Assembly Festival: today's demo hobbyists are tomorrow's game designers
Assembly is Helsinki's largest underground art event
By Esa Mäkinen
Don't be confused by your prejudices.
Blinking coloured lights, techno music, and 1,000 kids playing computer games obscure the fact that the Assembly Festival at the Helsinki Arena attracts a large number of musicians, pictorial artists, and computer programmers - some of the most creative people in the digital subculture.
One part of Assembly involves demo competitions. The demo groups that take part in the competitions produce computer games which seek to combine music and the moving image in a conspicuous way. There are also competitions for music and image art.
All Assembly participants get to vote for the winners.
Taking part in a two-man demo group called Synesthetics is Kimmo Seppänen. He is taking part in the most prestigious competition for large demos. The emphasis in the large demos is visual and musical inventiveness, because there are almost no technical limitations.
Of the two-member group, Seppänen is responsible for the visual aspects and the programming. The second member of the group composes the music.
"First there is the piece of music. Then we start to think about what kinds of visuals to put in", Seppänen explains.
It is especially important for the Synesthetics group for the picture and music to interact. In practice, this means, for instance, that an animated planet moves and changes in rhythm with the music.
The aim of the demos is purely aesthetic, Seppänen says: there are no social or other messages in the Synesthetics demos. He notes that his latest works were influenced by panorama photographs taken from a kite, for instance.
"The focus in the demos is moving from techno-gimmickry more toward artistic expression", Seppänen says.
When the demos of the Synesthetics group are observed from the outside, it is possible to see references to of science fiction, biology, and old demos. Spacecraft and blood cells form a constantly changing visual fibre, which is surreal and futuristic in style.
A special characteristic for the subculture is that there are texts in the demos greeting other groups of demo producers. Synesthetics greets its friends, and the groups that it appreciates.
The choice of the winner by vote also lead to problems that are typical in the art world. The famous are awarded for being famous.
"This kind of name voting irritates me",Seppänen says.
He notes that some groups have released works under pseudonyms in order to see how their works are received without the benefit of fame.
Finnish author Pirkko Saisio did the same thing when she published books under the name "Jukka Larsson".
It is unlikely that anyone can earn a living by making demos, but the subculture still has strong links with the Finnish game industry.
Sami Lahtinen, Head of Studio of Mr. Goodliving, which produces mobile games in Finland, says that 80 per cent of the programmers in his company have a demo background.
"It is a good school for the production of mobile games. There you can learn how to get many things into a small space", Lahtinen says.
Home computers and game consoles are currently so efficient that there is not much need to worry about the limitations of the hardware. With mobile phones, however, there are still limits, and technical skill is still needed.
"Teams of producers are also small. Then one can appreciate that a programmer has a vision already in the planning stage."
The most successful Finnish game producer Remedy also has its roots in the demo culture. Many of the company's founders were involved in the legendary Future Crew group in the 1990s.
"Demos contain graphics, music, and programming. A game is easily a combination of all of these", says Remedy art director Saku Lehtinen.
However, the game business has turned into an industry. According to Lehtinen, the deep knowledge of small sectors is becoming more important from the point of view of a large game producer than broad overall knowledge - even though that is still appreciated as well.
In a demo, the viewer is not able to influence the content in any way, while the most significant idea in a game is interaction.
"This requires much additional work and caution in comparison with the production of demos", Lehtinen says.
Does the game business interest Kimmo Seppänen of Synesthetics?
Not yet, Seppänen answers. He notes that a married man and father of two children needs to think of his family and a stable job.
"The economic stability of game companies is not very good, at least for now. And many demo producers who have gone into the game industry are too tired to produce demos as a hobby."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 4.8.2007
More on this subject:
BACKGROUND: A demo is a real-time music video
ESA MÄKINEN / Helsingin Sanomat