Computer Demos - The Story So Far by Petri Kuittinen
Left: Interference pictures from a PC demo, Right: Scroller by TCB in "Union"-megademo (ST)
Computer demos should not be confused with the demo versions of commercial
programs. They are "demos" too, but the word "demo" in this text means a program
whose purpose is to present the technical and artistic skills of its makers and
produce audiovisual pleasure to the viewer. A computer demo usually includes
various kind of real-time produced computer graphics effects which have little
relation to each other accompanied by music. In a way a demo could be described
as a sort of music video or a short computer animation film without a plot or
message other than just "hey, I can do this" and "greetings to my friends". Of
course there is exception to every rule and some demos have a plot and message.
An important distinction between demos and movies or videos is that the visual
effects seen in demos are real-time calculated, instead of rendered in
beforehand like conventional computer animations (where often hours of computer
time are spent to calculate just one frame).
Most computer demos are freeware, in other words they can be freely copied,
but the original author retains copyright to the product. The authors computer
demos don't usually release the source code and thus the demo programmers must
figure out by themselves how to produce a certain demo effect, leading to many
similar looking demos ("I can also do it!"). People who have never seen computer
demos or who don't understand the creation process behind demos, often find
computer demos quite boring. Computer demos are made for other other people
interested in demos, to win fame and glory among other demo freaks. Nowadays the
motivation to make demos is often a price to win at demo competitions.
Demos are usually a group effort. The most important member of a demo group
is usually the coder (programmer). Demos are conventionally programmed in assembler, but
nowadays C and C++ are also popular, and
only the most time-critical parts of the demos are programmed in hand-optimized
assembler. The original ideology of the demo programmers is to build everything
from scratch (instead of using existing programming libraries) and push the
hardware to its limits and beyond it. E.g. many C64 and Atari ST exploit bugs in
hardware which allow some interesting effects e.g. to draw graphics on screen
borders (overscan / full screen). The sound of chips of C64 (SID) or Atari ST (YM2149) are not designed to play
samples, but still demo coders have managed to do this. Demo effects are usually
non-interactive, which allows demo coders to hand-tune routines to do
exactly-what-is shown and not worry about anything else. Whereas game
programmers must use more general purpose routines and include interaction. Demo
coders often use clever tricks and actual cheating to make things look better
than they really are. In addition to the coder, there is usually a musician and
a graphician (graphics artist) and contact personnel (swappers, SysOp). One
person can of course takes care of several of these duties and there can be
several programmers, musicians etc. Typically a demo group has 2-15 members, but
there are several lone wolves in the demo scene.
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People who are interested in demos are called the demo scene. Organized demo
scene began to form on the mid-1980's. During those early days the most popular
demo machines were Commodore
64 (C64) and Atari
Macintosh was never a popular demo platform. The first PCs
usually had poor graphics and sound capabilities. Since emergence of VGA graphics and Adlib/SoundBlaster sound cards
allowed a good demos to made on PCs, but it took many years for PC scene to
learn to program these well. The ST scene began to diminish after the first
years of 1990's and the PC demo scene began to rise. Nowadays the PC is the most
popular demo machine. C64 and Amiga demo scene are still existing. Yes, some
people still make demos for C64, but nowadays it is more of nostalgic
The demo hobby is centered in Europe, there are little demos makers in other
continents Majority of leading demo groups come from Northern Europe. Finland
could perhaps be titled as the leading demo country, because Finns have gathered
more winning positions on major demos parties than any other country. The
Scandinavian countries have more demo freaks per capita than other
It is difficult to estimate the actual size of demo scene, but there are at
least several thousand people in Finland who are interested in demos.
Overview from Assembly'95 (Helsinki ice hall)
Demo scene members organize big meetings, called demo parties. They usually
last few days and contain so much different kind of events that the attenders
rarely get a good night's sleep. People go to demo parties to meet other demo
scene members, swap software, play multi-player network games and watch and
attend to various kinds of competitions.
The best competition entries are usually rewarded with prices: money and
computer products from sponsors.
