You probably haven’t put much thought into the problem creation process before, have you? You probably just take it for granted that every week there will be new and well-written problems waiting for you in the TopCoder Arena, don’t you? Well, someone has to write those problems before you can code them. Someone has to test the solutions to those problems before you can challenge them. These often-neglected members code feverishly just so that you can have the privilege of competing in TopCoder every week! I went into the administrator’s lobby during one match to de-mystify the process of how a problem gets from the writer’s imagination on to your screen.

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“If you take it slow you’ll move up.”

If you ask most coders about their strategy for TopCoder matches, they’ll probably answer with something like “score a lot of points” or “code the problems correctly.” This isn’t chess after all; it’s computer programming. No need for deep strategy here, just code quickly and accurately. As cintamani puts it “this is about trying not to make a mistake, that’s all there is to it.”

Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that little differences in style and approach can be all that separates a top-tier coder from a low-level gray-name. The decisions a coder makes about match preparation, coding, and challenging can affect the final outcome of a tight match. I did a post-match interview with the members of two different rooms – one in each division — to get some idea of how these various strategies play out in the coding arena.

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Case studies and the TopCoder view point

It’s the challenge phase. At first glance the code you’re looking at seems horribly flawed. A crucial if-statement is missing at the beginning of a loop, making this coder’s solution useless. “How could they have made such an obvious mistake,” you think, as you run through the code one final time to make sure you didn’t miss anything. It’s then that you see it: a slider at the bottom of the viewing window indicating that there is more to this code than meets the eye. As you move the slider to the right, you see the crucial if-statement, indented past the edge of the viewing window.

Was this an act of deception, intended to trick coders into making unsuccessful challenges, or was it an innocent mistake by a coder having trouble indenting correctly? The answer to this question determines whether or not cases like these are punishable under TopCoder’s obfuscation rule.

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Movies based on video games have a less-than-stellar history. When Hollywood tries to mix with Silicon Valley, the result is usually a "zany" action movie that perverts the premise of the game it’s based on (Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon), or a mindless beat-’em-up where the characters stop punching just long enough to deliver some horrible dialogue. (Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Street Fighter: the Movie). The abysmal critical and financial failure of these early attempts hasn’t stopped moviemakers or audiences, though. Last summer alone saw both the huge-budgetcomputer-animated Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and the largely undeserved box office success of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. These movies point to a willingness on the part of both studios and audiences to keep trying this video game movie thing until a good one turns up. We can all stop trying. Resident Evil is that good video game movie we’ve all been waiting for.

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