The Demoscene -- an Overview

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Ikari crack intro for Commodore 64 from 1989

1. Introduction

The demoscene is an international collective of programmers, graphics artists and musicians who create real-time audio-visual presentations with home computers. These people call themselves demosceners or just sceners. The real-time presentations are in turn called demos. Geographically the demoscene is a European phenomenon, with relatively little activity on other continents.

In this article, we want to introduce demos and the demoscene to the uninitiated reader.1 In the recent 10 years or so, social scientists, humanists and media researchers have written a number of texts that present the topic. These studies have been overviewed in our online research bibliography, Demoscene Research.2

Generally, the existing studies can be separated into two domains. In the first of these, the demoscene has been viewed as artistic activity. Secondly, many researchers have assessed demoscene culture as a particular way of life, for example as youth culture, counter culture, multimedia hacker culture or gendered community.

These existing works have opened up important and relevant points for discussion. But at the same time, they have often taken quite an abstract and an outsider perspective to demoscene practices. Having been active demosceners ourselves from the 1990s, we feel that the real live action of being in the scene should also receive its share of attention.

In this introduction, we thus focus on what demosceners do and the diverse artifacts they produce. We describe the basic concepts used by the sceners and explain the scene's key social conventions. The final section concludes with tips for further reading.

2. What Demosceners Do

As the name already suggests, the main activity of the demoscene is making "demos". A demo is a series of computer graphics effects with a music soundtrack. In most cases the demo -- short for demonstration -- shows off what the computer can do. In the 1980s and early 1990s, this usually meant pushing the computer's hardware abilities. Today, in contrast, demos are more geared towards visual quality and narratives. A demo may run anything from thirty seconds to half an hour, although most of them are around five minutes long.

Nucleophile, a 4k intro by the groups Portal Process & TBC (2008)

For the lay viewer, there is perhaps little with which to distinguish demos from animations or videos. Technically, however, there is a crucial difference. While videos and animations can always be created before they are shown, it is an unwritten rule of the demoscene that demos' effects have to be generated real-time. The sceners also pride themselves in the fact that the computer programs which do this are coded by the sceners themselves.

The way demos should look and sound is not formally defined. Yet, in practice, most demos have a rather distinct feel. Techniques recurrent in demos are for example synchronization between graphics and the music, scrolling texts, three-dimensional objects, the use of reflecting and shining materials, effects that move towards the viewer (e.g. tunnels, zooming pictures), overlays of images and texts, and photo-realistic drawings. Another common feature of demos is the adoption of elements from popular culture, for example from movies, computer games and music videos. At times, the demosceners themselves call their own artistic style "the demoscene aesthetic".

State of the Art demo by the group Spaceballs (1992).

Introductions or "intros" are a special element of demos. Their size is restricted, for example, to four kilobytes or 64 kilobytes. Furthermore, demosceners create various other artifacts as well, such as pictures, animations, music and interactive electronic magazines ("diskmags"). Originally these productions were released on diskettes, but nowadays the Internet is the most common distribution channel.

The demoscene, it may be summarized, is a form of creative tinkering with home computers. Yet the quality of a demoscene artifact is not measured by sheer enjoyment. The demoscene constantly assesses its artifacts in a collegial way -- the quality of productions is evaluated through active discussion and competitions, where peers cast their vote.

3. Demoscene Conventions

Once demos, intros, pictures and music have been finished by their authors, they are entered into competitions arranged at computer parties. The largest parties, such as the Finnish Assembly or the German Breakpoint, attract thousands of visitors who spend a weekend together filled with different activities. In addition to competitions ("compos"), there might be concerts, demo shows, or even seminars. The most important role of parties, however, is to get together and meet the real people behind the handles to build social networks.

