2018/11/16

“Who is Demoscener?” - What I’ve learned from interviewing them




For the past 5-6 years, I’ve had occasion to peek into the little-known computer subculture called “demoscene”. I’ve seen their work, I’ve been to their events, and I’ve talked to some people who drive this culture. In this post, I’m going to share my view and what I’ve learned in this culture.

I won’t explain what the demoscene is here, so please refer to this page for that details.


How I discovered demoscene

I should first clarify that I am not a computer enthusiast: I do use computers a lot for my work and for fun, but my job and interests have been about juggling natural language and not computer language. I’ll be ecstatic when I see beautiful combination of words, but I’ve been trying to stay away from lines of numbers because they look complicated. I can’t code, I can’t make music and I can’t draw anything properly – Basically I’m a complete outsider to this culture.

First time I ran into the word “demoscene” was a bit over 10 years ago. I discovered this culture through online articles and mail magazines published back in 90s, the time considered to be the golden era of demoscene. The articles covered its event which was packed with teenage computer enthusiast, and their weekly mail magazine shared their production diary, tutorials, event reports… In short, their youthful days devoted to computer programming were encapsulated in these documents.

I read on thinking “Who are these people?” These people were spending almost all their waking hours for programming, and I just couldn’t understand why they were so obsessive about it. To be honest, my initial thought was that they’re just crazy or “oh, so that’s what people call ‘nerd’ ?” But their articles were interesting to read and the fact that they all somehow sounded like they were having the time of their lives was intriguing, so I slowly started to explore this culture.

Looking back, what interested me first was not the demos or culture itself but these strange people called “demosceners”.


How I started to do interviews

I said “exploring” but it was more like a casual googling whenever I recalled it or heard about a topic related to computer programming. For years on and off I’d read some documents around the culture and watched some demos on YouTube, computer or DOS emulator, but I felt this culture was protected by jargons and 90s style website (they scare me with browser warnings – because it contained exe file, now I know) and I really couldn’t get a whole picture.

Then one day, while I was doing one of those casual surfing, I found a documentary called “Moleman 2 – Demoscene – The Art of the Algorithms”. This was made for viewers with no knowledge of this culture, thus it contains all the basic information you need to know before tapping into this world. I watched it and thought it’s great, and wished if I could have watched something like this when I first heard about demoscene. Since they’re looking for scripts in multiple languages, I decided to give Japanese subtitle thinking this might help someone like me. And once it came out, I got some feedback from Japanese demosceners via Twitter. I asked one of them if I could send a few questions, and the interview series started.


Editing the interview...


I’ve done 13 interviews with demosceners up to this point. All the interviews except one were conducted via email. I sent them questions and they replied me with answers. (And the exception was done via Skype chat.) I did edit to create flow in the text, but I tried not to touch their words much to show their messages and personality more directly. I wanted to read something not too technical (because I can’t understand) and I’m happy about how things turned out, but I’m also glad that many people enjoyed them as well. The best compliment I’ve heard so far was “My mom enjoyed it” :)



Appeal of demoscene to outsider’s eyes

Apparently, the strongest appeal of this culture is an artwork called “demo”. Demo is an execution file, and you can experience real-time generated visuals and audios by running it on your computer. Demos are created using loads of different and advanced technologies… but the great thing about this demo is that you can enjoy it without technical knowledge. You don’t need to know what GPU stands for or what Ray tracing means and, not sure what creators would think but, you don’t even need to download the file and run it on your computer – you can just watch it on YouTube. (In fact, it looks better and smoother that way if your computer is for basic tasks.)

Sure, some demos are very technical looking, but you can enjoy most of them like you enjoy music videos or short clips of arts and design. Their often abstract and meticulously created visuals are entertaining and inspirational and it can help you to see or imagine things from different angle, just like contemporary arts do. And if you live far away from the computer graphics field, you will find some very unexpected.

