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48 hours to create the next Angry Birds

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You have probably heard of a walkathon or a phoneathon, but an appathon? I never heard the term either until two weekends ago when Concordia University, along with six other venues across the country, hosted the first-ever Great Canadian Appathon. Presented by Toronto’s XMG Studios,  a mobile video game developer and The National Post, the GCA encouraged tech-savvy students across Canada to create an original phone application. The catch? They only had 48 hours.

Individually or in teams of up to four, post-secondary students competed for a prize pool worth $45,000 and the chance at two jobs with XMG Studios. Among the competitors was 21-year-old Gabriel Royer, a third-year software engineering student from l’École Polytechnique de Montréal. Royer and three of his classmates participated in the event.

During the two-day stint, they developed Hold It, an app that requires the player to dodge flying obstacles while keeping at least one finger on the touch screen at all times. As you progress in the game, the obstacles gain speed for increased difficulty, while bosses and power-ups add diversity.

“We knew that in 48 hours we couldn’t come up with anything too complicated, cool or crazy,” said Royer. “So we decided to go for something simple but classy, and I think that we succeeded in that.” In conformity with the rules of the competition, the app is compatible with the Windows Phone 7 operating system.

Royer tried to explain, in the simplest way possible, how he and his team went about building their smartphone application. The team showed up at Concordia last Friday with an idea; that’s all they were allowed to bring.

“We knew we didn’t want to create a Mario-type game where you just run back and forth and jump all over the place,” said Boyer. “We wanted to build an app that takes advantage of one of the unique features of the cell phone, in this case the touch screen.” Once they agreed on their vision for the game they could begin coding using Microsoft Visual Studio, software intended specifically for this purpose.

Coding involves programming a series of codes or formulas which act as a set of instructions for the application. For example, if the programmer wants to send a laser flying in from the right-hand side of the screen, he or she types the code: SpawnLaser(Laser.LaserDirection.Right, (int)(speed * 1.2),1000);.

This tells the application to send in each laser at a speed 1.2 times greater than the previous one, and 1,000 milliseconds apart. For someone who has never seen anything like this before, it can be pretty intimidating.

Once every code for every possible function of the game has been programmed, the application is complete. Although the coding is done by computer, the game can only be properly tested and played on a Windows Phone 7 smartphone.

Close to 100 teams took part in this year’s GCA, but Royer is quite confident his team will move on to the next stage of the competition. “We are so proud of our application and of the way that the people from XMG reacted to it,” said Royer. “Making the top 25 doesn’t sound unrealistic, but only time will tell.”

Beyond the competition, Royer is looking forward to spending the summer in Seattle where he was recently selected for an internship with Microsoft. As for the future, the young engineer doesn’t plan for a career in the field of game development, although he is still undecided about what exactly he wants to do. “After I graduate, I am thinking of doing a master’s degree in software engineering here at the Polytechnique,” said Royer. “But nothing is sure yet. I’m just going to take things one day at a time.” 

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