January 11, 2007

Introducing Process Intensity

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 10:41 am

I’m currently working on the first chapter of a book manuscript, trying to find the right way to introduce a number of concepts that will be key for understanding the chapters that follow. Recently I’ve been trying to find a concise way to introduce Chris Crawford’s 1980s concept of “process intensity” — while also arguing for a view of the concept updated for our current circumstances. My current draft is below.

We might think of Pong and many other early computer games (e.g., Tetris) as being authored almost entirely in terms of processes, rather than data. An “e-book,” on the other hand, might be just the opposite — a digital media artifact authored almost completely by the arrangement of pre-created text and image data. In an influential 1987 article, game designer and digital media theorist Chris Crawford coined the phrase “process intensity” to describe a work’s balance between process and data (what he called its “crunch per bits ratio”).

Crawford points out that, in early discussions of personal computers, certain genres of software failed despite widespread belief that they would be attractive — specifically, he cites checkbook balancing software and kitchen recipe software. He argues that these genres failed for the same reason that the 1980s computer game hit Dragon’s Lair (which played sequences of canned animation, rather than dynamically drawing graphics to the screen) was a dead end, rather than the first example of a new game genre. In all these cases, the software is designed with low process intensity. In fact, Crawford goes so far as to argue that process intensity “provides us with a useful criterion for evaluating the value of any piece of software.”

In Crawford’s article games other than Dragon’s Lair come out quite positively. He writes, “games in general boast the highest crunch per bit ratios in the computing world.” But Crawford wrote in 1987. Almost two decades later, game designer and theorist Greg Costikyan gave a keynote address at the 2006 ACM SIGGRAPH Sandbox Symposium titled “Designing Games for Process Intensity” — reaching a rather different conclusion. As Costikyan writes in a blog post from the same year:

Today, 80+% of the man-hours (and cost) for a game is in the creation of art assets.

In other words, we’ve spent the last three decades focusing on data intensity instead of process intensity.

In fact, the shift has been so profound as to call for a rethinking of the very concept of process intensity. The games cited by Crawford — such as Flight Simulator and Crawford’s own game of political struggle, Balance of Power — use much of their processing toward the game’s novel behavior. However, in the time between Crawford’s and Costikyan’s statements the graphics-led data-intensive shift in computer games has not only increased the amount of effort placed in creating static art assets. It has also driven an increasing share of processing toward greatly improved visuals for remarkably stagnant behavior. While this represents an increase in processing, it’s the same increase that could be achieved by taking a kitchen recipe program and adding live 3D extrusion of the typeface and freeform spinning of simulated recipe cards with the latest lighting effects. This would send the recipe program’s process intensity through the roof … while running completely counter to Crawford’s ideas.

This kind of distinction — between processing used for graphics and processing used for behavior — is not only of interest to game developers. It is also a distinction well understood by players. For example, it is not uncommon for players of PC games to choose a lower level of graphical rendering (e.g., in order to increase the responsiveness of the interface or reduce the visual weight of elements not important to the gameplay). Players who choose to lower levels of graphical processing are not considered to be playing significantly differently from players who choose higher levels. On the other hand, some games also allow players to vary the level of artificial intelligence processing employed by the system. This changes the game’s behavior by, for example, making computer-controlled opponents easier to defeat (e.g., in computer chess or a first-person shooter). Players view this type of change, a change in behavior-oriented processing, as a much more significant change to gameplay.

Players have also “voted with their feet” in favor of behavioral processing. While many games pursue increasingly photorealistic graphical rendering, Will Wright and his team at Maxis designed The Sims around low-end graphics and complex behavioral systems. The game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, at first resisted the title — in part because its process-intensive design had created innovative, unproven gameplay focused on managing the lives of simulated suburban characters. But when The Sims was released it became the best-selling PC game of all time. It accomplished this in part by reaching a significantly wider audience than the “hard core” (stereotypically, young males) toward whom most computer games seem to cater. However, despite the success of The Sims and the fact that game company executives regularly express the desire to reach wider demographics, innovation at the level of behavior-oriented processes is still largely resisted within the game industries, viewed as a risky alternative to the tried-and-true approach of combining flashier graphics with the same gameplay behaviors as previous data-intensive hits.

This book’s focus is on what systems do — what they enact, how they behave — rather than what the surface output looks like. This could be characterized as an interest in “behavioral process intensity” of the sort practiced by digital media designers like Wright (which is probably what Crawford meant from the outset). As is probably already apparent, this will bring a significant amount of “artificial intelligence” into the discussion.

From here the chapter transitions into a discussion of concepts such as Michael’s Expressive AI (on which, perhaps, more later). If there’s interest, I may share more material as I keep writing.