People not familiar with the demoscene often ask us how it works. How is it possible that a 64kB file contain so much? It can seem magical, since a typical music compressed as mp3 can be 1,000 times as big as our animations – not to mention the graphics. People also ask why other programs or games are getting so big. In 1990, when games had to fit on one or two floppy disks, they used only 1 or 2MB (which is still 20 times as much as our 64kB intros). Modern games now use 10-100 GB.
The reason for that is simple: Software engineering is all about making trade-offs. The typical trade-off is to use more memory to improve performance. But when you write a program, there are many more dimensions to consider. If you optimize on one dimension, you might lose on the other fronts. We make optimizations and trade-offs that wouldn’t make any sense outside the demoscene.
First, we optimize all the data we store in the binary. We use JSON files during the development for convenience, but then we generate compact C++ files to embed in the binary. This saves us a few kilobytes. Is it worth doing it? If you had to make a demo without the 64kB limit, you wouldn’t waste time on this. You’d prefer the 70kB executable instead. It’s almost the same.
Then, we compress our file (kkrunchy for 64kB intros, crinkler for 4kB intros). Compression slows down the startup time and antivirus software may complain about the file. It’s generally not a good deal. I bet you’ll choose the 300kB file instead. It’s still small, right?
We use compiler optimizations that will slightly slow down the execution to save bytes. That’s not what most users want. We disable language features like C++ exceptions, we give up object oriented programming (no inheritance) and we avoid external libraries – including the STL. This is a bad trade-off for most developers, because this slows down the development. Instead of rewriting existing functions, you’ll prefer the 600kB file.
Our music is computed in real-time (more precisely, we start a separate thread that fills the audio buffer). This means that the musician has to use a special synth and cannot use his favorite instruments. That’s a huge constraint that very few musicians would accept outside the demoscene. They will send you a mp3 file instead. You also need a mp3 player, and your demo is now 10MB.
Similarly, we generate all textures procedurally. And all the 3D models. For that, we write code and this is a lot of work. This adds a huge constraint on what we do (but constraints are fun and make us more creative). While procedural texture have lots of benefits, your graphists will prefer using their normal tools. You get JPEG images and – even if you’re careful – your demo size increases to 20MB.
At this point, you may wonder if it makes sense to write your own engine. You could use an existing engine and it would add at least 50MB. Of course, it’s still a simple application made by a small team, you can imagine what happens when you scale this up to a full game studio.
So demosceners achieve very small executable sizes because we care deeply about it. In many regards, demoscene works are an art form. We make decisions meant to support the artistic traits we’re pursuing. In this case, we’re willing to give up development velocity, flexibility, loading time, and a lot of potential content to fit everything in 64kB. Is it worth it? No idea, but it’s a lot of fun. You should try it.