The demo scene stared back in the early 80s with 8-bit
machines such as the Commodore VIC 20
, Sinclair Spectrum
, Amstrad CPC
, Dragon 32
and of course the legendary Commodore 64
. With the C64
in particular, people realised that they could make the machine do some very interesting things, using creative programming, an in-depth knowledge of the hardware
and undocumented features.
There are generally four types of people who are part of the demo scene:
Programmer and often designer of the demo. Usually has a complete knowledge of the available hardware and knows the timing of each assembler instruction by heart.
- Graphics artist
Responsible for all images and textures in a demo, as well as some design. Their favorite tool is DPaint.
Creates all the music for the demo, traditionally with a tracker in MOD format, but now usually in MP3 format using whatever instruments they choose.
These guys were responsible for distributing demos in a variety of formats. Nowadays, the internet makes their job almost redundant, but back in the day they were and essential part of the scene. Mail traders used the normal postage service, while modem traders operated with on BBS. A trader's most valuable possesion is his contact list.
These groups of people (recognised individually by their handle) typically organise into groups, with exotic names such as Scoopex, Quartex, Sanity and Razor 1911.
The demo scene really took off with the release of 16-bit home computers such as the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga. These machines offered more powerful hardware than the 8-bit systems and the Amiga in particular had very flexible hardware. However, the real explosion of the demo scene can be put down, to a large extent, to three factors:
Soundtracker was the first in a long line of music "tracker" programs for the Amiga. Basically, each hardware sound channel has a track in the program, which can contain notes sounded with different sound samples. Soundtracker supported four channels of 8 bit sound. Before Soundtracker, musicians often needed to know some programming and could only use synth sound, rather than sampled sound. The relative ease of use of Soundtracker let many new musicians enter the scene.
DPaint was bundled with many Amigas, and was basically a paint package similar to Microsoft Paint, but much more powerful. Unlike Photoshop it was more concerned with the manipulation of single pixels using a small (32 colours maximum) palette. Again, its ease of use allowed many people to enter the scene as artists, and to create some truly beautiful works.
Finally, the introduction of the floppy disk as the standard medium for games allowed companies to use more advanced copy protection than had typically been available before. Many tape based games could be copied by anyone with a reasonable tape deck. Because it was not possible to reproduce protected floppy disk games by the standard methods available to the user, large numbers of groups sprung up to crack the protection and release unprotected versions. While similar groups had existed before, only now were they operating in such large numbers. Thus, the 40k intro was born, and demo effects were seen at the start of every pirate game. This helped produce a mass of coders and bring the demo scene to a wider audience.
In this golden era of the scene, hardware was mostly fixed. Most home computer owners did not upgrade their computers much, if at all. Thus, there was a level playing field for everyone, and thus one of the key aspects by which demos were judged was born. Doing something new, unusual or clever with the available hardware was highly respected. That could include a new programming trick to put a few more dots on your vector ball, some clever shading to mask the fact that your picture only used 32 colours, or the clever use of samples to produce high quality music. The level of competition was high, and many innovative techniques were developed.
Since the end of the Amiga era, the demo scene has slowly moved away from this idea. Now, demos are more like multimedia presentations, often telling a story or showcasing some graphical effect. Because no two PCs are exactly alike, it is impossible to code at the low level required by the old system. Indeed, most demos are now written in C rather than assembler. Some people say this is a good thing, some dislike it, but the good old days of copper effects and four channel MOD music are definitely more or less over.