On big demo parties the number of entries for a competition can be very
large. A small jury consisting of scene members first reviews the entries and a
limited amount (e.g. 10-15) entries are shown to the big audience. Often entries
get disqualified because they have broken some competition rule or they contain
material which offended the organizers or they don't work in the organizers'
The biggest demo parties are:
They gather several thousand visitors, but there a lots of smaller demo
parties which gather only few hundred visitors. The average age of people who
attend demo parties is getting younger and younger each year, now it is about
15-16 years, but the average age of those people who win competitions is usually
slightly above 20. The youngest demo scene members are about 10 years of age and
oldest ones are around 30 years of age. The demo hobby is even more
male-oriented than other computer use. Almost all demo scene members are men.
There has been some female musicians and graphicians, but I have never heard of
a female demo coder. Major demo parties have few percent of female visitors, but
most these women are girlfriends of male demo scene members or local girls who
just wandered there, because of free entrance. Women often get free entrance,
where as boys have to pay 100-250 FIM ($15-$40) to enter a demo party.
Picture from Assembly'96 (Helsinki Fair Center)
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The winners of this competition usually get the best prices (compared to
other competitions), so in a way this is the "king of competitions". There are
different categories for different kind of home computers, e.g. separate Amiga
and PC demo competitions.
Left: Environment mapped metal ball from "Solstice"-demo
by Valhalla (Winner of Wired'95 PC demo compo), Right: Colorful "plasma" 3D cube
Reality" by Future Crew (Winner of
Assembly'93 PC demo competition)
The difference between a demo and an intro is the size of the programs. The
maximum allowed hard disk space for demos is usually 4 megabytes, but for intros
to limit is usually only 64 kilobytes (40 kilobytes for Amiga intros).
Assembly'94 was the first big demo party have a 4 kilobyte intro competition.
Nowadays there are even more extreme intro competitions e.g. 256 byte intro
competition. The smallest intros are always coded in assembler. It is more
difficult to get lots of high quality graphics and music and different kind of
effects to small size. The smallest of intros (<= 4 kilobytes) usually don't
have any kind of music, because the (stupid) competition rules have disallowed
Left: Inside of a gourad-shaded torus from "Cyboman 2"-intro by Complex (Winner of The Party'94 PC intro
competition), Right: A vector world from "Airframe"-intro by Prime (Winner of
Assembly'94 PC intro competition)
This is the competition for still images, usually limited to some size (e.g.
640x480 pixels) and amount of colors (e.g. 256). The subject of picture is free,
but the most popular ones are fantasy, science fiction, horror and semi-nude or
nude women. Rules allow only self-drawn images to enter the competition, but
still often the majority of the winning pictures have cleverly borrowed elements
from photographs and existing fantasy paintings.
There is often a different category for computer generated 3D graphics, often
called the ray tracing compo.
"Space Tits" by Danny (Winner of Party'95 graphics competition). The
woman on the left is copied from a photo of Cindy Crawford.
- The No-Copy?-Page - an excellent graphics compo picture gallery featuring
pictures which are copies of existing ones (the site is down)
Animations are different from demos, because they are rendered in advance,
where as most of the visuals in demos are calculated in real-time. Animations
are usually made using some commercial 3D animation package, but some people use
normal video or hand-drawn animations. The most popular subjects are "rides"
(flights in space, chases etc.), various fights and humor.
Music competition is often divided into different categories e.g. 4-channel
multichannel (max. 32-channels) and C64 music competitions. The number of
channels tells how many instrument sounds can be used simultaneously. There
length of music file is often limited to about one megabyte and only maximum of
3-4 minutes of the song are played (but the song can be longer).
The choice for music style is free, but majority of songs are similar to
techno, euro dance or funk. Music competition usually gathers more entries than
any other competition. In big demo parties this can mean 200-300 entries. Some
demo musician are now making music for commercial games or producing commercial
Music video-alike demos by Spaceballs (Amiga): "9 Fingers" (left) and
the Art" (right)
(Almost) anything is accepted in wild competitions, it just has to be "cool".
