Monday, 30 August 2010

Satans in Budleigh Salterton's Public Hall

Budleigh Salterton Public Hall. Is the sun really setting on the last of the demoscene parties to be held here?

OK, so my fears at of a Goth invasion of Budleigh were somewhat alarmist, but there's a real event coming up shortly which sounds even weirder.

After all, if you eavesdropped on an all-night gathering where the guests with names like Vampire, Spiny, Darkblade and Evil Paul were muttering about their SatanDisk in a darkened room only a few minutes from the High Street you might well be phoning the vicar to get an exorcist down there before you can say "Hell's teeth!"

Especially if you know that after their mysterious rituals, in the Public Hall of all places, 20 or 30 of them will be heading down to the beach to do what one of them rejoicing in the name of Cihatari describes as "reveling in the flickering light of a bonfire made from driftwood and random burny stuff." What on earth could they be burning, you might ask.

But don't worry, they've been coming here every September for the last five years and Budleigh's reputation for gentility remains as intact as it ever was, just as it has with our naturist beach tucked discreetly away 500 metres to the west of Steamer Steps.

And really, these people, rather than deserving to be described as Budleigh's September Satanists, are just a bunch of harmless nerds like me who get even more of a buzz than I do to be plugged into their computers and creating their own special virtual world.

Sundown party-goers in the Public Hall

These are the Sundowners. I know that makes them sound like creatures of the night who might be best friends of Dracula and his virgins, but the concept is a bit perplexing to an outsider. "Sundown is a relatively small, UK-orientated demoparty, aimed at fostering and expanding creative talents and programming skills in the demoscene," is one definition I've read.

The demoscene itself, in a comment from a useful video on the subject at has been described as "an artistic and staunchly non-commercial computer subculture."

The first party at Budleigh Salterton was organised five years ago by Ruairi Fullam (known in the demoscene as "rc55") to see whether such an event was viable. After consulting members of the UK demoscene community, the hall was hired, and networking, audio systems and projection were arranged. The event was publicised mainly by word of mouth and demoscene websites and managed to attract around 45 visitors. It took place on 9-11 September 2005.

This year's is again a weekend event on Friday 3 September from 5.00 pm until 9.00 pm on the Sunday. And, so the website says at "we’re planning to make this year's event the best ever!" But somewhat sadly I read that it will be the sixth and final party.

The UK's Eidos developed Lara Croft, the most successful video game heroine ever.

Lara Croft image: copyright held by Eidos Interactive.
Part of the creative team behind the more recent wildly successful Sackboy are former demosceners.

For these Sundowners are clearly talented and creative types, many of whom are making a vital contribution to the UK economy, as well as to Budleigh Salterton's High Street during their weekend stay in the town. The video and computer games industry - for that is what this demoscene thing is all about - has been described as a rare example of Britain punching above its weight. In 2006 games generated £2 billion in retail sales in the UK, £370 million was invested in games creation and 21,000 people were employed in games development, publishing and retail.

The UK games market is still the largest in Europe, and although the industry has slipped from third to fourth in terms of revenue as the largest producer of games the British sector is still among the world's leaders, closely behind the US, Japan and Canada. Most multinational games companies choose to locate their European headquarters in the UK and we have by far the largest concentration of games development studios in Europe with clusters around, for example, Brighton, Dundee, Guildford, Leeds, Cambridge, Liverpool, Manchester, Coventry and Leamington Spa.

"I can understand why people might look at us as a load of freaks!" admits Ruairi. "I suppose we are but this is no different from those who indulge in fantasy football, role playing, dressing up or whatnot. Sometimes even I have to step outside when things get too geeky!"

He estimates that between 33% and 50% of the Sundowners are professional games developers, while many see it simply as a hobby. Some have a specialist interest. "One member's work background is in the area of visualisation for cancer tumours," says Ruairi referring me to

"It's all very cutting edge and visually striking," he says of the on-screen activities on display in the Public Hall.

Relatively few Budleigh residents have been aware of the September Sundown parties which have been a highlight of the demoscene over the years, and yet the event has helped to put the town on the map in some unexpected quarters. "Despite it being a subculture, it galvanises friendships and helps create collaborations and teams that are responsible for some incredible games that translate into revenue measured in hundreds of millions of dollars," Ruairi told me.

Entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, above, an early visitor to the Sundown party in Budleigh Salterton
Photo credit: Martin Schmitt

"At Sundown 2006 one of our visitors was Mark Shuttleworth, the first South African in space and a philanthropist worth $60m, who was looking to find people to assist with his development of a free Windows alternative operating system."

Promotional theatrical poster for Toy Story

The demoscene itself has long been of interest to technology companies like Intel, the world's largest semiconductor chip maker which runs its own demo competition Another company whose interest has been piqued by what Ruairi calls " this special but unconventional community" is Pixar the computer animation studio whose cinematic successes include Toy Story. "They are big fans and some employees there are demosceners too."

So why on earth did they choose Budleigh Salterton for their annual covens? Sorry, I meant to say "conventions." After all, the computer gaming industry is hardly creating playgrounds for pensioners, and I did read an online rather rude comment by a Sundowner called Cihatari about the local population here, "many of whom have had to be carbon-dated to establish their age."

The answer, as Ruairi told me, is that this is just a very pleasant place in which to organise an event like the Sundown party. He himself lives in Exeter and has a sister in Budleigh Salterton so he knows the area well. "We've had great support from the Town Council over our use of the Public Hall," he says, praising the "very patient" Jo Vanstone who as Town Clerk has been his principal point of contact here. The Public Hall itself is an ideal location. "Our capacity is 64 table places, first come, first served, and we can accommodate another 36 seated visitors, maybe more as we tweak the floorplans at time goes by."

But after five years of partying, 28-year-old Ruairi thinks it might be time for a change and the final Sundown party, feeling that he deserves at least a year off. On the other hand, he admits, he might carry on. Perhaps, after all, the annual visits to Budleigh are as addictive as the gaming.
A high-speed picture of the Sundowners partying in the Public Hall is at But it's the demoscene masterpiece by that Sundowner mentioned earlier, the one specialising in visualised cancer tumours, which remains for me the abiding image of the sort of thing that's been going on at this Budleigh event. "Absolutely stellar work" Ruari calls it, and I just had to agree. Click on and see what you think.

These Sundown parties have clearly been as much a part of the East Devon cultural scene for their creativity and imaginative thinking as any of our successful Budleigh festivals. I do hope they continue.

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