Update (23.01.2012): I’ve added stats on demo parties and my thoughts on the correlation between parties and releases.

I’m quite actively involved in outreach efforts related to the demoscene. I speak at conferences and to companies and media outlets about the demoscene, its history, technical significance and what an amazing pool of talent it is.

During almost all of my encounters with people not familiar with the scene I get asked “how big is the community?”, or “how many demos are there?”. Those things are quite easy to answer if you look at the releases at Scene.org or the statistics at Pouet.net, but the question asked by active sceners is different: “how long will it last”?

There are clear changes in the way we consume content these days, and while it might have been completely reasonable and logical to download ZIP-files with executable data and run it on your Amiga 15 years ago, it is no longer the case. It is no secret that I too use YouTube to check out new demos if I don’t happen to be in front of my home (Windows) computer at the time. I use a Mac at work and a Mac laptop as my main machine at home as well. It is simply a matter of convenience.

To get to the bottom of the actual state of the demoscene I had to look at the raw data. The data in question comes from Pouet.net, the most active demoscene portal and production database we have. I queried data back from the birth of the demoscene (1978) and up to and including 2011. In most cases however, I will focus on the last 20 years – from 1991 to 2011. 
 

Let’s look at the numbers

The first thing I did was naturally to look at the number of productions released over the period. I only chose the most popular platforms for this query, because after looking at the less popular platforms, the numbers were marginal and would have made little impact on the overall chart.

This first chart which lists all demos, 4k and 64k intros is the most telling of all, so it’s best to just put it on front-street.

Demoscene production totals

Totalprods

As you can see, the total number of prods (as defined above) has gone down from a peak of 2681 in 1991, through a slight second revival (with the rising popularity of DOS demos) of 2155 prods in 1996, down to just 768 last year.

It would of course be unfair to compare the current scene with the very vibrant Amiga and C64-scene in 1991, so let’s pick the stable plateau from 2001 to 2006 as a baseline. By doing that we’re looking at a reduction of almost 41% in the span of just 5 years.

Ouch! However: it has indeed happened before, in the first era of the scene, when the Commodore 64 lost most of its popularity in the mid-90s. I would also point out that there is indeed a leveling-effect, perhaps caused by the scene finding its core audience and authorship for the time being.

 

Categories

I wanted to dive into the numbers a little more and segmented the prods into different categories to see how the second most popular statement — “The 64k intro is dead” — stands up to facts. Again I chose only the most popular categories to avoid unnecessary noise:

Categories

 

Note: “demo” in the chart above also includes “invtros/invitations” which are also regular demos but created with a specific purpose; to invite people to demo parties.

As you can see, “demo” is clearly still the most popular category, with 4k intros in second place (taking over for the 64k intro category as the runner up in 2004). With only 31 64k intros released last year, it does indeed look like that particular category is close to extinction. The 64k intros had a peak of 231 releases in 1997.

When looking at its younger sibling, the 4k intros has sustained their popularity pretty well over the entire period, and is almost three times as popular as its big brother. But it doesn’t look good for the 4k category either, since it peaked in 1999 with 161 released prods, and only had 83 prods last year.

However, the most alarming part of this chart is of course that there has been almost no positive growth in any of the most popular categories since 2006 (the only exception is the tiny peak of 4k intros in 2008, but that can be attributed to the NVScene demoparty in the US which encouraged the production of more 4k intros).

 

Platforms

Note: for clarifications on the different platforms mentioned, see the bottom of this post.

After looking at the demos and categories I wanted to dive deeper into the platform divide to see how the releases were spread out across the different platforms. Again I chose only the most active platforms, but this time I looked all the way back to the beginning:

Platforms_history

Note: “web” in the chart above consists of both Flash and JS/WebGL/HTML5 demos.

Now this chart is quite interesting because it not only cements the Commodore 64 as the undeniably most popular demoscene platform of all time, but also in that it documents a few historical (and highly debated) things, most notably the different platform handovers.

The first, between the C64 and the Amiga, occurred in 1991. The second, between the Amiga and the PC (DOS), occurred in 1995, and the last major platform handover occurred in 2000 — when all three previous platform kings had to pass the flame to Windows.

