The demoscene is an international computer art subculture focused on producing demos: self-contained, sometimes extremely small, computer programs that produce audiovisual presentations. The purpose of a demo is to show off programming, visual art, and musical skills. Demos and other demoscene productions (graphics, music, videos, games) are shared at festivals known as demoparties, voted on by those who attend and released online.
The demoscene’s roots are in the home computer revolution of the early 1980s, and the subsequent advent of software cracking. Crackers altered the code of video games to remove copy protection, claiming credit by adding introduction screens of their own (“cracktros”). They soon started competing for the best visual presentation of these additions. Through the making of intros and stand-alone demos, a new community eventually evolved, independent of the gaming and software sharing scenes.
Demoscene productions can be made with the latest consumer technology or with ancient, obsolete home computers and consoles. Often terms “newschool” and “oldskool” are vaguely used to describe products for newer and older computers. In the oldskool department techniques of the past like ASCII/ANSI art, pixel graphics, chipmusic are constantly being used.
Prior to the popularity of IBM PC compatibles, most home computers of a given line had relatively little variance in their basic hardware, which made their capabilities practically identical. Therefore, the variations among demos created for one computer line were attributed to programming alone, rather than one computer having better hardware. This created a competitive environment in which demoscene groups would try to outperform each other in creating outstanding effects, and often to demonstrate why they felt one machine was better than another (for example Commodore 64 or Amiga versus Atari 8-bit family or Atari ST).
Demo writers went to great lengths to get every last bit of performance out of their target machine. Where games and application writers were concerned with the stability and functionality of their software, the demo writer was typically interested in how many CPU cycles a routine would consume and, more generally, how best to squeeze great activity onto the screen. Writers went so far as to exploit known hardware errors to produce effects that the manufacturer of the computer had not intended. The perception that the demo scene was going to extremes and charting new territory added to its draw.
There are several categories demos are informally classified into, the most important being the division between freeform demos and size-restricted intros, a difference visible in the competitions of nearly any demo party. The most typical competition categories for intros are the 64K intro and the 4K intro, where the size of the executable file is restricted to 65536 and 4096 bytes, respectively. In other competitions the choice of platform is restricted; only 8-bit computers like the Atari 800 or Commodore 64, or the 16-bit Amiga or Atari ST. Such restrictions provide a challenge for coders, musicians and graphics artists, to make a device do more than was intended in its original design.
The earliest computer programs that have some resemblance to demos and demo effects can be found among the so-called display hacks. Display hacks predate the demoscene by several decades, with the earliest examples dating back to the early 1950s.
Demos in the demoscene sense began as software crackers’ “signatures”, that is, crack screens and crack intros attached to software whose copy protection was removed. The first crack screens appeared on the Apple II in the early 1980s, and they were often nothing but plain text screens crediting the cracker or their group. Gradually, these static screens evolved into increasingly impressive-looking introductions containing animated effects and music. Eventually, many cracker groups started to release intro-like programs separately, without being attached to unlicensed software. These programs were initially known by various names, such as letters or messages, but they later came to be known as demos.
In 1980, Atari, Inc. began using a looping demo with visual effects and music to show off the features of the Atari 400/800 computers in stores. At the 1985 Consumer Electronics Show, Atari showed a demoscene-style demo for its latest 8-bit computers that alternated between a 3D walking robot and a flying spaceship, each with its own music, and animating larger objects than typically seen on those systems; the two sections were separated by the Atari logo. The program was released to the public. Also in 1985, a large, spinning, checkered ball—casting a translucent shadow—was the signature demo of what the hardware was capable of when Commodore’s Amiga was announced.
Simple demo-like music collections were put together on the C64 in 1985 by Charles Deenen, inspired by crack intros, using music taken from games and adding some homemade color graphics. In the following year the movement now known as the demoscene was born. The Dutch groups 1001 Crew and The Judges, both Commodore 64-based, are often mentioned among the earliest demo groups. Whilst competing with each other in 1986, they both produced pure demos with original graphics and music involving more than just casual work, and used extensive hardware trickery. At the same time demos from others, such as Antony Crowther, had started circulating on Compunet in the United Kingdom.
The demoscene is mainly a European phenomenon. It is a competition-oriented subculture, with groups and individual artists competing against each other in technical and artistic excellence. Those who achieve excellence are dubbed “elite”, while those who do not follow the demoscene’s implicit rules are called “lamers”; such rules emphasize creativity over “ripping” (or else using with permission) the works of others, having good contacts within the scene, and showing effort rather than asking for help. Both this competitiveness and the sense of cooperation among demosceners have led to comparisons with the earlier hacker culture in academic computing. The demoscene is a closed subculture, which seeks and receives little mainstream public interest. As of 2010, the size of the scene was estimated at some 10,000.
In the early days, competition came in the form of setting records, like the number of “bobs” (blitter objects) on the screen per frame, or the number of DYCP (Different Y Character Position) scrollers on a C64. These days, there are organized competitions, or compos, held at demoparties, although there have been some online competitions as well. It has also been common for diskmags to have voting-based charts which provide ranking lists for the best coders, graphicians, musicians, demos and other things. However, the respect for charts has diminished since the 1990s.
