20.12.2008 Pilvari Pirtola
This article gives a brief overview on the history of the demoscene and some understanding of different styles inside it. In the end of the article I’ll give out some links for further places to study and learn more by yourself.
In the early eighties came first popular home computers, while the machines were still simple and didn’t fully deliver the promises made by the advertising companies about being all-purpose machines for the whole family. At least machines like the Commodore 64 turned out to be quite good for gaming. This is how the first home computers became big gaming platforms. Quite fast kids realised that it was a lot cheaper to buy empty floppies or cassettes instead of paying the full price for the game. This got the people who made the games to invent different kinds of copy protection systems, usually putting some code in the game which required the user to input some info from manual or the game packaging to make the game work.
The youth with free time and some understanding of machine language soon figured out that it was possible to disassemble the code and rewrite it. It became possible to bypass the copy protection systems, and enable them to copy these games to their friends. They started to call this technique ´cracking´ and formed the first ´cracking groups´. As people wanted to let everyone know who had been the first to crack certain games, they started to put small info screens on the beginning of the game.
Quite soon someone realised that it was nicer to put scrolling texts and computer graphics on these and so the ´crack intros´ were born. At this time the games with ´cracktros´ were mostly traded by copying floppies or tapes and trading them in person or sending them internationally via mail, but also through some BBS´s where people could phone in with a modem connected to their computer and upload or download things were born.
Some people started to like the cracktros even more than the actual games. They thought that making them would be just as fun even without the games. Some cracker groups formed their own demo-divisions where people would make intros and demos. Also some groups were formed just to make these, without any connection to the warez scene anymore, and that’s how demoscene started to evolve on it’s own.
Still throughout the ´80s the demoscene was quite tightly connected with the illegal warez scene and it was sometimes hard to tell whether someone was in the one or in the other. But later the different scenes have grown completely apart from each other. Some of the most interesting groups at that time were Fairlight, Scoopex, Byterapers, Complex, Finnish Gold, Accession, Beyond Force, TRSI and MegaHawks INC.
Later in the ´80s people started to organise copy parties. They are events where the sceners would gather and copy releases from and to each other and meet people they have known before only by their handles. First parties in Finland were held around 1987. At that time they still had quite low amount of attendees, but the importance of these gatherings was big for the growing scene as it gave the people chance to meet each others in person.
When coming to the early ´90s some of the parties started to grow quite big and some huge events like The Party in Denmark, The Gathering in Norway and Assembly in Finland were born. These bigger events could have even several thousands of visitors, not only the sceners but also people who were just interested in computer culture. Of these The Gathering and Assembly are still held yearly. Even though their main focus has shifted a bit away from demoscene, towards more general computer culture and gaming, they still have competitions and attract demogroups to participate with their big sponsor provided prizes. These big parties also brought a new kind of audience to demos, which wasn’t so well in touch with the insides of computers. Some groups took inspiration from music videos. Such demos as State of the Art and 9 Fingers by Spaceballs are good examples of these.
In the late ´80s and in the early ´90s the biggest platforms were Commodore 64 and Amiga, but also Atari had some following. There was a lot of competition with different platforms. Due to quite limited graphics and sounds on early IBM PC machines the demoscene on the PC was quite small until the early ´90s when demos like Unreal and 2nd
Reality by Future Crew gave a big boost to it.
Around the mid ´90s the PC scene took place as the biggest and most popular platform, and it has kept it’s place since then. While most of the demos were still focusing on technical skills there started to show up more demos with all kinds of interesting content. Especially some Finnish groups like Coma, mfx, ISO, Flo, Halcyon, CNCD and Orange made some interesting productions.
While technical development went forward and PC machines got more efficient the effects used in demos grew more complex, though often focusing on different kinds of 3D scenes. Especially introduction of 3D accelerating cards made 3D graphics a standard way to make demos in the late ´90s.
When coming to the second millennia the PC was the dominant platform, yet Amiga and Commodore 64 have kept their own following, and there still are releases on them that are able to surprise even people who’ve followed the platforms for 20 years.
As the development on PC hardware has brought more and more CPU power to abuse it has shifted the focus on demos a bit more towards the content/design. Some people have turned on to some old platforms which haven´t been used so much before. PWP has done brilliant works on VIC-2O machines and Trilobit’s works on Atari 2600 are also worth a mention. On the technical side coders have turned more into making 4k and 64k intros, where the focus is on size-optimizing and using generative algorithms so that as much content as possible can be fitted to small size. Debris by Farbrausch is one excellent example of how large amount of content can be fitted to a tiny executable. Stylistically more “artistic” demos have had big following. Especially the release of Chimera by Halcyon in 2002 has inspired many groups to do works that don’t follow the general norms of what demos are supposed to be. While ambient and noise demos don’t always get the best response from the audiences of the major parties, they still have their own dedicated following.
The groups which are worth of checking are for example Ephidrena, The Black Lotus, Kosmoplovci, minimalartifact, Matt Current, Jumalauta, Loonies, up rough, Madwizards, Dekadence, Calodox, Traction, Plastic, ASD, Kewlers, HBC and Inward. While in the old days demos were often released outside of parties, now almost all releases are done on the competitions at parties. Undoubtedly the biggest pure scene party is Breakpoint, which is held yearly during Easter in Bingen, Germany. It gathers close to 1000 sceners all around the world together for whole 4 days of party pleasure.
There are plenty of tools for demomaking made by the sceners. Most of them have been released so that they are free to download and use. If you’re interested trying some oldschool style tracker way of making music, then Schismtracker or Milkytracker might be a good way to try it on modern hardware. Also Jeskola Buzz by Oskari Tammelin is a good choice for making some music. If you want to try some complete demomaking then you could look into .werkkzeug1 by .theprodukkt or Spöntz Visuals Editor 1.1 by Spöntz, but bear in mind that it might take some time before you’ll get something done.
Emulators for viewing some older demos:
WinUAE is an universal Amiga emulator for ROM files.
VICE is an emulator for Commodore 64, Commodore VIC-20 and some other less popular Commodore machines.
DOSBOX is an emulator for old PC MS-DOS systems. You’ll need it for watching PC demos from the ´90s.
Some websites which are worth to look into for more information:
Pouet is a general website for scene productions with links to download files and Youtube video versions if available. Also it is the only place where the users of the site can give comments for productions. Message boards are mostly consisted of inside jokes and maybe are better to stay away from.
Scene.org is an archive for all scene productions. They provide web hosting for many demogroups and demoscene related projects. Scene.org hosts the annual scene.org awards show which is yearly held at the Breakpoint demoparty in Germany around easter. Scene.org awards are the scenes equivalent for the Oscar awards.
Demoparty.net is a site where most of the demoparties happening around the world are listed. It´s a good place to follow up what’s going on around the globe.
Demoscene.tv has several video streams for anyone who wants to see some random demoscene productions. They also sometimes do live coverage on some selected demoparties, which is a good way to follow a party if you’re not able to get there yourself.
Capped.tv is another site with streaming video captures of demos.
Youtube is a place where you can obviously find videos of demos.
Freax – The Brief History of Demoscene is a book made by Tamár “Tomcat” Polgár that describes the history of Commodore 64 and Amiga scenes. It is so far the best book on demoscene. There’s a part two coming up with focus on the PC scene and also an Art Album which has been released.