The Atari platform never rose to the heights of any of the platforms above, and its popularity peaked, like the Amiga, in 1992. There were 460 Atari prods that year.

Windows has sustained a higher popularity over a longer time than any other platform, but it’s interesting to see that it never managed to peak quite as high as any of the three former champions. Also, as we already know, there was no new platform to take its place after the oddly similar 5-year periods between each previous peak.

In terms of the current landscape, I took a closer look at the last 10 years and removed Windows as an option, to see what’s happening in the only segment with upward-pointing activity.

Platforms_wo_windows

Note: the slightly odd jump in activity on the DOS platform in 2006 is an anomaly caused by a 64b DOS intro competition with its 28 prods boosted the overall platform activity quite a bit.

We can extrapolate quite a bit of information from this last graph, among other things: 

  • the Commodore 64 has doubled its popularity in the last two years. The C64 is also the only platform to actively sustain its popularity over a long, long time. 
  • The second success story is web demos (JavaScript, Flash, WebGL and others) which also has doubled its popularity in just one year.
  • Atari refuses to die. It actually bested its rival the Amiga in 2004, with 146 prods released, and has remained consistantly more popular since (with the exception of a small dip in 2009).

The Amiga and DOS has also managed a slight upturn in the last year, while the rest (Linux and Mac) are pointing solidly into the ground, with only 30 and 15 prods released last year, respectively.


Groups

I wanted to dig a little deeper into this very sharp decline in overall demos released, particulary to see if I could spot some collaborating trends here. I did this by looking at the number of unique groups (as represented on Pouet.net) attached to the released prods over the years and the trend is pretty much the same:

Groups

The fact that fewer groups are releasing demos makes perfect sense when looking at the overall decline in activity on all of the three major categories – demos, 64k and 4k intros. If there had been a big discrepancy between the overall release numbers and the number of active groups, a logical conclusion would be that a few select groups were pushing out more prods and boosting the overalls. That, however, does not appear to be the case here.

What we can read from this is that even though there is a decline in the amount of groups being active in the demoscene community, the overall decline in total productions released is stronger, meaning that each group is releasing fewer prods per year.


The community

I wanted to also take a look at the active community around the demsocene, and the best way to actually measure this was to look at unique user activity on Pouet.net:

Users

We can see from this chart that the activity level on Pouet hit its plateau in 2007/2008 and has remained more or less unchanged until last year where a decline of 18% is observable. It is tempting to link this to the rise in popularity of the Commodore 64 and that community’s lessened interest in active use of Pouet.net, but that is entirely speculation on my part.


New: Demo parties

After the original article was posted, I was told that I had forgot to bring the social aspects of demomaking into account — very true — so it was time to rectify that.

A separate thing from the online community is the demo party — an actual event that takes place in a location that has power, a PA-system and a projector. Participants (often from a lot of different demo groups) create their productions and enter them into a competition. The audience usually decides the winners by public voting. Demoparty.net holds a database of most already held and upcoming demoparties, should you wish to visit one (you should!).

First up is this chart over demo parties held per year, from the very beginning:

Demoparties

Note: there is a severe lack of data on the parties in the very beginning, so the first part of this graph is not entirely correct. That said, it should not make much of an overall difference.

There is a long period from 1996 to 2004, almost a decade, where the amount of demo partes remained more or less constant. It peaked in 1999 with 112 events, and hit an “all-time” low (in new school times) in 2010 with 63 events. The interesting bit comes right at the end, where there is a bump up to 77 parties in 2011.

These days most demos are released at some sort of demo party, so I wanted to see if there was any correlation between the amount of parties and the amount of released demos. This chart shows the same graph of demo parties, only magnified by 10 so as to bring it into scale with the other metric: the amount of released demoscene productions in the same period:

Partiesandreleases

Now that’s interesting indeed! We can clearly see that while in the original infancy of the demoscene, most productions were released outside of demo parties, the two lines finally establish a symbiotic relationship in 1999/2000, with each dataset following the other very closely. In fact, last year marked the first time in history where the relationship between the amount of demo parties and the amount of released demoscene productions match up.

