F E A T U R E S    Issue 1.03 - July 1995

Digital Graffiti

By Dave Green

If you're young, like computers, and have plenty of free time, there are three main ways that you can impress your peers: you can hack into other people's systems, you can crack the copy protection on games software or you can code demos.

Ten years ago, young people used the term "demo" as shorthand for a political march or rally. Now, to thousands of computer-obsessed kids across the world, it's more likely to mean a short, self-contained graphics-and-sound demonstration program.

But these aren't demonstrations of games or business applications. They haven't been commissioned for any commercial purpose. The only thing a demo demonstrates is the skill of its programmer - or, more often, the skills of a group of coders, graphic artists and musicians. Demos are written for just one reason: to show off.

Demos are the last bastion of the world of passionate, crazed, enthusiast-only programming. Crafted purely for the hell of it by teenage enthusiasts working entirely in their spare time, they create jaw-dropping audiovisual effects beyond the dreams of most professional multimedia designers. Constantly striving to better their rivals, devotees of the "demo scene" cram spectacular three or four-minute presentations onto a single 800K floppy disk, shoehorning the code into tiny amounts of memory. Freely spread by disk-swapping, bulletin boards and the Internet, then replayed on home computers across the planet, each demo becomes a piece of digital graffiti, proclaiming the superiority of the gang that created it. Like indie music, pop videos and computer games, demos are usually created by groups. Demos are the rock-and-roll of code.

The demo scene is driven by competition, visible at its most extreme in huge five-day "demo parties" held during the school holidays in mainland Europe. Thousands of young coders attend these events, proudly toting their latest work. Most stick to the traditional demo structure - vivid animations, spinning polygons and assorted video effects, all pulsing in time to a techno, rock or jazz soundtrack. (A second, quieter sequence usually follows, scrolling the credits, boasts and greetings to other coders - often in charmingly bad English.) But the discussions and voting that decide the best of the show are always heated and contro-versial, because what drives every demo coder is the overwhelming desire to create something new, something spectacular and something cool.

Despite occasional coverage in the specialist press, demos have remained part of the faceless, virtually anonymous computer underground. They first appeared in Northern Europe in the early '80s as add-on introductions to illegally "cracked" computer games. Terrified of playground piracy, software companies experimented with ways of making their games copy-proof. For hard-bitten hackers looking for fresh programming chal-lenges, this was a red rag to a bull. They would spend hours - sometimes days - cracking the copy protection and then, flushed with their achievement, write a brief audiovisual intro sequence claiming personal credit for it. They would then redistribute the pirated warez to their contacts and friends.

As the abilities of home computers (and their programmers) grew, the intros to cracked games became more and more impressive and they began to get distributed in their own right. Thus the demo scene was born.

European communities

Today's demo scene is packed with works of astonishing sophistication. Human Target from French coding group Melon Dezign was one of the first to synchronise all the graphics to the music. The ground-breaking Jesus on Es by LSD combines a rave soundtrack with flickering counter-culture imagery. Switchback by Rebels takes you on a rendered high-speed roller-coaster ride. Nine Fingers by Spaceballs replays digitised video sequences as collections of animated polygons. Groups average about two or three of these big releases a year, each representing countless teen-hours of programming, artwork and design.

Until recently, demos like these had been exclusively a European phenomenon, running on the Eurocoders' favourite home computer, the Commodore Amiga. Historically, their origins can be traced back to the early 8-bit home micros, like the Commodore 64 and Apple II, but the scene really took off when Commodore's 16-bit Amiga arrived in 1985, with its hi-res graphics, 4,000-colour palette, powerful video handling and four-channel sound. "Suddenly," as one coder puts it, "we could start experimenting with stuff that made non-computer people turn their heads."