Not just visuals, but the music used in demos are equally appealing. Most of them were originally made only for this purpose, so you can enjoy the matching mood with sound. And you’ll be surprised by their quality and a wide variety of genre. There are vocals, hip-hop, jazz, samba, pianos… but if I can share my very personal impression… if your favorite music falls between LFO and Squarepusher and you don’t know demoscene, you’re missing quite a lot.

And there’s another thing which seems like an appeal of demoscene to outsiders. And that’s people involved in this culture – in other words “demosceners”. You can learn so many things from their approach and way of thinking, especially if you consider yourself a person which has nothing to do with this subculture.


So, what did I learn?

So here I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned about demosceners through interviewing them, talking to them and visiting demoparties.

In honor of the great host of our time, I’d like to present this in David Letterman’s top 10 list’s way.



10 things I’ve learned about Demosceners



10. “Demoscener” is an earned title.

Demoscene is open closed community; it’s open because anyone can watch its productions (demo), access to its archive and participate its event (demoparty), yet it’s closed because it requires specific technical knowledge to actively join, truly appreciate the work and… to discover this culture initially. People are loosely connected, and though there is a website which has been considered to be a base (Pouet) there is no such thing as an authority to issue its membership card.

Then, what kind of people should we call “demosceners”?

Clearly there are various interpretations for this term, but from where I see it, you can’t call yourself “demoscener” just because you watch demos on YouTube or drank beer at demoparty. In this case, “demoscene fan” would be more suitable. To me, demoscener is someone who makes demo, helps organizing a demoparty or does something actively to get this culture going. Demoscener is an earned title. And, at least, these are my definition of “demoscener” in this post.



9.     It’s so diverse that no one shouts about “diversity”.

Majority of demosceners are 30-40s male from Europe, but this visible fact should not overshadow the diversity of this culture. Country, age, gender, color of skin, language, profession… Demosceners all come from different backgrounds and that’s just normal for them. They take this inclusive nature for granted that no one shout about the word “diversity”.

Demoscene is a community of interest and demosceners are connected through common passion for computer and art. No matter where you come from or who you are, as long as you share same interests and have respect for others, you will be welcomed.

Having said that, please remember that they won’t welcome you with big applause or wide open arms, but you’ll feel that the door quietly opens.



8. Most of them don’t consider themselves nerds, and we can’t really call them nerds either.

“I’m not a nerd.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this phrase while talking with and reading about demosceners. I didn’t ask “are you a nerd?” but they mentioned this spontaneously.

Generally speaking, a nerd refers to someone who has extreme interest in only one subject and is socially awkward. And many English dictionaries state that this “one subject” is computers. Demoscene is computer subculture and most of the people who drive this scene are naturally computer-savvy, so they don’t have problems accepting the description of “someone who has extreme interest in computers”. But when it comes to other two traits, which are “single-minded” and “socially inept”, they are hesitant to tick off.

To start with obvious reasons, they are not really single-minded since everyone I interacted with have many interests other than computers. And for sociability, demoscene has a built-in social feature called “demoparty” which is held all over the world and all year round. They bring their works, drink, mingle and exchange ideas with like-minded people. Although most of them are not the type of social butterfly, they socialize in their way and enjoy the companionship.

And there are other reasons why they don’t consider themselves nerds. For demosceners, computer is a tool to create art. They are interested in researching new technologies and deepening their knowledge of computers, but their biggest interest is to leverage them to express themselves in art form. So, from this point of view, “artist” might be more suitable than this n-word to describe them. And probably, they feel more comfortable to be called with that.



7. Their approach is practical and logical.

I just wrote that they are more like artists, but these artists are not the kind that spreads arms toward the sky and wait for magic or miracle to happen. They don’t let their emotion control their hands on the keyboard either. Their approach for the work is practical and reasonable.

This can be confirmed with production notes they release after the compo (competition). A lot of demosceners reveal the “making of” in the form of blog post, video or seminar held at demoparty. They usually share what technique and method they used, the process they took, and where they got the idea for the work.