The entries are usually supplied on a video tape.
A competition with a strict time limit is called a fast competition. E.g.
24-hour coding competition or 30-minute graphics competition. The actual
creation process usually happens on the location.
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The first Amiga, Atari ST and C64 demos were short intros (introductions)
made by cracker
groups (people who removed the copy protection) which were presented before the
game started. The word "intro"
has nowadays a different meaning. The early demos and intros usually featured
some picture, music and a scrolling text. The scrolling text usually contained
information about the makers of intro and greetings to their friends and people
who they respect.
Left: A cracking intro by Fairlight (C64), Right: Delusion / Sonic-PC
The intros grew larger and developed more fancier scrolling texts: waving,
distorting, rotating and/or scaling scrolling texts, many scrolling texts, huge
scrolling texts, parallax scrolling texts and various kinds of other effects
such as: 3D graphics (from simple wire frame 3D to filled 3D) bouncing balls
("bob" or "sprites") plasma (shifting display of colors) fractals (especially Mandelbrot
Left: GigaTex screen from "Life's
A Bitch"-megademo (ST), Right: Lots of scrollers by TCB in "Cuddly"-megademo
Soon the demos were so large that they contained many "screen" with different
kind of effects and music. People often called them megademos. The word
"megademo" indicates that the size of demo is about megabyte, but soon it
started to mean a any multi-part demo.
On Amiga megademos were usually sequential - one screen/effect follows
another. The user could sometimes skip a part by pressing the left mouse button.
The rigid non-interactive design allowed the demo makers to synchronise music
with the screen effects. The best examples of this are the Amiga demos by
Spaceballs, "State of the Art" and "9 Fingers" which featured motion-captured
video sequences combined with various graphical effects.
On Atari ST the megademo screens were often made by different demo groups and
thus having no resemblance between each other. ST megademos usually had a main
menu screen, where you could select which part of the demo you wanted to watch.
The main menu was often designed like a computer game e.g. in the Union,
Mindbomb and Decade
megademo the user controlled a character with joystick and selected different
demo screens by manovering the character over a door. In 1991 megademo "Ooh
Crikey Wot a Scorcher", the user was controlling a space craft, which was flying
over a 3D landscape. Many of the ST demos featured hidden screens and reset
screen (screen started when you pressed the reset button on the machine).
Left: Main menu from "Ooh
Crikey Wot a Scorcher" by TLB (ST), Right: 3D balls by TLB from "Mindbomb"-megademo
(ST), originally the same 3D object was done by RSI on Amiga
PC and C64 demos accepted the Amiga-like sequential style of demos with
little or no interaction. In mid-1990's most Amiga and PC demos were full of 3D
effects. First there was wireframe 3D, then filled 3D, then flat-shaded 3D, then
gourad-shaded 3D, texture mapped 3D, bump-mapped 3D, environmental-mapped 3D
etc. The 3D objects were usually quite simple: a rotating cube, torus, space
ship and duck are one of the most popular ones. The 3D world of demos is usually
static/lifeless as opposed to 3D game worlds, which are full of action. Many
people soon started to consider these "pure" 3D demos boring and new kind of
demo designs emerged: moving lights and white noise was added to screen. The
screen was flooded with text messages, but instead of early demos, which had
long scrolling texts, these were short messages. More and more effects were
Left: A rollercoaster ride from "Toasted"-demo by CTS (PC), Right: "Inside" by CNCD (PC)
So far the demo scene hasn't evolved from concentrating on technical
excellence instead of content and maybe this is one of reasons why the demo is
slowly dying away. Most PC demos are still made for DOS and because of this they
don't take fully advantage of today's hardware (e.g. 3D accelerators), instead
they still rely on old VGA or SVGA standards via VESA 2.0. If the main point of
watching demos was to see something "cool" which wasn't possible to do in games,
the point is now gone, because state-of-the-art games for Windows using cheap 3D
accelerator cards blow current demos away.