Like games before them, demos swiftly evolved to the point where they were too complex and time-consuming for individuals to write alone. So, inevitably, coding groups appeared, featuring separate programmers, graphics designers, musicians and, in some parts of Europe, English translators. Sometimes these would just be groups of schoolfriends with a common interest in computers, although larger groups then began to form and work across national boundaries via bulletin boards, e-mail and the Internet. This enabled them to exchange music, pictures, code and home-made development tools, with little need for the whole team to meet in person.

To start with, coding groups retained close links with the illegal pirate software scene that spawned them. Traders would exchange demos for cracked games if they didn't have any warez of their own. "They were a currency at one point," explains ex-coder Jolyon Ralph, who is now Technical Director of Croydon-based Almathera Systems and the publisher of several demo compilations. "A currency to buy pirate games."

This is still reflected in the scene's unique terminology. Group members employ nicknames, so that the news sheets found on the scene's numerous bulletin boards and disk magazines read like tabloid updates on soap opera characters. The latest on one European group, NFA, reveals that: "CPPD got a 'visit' but was not busted. Deck the Ripper got busted on 3rd March. DF0 (graphic artist) joined. Hexlax (swapper and modem trader) joined from Trauma. Chaos got kicked out for selling warez and porn to lamers through the NFA PO Box. He was receiving money and disks, but not returning either of them to the lamers."

Groups form swiftly, recruiting members from other teams, so if your skills are in demand, you expect to move around. For instance, disk magazine editor "Oedipus" is currently with UK group LSD, but when pressed about his CV can give a breathless account of joining Trance UK in April 1992, being instantly poached by rivals Nerve Axis (NVX), then almost signing for Destiny. When NVX split up "for little apparent reason" (and Destiny linked up with the famed Swedish group Talent), he formed a new group, Nebula, which he headed for a year until arguments with co-manager "Antichrist" prompted him to take up an invitation from "Pazza" of LSD. Incidentally, he's 16.

Much of the demo scene's initial impetus came from the intense rivalry between owners of the two popular 16-bit home computers of the time, the Commodore Amiga and the Atari ST. (Remember, this is pre-1990, well before PC dominance of the home market.) In the early days, commercial software support was both thin on the ground and technically disappointing, so users wrote their own routines to demonstrate their chosen machine's superiority. "I've got an Amiga and my friend's got an ST," mimics Jolyon Ralph. "How do I prove that my Amiga's better?"

This competition also helped advance the demo coder's art. Jolyon fondly recalls "The Bob Wars" - an ongoing contest to animate the greatest number of "Bobs" (Blitter OBjects - the technical term for independently moving graphics) on an Amiga screen at one time. "Somebody released a demo saying: 'look at this, we can get 64 Bobs running around on screen,'" he remembers. "So of course then somebody said, '64? I can get 68.' '68? I can get 80.' '80?...' And so on... Eventually it got to around 200. One of our guys was a particular fan of the Bob War and was determined to win it. Eventually it got won by someone who did infinite Bobs. That was a big cheat. But they were all cheats, so it didn't really matter."

Trained by cracking the pro-tection on games disks, demo coders show little respect for the work of other programmers. Armed with memory-scanning routines called "rippers" they can page through the data of someone else's demo, extrac-ting the graphics or sound as required. "The music is fair game," chuckles Jolyon Ralph, evincing the rigorous logic of hackers everywhere. "If it hasn't been protected, that means the musician is happy for you to take it out. If the music has been protected, then it's obviously supposed to be a challenge, so again you're allowed to get at it."

"There's no mercy," agrees Almathera's CD cutter and self-confessed demo groupie, Steve - who has two scene aliases ("Steev" and "THP") but refuses to use his surname. "When State Of The Art [the predecessor to Spaceballs' Nine Fingers] first came out, it didn't run on every version of the Amiga operating system, so Skid Row [a group that specialises in cracking] took it, disassembled it, fixed the bugs, then re-released it with a sarcastic message at the end."

