The Charm of the Demoscene

A Commodore Amiga 2000 with 3.5 inch floppy drive, 20 MB hard drive, keyboard and mouse. A cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitor is missing. (Photo: Trafalgarcircle

Imagine home computing in the late 1970s. Machines are weak. Software is unrefined. Popular models include Apple II and its clones, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC. The IBM PC, and its clones, have not yet arrived.

I remember a friend showing off his Apple II. It would show a line of text, Name? followed by a blinking cursor. When I typed in my name, and pressed return, it would respond by writing: Hello, Brock! It was easy to be impressed by technology in the late 1970s.

Inspiration for today’s demoscene first came in 1980, when Atari used a looping demo with visual effects and music to show off the features of the Atari 400/800 computers.

Demoscene is a type of computer art, that will be described in more detail later in this post, and in chronological order. It has a darker past, but a lighter present. In this weblog post, many of the terms used will be defined. It is an artform that generally avoids mainstream exposure. According to some sources, about 10 000 people are involved with it.

Cracker = a programmer who alters video game code to remove copy protection. Cracking crew is used where more than one person is involved in the cracking process.

Cractro = (crack intro) an introductory screen used by a cracker/ cracking crew to claim credit for cracking a game. They became very complex a medium to demonstrate superior programming skills, advertise BBSes, greet friends, snub rivals and gain recognition.

More important in Europe, than in other parts of the world, the cractro transmutes into the demo. A cracker community emerges then evolves into an entity independent of gaming and software sharing.

New machines are better suited to support the scene, most specifically the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST. Some IBM clones are acceptable, if they have sound cards. Not the Apple Macintosh.

More inspiration came in 1985 when Atari demonstrated its latest 8-bit computers with a demo that alternated between a 3D walking robot and a flying spaceship.

That same year, Amiga released a signature demo showing the hardware capability of its Amiga machine, with a large, spinning, checkered ball that cast a translucent shadow.

Demo = a self-contained, originally extremely small, computer program that produces an audio-visual presentation. Its purpose is to demonstrate the programming, visual art and musical skill of its producer.

Demoparty = a festival where demos are produced, after a day or weekend long coding marathon, then presented, voted on by attendees, then released, originally on floppy disks and on bulletin board services (BBS).

Compo = a demoparty competition, traditionally divided into categories where submissions must adhere to certain restrictions: production on a specific type of computer, or a maximum data size. Submissions are almost always rendered in real time. This contrasts with animated movies, which simply record the result of a long and intensive rendering. The purpose of a compo is to push computing hardware to its limits.

Demoscene = computer art subculture focused on producing demos, international in scope.

Demoscener = a computer artist focused on technically challenging aesthetics, but with a final product that is visually and aurally pleasing.

Demogroup = a small, tightly-knit group of demosceners, centered around a coder/ programmer, a musician and a graphician. Some groups may have supporting roles and grow to tens of people, but this is the exception. Demogroups always have names. Individuals within the group have unique handles for self-expression. Demogroups use wordmarks, logos, catchphrases and slogans. They are skilled at public relations and even human resource management. The demogroup is undoubtedly the most important social unit in the demoscene.

While belonging to a group is often synonymous to being a demoscener, there are individual productions. Not infrequently, this individual will adopt a group name. There are also fake groups, involving secret identities for making humorous, political or vulgar productions without harming the reputation of the original group. Individuals invent new handles, or pseudo-pseudonyms.

There used to be an American demoscene, but it barely exists today. Who killed the American demoscene? The simple answer is the American crackdown on software piracy. European copyright law only criminalized for-profit breaches. In many European countries, including the Netherlands, Greece, Finland, Sweden and Norway, it was possible for the cracker to repent and to transform into a law-abiding demoscener.

The Amiga 2000

Our first family computer was a Commodore Amiga 1000, on loan to us while we waited for our Amiga 2000 to arrive, which it did some weeks later. In 1986/ 7, these were the best residential computers money could buy. If I remember correctly, the Amiga 2000 cost NOK 19 000 (a little over US$ 2 000 then or about US$ 4 000 in 2019.)

We bought the Amiga while living in Bodø, in Northern Norway. The company that sold it consisted of two young male idealists, who were among the most active Amiga enthusiasts in the country. In addition to selling machines, they developed software and also published a Norwegian language Amiga magazine. Some of my work appeared there. They had the largest collection of 3.5 inch Amiga floppy disks in Norway, which contained software and content on every conceivable topic. They made cractros.

The Amiga 2000 was an advanced machine. Some even claimed at the time that it would last into the 21st century. In contrast to the Amiga 1000, it allowed expansion cards to be added internally: SCSI host adapters, memory cards, CPU cards, network cards, graphics cards, serial port cards, and PC compatibility cards were available. We used a SCSI adapter with a hard drive, and a PC card, that allowed us to run both Amiga and PC-DOS programs. The Amiga 2000 also had five Zorro II card slots, the motherboard also has four PC ISA slots, two of which are inline with Zorro II slots for use with the A2088 bridgeboard, which provided IBM PC XT compatibility.

There were about 4 850 000 Amiga machines of all types sold. The machines were most popular in the United Kingdom and Germany, with about 1.5 million sold in each country. Sales in the high hundreds of thousands were made in other European nations. The machine was less popular in North America, where only about 700 000 were sold