Tuesday, August 12, 2003

The demo scene; a forgotten art form?

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Regular readers would be forgiven for thinking I've lost my footing, slipped into the Way Back Machine again and am now floating amongst the clouds in my well-travelled retro bubble. While it would be stretching the truth to say that the demo scene is alive and kicking today, it does still exist in a diluted format in limited and often overlooked net niches.

What am I babbling about, there's a scene for try-before-you-buy game tasters now? Well I'm sure they have their own set of fans, but this isn't an article about crippled games. Demos are highly sophisticated, audio-visual treats served in the form of executable programs which are designed to demonstrate the technical capabilities of the computers used to create and display them. They are composed of graphical wizardry synchronised with often frenetic hip-hop or techno rhythms, overlaid with scrolling text credits and acknowledgments to other respected sceners. Demos are non-interactive and are programmed to be played out in real time. Often inspired by themes of fantasy or science fiction, they contain little narrative content; incoherence is actually a welcome 'feature' of some of the best demos. The key ingredients are a combination of mathematical precision, solid programming skills and artistic flair.

Demos were originally coded in Assembly, and later in C, C++ or Pascal and their roots can be traced back to the early days of software cracking on the Commodore 64. Release groups such as Fairlight and Paradox would go to great lengths to reverse engineer the built-in copy protection mechanisms of games, and therefore were keen to make sure anyone playing their cracked games knew who was responsible for making them available to the game playing masses. The solution they devised were graffiti style introductions which were sneakily inserted into the game code to be executed whenever the game was loaded. The earliest embodiments took the form of very basic displays of scrolling text accompanied by repetitive melodies, though these rapidly evolved along with the hardware on which they were coded. Special effects such as parallax scrolling, simulated fire and morphing plasma were soon incorporated, and before long, anti-aliased 3D models were being created and animated complete with complex shading techniques and ultra-realistic features. Some of them are so mind-bendingly bizarre it's possible to recreate the experience of flying high on hard drugs, though without risking seizures, epileptic fits or delayed schizophrenia, which is always a bonus. ;) You can sample some of the best classic Amiga demos at Spoon Wizard. They have been converted to the DivX movie format so it isn't necessary to use them with an emulator (though you will have to install the relevant codec). If you'd rather view the originals you might want to familiarize yourself with my emulation tutorial and then search Google for the files - demos are, and always were free to download so you will have no difficulties finding them online.

People couldn't fail to be blown away by such stunning exhibits of electronic art as nothing of its ilk had ever been witnessed before. Interest in demos escalated, so much so that some crackers chose to leave behind their cracking careers to focus their attention exclusively on coding intros as front-ends for other people's work. In their infancy, demos were coded as one man projects, however, as they became more ambitious, the production process had to be stratified. Graphics artists took care of the visual aspects, musicians wrote and composed the background soundtracks and programmers were responsible for combining the latter elements to bring the demos to life. Long before the demo scene reached the pinnacle of its popularity in the mid-nineties it broke away from its cracking roots and became an entity in its own right.

Before then, demos received little mainstream coverage due to their associations with underground cyber culture; unsurprisingly enough popular computer magazines were reluctant to draw attention to the warez scene because their respective interests were working at cross purposes. Although the demo scene eventually became independent of the cracking scene, some would say that it hasn't yet managed to shake off the negative connotations forged by such an early partnership. Ultimately this is because many of the people involved have a foot in each camp, which explains why the demo scene has remained a computing subculture with a limited audience. That said, a small number of publications such as Amiga Power did eventually devote a monthly page or two to reviewing and promoting the most popular offerings from the demo scene.

Meanwhile, members of the demo scene didn't sit on their hands waiting for fame and glory to be handed to them by the popular press; they formed their own groups, wrote electronic magazines, coded 'diskmags' and distributed their work through PD (public domain) software libraries. Regular demo charts and competitions were the impetus for creating imaginative and original, cutting-edge eye candy. Demo sceners were driven by nothing more than the challenge of earning the adoration of fellow sceners. As the scene developed, formal rules for submitting entries to demo competitions emerged and various divisions were established. Intros had to be no larger than 64kb and 'megademos' could be anywhere up to 1mb in size, while other contests stipulated more extreme limits and 'wild' challenges allowed sceners to code 'free-style', liberated from the constraints of conventional boundaries. The transgression of such boundaries epitomised the demo scene because programmers were seemingly able to make the impossible possible. The resultant demos were far more advanced than any in-game sequences of the time because they were designed to make use of 100% of a given computer's CPU and peripheral resources, whilst games developers on the other hand had to conserve processing power for other essential functions demanded by interactive software.

Remote trading, BBS and later internet interaction lacked the human touch, the yearning for which gave birth to the 'demo party', the largest of which being The Party, Assembly, The Gathering and Mekka&Symposium. These get-togethers took place in gigantic auditoriums and were populated by as many as 5000 sceners at a time. The focus was analogous to that of the virtual demo scene; people would bring their computers along to work on their entries and these would be submitted for judgement. Demos were presented on a huge projection screen while mesmerized onlookers voted for the most technically advanced, aesthetically pleasing, musically creative and so on. Generally parties took place over the course of several days and visitors would bring their sleeping bags or even tents and camp out on the floor, not that sleeping was ever a top priority mind you. People would booze, eat pizza and write code into the small hours of the morning, kept awake only by endless cups of coffee. The demo scene was strictly a European phenomenon and the domain of almost exclusively male under 30s. To encourage more visitors of the fairer sex, party organizers were known to waive the entrance fee for females, though the impact was hardly staggering; most females were girlfriend's of those entering the competitions rather than independent entrants or even curious spectators.

Sadly, in modern times, demo parties suffer from dwindling attendance figures, and some are even being cancelled as a result of lack of interest and/or quality of the entries. While sceners, at one time, entered competitions for the mere thrill of having their work seen by their peers and gaining notoriety in the demo scene, today many have to be bribed into coding through the lure of cash prizes leading to disenchanted cries of "sell-out" from those who hold the glory days close to their hearts. Those that still exist are often blended with LAN gaming parties much to the exasperation of oldskool sceners, who do not appreciate having their hobby trounced by screaming kiddies shouting obscenities at each other whilst playing network favourites such as Counterstrike. Similarly, many demo parties have been infiltrated by people who only want to swap pirated software or watch porn. Recently, party organizers have hit back at this trend by imposing more stringent conduct regulations though it may be too late to turn back the tide. The principal impediment seems to be in financing such events; hiring venues of this magnitude requires sums of money which are simply out of reach of independent organisers. Getting demo parties off the ground necessities the investment of corporate sponsors, and these sponsors will only consider involving themselves if there is sufficient interest in the event. Network gaming is popular, the demo scene far less so.

It's not all bad news, however; two of largest demo web sites, www.scene.org and www.ojuice.net are still going strong. Both support a steady flow of new submissions and forum activity is brisk. While getting retro demos to run on a modern PC can be tricky, running those designed specifically for today's operating systems is child's play - it is simply a matter of double clicking an executable file in fact! If you've never had the pleasure of watching a well crafted demo by one of the major players, do yourself a favour and visit one of the sites above. You won't be disappointed.

Those people who have left the demo scene are often headhunted by games developers in need of creative computer professionals. What may have begun as "art for art's sake" has taken those involved far beyond their primary modest goals. Many of the techniques used in producing demos are directly transferable to other aspects of software development. You might be surprised by the number of people involved in producing today's blockbusting PC games that were enticed into programming by the demo scene. Many still code demos in their spare time, and those who don't, have used their talents as a spring board to other ventures.


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