ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Demoscene Week: Changing Everything —

I wasn’t there, but I was close.

When the demogroup Farbrausch released FR-041 (“Debris”) at Breakpoint 2007, I was watching through the stream and watched it completely own the Demo category, even with new productions by Andromeda and Synesthetics, to the great cries of “HUND! HUND!” throughout the Rundsporthalle. I wasn’t awake for the results, but I knew they were the winners after 30 seconds of the demo.

I’m gearing this introduction to the demoscene with the assumption that all the stuff I just mentioned is sort of unknown to you. People who know the demoscene well will probably not find much of interest except the opportunity to correct me, while people who sort of know it (in a “I’ve heard of it” level) will maybe get some pretty pictures out of it, so it’s worth their time.

This whole “Demoscene” thing is an inherent part of my growing up, placed along the worlds I traveled with Bulletin Board Systems, Text Adventures, Hacking Groups, and Art. In fact, it’s so much a piece of me that I fall into the classic situation of simply assuming that everyone around me has either heard of it (at least, lightly), was a part of it, or “gets” the whole thing the second I start talking about it. This has been pointed out to me as being a bit silly, and it is, in fact, a bit silly.

So let’s spend a week on it.

Introducing someone to the concept, we immediately and completely trip over the core word: “demo”. The word has an enormous spectrum of meanings, and in fact the way I’m using it isn’t even one you can generally look up. We have test products, destruction, protesting, presentations, music recording… all of them use the word “demo” as some sort of term relevant to them. If someone says he has a “demo”, your initial thought is not guaranteed to be the way I’m thinking of it. So let’s work with that word immediately.

Demos are programs written to show off either technical, artistic, or stylistic prowess on a computer.

Dull as mud, huh. The thing is, that simple root definition fillets out all of the wonderful stuff in lieu of simplicity. It’s like describing the whole aspect of music as being “the making of sounds”. You’re missing out on a lot of stuff, especially groupies and pyrotechnics. Similarly, you’re missing out on this entire amazing culture, often called the “Demoscene”, that has been a global presence for over 20 years and had an immediate effect on a whole raft of things, ranging from game design to music videos to web design to programming techniques in general.

It used to be that being a software pirate was a rather technically challenging endeavor.

I could fill your evening with discussions of software piracy and the various aspects of it that have existed throughout the year; I put in some bit of it into the BBS documentary, talking to people who were once software pirates on the Apple II. I’ve also interviewed people outside of the documentary, just because I find them fascinating folks. Many of them have gone on to careers in computers that use their skillsets quite handily, skillsets they built up pirating software. Once computer software went from being the utility accompanying massive machines and became an industry within itself related to home computers, it became a priority to prevent the duplication of this software. The only problem was, this software was being run on machines whose main abilities were in the retention and duplication of software. After all, the computer had to “duplicate” the program off the cassette tape or floppy disk into memory, and then “duplicate” settings in memory to be able to present the user with ever-changing variations of the program’s output. “Shareware” and “Freeware” programmers really liked this attribute, allowing their works to go far and wide with very little personal time required after the initial drop onto a BBS or onto some mailed-out floppies. In the case of commercial software, however, a complete copying of the entire program would result in a lost sale. Like a lot of cases involving money, this resulted in a hilarious goulash of smart and stupid; smart people spending months on a program and then spending weeks beyond it trying to ensure the program could be copied into the computer’s memory but never copied out again, often by completely breaking aspects of the computer’s speed and efficiency to do it.

In the same way you might live in an apartment and are thankful you’re never required to slaughter a goat, so should you use a computer and be thankful you never have to conquer spiral tracking protection.

