A demo (demonstration) is a non-interactive multimedia presentation made within the computer subculture known as the demoscene. Demogroups create demos to demonstrate their abilities in programming, music, drawing, and 3D modeling.
The key difference between a classical animation and a demo is that the display of a demo is computed in real time, making computing power considerations the biggest challenge. Demos are mostly composed of 3D animations mixed with 2D effects and full screen effects.
The ‘boot block’ demos of the 1980s, demos created to fit within the small (generally 512 to 4096 bytes) first block of the floppy disk that was to be loaded into RAM, were typically authored by software crackers boasting of their accomplishment prior to the loading of the game. What began as a type of electronic graffiti on cracked software became an art form unto itself. The demoscene both produced and inspired many techniques used by video games and 3D rendering applications today – for instance, light bloom, among others.
‘Wired News’ has frequently described demos as ‘digital graffiti,’ emphasizing the underground nature of the demoscene as well as the way demos are used to proclaim the authoring ‘gang’s’ superiority. ‘Digitalcraft’ has described demos as ‘digital origami,’ referring to the creation of aesthetically pleasing works by overcoming strict technical restrictions.
There are demos available for a great variety of computing platforms. Currently, most new demos are native-code programs designed to run on Windows, but demos are still actively being made for many other machines including old and new computers, consoles and mobile devices such as PDAs, mobile phones, and pocket calculators. The main historical platforms include Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Atari ST, and Commodore Amiga, and demo competitions for these platforms are still relatively common at today’s demo parties.
Unlike mainstream retrocomputing, the activity of creating demos for old computers is more commonly associated with technical challenge than nostalgia. The accomplishment of new and groundbreaking things is a major driving force on the demoscene, and the limits of various pieces of ‘obsolete’ hardware are still being pushed forward by several groups. Even many PC-oriented democoders do some programming on more restricted platforms in order to get in touch with ways of democoding that are no longer available on modern PCs.
In the 1990s, it was still quite common for different platforms to have more or less separate demoscenes. When users of different platforms participated in a single event, it was considered obvious to split the competition categories for each supported platform (e.g. having separate demo and intro competitions for the PC and the Amiga). Nowadays, the availability of decent emulators and video captures have brought the different scenes closer together. Alternative platforms include BASIC, Java, Flash, PHP, and even Microsoft Office. Software platform restrictions like this, however, have not earned the respect from the majority of demosceners.
In the 1980s, a lot of personal computer games were released for early equipment like the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Atari ST and Commodore Amiga, including Copy protection to prevent unauthorized copies. Some cracker groups started to release those games with the protection removed. Initially, small demos were shown before the actual game, including music, animations and marquees with greetings from the releasing group. The quality of these demos was quickly considered as representative of the group.
Intros increased in quality, often touching the limits of the computer’s abilities. The cracker groups started competing to be the first to release cracked copies of games. At that moment, fighting copy protection decreased in importance for some artists inside the scene. They felt that programming ambitious Intros was more challenging. The introduction of 16-bit and 32-bit computer systems like the Amiga and the Atari ST resulted in a new distribution of work inside the groups, since the hardware allowed new possibilities. The creation of Intros was divided in programming, music, and graphics. Intros were often spread on Disk magazines. At the end of the 1980s, pirate copies increasingly became an issue for the software industry.
The development of games for certain platforms was stopped entirely due to insuffient profit, some claimed that the cracker scene was responsible for the failure of the Amiga platform. Some Amiga games were released by crackers before they were released commercially. Authorities started to apply pressure on individuals and whole groups in the scene. This led to the release of stand-alone demos without the illegal distribution of computer games. With the increasing use of the Internet, the separation was complete. Cracked copies of computer games were available online for the masses with the crack attached. Often, greetings were only attached in a text file, while the demoscene separately distributed their work.
Small file sizes have been an integral feature of certain types of demos from the very beginning, when software crackers needed to squeeze a crack intro into a very small leftover area of a floppy disk or RAM. It was also important for BBS advertisement intros to be relatively small, since they were typically included in every file downloaded from the BBS. Sometimes even the platform itself dictated some size restrictions: the size of the boot sector of a floppy disk (generally 512 to 4096 bytes) was also the maximum size of a boot block demo.
The common 64-kilobyte size limit for intros, on the other hand, was the segment size in the 16-bit x86 architecture and also the maximum size of an MS-DOS-based .COM executable. In later times, the practical need for very small demos had diminished, but the willingness to compete in squeezing much into little space had not disappeared. It was therefore necessary to introduce artificial size restrictions in order to challenge the authors. In modern demoscene events, there are demo competitions with relatively loose size restrictions, and intro competitions with quite strict limits of 64 kilobytes or less.
