May 3rd, 2012 | By Chris Priestman
Perhaps one of the most insightful talks at Indie Connect was Douglas Wilson’s ‘Proteus, Johann Sebastian Joust And The Magic Of Low Process Intensity Games‘. Starting off, many of you may not know what Doug means by “low process intensity”, but you’re about to find out, if you haven’t already made a guess. It’s the kind of game that we’re seeing more and more of at the moment, one of the most famous examples from a few years ago being The Graveyard.
The tradition with games and software in general is that higher process intensity generally makes for better value. Developers and players are continuously looking for better graphics, more kinetic movements and action; constantly pushing technology forward. This has been going on for many years and it makes sense in a technology driven industry, but that’s something that can only really be achieved with the connections and budgets of AAA production in most cases.
Indie game developers, on the other hand, are given the freedom to experiment with game design and actually thrive in pushing the medium forward from a different direction. This is where low process intensity comes into hand, though not without resistance. How can The Graveyard, Dear Esther or Proteus even be called games? This is a question that has arisen a number of times and caused some people to look at the definition of a ‘game’, bringing up the necessity of “rules” for something to brandished as such. Doug, however, argues that those who look at these low process intensity games and deny them the “game” label are of an extreme stance which will probably never be won over, at least not for a while.
After playing Proteus not one person could deny that it is a game is what Doug argues on stage. This is a game in which you glide around a lo-fi but colorful island with no clear goal other than to soak in its wonder. Music drives the game primarily as it reacts to your exploration, lulling you into a relaxed state so easily. There is progression in Proteus though and there’s also an end to the game, so there are rules embedded somewhere under the haze. This isn’t the focus though.
Examples such as Dear Esther, Proteus, The Graveyard and even Journey, the game – Doug argues – is supported by multimedia rather than remaining as a vessel for it. The slight tragedy that Doug pointed out was that so many indie game developers are obsessed with innovating with mechanics. This often leads to them completely negating audio visual design, which could just as easily be innovated in and not just in the technology driven way that the AAA industry does.
Indeed, talking to Edge in Issue #240, Ed Key (developer of Proteus) admitted that he was worried that Dear Esther was going to be the same experience as Proteus as they share the same game mechanics. On inspection though, he found relief as the games were so different.
“It’s amazing what different spaces the two games occupy,” Ed said. “It shows what an unexplored space there is in the world of games that two games can sound the same, but really, they are just two points in this huge unexplored space.”
The only real mechanic in both of the games is the ability to walk, yet the audio and visuals were quite opposite from each other and are therefore able to provide two very different experiences. Doug brought up the necessity to commit to this low process intensity entirely to really find these relatively new and wondrous experiences in games. He brought up thatgamecompany’s Flower which would seem to fit into this emerging category of games, but it actually fails to fully meet the mark according to Doug.
You drift around controlling the wind in Flower, even the controls attest to low process intensity by just requiring a tilt of the gamepad. Unfortunately, as you progress through the game, more and more mechanics are added to make it more like a traditional game. You’re given goals such as collecting petals and later on things become more perilous and risky maneuvers give the player a challenge – the process intensity increases. Doug wants to see more games fully commit to the idea of low process intensity which aim to give the player an experience through the audio and visuals. There certainly seems to be plenty of space for these kinds of games.
Doug then pointed to his own game that he designed around the ideas, in a kind of practising what he preaches rendition. Johann Sebastian Joust has players holding a a PS Move controller each and facing each other rather than a screen, which remains entirely absent. The idea is to keep your own controller steady otherwise you’re out, while knocking your opponents. This is minimalistic game design, especially when looking at the game’s rule system. The idea is that this minimalism “deputizes” the players as they make up their own rules – can you put the controller in your pocket? On the floor? Can you hide in a crowd of people so that no one knows you’re even playing?
Joust, as far as a piece of software goes, is very low on process intensity. Instead it relies on players to create a more theatrical type of play – bowing to opponents and pointing your controller to the sky to announce your arrival to the game. It’s a simple game in reality but its openness to player interpretation means it can cater to many different types of experience – there are many variants of Joust and more emerge appear every time it is played.
These are the kinds of game design features that interests Doug as they focus on something else than just playing with new variants of recognisable game mechanics and instead create a unique kind of experience through other means. He finished up by claiming that games are part of the cultural scene and have a lot to offer the world, more than what they do at the moment – there are plenty of game experiences that haven’t been imagined yet. These low process intensity games are just a new way of approaching game design and the results are fascinating.