With this production notes, you can see they rely on their accumulated knowledge, skills, experiences and steady work to create a piece, not a flash of inspiration or luck. If you ask demosceners how it’s made, they can explain it logically. They won’t say things like “because an angel whispered in my ear”.



6.     They discover their strength and learn to collaborate with others.

When we break down demosceners into more specific titles, we see programmers, graphic artists, designers, musicians, directors, organizers, presenters, DJs, diskmag editors.. and the list goes on. And many of them are wearing multiple hats.

They all started as an individual who's attracted by this culture for some reason, and by creating demos, joining demoparties and communicating with others (i.e. demoscene activities) they discover their strength in the scene and subsequently in the society. Some keep brushing up their skills, some find their potential in different roles, and some find other interests through demoscene.

And by discovering and recognizing their strength, they can start working with other people with different skillset or strength. They ask for help, discuss, understand each other's view/work style, manage the project and complete by the deadline. Through this process, they learn how to collaborate with other people.

When you look at the top class demo made by a group of different talents, you’ll see each of the group members shine through their own strength while complementing each other to create one demo. And if you ask them how the collaboration was, you’ll find there’s a mutual respect for each other.



5. They love challenges.

They really do. They love challenges so much that they set limitations for themselves to make the challenge harder. Challenge requires them to think deeply and solve problems, and in fact that’s what really excites demosceners and sparks their creativity.

How can I put all these stuff into 64KB? Or better yet, 4KB?

What’s the shortcut to do it?

How can I draw this scenery with only 5 colors?
What’s the alternative method to achieve similar results?

How can I convey this complex theme in 8 minutes?
What’s the most effective and beautiful way to show this technique?

How can we handle 300+ visitors with only 10 staffs?
What tools and system would be most useful?


Even when they’re not sitting in front of computers, they are always thinking and finding a way to solve problems. And they love doing this.



4. They learn to deal with criticism.

One of the unique things about demoscene is its feedback system. When you release a demo at demoparty, you will receive real-time feedbacks through audience reaction; you may hear joyous cheer, applause, boos, screams or horror - dead silence. At the same time, people who watch the compo on streaming are typing their comments on chat windows, twitter and forums. Then once the compo is over, your work is uploaded to the demoscene archive and YouTube, and you start receiving more detailed comments from demosceners, demo fans and general viewers.

Most of the comments are direct, and ones from demosceners are quite harsh because they know what you're doing. Some complement, some point out its technical flaw, some give you valuable advice and many throw dirt for many reasons. Even when you won first prize and the work is actually excellent, there will always be people who thumb down.


And through these feedback systems, demosceners learn how to deal with criticism; what to and what not to care, who to listen and who to ignore. They learn how to use them as a reference and motivation to create next demo. (They usually listen to the comments from fellow demosceners that they respect.)

But remember this. Demosceners tend to give aggressive remarks over the internet, but I found many of them are much milder and friendly in person.



3. They are oh-so competitive.

The culture of demoscene was born from the motivation to show off one's hacking skills in the 80's. And even after all these years and huge technical advancement, the essence of this culture remains intact. Demo is art, demo is self-expression, but as long as they call their stage "compo", demoscene is a place to show off and compete.

They want to show off what they can, they want to surprise viewers, they want to prove themselves, and they want their name on top of the list. Don’t be fooled by their nonchalant attitude, they are really competitive. And this is vital nature to drive the culture forward.

However, you need to know that demoscene is not a savage battlefield. Demosceners are competitive but they are able to appreciate others' work and acknowledge its excellence. They are rivals but also friends. And they know they have improved each other's skills by competing.



2.      It’s no magic, it’s no joke, they work really hard.

So now you know they want to win, but what do they do to accomplish that goal? The answer is simple; they work really hard. You might want to say “but these people are mostly professionals, so it should be very easy because they already have skills and access to resources and expensive tools”. I understand because I used to think that way, too. But the truth is, it wasn’t that easy.

