Breakpoint 2007

I just read an article about the Breakpoint 2007 demo-party that took place last April in Bingen on the Rhine river in Germany. Breakpoint is considered one of the biggest demoscene parties worldwide. This brought back memories of a time when I first started out with computers. Everything was so exciting. And the demoscene played a large role in the inspiration that made me pursue a career change, college and everything else that followed.

Back in Germany I never had a chance to attend any of the major demo events. Then I was busy with college, and then I moved to the US which increased the distance to the demoscene even further. I never understood why, but the demoscene doesn’t seem to be as big of a deal in the US compared to Germany or Europe. Is it because people invest more time in careers than hobbies?

For those who haven’t heard anything about demos and its subculture yet, here’s a brief history as I recall it:

The Beginnings

It all started in the 80s with home computers like the Commodore 64 or Amiga, back when we used to share floppy disks and tapes with our favorite games. Software companies tried to prevent people from copying the games, but needless to say, this quickly turned into a challenge to find ways to crack the protection. Gamers started to form groups and tried to be the first to crack the game and proudly add a little signature to the cracked game before they shared it with their friends or on bbs systems. These intros grew to become ever more breathtaking with graphic effects, animations, great music - these intros would often be far more impressive than the game.

These little works of coding art attracted a lot of fans, and the demo-parties and competitions were born. I was a huge fan myself… it was these intros that inspired me to learn assembly language on the Commodore 64 when I was 14-16 years young.

The demoscene’s preferred platforms were C64 and Amiga computers for many years because they were much better equipped for sound, graphics and sprites than office PCs with monochrome displays.

Demos on the PC

This changed later when Soundblaster and especially the Gravis Ultrasound added superior sound to the PC platform. Sound and color, generally better graphics paved the way for games, and demos in the PC world.

One popular way to create music on PCs actually originated from the Amiga platform: The MOD sound format was a bit of a mix between midi-files and digitzed wave-audio samples. It allowed you to define short sound bites and play them as instruments in a tracker score table. These files were perfect for demo-soundtracks because they were almost as small as midi, but sounded as great as fully recorded audio files.

The Finland based demo-group Future Crew created Scream Tracker, at that time one of the best tools to create MOD and S3M files with up to 32 channels.

The Future Crew was probably the most prominent demo group in the early 90s. What they created with their demos Unreal and Second Reality just blew me away.

Every year, Future Crew and other demo groups presented their demos at international competitions like the Assembly in Finland, The Party in Denmark and other events around. The competitions took place in several disciplines: C64, Amiga or PC, music, graphics/art, 4k intros, 64k intros and larger sized demos.

The goal was and is simple: To push the limits and squeeze the most impressive results possible with the hardware available. While limits may not be as much in the hardware anymore, it’s the file-size that can be set as a limit. But even today, any platform, even calculators or overhead projectors can be made into a demo platform.

Why, and what are Demos anyway?

First: I find them incredible from a developer’s point of view. It’s almost magical that a presentation that would normally be delivered in very large video files, can fit into 4 kilobytes. That’s even smaller than a small image file. I admire the creativity and inventive spirit to find ways to optimize the code to such extremes. I find some of the tricks applied to Javascript (which I always believed to know pretty well) incredibly impressive, too.

Second: Real-time computer graphics. The visual effects, calculated on the fly, are stunning and fast. I admire the degree of control, and deep understanding of motion, lighting, perspective - the skill and the applied math to create something that not only is small, but also rendered fast, and beautiful. I love computer graphics, so it’s not a surprise demos speak to me.

Third: A wonderful collaboration and artistic mix of coding skill, algorithms, mathematics, physics, graphics, art, story, cinematography, choreography, lights, music, sound effects - where the best of the best meet up to create the best to showcase what’s possible.

Demos today

I may not be in touch with the scene anymore, but I still find them super-exciting and inspiring.

Demos are still very much alive and not just a thing of the 80s and 90s. When I saw what the groups are capable of nowadays I’m all in awe and inspired again!

It’s ironic that that the Breakpoint takes place not too far from my hometown, but of course I’m living many flight hours away from it.

Anyway, here are a few examples of what sceners are capable of nowadays:

fr-041: debris, by farbrausch, download 177k

What you get to see and hear for only 177 kilobyte is just unbelievable. It doesn’t surprise me it made the first place in the pc-demo category. The camera work including the hand-camera effects are beautiful, the scenery and animation very well done. I really liked the sound, too. There are just a few minor things that I felt offered room for improvement, but hey, it’s only 177k! It’s smaller than this blog-post!

Fairytale, by Traction and Brainstorm, download 8,620k | youtube

This is much larger than debris above, but not any less impressive. It is an extremely beautiful demo with a great score that reminded me a bit of Porcupine Tree. I loved the aesthetics, animation and play with lights and curves, all very fluent and harmonic. Brilliant!

Above, by lkcc and Bauknecht, download 9,282k | youtube

Aithein, by mfx, download 16,905k | youtube

I love the vintage and organic look, feel and sound of this demo. It was a bit of a Boards of Canada experience. Very nice!

Threespace, by Rebels, download 591k (64k pc-intro and demos for mac & linux) | youtube

The Prophecy - Project Nemesis by Conspiracy, download 86k

I saved the best for last and humbly bow before The Prophecy…I cannot believe that this demo is really only 64k! Armageddon filmed in 65,024 bytes? It is pure magic. How did they do it? I have done a bit of programming in the past, in two or three dimensions, with audio, in different languages, but this exceeds my wildest imagination. Landscapes, objects, buildings, music, animation, choreography, special effects, textures, credits…all this coded into a single file of 64k? I really would love to see a “making-of”. Check out the screenshots or watch the video clip below, or even better: download and start the intro. The live-demos look much better than youtube or google-videos.