Coders are also not restrained by what is widely thought to be feasible. "There's been a lot of attempts to do 3-dimensional Doom-style graphics on the Amiga," Steev smiles, "simply because it's difficult to do, due to the way the display hardware is set up. Which means everyone has to prove that it can be done." As a result, 3D environments are a common feature in current demos, and coder Gengis (ex of French group Complex, now in a smaller group, Bomb) is putting the final touches to Fears, a commercial Doom-style engine for the Amiga, based mainly on routines from his own award-winning demo Motion.

Listening to demo fans tell these and other tales, it's hard not to think of the coders as a modern-day equivalent of the 1970s MIT computing pioneers documented in Steven Levy's Hackers. But, instead of the rarefied atmosphere of timeshare mainframes in academic institutions, now they're out there in the real world of pirate bulletin boards, and rather than how many useful commands you can add to the standard Unix kernel, the challenge is now how many assembler commands you can execute during a single video frame (and that's only about 1/50th of a second). But the real Holy Grail is still the ultimate hack, the piece of code that makes other programmers stop and ask themselves, "How do they do that?"

Party atmosphere

Nowhere is this more apparent than at demo parties - the huge European conventions hosted by coding groups and organised entirely by amateurs. Funded by ticket sales, the largest include The Gathering (which is held in Norway at Easter) and The Party (held in Denmark every New Year) and resemble nothing so much as a cross between a computer show and a science fiction convention.

These events take place in conference halls with thousands of square metres of floor space, accommodating as many as 2,500 people, their computers, desks and tables, and alternative sources of entertainment like video cinemas and laser tag games - in the unlikely event that the appeal of checking out hundreds of demo routines wears thin. (There are also cafeterias, showers and sleeping areas. Most owners prefer to sleep with their computers, for security and, one imagines, some small measure of reassurance.)

These are the trade shows - and the craft fairs - of the computer underground. "It's not often you can hook up with all the guys you've been talking to over BBSs, mail and the Net," notes Steev. If they're not actually working on producing a demo at a party, many coders spend their time socialising or indulging in the various group activities - networked Doom, in-jokes, gobbling pizza. "It's an electric atmosphere - you should see the web of power cables," he jokes.

Meeting these coders, designers and artists for the first time is a curious experience. If you're expecting wild-eyed cyberpunks on the cutting edge of industrial fashion, what's most surprising is how ordinary they seem. Sensible haircuts sit next to heavy-metal T-shirts and grunge is as popular a look as sports casual. It just seems to be a cross-section of European teenagers who happen to like computers - the most surprising observation is how young they are (many under 16, few over 20). Oh and they're all, almost without exception, male - for what-ever reason, the other 50 per cent of European youth still resist the temptation of the ticket-price publicity which proclaims "Girls - free!"

Because of the age range, demo parties usually place a blanket ban on alcohol and drugs and, to cover themselves, organisers put out a disclaimer regarding software piracy. "Besides, a typical party is a stamina and endurance test to match anything that The Krypton Factor could devise," Steev reports, "- external stimulants are the last thing you need if you're trying to keep your mind on your latest demo release. You're exhausted, you're running low on sleep, high on adrenalin and you're starting to smell bad. But the competitive nature prevails."

Due to the sheer size of the events, the contests are divided into categories - best overall demo, best music, best "intro" under 40 Kbytes - with separate classes for different machines. Across the board, the cash prizes can total more than £10,000. "It's a hell of an incentive to write something that's really respectable," Steev observes. Comparisons with large-scale commercial computer graphics fairs are obvious. "That's what they are," he agrees. "They're the poor man's SigGraph."

Although broadly despised by the Amiga community, the PC has helped revitalise the demo industry - especially now that the old enemy, the Atari ST, has disappeared from the scene. (A disappearance hastened, if you believe the coders, by the sheer superiority of Amiga demos.) Even PC coders - like Trixter of US group Chromatiks - admit that Amiga releases have more style and better presentation, despite the IBM's horsepower. "3D Gouraud-shaded light-sourced, texture-mapped polygons will tax the average Amiga, while a 486-66 can do them quite nicely," Trixter quips. "But Amiga coders are European, and about 40 per cent are from Finland - there's just something about those wacky Finns that keeps on churning out stuff with style."

