Introduction to the Demoscene
Game companies like to brag about how their games push the boundaries of what's possible with whatever hardware they're using. They're not always right. While occasionally there is a John Carmack or Tim Sweeney that brings out a huge new game engine that allows for bigger levels than before, or more enemies on screen, how many times can those particular limits be pushed before it starts getting old? Where gaming technology really makes leaps and bounds, though, is in the creation of brand new effects, and not just graphical, either. Perhaps someone has figured out a trick that will create new wall textures on the fly for when something crashes through a wall, or a system that will make unique sound effects for specific materials colliding with each other, or even a system that can create an entire world from scratch, with all the detail we've come to expect from a hand-built game world. These are the kinds of effects that have been created by what's called the "demoscene."
Demoscene is a term that tends to get bounced around among computer tech enthusiasts. A simple explanation would be to call the demoscene a group of computer geeks that make graphical tech demos to show off the power of whatever machine they're using. Demoscene groups have been known for some pretty amazing showcases, for platforms ranging from the Commodore 64 and Amiga, to Microsoft Windows, the Nintendo DS, the Game Boy, the 128K Macintosh, or even the TI-89 graphing calculator. These showcases often include music tracks as well, composed specifically for them by amateur musicians. Some famous demoscene members have even formed their own game development companies and published games like Sub-Terrania, Hitman, Pinball Dreams, and Battlefield 3. The demoscene wasn't always just about making pretty effects and cool music, though.
The scene originally got its start in the early 1980's, when users of the popular 8-bit home computers of the day tended to indulge in a little software sharing. Games back then often had manual-based copy protection, or even more elaborate schemes such as the infamous Lenslok system. After a while of dealing with "enter word 7 on paragraph 2 of page 13," some computer users decided they'd had enough and decided to "crack" the software so that such checks were no longer needed. This had the side-effect that their favorite games were now much easier to distribute through less legal means, since users were no longer required to have the instruction manuals, code wheels, or decoder lenses from the box.
Like most software, the "cracks" scene quickly became competitive, with users on bulletin boards racing to be the first to distribute cracks for recently released programs and games. To make sure nobody was claiming credit for their own cracks, some crackers took to embedding their nicknames into bits of the software, such as edited title screens. Not too long after, crackers began adding small intro scenes to their work by taking advantage of the unused space on the tape or disk. These scenes were originally pretty simple, often just including the cracker's nickname and the phone number of a BBS and perhaps a short message, but over time they became increasingly elaborate, including animations, tiny bits of music, or even some special graphical effect. These intro scenes came to be called "cracktros."
Eventually, the community surrounding software cracking became more interested in cracktros than the cracks they were associated with, and much like the cracks scene, the cracktros scene became competitive as well. Users would use their knowledge of their platform of choice to create more graphical effects, and distribute these by themselves via BBS or, in some cases, mailing floppy disks. This is what eventually came to be known as the Demoscene.
The idea of graphical tech demos didn't quite originate with the crack scene, though. As early as the 1950's, computer users would figure out ways to make computer displays show dazzling imagery and patterns through mathematical formulas. These are occasionally called fractals or "display hacks," and they often appear as kaleidoscopes or other forms of psychedelic imagery, perhaps the most famous application of which is the screensavers built in to a computer operating system. The first documented "display hack" dates back to the 1950's with a small program called "Bouncing Ball," which pretty much does what it says on the tin, but is nonetheless a pioneer in its field, given the relative processing power of computers in those days. It was, however, the crack scene that made these display hacks popular among computer enthusiasts on a global scale, and facilitated sharing new effects with each other.
Probably the first example of a true "demo" (among demoscene circles, these are also occasionally called productions, or "prods") was displayed in 1984 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The Commodore Amiga was nearing release, but convention attendees weren't impressed by raw numbers and technical specs, so two Commodore employees stayed up late one night, coding a graphical demo involving one bouncing checker-patterned ball and a loud BOOM sound. The next day, people were flocking to the Commodore booth to figure out what the boom noise was. The "Boing Ball" was so popular that it became the unofficial trademark logo of the Amiga platform. Years later, intrepid demosceners would eventually port the Boing Ball to other, less powerful platforms such as the Commodore 64 and the Atari 2600, under what seems to be the demoscene's modus operandi: "Because we can."
Demoscene productions became so popular among computer enthusiasts that an entire convention was started for the sole purpose of showing the most impressive demo. These are called "demoparties" or just "parties" - these, too, had their origins in the crack scene, as "copyparties" were set up so that crackers could share their wares with each other without lengthy BBS downloads or sending floppy disks or cassette tapes through the mail. As these crackparties became more popular, eventually word of them reached law enforcement, and police began investigating these crackparties, with some arrests being made in relation to public software piracy. Over time, the crackparties' focus shifted purely to the cracktros and demos, with software piracy explicitly forbidden by event organizers.
As early as the late 1980s, prominent demosceners soon began to realize that their expertise would be well-suited to creating their own computer games. Famous groups such as The Silents, Renaissance, and Future Crew would go on to form some of the greatest game development teams in history, such as Zyrinx, io Interactive, Remedy Entertainment, Digital Illusions CE, Psygnosis, and DMA Design.
