (perhaps with the exception of the Internet itself), video games are what a lot of these students connected with the most while growing up. Certainly, the process of creating the finished product is a lot more complex and mundane than the process of enjoying the finished product, but that’s true for just about any creative industry.
And how terrible is a 48-hour coding marathon, really, if it gives you a chance to get your game on people’s iPhones, to get a little bit closer to joining the industry that makes the things you love?
“This is what I want to do,” says Jerome Pamintuan, a 24-year-old video game design student at triOS and member of team Bombard.
“You know how people sometimes get into jobs out of necessity? I don’t want to do that.”