But the people who did conquer crazy computer protection schemes like spiral tracking (which involved reprogramming the step motor of a disk drive to make it general one single track on a floppy in a spiral!) did so and were really smart about it. Super smart, totally honed in the skills needed to undo the protections and memory access control and every other barrier preventing them from making duplicate copies of this software, returning the machine to its designed state of easy copies. And with these skills came two types of personality; the quiet get-it-done utilitarian software cracker, and the Oompah-Band-Playing Showboater, who would be more than happy not just to crack the software but tie it into a little bow, fixed up and optimized, and better than when you found it initially. At the risk of a totally silly analogy, imagine a car thief that returns your car a day later with better shocks and fuel efficiency. And photos of all the women he picked up in your car. Including your daughter. That’s hubris, that’s in-your-face. It’s rude, crude, but it contains panache.

Software pirates would speed up games. They’d repackage the game so it was in a smaller space, loaded faster, could fit 10 games on a floppy disk instead of 10 floppy disks with a game apiece on them. And they signed their works.

This is critical. They actually signed the resulting crack, leaving a note that it was they that broke the protection, and were making it available. They’d include an advertisement for the BBS they ran. They’d include messages to other software pirates not to screw with them. A program that once held a simple title screen would be completely redone, a trotted-out pony with the pirate’s name shaved on its butt. “Enjoy the steak,” the pirate would be saying, “but remember who rustled the cattle for you in the first place”.

This is enormous hubris. It turns some people off immediately, disgusted at the combination of “wasted talent” and “outright theft”. I won’t debate that; I’ve never been good at it. In the same way that there is endless romantic tale-spinning of the pirates of old, so the same it is with these software piracy groups. Sure, there’s lots of examples of simple smash-and-grab types who used industry backup programs to snag copies to trade around school, and there were folks who lacked even that skill and would shoplift or “borrow” friends’ disks and not return them, nothing more than outright thieves in the true dictionary sense. But there’s something about gazing at the breathtaking variety and messages of these groups that a range of people have found fascinating.

Things have lessened up somewhat in the ensuing years; the introduction of the CD-ROM meant enormous amounts of data were available very easily, and the lack of real “protection” on them meant easy copying for people willing to sustain the mass of data that this entailed. Cracks still happened and in fact a piracy “community” in the sense of “groups putting together stuff in a repackaged fashion that was once for sale” thrives quite handily in this age of peer-to-peer and bittorrent. But more often than not, you are simply receiving the data in a compressed form “ripped” directly from the DVD-ROM or CD or movie in question; the “pirates” are glorified copy machines, quite happy to throw stuff up onto the web and let the fast pipes of the world glom down the massively over-puffed result. It is, as to be expected, a different world.

But this original hubris, this willingness to create a “show” patting oneself on the back before sending the user into the software package, is where the demoscene feels its roots.

The Commodore 64 was really frigging cheap.

This may seem like a bit of a departure of where we were. But it’s not. The Commodore 64, the longest-running manufactured computer in history (it was manufactured by Commodore from 1982 to 1994, an astoundingly long run), was, to put it succinctly, the first computer for multiple generations of children and adults. At a price tag in the range of hundreds at the same time others were over $1000, it was a relatively low-cost way to enter the computer age. And what wonders the computer held! Graphics, sound, programming that could adapt to the needs of whoever the user was. If you wanted only to place your disk in and play a game, the C64 could send you right there, joystick in hand, never worrying about a byte or a command. On the other hand, if you could brave the learning curve, your C64 was ready for you to do your worst in manipulating the 6502 chip within into insane backflips, calling out to the graphics and sound chips in new and amazing ways, each more and more convoluted (or elegant).

The C64 was big in the US, but it was unbelievably huge in Europe. So big, the closest analogy for Americans is probably the original Nintendo Entertainment Systems, in terms of uniformity of hardware and width of distribution. But the important thing to realize, is how very well-known this computer, this collection of hardware and software, had been. It too was subject to the same situation of the Apple II: pirate groups, brilliant programmers taking on other brilliant programmers to both duplicate and improve commercial products. And again, there were these signatures, these “splash screens” announcing the group’s prowess in making the duplicated software available.

There became a bit of a competitive spirit over these splash screens.