Party-based competitions usually require the artist or a group member to be present at the event. The winners are selected by a public voting amongst the visitors and awarded at a prizegiving ceremony at the end of the party. Competitions at a typical demo event include a demo compo, an intro compo (usually 4 kB and 64 kB), a graphics compo and a music compo. Most parties also split some categories by platform, format or style.
There are no criteria or rules the voters should be bound by, and a visitor typically just votes for those entries that made the biggest impression on them. In the old demos, the impression was often attempted with programming techniques introducing new effects and breaking performance records in old effects; the emphasis has moved from technical excellence to more artistic values such as overall design, audiovisual impact and mood.
In recent years, an initiative to award demos in an alternative way arose by the name of the Scene.org Awards. The essential concept of the awards was to avoid the subjectivity of mass-voting at parties, and select a well-renowned jury to handle the task of selecting the given year’s best productions on several aspects, such as Best Graphics or Best 64k Intro. This award was canceled in 2012.
In 2020, Finland added its demoscene to its national UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. It is the first digital subculture to be put on an intangible cultural heritage list. In 2021, Germany and Poland also added its demoscene to its national UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage.
Demosceners typically organize in small, tightly knit groups, centered around a coder (programmer), a musician and a graphician (graphics designer). Various other supporting roles exist and groups can grow to dozens of people, but most demos are actually created by a small number of people.
Groups always have names, and similarly the individual members pick a handle by which they will be addressed in the large community. While the practice of using handles rather than real names is a borrowing from the cracker/warez culture, where it serves to hide the identity of the cracker from law enforcement, in the demoscene (oriented toward legal activities) it mostly serves as a manner of self-expression. Group members tend to self-identify with the group, often extending their handle with their group’s name, following the patterns “Handle of Group” or “Handle/Group”.
A demoparty is an event where demosceners and other computer enthusiasts gather to partake in competitions called Demoscene compos of demos (short audio-visual presentations of computer art). A typical demoparty is a non-stop event spanning a weekend, providing the visitors a lot of time to socialize. The competing works, at least those in the most important competitions, are usually shown at night, using a video projector and loudspeakers. The most important competition is usually the demo compo.
The visitors of a demoparty often bring their own computers to compete and show off their works. To this end, most parties provide a large hall with tables, electricity and usually a local area network connected to the Internet. In this respect, many demoparties resemble LAN parties, and many of the largest events also gather gamers and other computer enthusiasts in addition to demosceners. A major difference between a real demoparty and a LAN party is that demosceners typically spend more time socializing (often outside the actual party hall) than in front of their computers.
Large parties have often tried to come up with alternative terms to describe the concept to the general public. While the events have always been known as “demoparties”, “copyparties” or just “parties” by the subculture itself, they are often referred to as “computer conferences”, “computer fairs”, “computer festivals”, “computer art festivals”, “youngsters’ computer events” or even “geek gatherings” or “nerd festivals” by the mass media and the general public.
Demoscene events are most frequent in continental Europe, with around fifty parties every year—in comparison, the United States only has two or three each year. Most events are local, gathering demomakers mostly from a single country, while the largest international parties (such as Breakpoint and Assembly) attract visitors from all over the globe.
Most demoparties are relatively small in size, with the number of visitors varying from dozens to a few hundred. The largest events typically gather thousands of visitors, although most of them have little or no connection to the demoscene. In that aspect, the scene separates “pure” parties (which abandons non-scene related activities and promotion) from “crossover” parties.
Demoparties started to appear in the 1980s in the form of copyparties, where software pirates and demomakers gathered to meet each other and share their software. Competitions did not become a major aspect of the events until the early 1990s.
Copyparties mainly pertained to the Amiga and C64 scene. As the PC compatibles started to take over the market, the difficulties in easily making nice demos and intros increased. Along with increased police crackdowns on copying of copyrighted software, the “underground” copyparties were gradually replaced by slightly higher-profile events that came to be known as demoparties. However, some of the “old-school” demosceners still prefer to use the word copyparty even for today’s demoparties.
During the 1990s, the focus of the events shifted away from illegal activities into demomaking and competitions. The copying of copyrighted material was often explicitly prohibited by the organizers, and many events also forbade the consumption of alcohol. However, illegal copying and “boozing” still continued to take place, although in a less public form.
Three well-known and appreciated large-scale demoparties were established in the early 1990s: The Party in Denmark, Assembly in Finland and The Gathering in Norway. Taking place every year and gathering thousands of visitors, these parties used to be the leading demoscene events in this period. Assembly still retains this status today. The Gathering continues to be organized yearly as a generic “computer party”, but most of the demosceners now prefer Revision in Germany, which takes place at the same time.
The emergence of high-profile demoparties gave rise to phenomena that were not always well welcomed by the scene. The events started to attract unaffiliated computer enthusiasts who were often generally referred to as “lamers” by the original attendants. A particularly visible group in the large gatherings since the mid-1990s have been the LAN gamers, who often have very little interest in the demoscene and mainly use the party facilities for playing multi-player computer games. However, many of today’s demosceners received their first interest for demos and demomaking from a visit to a large demoparty.
“Demoscene” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, n.d.