By the 1990s, the main point of the demoscene was no longer to crack software - demosceners were more interested in squeezing more from their hardware. Since most computer platforms of the day were relatively standardized, with little homebrew upgrading going on, a demo could be guaranteed to work on the same model of computer, thus the tricks and hacks devised by demosceners would be much more useful to a software developer. Demosceners became obsessed with pushing the absolute limits of what their hardware could do, without any actual changes to the hardware. This mentality spread to the games industry, as developers like Rare found more crazy things to do on limited hardware like the NES, like ways to add depth to star fields with parallax scrolling, show tons of sprites on screen at once, fake 3D motion and perspective effects, and making backgrounds scroll much faster than is typically possible.
Some of gaming technology's larger developments owe in part to the demoscene. When the Amiga was released to the public in 1985, many doubted that any other computer could make music and sounds like the Amiga could. The Amiga's famous "Paula" sound chip allowed it to play digitized samples, up to four at a time with full stereo panning support. The closest competitor came four years later, as Creative Labs released their Sound Blaster card for IBM-compatible PCs. Even with the SB's capability of playing digitized sounds, most PC games only bothered playing music through MIDI on the SB's OPL2 FM chip. Demos like Future Crew's "Unreal" (not to be confused with Epic Games' first-person shooter) were primarily designed to show that a Sound Blaster could play Amiga-style "module" music as well, without much cost to the CPU. This lead to more PC games using modules for music, such as 21st Century's PC port of Pinball Dreams, Accolade's Star Control II, Epic MegaGames' Zone 66, Origin Systems' Crusader: No Remorse, and Apogee Software's Death Rally.
A number of years later, io Interactive (comprised of former employees of Zyrinx and members of demoscene group The Silents) released Hitman: Codename 47. A large part of Hitman's core gameplay is the need to pick up and move dead or unconscious bodies to prevent wary sentries from discovering your presence. Rather than make a handful of animations for every character to depict Agent 47 picking up and dragging them everywhere, io Interactive created the first true ragdoll physics system, so that the only animation needed is a generic "walking with body" animation, while the dead body is dragged around dynamically by the system. A side effect of the ragdoll system is that enemies no longer needed death animations, and could also be easily depicted tumbling over high ledges. It could be argued that Hitman's pioneering ragdoll system lead to the development and release of the first commercially-licensed physics engines, Havok and PhysX.
In 2003, Doom 3 had hit store shelves, with the gaming public highly excited about the new tech it had brought to the table, like full real-time lighting and shadowing. But one year later, a group called .theprodukkt created a free game of their own on a brand new engine, featuring a lighting engine similar to Doom 3's. This production was called .kkrieger, and it came in a .EXE file only 96 kilobytes in size. This does not mean the game had simple graphics by any means; the game's graphics are highly detailed and quite impressive, even by modern standards. But how did .theprodukkt manage to fit an entire level of a Doom 3-like game into only 96 KB? Not through severe compression, but by procedural generation. The game's textures, sounds, and models are simple enough that they can be created from scratch by the program itself, since the game program does not actually contain the data anywhere, it only contains the needed steps to create it. While this does take somewhat longer in practice than your average level load, and requires a hefty computer to pull it off, the end result looks fantastic, and serves as a lesson to professional devs that they don't necessarily need gigabytes of data if the computer can just summon it from thin air at runtime.
Another example of a full-featured game in a tiny package is Sumotori Dreams, a procedurally-generated sumo wrestling game where two combatants (one blue, and one grey) attempt to knock each other to the ground, or out of the ring, without falling over themselves. Sumotori's characteristic "drunken" animation is primarily the result of its unique animation system, which is handled in a similar way to .kkrieger, where it is not the animation data that is in the game files, but rather the raw limb movements, with the rest of it being handled by the game's physics engine. A similar system was used by game tech company NaturalMotion, whose Euphoria engine has been used in many of Rockstar's games since its unveiling in 2005.
Only a couple of years after the above games were released, EA Games released Spore, which uses similar procedural effects to create characters - with full animations, behaviors, sounds, and even its entire civilization - from a single image file weighing in at even less than .kkrieger. The sheer compactness of Spore's creature data means that entire universes can be streamed to and from the many players, and the way the image file is saved means that your saved games will double as their own preview thumbnails if opened in an image viewer. Will Wright, the designer of Spore, has mentioned in a number of interviews and keynote speeches that Spore was inspired by the demoscene, particularly its early efforts at cramming graphical effects onto floppy disks in the Amiga days. A handful of Spore's programming team was even hired directly from the demoscene.
Although demosceners continue to help push the boundaries of what today's tech can do, one thing hasn't changed since the 1980s: they do it for the fun of it. Years after the Amiga stopped being a viable mainstream computing platform, there are still groups continuing to make new, much more impressive productions that still amaze enthusiasts to this day, like 2004's "Silkcut" by Black Lotus. The need to push complex graphical effects on weaker hardware is as high as ever, as developers make games for handheld devices and other integrated platforms such as the iPad. There are even shades of demoscene-like productions on Apple's App Store, such as Epic Games' famous "Citadel" tech demo, which shows the Unreal Engine 3 running on a mere iPhone. And even among non-demosceners, the concepts and advances pioneered by scene groups have made their mark on gaming, and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.