It could be argued that the demoscene is in a constant state of competition. Highly regarded productions such as competition winners increase the fame of the authors. Competition is apparent in many conventions of the community: at parties there are numerous competitions, websites feature voting systems, and back in the day disk magazines used to contain charts that let people vote for their favorite artists, programmers, demos and tunes. Especially during the first ten years of the existence of the scene, the words lamer and elite were used on a day-to-day basis to divide people into losers and winners. This sort of meritocracy is largely internalized and accepted by the members -- if you're inside you know where you stand and who's who.

Demos are most often made by demo groups that comprise members with diverse skills. The most common roles that pop up in the credits of productions are the programmer ("coder"), musician and graphic artist ("graphician"). The efforts of these three domains are required to create demos in the first place. Other roles, such as organizers, swappers, web masters and team leaders are somewhat common too. The roles are not set in stone, as multi-talented authors may contribute to different activities of the group. Every group takes a name for itself and, likewise, most members go by their handles instead of real names.

As demos stem from the possibilities of computer hardware, the ever-changing field of information technology has many impacts on scene conventions. On the one hand, old familiar computers may become obsolete, and on the other hand, new hardware enables the creation of new effects. Interestingly, even though we're talking about technologically proficient young people, the demosceners are not among the first adopters of new platforms, as illustrated by numerous heated diskmag and online discussions. At first there is usually strong opposition against new platforms. One of the most popular arguments is that better computers make it too easy for anybody to create audiovisually impressive productions.

Despite the first reactions, the demoscene eventually follows the mainstream of computing and adopts its ways after a transitional period of a few years. Commodore 64, the first major demo computer, was followed by Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, which in turn were replaced by the PC compatibles in the mid-nineties. Such development is well in line with the overall popularity of each platform at the time.

4. Read More!

There is a multitude of demoscene-related material available online. One of the most active sites featuring tens of thousands of productions with screenshots and related discussion is Pouët.net, hosted on the scene.org servers that offer disk space and other services to the community. These days, several demos can be viewed online as videos: in addition to Youtube, two special sites, capped.tv and demoscene.tv, provide easy access to demos without the burden of installing additional drivers or emulators.

There are only a few books about the demoscene so far. "Demoscene: the Art of Real-time" by Tasajärvi, Stamnes and Schustin3 serves as a brief history of the community. Another, significantly more ambitious book project was carried out by Tamas "Tomcat" Polgar, whose book "Freax: The Brief History of the Demoscene"4 aimed to document the history of Commodore 64 and Amiga demos in detail. The next volume, dealing with the PC and alternative platforms, is in the works. Shorter articles and more online resources can be found in our bibliography.2

Notes

[1] The article is derived from a previously published article by us, Reunanen, Markku & Silvast, Antti (2009): Demoscene Platforms: A Case Study on the Adoption of Home Computers. In Impagliazzo, John; Järvi, Timo; Paju, Petri (eds.): History of Nordic Computing 2. Berlin: Springer, pp. 289-301.

[2] Demoscene Research, http://www.kameli.net/demoresearch2/

[3] Tasajärvi, Lassi (ed.); Stamnes, Bent & Schustin, Mikael (2004): Demoscene: the Art of Real-Time. Helsinki: Even Lake Studios & katastro.fi.

[4] Polgar, Tamas (2005): Freax. The brief history of the demoscene. Volume 1. CSW Verlag.

Antti Silvast is doing a sociology PhD at the University of Helsinki on the topic of risks of infrastructures. He has received scholarships from the University of Helsinki and the Kone Foundation, and is currently working in a research project that is funded by the Academy of Finland. Though nowadays mostly concentrating on his PhD, he was previously active in the demoscene and VJ communities as programmer, designer and musician. Antti is also hosting an open source software synthesizer project at asilvast.kapsi.fi/4klive.

Markku Reunanen, also known as Marq/Fit, is a long-time programmer who occasionally wanders to the art domain as well. At the moment Markku works as a lecturer at the Helsinki University of Art and Design. During his scene career (1991-) he has done productions for several platforms: PC, MSX, Mac, Amiga and Atari Falcon to name a few. Portability, Unix and open source are especially close to his heart.