In many ways, the pirate groups that would crack and make various software available would spend more and more time on these opening splash screens. They’d add in messages that scrolled. (Scrollers). They’d add starfields, They’d make stuff happen that wasn’t supposed to happen. And all this to get people to be impressed with the programming prowess they had. I know that might sound weird, but it’s a core situation. it’s part of what made this all what it was. Again, this generation of kids who were raised on this (relatively) cheap hardware that they knew inside and out were given a stage to present their skills not just in cracking software, but demonstrating their programming prowess in general. Demonstration. You see where this is going.

So, there were these things called “Copy Parties”.

Obviously, transferring disks, even highly-optimized, cracked-so-that-10-fit-on-1 disks, was an expensive proposition, especially in places like Europe where the phone bills could be crushing. For a certain range of software traders, it became easier to simply mail stacks of disks, or get together in person and copy stuff. Held in homes or at schools, these parties became known as “copy parties”. They happened all over the world, but for whatever reason the European parties started having names, and were held in a more public fashion. They began being “hosted” by pirate groups. And, critically, there began to be competitions. Competitions of a programming nature, and with cracking groups needing to keep up by bringing in dedicated art and programming members to just work on the splash screens. And the splash screens became not just more elaborate, but more communicative, more taunting.

Somewhere in the late 1980s, things shift. The portions of the pirate groups dedicated to creating graphics and sound for these splash screens start becoming entirely separate divisions, not at all related to cracking software or splash screens. Instead, they begin releasing their works completely and separately. Sometimes a piracy group would still have its name on these separate programs, but they weren’t affiliated with any software; they stood on their own.

These programs would demonstrate programming skill.
They would demonstrate artistic, and music skill.
And they would demonstrate stuff that, for the life of you, you could not figure out how they were accomplishing it.

They were, in a word, demos.

We’ve travelled a long way today, and we’ve not explained the statement at the top of the entry yet. Here it is again:

When the demogroup Farbrausch released FR-041 (“Debris”) at Breakpoint 2007, I was watching through the stream and watched it completely own the Demo category, even with new productions by Andromeda and Synesthetics, to the great cries of “HUND! HUND!” throughout the Rundsporthalle. I wasn’t awake for the results, but I knew they were the winners after 30 seconds of the demo.

“Breakpoint 2007” is a party that was held in Germany just this past weekend, attended by over a thousand people, for the pure and total reason to show demos, these programs rooted in crack screens, Commodore 64s and generations of computer users. “Farbrausch” is a reknown “demo group”, dedicated to releasing better and better demos. They have competitors, including groups with names like “Andromeda” and “Synesthetics”. There is such an interest in these parties that the competitions are broadcast over internet TV ( And with a dozen categories of entries, there were contests held all weekend, in an arena, a literal arena, called the Rundsporthalle.

And the demo, the program written to impress that won the demo competition, was called “Debris”.

Here is the page with the demo for download to a Windows box. If you do not have a windows box, it is possible to download a video recording of the demo playing, so you don’t need to find the right hardware.

When you do play it, if you have a machine that can play it, you’re in for a ride.

The program is in real time.
The program is generating the scenes as it goes.
The program is 176 kilobytes.

176k. Probably one-half the size of this entry I’ve been writing for a few hours. And it does that.

“How is this happening?” was my initial reaction. “How are they doing that.” Research, study, investigation, and I learned. But that’s the way it is with all magic tricks, really; spend enough time staring at them in cold regard, and the secrets will likely fall. But hopefully what will never fall is that memory of the initial dropped jaw, the opened eyes, the created work whose only point was to entertain, to boast, to delight, to compete, to win.

That is the core spirit of demos.

Next: The Style.

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One Comment

  1. IC says:

    I think you’ve nailed it here, Jason. This is a worthy successor to Trixter’s “PC Demos Eplained” and the new page to link to for that eternal question.
    I too tuned in to watch many of the compos at breakpoint for hours on end, soaking up some of that pulsating collective energy by way of a 420kbit stream. It’s been a while since I’ve had a dose, and it’s goood stuff. I’m looking forward to Blockparty for my next fix. And to be amongst others who understand why I smile and hoot and cheer when chunks of silicon are doing the bidding of the inspired mind.