Generally, demosceners need to work hard and tackle these 3 challenges before releasing demos:
1.    Find time
2.    Create a demo which can live up to their high standards
3.    Finish a demo


1.    Find time

They have a busy life, so they first need to find time to work on the demo. Many of them wake up early or go to bed late to make time, and some work at lunch time or work in a daily commuter train.


2.    Create a demo which can live up to their high standards

Most of the demosceners set high standards for their work, and they don’t want to release something that they are not feeling happy about. To meet these standards, demosceners try many different methods and go all the way. Some spent a large amount of time to master new techniques , some worked on the same project for several years to polish it, some brought together different talents to perfect every aspects, and some scrapped everything to start over. Probably, they are their own worst critic.

And if they aim higher spot on the ranking, addition to meet their own standards, they also need to care about the perspective of audience. Not just showing off their skills, top groups are always thinking about the way to present them. They consider who the audience is and how to entertain them. Some secrets were revealed in their interviews, so go check that if you want to know more.


3.    Finish a demo

Demosceners recognize this as the most difficult step in demomaking. They are already tired by this time, but they have to review the work and fix some issues which is not so fun to do. But this is critical process and it directly affects the outcome. A lot of them leverage the power of deadline to do this, and one group revealed that they locked themselves in a secluded country house to finish it.


And this hard working spirit can be found in demoparty organizers, too. They spend so much time to plan and prepare the event in order to make the party go smoothly. Ticketing, scheduling, funding, sound system, lighting, programs for sessions and compo, streaming, prizes… they make sure all is under control. If you could just relax and enjoy the party, that means there are people working hard for it.



1.       They are just doing what they love to do.

Competition motivates them to work harder and make the culture thrive, and the winning actually bring them a prize and fame among people in the same field. But still, that’s not strong enough to call “the engine” of demosceners.

It’s true that creating a great demo and winning a prize can add some sparkle on your resume, and it could bring you a first job or dream job in computer graphics industry. But most of the demosceners are already working in that field, so this cannot be the main reason to challenge themselves. And it’s not about the money either since what they usually receive is a trophy and small prizes, or modest cash prize which is far cry from eSports’.

The reason why they do all these things is obviously because they simply love to do it. No one ask them to sit up late and code or draw or adjust bass sound, but they do it spontaneously. No one force them to create demotools for efficiency, but they do it saying “I have to”. But no, this is not a job or obligation. They do it because they want to do it and they love to do it. For them, demoscene is a playground.

However you rarely hear this true motive from demosceners. In fact, they forgot about it. After spending some time in this culture, they no longer think about why they do all these stuff or wonder if they actually like it or not. At this point, they would just engage in demoscene activity as if that’s the most natural thing in the world. And before they knew it, voilà, they became demosceners.



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A message for new explorers

Discovering demoscene was an accident. After all these years I still think that way. By peeking the world which is vastly different from what I’ve been, I’ve learned about different perspective and it also helped me understand myself.

If you are a person who just accidentally found out about this culture and got interested, have fun exploring, there’s way too many interesting things to see here. Hope yours will turn into a happy accident, too.


Thank you notes

Back in this spring, Zavie-san suggested me to speak about my perspective on demoscene at certain event. I eventually declined this for my selfish reasons (I’m sorry), but the ideas I came up with had stayed on me so I decided to share them in writing. So, thank you Zavie-san for the inspiration! (He’s going to talk about his demo in the upcoming Siggraph Asia in Tokyo. Check out his session if you’re going.)

And thank you all the demosceners who welcomed me at demoparties or interacted with me online, and the first demoscener I met (your name led me to this culture and look what happened). And obviously, big thanks to all the demosceners who accepted to do interviews. I don’t know about you, but it’s been a pleasure for me :)


Thank you for reading this to the end!



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