Norwegians would

Everyone on the scene has their own theory as to why Europe - and Scandinavia in particular - has become the heart of the demo coding world. Some cite the long, cold evenings, easy overland access from one country to another, or the lack of decent commercial software. This also suggests where demo coding innovation will come from in the future: Eastern Europe. "Hungary, Slovenia, Russia - they've all got good demo scenes," Jolyon Ralph explains, "because they're all in exactly the same situation we were in here during the late 1980s - brilliant computers, but no proper programs for them."

The skills learned from coding demos can transfer to more commercial applications - typically, writing games. The best-known products of grown-up demo coders are the much-acclaimed Pinball Dreams/Fantasies/ Illusions series published by 21st Century and written by Swedish coding group The Silents, and the graphically astonishing Asteroids clone, Stardust, from Finland-based Bloodhouse. But many companies are still reluctant to take on demo programmers, because of the links between the demo scene and the pirates. And besides, as the games magazines never tire of pointing out, there's more to gameplay than good graphics and sound.

That said, Jolyon Ralph still believes that "the big two killers for demo groups are people going off into the games industry, and conscription into the army." This is particularly true in the Scandinavian countries, where 18 and 19-year-olds are required to do a year of national service. Jolyon and Steev have seen several groups appear from nowhere and produce several startling releases, only to fall apart just as quickly when their key members go off to spend twelve months in the armed forces. All the same, Jolyon suspects this "may be why the Scandinavian countries have such a good demo scene - because they have to get it done quickly!"

Despite (or because of) these real-world intrusions, a glance at the disk magazines and demo newsgroups (alt.sys.amiga.demos, for instance) shows that the scene culture is still going strong. It's a unique mix, consisting in part of standard fan quibbles over the merits of particular coders and their demos: "First of all, Dweezil's intro from Ass93 is not called Bananamen but Tequila. The intro by Shining was running about 125 per cent slower than the one in Tequila: Dweezil did a great job of optimising the method! But, it was Tizzy who used the method first."

"Lame" and "Cool" are the two big ethics forever being debated in the demo forums - "lame" in this case being scanned or copied graphics, sound samples, pre-calculated graphics effects and uploading old software to BBSs. "Cool" is equated with winning competitions, coding difficult routines and making them look easy, obtaining, cracking and spreading pre-release versions of commercial software, and having a life outside the digital underground. Other hot topics include "Are Mail-Swappers Needed In a Demo Team?", "Who Is a Lamer?", "Is Piracy Really Killing the Machines?", "Hardcore Techno vs Heavy Metal" and the old chestnut "Do We Need More Charts? Are They All Faked Anyway? Discuss."

Nowhere else in global teen culture will you find this reckless adolescent enthusiasm combined with detailed mathematical theorems, excerpts from professional computer- graphics textbooks and all-out hard-core technical advice on coaxing the most from your machine, like this tip on saving microseconds when coding for the Amiga 4000: "At the extreme, an '040 will have to dump out 4K of copyback, and will have to read in the 4K of cache, which is (4096+4096)/4=2048 memory accesses, which will take a minimum of 2096*40ns ('040 clock cycle), or 80ms to get back to how it was before the flush."

As long as there are home computers and as long as there are scores to be settled, kids will continue to write demos. Although the prospect of large cash prizes and programming careers are powerful incentives, the months of sheer effort required to create a demo transforms each one into a labour of love. In a world where programs are a plaything, and where the clicking of an empty Amiga disk drive is as challenging as the ball-bearing rattle of a spray can, it's simply about proving who's the best.

"It's a completely underground thing that's completely harmless," enthuses Jolyon Ralph. "No-one gets hurt. Apart from Atari ST owners, of course."

Dave Green is the reviews editor of Wired.Additional research by Reward of Complex and Stelios of CnCd.