What frugal lessons can we learn from the demoscene?

By Torley Wong on 22 February 2009 2 comments
Photo: Torley

The "demoscene" loosely refers to an underground computer art movement where the emphasis is on creating amazing-but-compact demonstrations — hence the name. Modern geeks and deals have been married as early as the advent of tech flea markets, but the demoscene is special.

The demoscene has illicit roots grounded in software piracy. Basically, an individual or small team would go beyond "cracking" a game to break its copy protection: they'd also put a visual tag, or "loader", before the game started. Like real-world graffiti, these served as the mark of a demo group, often containing text shoutouts of respect and inside jokes.

As the form matured, demos became strong enough to serve as their own standalone shows, and conventions were hosted around them. The amazing thing about so many of these demos — and what I mean by "compact demonstrations" — is they were extremely resource-light, relying on insanely deep knowledge of making a computer do tricks not envisioned with its original hardware specs: faux 3D on primitive hardware, extending the screen borders, etc.

What does all of this have to do with making smart choices saving money? Here are 3 effective lessons we can apply from the demoscene:

1. Be resourceful yet fun

In an era when 500 gigabyte hard drives are common, it's easy to slack off and not be astute about tidying your files. The demoscene has long prided itself on tapping into the potential of severe constraints: even today, there are demogroups working on old computers like the Commodore 64 and Amiga, squeezing surprisingly tasty juice out of their ancient husks. There are "64K" competitions which means your demo must fit into 64 kilobytes or less. To put that in perspective, that's like a drop in the bucket of a modern PC's memory.

With such tight limits, every single line of code must be put to good use. Anything nonessential is trimmed; techniques like procedural generation (using math to create graphics on the fly, rather than prerendered) are employed wisely. And there almost always is music, too! It may not sound like Top 40 radio hits, but is carefully crafted with catchy melodies.

If you can do more with the same resources, you should. A sage bargain hunter strives to save money and scrimps when needed. But that's not to be mistaken for a miser who gets little pleasure out of life because their tightfisted spending is depriving them of fun. Even if you're making meals on a budget, infusing them with color and zest is preferable to sulking over gruel. In much the same way, some of the greatest demoscene stars came from war-torn parts of Eastern Europe, where not only did they not have access to the latest Western technology, they had an overall lower quality of life to contend with. And yet, you might not know that when gazing at the vibrant spectrum of their demos.

It's not enough to save. To prosper from your healthy habits, you must enjoy, and flourish.

2. Tight teams help you win

Many of the greatest demos were made by a triad: a coder, an artist, and a musician. There are edge cases and exceptions to this, sure, but these 3 archetypes show up time and time again. The individuals may possess overlapping skills, but having a core group enforces both trust and helps you catch mistakes you might miss on your own — especially if you're groggy from hours of creative spelunking "inside the machine".

Even veteran deal mavens are prone to making errors like forgetting a product's predicted lifecycle and buying it just before the newest model is introduced, when prices drop on the prior line. Lacking that knowledge can be costly, and with so much of a dataglut on the Net, it can be tough to pinpoint what you need before you spend. That's why you need someone who knows your tastes, and even with machine-assisted matching, there's no substitute for human intuition. Hot deals are often time-sensitive and stock-limited, so while polling the masses (e.g., on Twitter) can be useful, keep in mind they're looking for the same deals as you. It's a dog-eat-deals world out there.

That's why in addition to tools, it helps on several fronts to have a "tight team" when dealhunting. It doesn't have to be a formal group with a name (although like superheroes, that can be fun). Just some friends you've organically come to trust over the course of multiple purchases, who you'll watch out for in kind. Another plus: you could save when doing "bulk buys" for stuff your team wants, instead of having to hunt down a stranger. (But we're all strangers in the beginning, so get started!)

3. Iterate, iterate, iterate your tools

"Iterate" is sort of a geeky word, but it basically means to do something over and over again. Not just the same thing, but to build on an established base. Many demos do this: for instance, a landscape that continues to unfold across the screen, or you may be familiar with fractal art you can infinitely zoom into.

Digital data is easy to copy, and it was through rampant swapping of floppy disks that demos proliferated: not just as as entertainment, but for the benefit of eager demosceners-to-be who'd deconstruct and reverse-engineer what they got their hands on. The more promising novices would then take the bulk of what they learned and add a twist to it — an iteration, like DNA mutating — before sending it back out into the wild. This predates the "remix culture" we have today, and it continues as a parallel strain of computer-based collaboration.

This is relevant when you're looking for deals because you'll swiftly discover that the good stuff gets snapped up incredibly fast unless you have the right tools and practice how to use them: whether it's email alerts, eBay auction watchers like JBidwatcher, or RSS aggregators that show you what's hot today (on that note, remember you can subscribe to Wise Bread!), there are always new tools to help you save money. As you get comfortable with some, stay hungry for what's on the horizon or you'll miss out. Keep trying new tools and simply stick with what gets you results.

The same is true for deals sites' development. It's an amusing game to observe which fundamental "I need that too!" features spread from one social media hub to another. A fine example is RetailMeNot on the left-hand side — how many of those various features have you seen on other sites? (I'm rather fond of whenever a site has a Mac Dashboard Widget.)

Tools aren't the end, they're part of the process, and they reduce the distance from you to the deals.

Further reading

The above is but a cursory dip into the demoscene, but if you're curious, I highly recommend FREAX - Volume 1, which is an exquisite and in-depth story of the the early demo days, including the personalities who shaped its growth. It's riddled with typographical errors but there's a lot of humor, and the art is gorgeous. As this is a fairly esoteric text, I don't know of any notable discounts on it, but I prize my copy. There are many connections between 80s retrocomputing and modern dealhunting.

Have you spotted connections between another "scene" and our dealhunting culture?

Additional photo credit: Lolo
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Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

Cool post.  Very nerdy I must say.  Philip will like it. 

Myscha Theriault's picture

Yup, definitely cool.