But what does this mean? Well, there are a few ways to interpret this data, and here is my take on it:

  • The scene is growing more social. Either this is due to the average age of active demosceners going up, or simply it’s a natural response to the consistently “virtual” lives we lead online.
  • Will more parties lead to more demos? Maybe, it would at least make sense to follow these two datasets in the future. One thing is that parties tends to follow releases, so there is perhaps also talk of a critical mass establishing itself.
  • The scary thought: what if 2011 was the tipping-point? Where we had more parties yet less releases? Is this the beginning of the end?

..and with those two things, we arrive at the end of this post, and the age-old statement…

 

The scene is dead

So, is it? No. But, it is changing dramatically — and at the same time, not at all. The one huge surprise for me while working with this data was the persistance of the C64 as a demo platfom. It is simply staggering that a machine that turns 30 years old this year is still such a favourite among demoscene enthusiasts. Perhaps not surprising, considering its extreme popularity back in the early 80s and the popular culture adoption of retro and 8-bit computing.

Unlike a Fox News “journalist” I prefer not to dictacte what this data actually means, and will instead offer my personal opinions and thoughts on what you’ve seen above:

  • It’s clear to me that the demoscene needs to strengthen its online presence to stay visible and relevant
  • The C64 is “the little breadbox that could” – a clear fan favourite, and will remain so for decades to come. Update: Markku “Marq” Reunanen pointed out that a lot of C64 products were indeed added to the Pouet.net database from the CSDb database, which should count for some of the overrepresentation of that platform. However, it still reflects on the general popularity of the Commodore 64.
  • The trends we are seeing are not unique. If we compare to the indie game developer community, that too faced a sharp decline in activity and releases until the digital distribution system Steam started adding indie games to their catalogue as well as encouraging the indie game community to start adding their games through their Steamworks initiative. One could perhaps argue that the demoscene could use a distribution platform of its own?
  • The scene is splitting into two: one part that sticks with the retro machines, Pouet.net and other sites for old school-enthusiasts, and one part that will embark on new technologies like WebGL/Processing/VVVV and other, more presentable platforms. This second part will stay a minority for a period before totally outnumbering the other platforms… or dies trying.

For those of us who love the demoscene and would like to see it thrive again, that leaves one single question: “What can we do?” — the answer is as simple as it is complex: “Make more demos!”. If you want to get started with demos, or need a kickstart to get back in the game, let me know and I’ll try my very best to point you in the right direction.

PS: I’d like to thank Gargaj for contributing to this post with his SQL query mastery and not hitting me over the head with a blunt instrument every time I requested changes to the queries or new ones to be made. Thanks man.

Additional information 

I’ll end this post with a few clarifications on why the different platforms became popular (or not) in the first place, for readers who might not be entirely familiar with them:

  • C64 – raw unified hardware – every machine was identical, leaving only one way/method to create demos. Simplicity in its design made it an ideal platform for competition because it highlighted the talents of the programmers.
  • Amiga/Atari – mostly unified hardware – a few established routes to create demos, again highlighting the talents of the programmers, since their skills were the differentiating factors. The Amiga was more popular than the Atari mostly due to better hardware and features in the Amiga, especially in the OCS/ECS-age.
  • PC/DOS –  somewhat versatile in the ways you could set it up, not unified hardware (you could have a lot of different sound/graphics hardware), plenty of ways to make demos.
  • Windows – a whole bucketload of configuration options but incredibly tight abstraction layers (at least after a few years), solid OpenGL and D3D-support. Became the household standard OS for a whole generation.
  • Mac – essentially unified hardware, but wild changes between hardware revisions made it hard to code for in the early days. Basically has one method to create demos, but incredibly developer-unfriendly (for demo coders).
  • Web – lots of compatibility problems (“You need to use the nightly build of Chrome and manually set this toggle to get the demo to run”) and no one technology has really been set as the standard yet. However, it is clearly on the rise, driven by industry focus on things like WebGL.

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