A brief history of demos


No, I’m no MC Hawking. But from the perspective of the Amiga, which was by far the most active demoscene platform when the demoscene was born, I recognize a few generation shifts in demos, and at the same time phases that all demoscene groups go through.

1. 1987. You want to be like the others, so intros to get your name out there.

2. 1989-1990. The transition from making something to introduce something else, just saying hello, or an exercise to show that you can code, to showing other people that your crew can (be organized to) produce entertaining, inventive, or technically impressive demos – with the sole goal of impressing the others and call them lamers etc. This includes things like megademos or single file demos with production values. You want fame.

3. 1990-1993. The rise of ambition. The demo no longer needs to be good, it needs to be awesome. The product of copy party competitions growing more serious, with prizes worth money even! ;) You can no longer code a very nice single part demo or a megademo of simple parts and hope to impress people, not even if you’re Dexion! Trackmos with a driven style and tempo is the order of the day.

4. 1993-1994. The PC becomes fast enough to imitate OCS level effects, while the rest of the world doesn’t give a shit, because it still sounds and looks like that machine down at the factory floor. Instead, the demoscene hits a big slump while the new category 40k tries to separate the wheat from the chaff. AGA demos are slightly enhanced OCS demos. Design is king. Extremely rarely does a technically impressive demo that doesn’t have clean and flawless design stand a chance against a simpler demo that has.

5. 1995-1998. OCS (and certainly all other 16-bit platforms) can’t keep up with the new thing, which is to compete with 3D engines on PCs with VGA cards. They went all textured on us, and the PC won the war if you bought the right graphics card. I would say this is the biggest shift, from nicely designed screens to others via neat transitions – to going dark and mechanical with butt ugly textures, tunnels, and various ways of making the demo look artsy or depressing. It must never look ‘just nice’, perhaps a backlash from the “design is king” phase.

6. 1999-2004. 3D starts looking less and less like blurry garbage cans and finally very good. Non-graphics-cards platforms can’t keep up, and only a few such demos manage to impress as the PC matures as a gaming and thereby nice looking 3D platform. (Textured 3D really looked horrible for so long it’s not even funny. I had a hard time understanding the appreciation myself, until it came of age.)

7. 2005-2009. Ambition, art, and design kicks in for real on PCs, and a few demos are actually more impressive than the games. 4K comes of age and really blows us away, and on PC, ambition turns towards 4Ks with the help of hardware, tools and SDKs that make shaders and synths possible in 4K. (And dozens of megabytes of libraries at beck and call.)

8. 2009-2014. PC hardware is good enough to do anything, so groups are looking back in time for a challenge and for the retro platforms, which are somehow now old, primitive and camp enough to embrace. Some strange productions emerge that emulate MHz platforms on GHz hardware with GHz coprocessors. To show how they love the good old platforms just enough to not code for them. They are very successful due to others’ love for all things retro also growing, and other groups catch on, releasing similar demos containing what I term ‘retro grabs’ for votes. After slight feelings of confusion, betrayal, and in some cases suspicions of motive, “retro-on-later-gen” is all good for a stronger fixed platforms demoscene, even where the technical achievement is slight.

“They went all textured on us!” :)

(Personally, I think they could have waited until objects didn’t look like blurry garbage cans.)

And through all this the C64 has been feeling the love and it has had sort of continuous generation shifts. It’s never been the supernova it was in 1984, but it has been a steady light.

I do think the C64 has brought focus back to old, lovely, real, and fixed platforms, even though I think too much of the love is expressed via emulators, tools and algorithm porting. I think that the retro success of the C64 has rubbed off on other 8-bit platforms, and that it will increase the appreciation of fixed platforms in general.

And I hope OCS and Amiga 500, the fixed platform where there’s loads left to be explored without porting or tooling on PC, will again receive the affection it deserves.

Enjoy Life, be kind to others.

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