Great Canadian Appathon challenges developers to 48 hour contest

Keep it simple and fun. That’s the key advice of mobile game experts to up and coming coders who are taking part in a 48-hour scramble to develop the next great mobile game and bring home a share of $45,000 in cash prizes.

The first-ever Great Canadian Appathon begins today, March 11 and ends March 13. The contest is open to college and university students across the country who believe they are up to challenge of coding, designing and testing a game for the Windows Phone 7 mobile operating system in just two days.

No less than 70 four-person teams have already registered for the competition. Elimination rounds will trim this number to three teams that will compete in a final battle at Dundas Square in downtown Toronto.

“This competition is geared towards providing students top notch excitement and learning experience in developing a real mobile game while under pressure,” said Ray Sharma, one of the leading organizers of the competition and founder-CEO of XMG Studio, a Toronto-based game development company.

Other supporters of the contest include Telus Corp., which provided the top prize money of $25,000; KPMG; the National Post; and various universities and colleges that have offered up space to serve as a “hub” or location where participants can get together, eat free food and score some “swag” from the sponsors. Actual coding though can be done from anywhere.

For those who doubt that a best-selling game could be developed in just 48 hours, Sharma says otherwise. “It could be done. We have actually tried it and our creation topped the charts in the App Store.”

A few weeks ago, he said, XMG staged an internal appathon where employees were given 48 hours to develop a mobile game. The winning entry, Cows vs. Aliens for both the iPhone and iPad was released in Apple’s App Store where it quickly made it to the list of Top 50 selling games. The game requires the player to herd cattle into a barn while pushing away pesky aliens, is only the fourth App Store hit made by XMG.

A boost to budding developers

Sharma said mobile gaming is one of the fastest growing segments of $60 billion-global gaming industry.  He said mobile games raked in $100 million in revenues in 2008 and possibly made in excess of $4 billion last year.

While mobile application stores such as Android Market and the BlackBerry App World have come into the picture the App Store is still the leading market place for games, Sharma said.

Contests like the Great Canadian Appathon are a big boost to the country’s digital game industry, according to Jason Eckert, technology faculty head at the Kitchener, Ont. campus of triOS College, one of the tech colleges supporting the contest.

Game developing courses are heavy on math, physics, and programming. Starting salaries for graduates are around $35,000 to $40,000 per year but could go up to six figures as they gain experience.

“Something like this really fires up the interest among young game developers,” he said.

But like many IT job areas, game developing has been going through a talent shortage, said Eckert. Since triOS launched a game developer course in 2008, it has graduated 227 students. “But I keep getting companies looking for graduates and can’t supply them fast enough.”

Andrew Hay, a student at Carleton University, agrees with Eckert. The fourth year geology student is also vice president of the Carleton Computer Science Society, which is organizing the appathon-related activities on the Ottawa campus, one of the contest’s hub locations. Carleton is providing space for contest participants as well as providing organizers with facilities and communications equipment.

Ten teams have already signed up in the Carleton location. Hay expects more to come in at the last minute. “Many people tend to put things off until the last moment.”

“The huge draw to students is the excitement, huge cash prizes and opportunities to work in a game development company,” he said.

“Even if a participant doesn’t win, he or she ends up with experience at intense game development and a game which can be included in a portfolio,” said Hay.

What makes a top selling mobile game?

Sharma of XMG and Eckert of triOS say the secret to creating a top selling mobile game is “simplicity and fun.”

When you’re under pressure to come up with a hit, these four tips can help you create a surefire winner:

  • Use existing tools and frameworks – You won’t have much time to re-invent the wheel. You have access to existing games and tools, use them. For instance, the Windows Phone 7 trip Yzee is a clone of the popular dice game Yahtzee.
  • Focus on simplicity – The most popular games are those that are simple to learn and play and have simple objective. Avoid complicated rules or moves required to navigate through the game. For example the popular iPhone game Angry Birds only requires players fire birds through a slingshot to hit pigs.
  • Make it fun and provide a hook – People play games to have fun, so make sure your game provides that. Add to the fun factor by employing a sort of reward or unique feature. For Cows vs. Aliens it’s how players use their fingers on the touch screen to “rope in” cattle and “push out” aliens. For Tetris, it’s the flashing screen effect you get when get rid of a huge segment of blocks.
  • Or you could do it backwards. Instead of developing something fun, look at other games and determine what players enjoy about it and then build another game around that aspect.
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