Because of the strict size limits, intros show off the programmer’s ability to squeeze much into little space, often by generating graphic and sound data rather than just reading it from a datafile. Because of the extremely low size limit, 4K intros used to lack sound, or had extremely low quality music. As technology progresses, however, 4K sound synthesis has become a new frontier in the demoscene. 4K still isn’t the lowest border for demosceners: some demoparties organize 1K, 256 byte, 64 byte, or even 32 byte intro competitions. While creating a 4K might not require low-level programming knowledge anymore, sub-1K competitions require the demo coder to be skilled in both assembly programming and algorithmic optimization. (For comparison: The size of this section of article is over 2 kilobytes.) Procedural generation techniques developed for small intros have worked their way into mainstream gaming such as Will Wright’s ‘Spore.’
There are several categories into which demos are informally classified. The most common way to classify demos is by platform or size class, but the purpose, content or style of a demo can also matter. An intro originally referred to an endless demo where all the action happened on a single graphical screen, often to promote a BBS or a game crack. Nowadays it can refer to any demo written within a strict size limit, such as 4 kB or 64 kB. Also, any demos written for announcement purposes (such as demo party invitation) are typically called intros regardless of the actual size. Many demosceners reserve the term ‘demo’ exclusively for ‘non-intros,’ that is, full-length demos that compete in demo competitions rather than intro competitions. However, the current trend of squeezing a ‘whole demo’ within a strict intro-like size limit has decreased this kind of division.
Some intro types defined by their content rather than size may also have their own names. Crack intros or ‘cracktros,’ attached to a cracked game, are perhaps the oldest category of intros. ‘Invtros’ (or ‘invitros’) are demos or intros which serve as invitations to demo parties. A ‘birthtro’ (or ‘borntro’) can announce a new demo group, while a ‘memtro’ can announce a new group member, and a ‘jointro’ can recruit others. For ‘real life’ events, there have been ‘wedtros’ to announce weddings, and even ‘babytros’ (also called ‘birthtros’) to announce the birth of a child of a demo scener. The term ‘dentro,’ much less common than demo and intro, can either mean a demo in between an intro and a full-length demo in size, or a short preview of an upcoming demo.
A ‘megademo’ is a demo that consists of >1MB data. A 880K Amiga standard disk plus the packing advantage has a size of 1MB, which qualifies as a megademo. The first Trackmo and megademo was ‘Antitrax 2010 Megademo’ (1987) by Antitrax 2010, on the Amiga computer. Megademos are quite uncommon on today’s demoscene. The term megademo was often used on 8-bit computers, where 1MB of data would be unusual or impossible, to describe a multi-load demo in several parts, larger than a typical demo. For example, ‘Shock Megademo’ on the ZX Spectrum was closer to 100 kilobytes in size.
Since the early 1990s, the predominant demo format has been the ‘trackmo,’ in which visual effects follow a set timeline, synchronized to a continuous soundtrack, much like a music video. The word ‘track’ also refers to the data tracks of a floppy disk, and therefore, to be called a trackmo in the original sense, the demo should run from a diskette and use a custom-made trackloader to read data from it. The first trackmos included ‘Enigma’ (1991) by Phenomena and ‘Mental Hangover’ (1990) by Scoopex, both on the Amiga.
There are demos for a great variety of software and hardware platforms, and the platform is still the most important way for classifying demos. For instance, a demo designed to run on PC is a PC demo, and one written for Amiga is an Amiga demo. It is also common to combine several related platforms into a larger group which may also have its own combined competitions. For example, a mobile demo is a demo written for a small hand-held device such as a hand-held phone, a PDA or a pocket calculator, whereas an 8-bit demo is made for an 8-bit machine (typically an old home computer). A related term, oldskool demo, may either refer to a demo running on an ‘oldskool’ platform (such as an 8- or 16-bit computer of the 1980s) or to a demo that is ‘old-fashioned’ in its design choices and aesthetics.
It is also quite common to classify demos by style and content rather than technology. Story demos, for example, are based on a story line, while ravedemos share the musical and visual aesthetics of rave parties. The most experimental, unusual and controversial demos are often referred to as art demos or abstract demos. Many groups have a distinctive style of their own, and sometimes a demo can be described by referring to a well-known group cultivating a similar style, e.g. mfx style or Melon style.
Demos consist of program code, graphics and music, which are traditionally considered the three main elements of a demo and associated with the coder, graphician and musician, respectively. The overall design is also considered very important, although most groups lack specialized designers. Demos are executable programs, and the program code created by the coder is still considered a very important element of a demo. Although there are programs known as demomakers or demotools that allow the creation of technically decent demos without coder involvement, demo groups not using any code of their own are widely frowned upon. It is not customary to release the source code for a demo for various reasons although a handful of notable demos have had their source code released.
Earliest demos were typically made in machine code monitors, the same programs that were used by the crackers to crack copy protections. The next step was the transition from monitors to assemblers. Higher-level programming languages, such as C and C++, started to gradually take over assembly programming in the demos of the 1990s, when cycle-level timing was no longer considered as important as before and compilers were beginning to be able to produce code comparable to hand-coded assembly. The transition to higher-level languages originated in the PC scene. Today, demos programmed in pure assembly are rare on the PC (except for the extreme size-restricted categories), but assembly is still widely considered the only relevant choice for democoding on eight-bit platforms such as the Commodore 64.
