Zoe Leonard, 14 May 2015
Art and programming intersect when it comes to the demoscene
The demoscene is a subculture that brings computer enthusiasts from all over the world together. The members of this community, also known as “demosceners”, are predominantly interested in real time computer graphics and heavily push the envelope on the current state of the art. Demosceners may have their own teams (“demogroups”) or fly solo, in order to create a “demo”: a computer program that presents real time computer graphics synchronised to music.
Revision is one of the biggest “demoscene” events and takes place annually in Saarbrucken, Germany. They offer a bunch of experiences to take part in, including the aforementioned competitions, seminars, social events and so many sausages.
There are various competitions, each with their own restrictions on the size of the resulting demo (e.g. a 4 kilobyte size restriction). For example, imagine a 3 minute music video with gorgeous visuals and pounding electronic music, all encompassed in a single demo that is 4 kilobytes large (bear in mind that the size of the Google logo is 14Kb!).
No platform is safe either; many demos run on contemporary Windows platforms, while others run on Amigas, Ataris and Commodore 64s. Demos can even be physical products. This year’s offerings involved a Top-Trumps-like card game, as well as a 3D printed lit-up cube containing a toy panda (created by the demogroup PandaCube).
Ray: I had been following the demoscene for a couple of years before attending Revision, but neither Alex nor I knew what to expect when we walked in. When we did it was as if we had walked into a scene from the 1995 movie “Hackers” – a multitude of neon lights, computer screens and cool toys littered the area and we both walked in with a big grin on our faces. This was going to be fun!
Alex: Oh yes! This place looked like candy land to me! Unlike Ray, I didn’t know much about the demoscene. I attended the event because I knew it would help me learn more about real time graphics but other than that I had no idea. The moment I stepped into the venue though, I just knew this was so much more than a conference or a competition.
Ray: We attended some of the seminars there. They went through a number of different topics, ranging from technical talks to more design-oriented talks. The physically-based rendering seminar was very useful and gave me a lot of ideas for how to design our renderer for our next demo. There was also a talk on post processing effects and we saw first-hand one of the fundamental truths of computer graphics being applied practically: “if it looks good enough, it is”. All of the seminars informed us about the limitations of our current workflow and we now have a lot of thoughts on how to improve things for next time (work on our tool has already started!).
Alex: Coming from conferences with an academic focus, at first I questioned the usefulness of the seminars. I was wrong. Going from theory to practice is often treated as trivial in academia, although an implementation can often be trickier than the theory behind it. The seminars were full of invaluable knowledge on how to actually get things done. The seminar on colour grading was particularly interesting to me, as I got to see the sophistication of the tools that many demogroups use behind the scenes.
Ray: We had planned on entering our first ever entry to the PC demo competition around a month or two before Revision started. We thought this would give us enough time to get our idea complete and even factored in time for bug fixing – we were so wrong. With the deadline at Sunday at 2PM, our schedule went something like this:
Alex: It’s not a proper all-nighter until you start hallucinating, am I right? Jokes aside, we knew this was going to be a challenging task, but it turned out that we weren’t even close! My feelings went from “We can do this!” to “This will be hard” to “There is no hope” to “You know what? I’m proud of what we’ve done”. I just have to say, from all the team and cohort building events, nothing comes close to the camaraderie that came from us working hard and pushing ourselves to submit our first ever demo.
1.58PM – 2 minutes before the deadline – we submitted. We hugged. We went back to the hotel for a quick nap and came back and celebrated in style! When the competitions were being run at 10PM, we waited for ours to show up. And then it did.
We saw our 3D man, we saw our particles, we heard our incredible track on the fantastic PA (thank you so much, Enki Noize!) and we were proud of it. What made it even better were the cheers we got after the bass dropped and some of the feedback we got was very kind. The sleepless night, the camaraderie, the people and the atmosphere – it was all worth it, and we can’t wait to go back again next year!
Our demo shown on a big screen in a big celebration for real time computer graphics.