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Students go a weekend without sleep for the Great Canadian Appathon

Team Bombard, working at Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone, tweak their app during the final few hours of the challenge. <137>Teams of program developers and designers spent the weekend at Ryerson University's Digital Media Zone during the Great Canadian Appathon, a 48-hour challenge open to post-secondary students throughout the country. (Galit Rodan for The Globe and Mail)<137>

Galit Rodan/Globe and Mail

More than 500 Canadian students braved sleepless nights, wrote miles of computer code and consumed medically inadvisable quantities of energy drinks this weekend, all in the hopes of winning one of the country's most lucrative programming competitions.

The Great Canadian Appathon, a 48-hour contest to build the next blockbuster game for smartphones and tablets, took place across the country. For the students, it is a chance to network with members of Canada's fast-growing video-gaming industry. In the past five years, Canada has become one of the biggest video-game development hubs in the world, thanks to small app developers in Waterloo and Toronto, and major studios such as Ubisoft and Electronic Arts in Vancouver.

From Friday to Sunday afternoon, hundreds of teams from 10 provinces and territories hunkered down in front of their computers virtually non-stop, gunning for the $25,000 first-place prize, as well as a first-hand look at the marathon coding sessions that have become part of technology industry lore.

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"This is how companies like Google come up with great ideas," said Sherif El Tawil, a member of the appathon's organizing staff. "They lock themselves up with pizza and coffee and code the night away."

This is the GCA's third year, during which time the number of students competing has almost doubled. The appathon is the brainchild of XMG studio, a mobile game developer based in Toronto. (This year, The Globe and Mail is one of the event's sponsors.)

For XMG, the contest offers a sort of low-level scouting report on the state of programming talent in Canada. In past years, the studio has ended up hiring some members of the winning teams. XMG also offers some student developers a deal whereby the studio polishes and publishes the students' apps, and splits the profits 50-50.

"This is what I want to do," said Jerome Pamintuan, a 24-year-old, video game design student at Toronto's triOS College. "You know how people sometimes get into jobs out of necessity? I don't want to do that."

The contest also introduces students to the often brutal working hours that have come to define new tech companies.

"It's tough," said Tekin Salimi, who is organizing this year's appathon for XMG.

"One unfortunate reality is that, if you want to write code for a big company, the hours can be crazy."

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XMG's judging panel will take about a month to go through about 200 submissions, before announcing the winners. In addition to the first-place prize, the studio will award smaller prizes in about 10 other categories, such as best educational game.

The contest took place in dozens of locations, or "hubs," around the country. In one hub, the Digital Media Zone in Toronto's Ryerson University, about two dozen students built a variety of games, all related to this year's theme: "Retro." By Sunday afternoon, as the contest's deadline approached, teams were putting the finishing touches on everything from side-scrolling beat-em-ups to tower defence games to a replica of the classic arcade game Asteroids.

Indeed, the one thing all contestants at the Ryerson hub seemed to have in common, after 48 hours spent in close proximity to one another hammering out computer code, was a burning desire to go home and sleep.

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