Snippets of program code performing visual tricks, collectively called effects, have always been an integral part of demos. Effects are often used to show off the programmer’s skills, although they’re seldom used as stand-alone content elements any more. Additionally, executable compression has been used in demos since the very beginning: pirated software needed to be packed into a compact and easily spreadable format, which often required some kind of compression for both the software itself and the attached intro. Early demos often had multiple parts which were separately decompressed into memory during the short pauses between parts.
The music in the earliest cracktros and demos was often ripped from games. However, some of the groups of the time started to create demo music of their own quite early, and some groups, such as Vibrants and Maniacs of Noise, even specialized in music. ‘Oldskool’ demo songs are typically chiptunes similar to the video game music of the 1980s. The chiptune style was also used in several Amiga and PC intros of the 1990s due to their smaller size and memory limitations. The use of sample-based trackers greatly affected the styles of demo music, making it possible to closely imitate techno music and many other genres of electronica. Even today, most of demo music is electronic music, even though the use of streaming formats allows virtually any music in the soundtrack.
Many demo groups have written music editors of their own. Well-known examples include the classical PC trackers Scream Tracker and FastTracker by Future Crew and Triton respectively, and the modular synthesizer Buzz by Jeskola. Nowadays, most demo musicians use music sequencers and other professional tools for creating demo music. In most demos, the music is played back by a stock player routine such as a module player, MP3/Vorbis player or a routine specific to a music editor. Specialized players are also rather common, particularly in size-restricted intros. Modern 4K and 64K intros often contain a software synthesizer which may even have been written with a specific song in mind.
[In demoscene parlance, graphics or GFX typically only includes the work of the graphician – that is, still images, textures, 3D scenes, 3D objects and color schemes. Effects and other code-related visualization is usually not regarded as graphics. The traditional form of graphics art in demos is pixel art, which has been made with dedicated editors or commercial graphics software such as Deluxe Paint. The still images in modern PC demos are usually made with industry-standard software such as Adobe Photoshop. The technical skills of an artist were often stressed far more than originality or imagination, which gave birth to many graphics-related clichés in the demoscene art of the 1990s. Sci-fi and fantasy themes with dragons, swords and spaceships were very common, as were images of women, both clothed and naked.
The earliest 3D objects and scenes in demos were often very simplistic and were constructed by the coder, often without any modeler-like software whatsoever. Today, many demos have several complex 3D scenes but lack still art entirely. In the mid-1990s, many groups had advanced 3D routines capable of dealing with complex objects but lacked members skilled or interested in 3D modeling. This lead many demos to only have simple procedural objects such as tori or example file objects such as ducks and teapots. The use of these stock objects is the origin of a lot of insider humor within the demoscene.
It is traditionally standard in demos for the creators to send greetings (or ‘greetz’) and well-wishes to other demoscene groups, typically of the same platform. While these were often used in scrollers in the early days, in current, graphically more complex demos, greets are usually presented through a demo effect, such as mapping the group names onto objects or using particle systems to fill the letters of the groupname. Being greeted in a demo is usually considered an honor, especially when the demo is high-quality. While there’s no rule on whom one should greet, tradition dictates that groups send greetings to other groups who they consider their friends. Other groups, usually newcomers to the demoscene who don’t have sufficient contacts, prefer to greet groups whose works they consider influential or high-quality. Some groups occasionally send greetings to individual people.
Greetings sometimes include ‘fuckings,’ in which the creators can explain their dismay about another group’s productions or behavior. Fuckings were more common in the early days of the demoscene and mostly used for comedic effect only. Perhaps the most famous ‘fucking’ in a demo appeared in ‘Nexus 7’ by Andromeda, in which a voxel scroller said ‘The infinite Andromeda sends fuckings to -Lord Helmet- of Spaceballs for being a pathetic figure and a pityful [sic] liar!’
It is very important in a demo to display a list of names of people who made the demo. These are also usually presented through a graphical effect, but some groups prefer a cinematic approach and present the credits during the opening scene as movie-like overlays, or have them as an end scroller. Credits in demos, however, rarely feature the creators’ real names, opting to use for their handles instead.
Historically, the bouncing ball has been a popular theme in computer demo effects since the 1950s, when a bouncing ball demo was released for Whirlwind computers. It later became the primary theme for the early Atari games ‘Pong’ and ‘Breakout.’ Commodore released a bouncing ball demo at the 1978 ‘Consumer Electronics Show,’ to illustrate the capabilities of the VIC chip. A similar theme was used by Amiga Corporation to demonstrate the capabilities of the Amiga computer at the 1984 ‘Winter Consumer Electronics Show.’ It was a real-time animation showing a red-and-white spinning ball bouncing and casting a shadow. Within the context of this tradition of bouncing ball demos at the ‘Consumer Electronics Show,’ CBS Electronics also showed a Bouncing Ball demo for the Atari VCS/2600, with a spinning and bouncing ball, at the same event. Following these semi-official demonstrations the bouncing ball theme has reappeared in various demoscence productions.