Many old demo scene are nowadays involved in making computer or video games
(including the author of this document).
The production of computer games involves many similar skills which are needed
to make good demos.
The "golden years" of demo scene (1987-1996) are gone, but I am sure we will
still see some interesting designs from demo scene.
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- Scene.org is a site dedicated to demoscene - lots of new stuff
- Orange Juice - The demoscene information center's search engine
- Atari ST demo history with pictures by Offbeat
- Dead Hackers Society - The best information resource for Atari ST demo
- The Little Green Desktop - a huge Atari ST-site with tons of software
- PaCifiST home page - an Atari ST emulator for PC, lots of good links too
- Commodore 8-bit Server by Marko Mäkelä
- Usenet news group for Amiga demos.
- An FAQ for the above news group.
- Another Usenet news group for Amiga demos.
- The Amiga Demo Scene (great link collection)
- AMiGASCNE WORLDWiDE
- Amiga Information
- Back to The Roots - Amiga Culture Directory Project
- The Demo.Guide - reviews of Amiga demos
- Rock Lobster - Amiga Emulation site with demos to download
- Usenet news group for PC demos.
- Hornet Demo Archived is closed now, but you can still download stuff from
- PC Demos Explained by Trixter - Lots of examples and demos to download
- PC Demo Fan Club by Jer
- #Linuxscn Web site
- Viznut's list of UNIX demos
Making Demos / Demo Programming
- DemoGL - OpenGL based demo system
- Dr. Dobbs's Programmers Vault
- Faqsys - demo and game related programming information
- flipCode - Game Development News & Resources
- GFXweb - Demo and Game Development
- The PC Game Programmer's Encyclopedia
- STEEL's Programming Resources
- GFXZONE - the ultimate demo scene graphics site
- Heister's Digital Art - resource on the underground digital art (ANSI,
ASCII graphics etc.)
- Amegas - Good collection of Classic Amiga MODs
- Atari ST Music Pleasuredome
- A great Internet resource for Musicians
- The High Voltage SID Collection (great computer music and links to further
- The Karsten Obarski Tribute Project - About the History of Soundtracker,
featuring classic MODs
- The MOD FAQ - Making MOD music
- United Trackers - Information Center for scene/MOD/tracker music
- MOD Archive - A huge collection of MOD music
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Petri Kuittinen <firstname.lastname@example.org>Last
modified: Tue Aug 8 21:57:14 EEST 2000
- symbolic machine language
- Bulletin Board System (a system where several modem users can connect to,
exchange information and software
- a high-level programming
language with features from low level languages, suited especially well
for system level programming
- an extended version of C programming language. C++ is an object-oriented
- a program or game whose copyright protection is removed (= "cracked")
- a person who removes copyright protection or breaks into systems
- a program whose purpose to is to present the technical talents of its
makers and provide audiovisual pleasure to the observer
- demo group / demo team
- group of a people who make demos together
- demo party
- an event to where lots of demo scene members gather
- demo scene
- all the people interested in demos
- An intro whose purpose is to preview a demo
- graphics artist
- Gravis Ultrasound-sound card
- a person who really enjoys to create something new with computers, a
computer freak. In media hacker is often mistaken with cracker
- demo whose size is limited to e.g. 64 kilobytes; an introduction to some
other program (e.g. crack intro to cracked game); introduction of some event
- a person, who doesn't have the talent or irritates other - a loser
- a large demo with many parts
- a computer music format (or actually number of similar music formats),
which was originally developed for Commodore Amiga. Majority of computer demo
music is in MOD format.
- to steal from others, e.g. rip music or graphics from other programs
- program designed for ripping
- same as swapper
- exchange programs, music or other data
- a person specialized in swapping,
often involving illegal software piracy
- System operator of the BBS
- A program used to make MOD music e.g. SoundTracker Protracker, ScreamTracker
- a demo that concurrently loads new code, graphics and/or music from a
floppy disk, while showing the demo
- same as swap
- same as swapper
- illegally copied software
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