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The Play Premise

I had lofty plans for all the work I was going to get done this week, but instead found myself frittering away hours in the lounge, completely absorbed in someone else’s game of Mirror’s Edge. I’ve never played the game and have heard from diverse quarters that it’s not that great, but, at least for the spectator, it has a killer hook—what I’m calling its play premise—first-person parkour.

The play premise is the concept or idea around which a game is built. It’s not a narrative element, it’s not “you’re a mercenary tired of war trying to fight your way back home.” Nor is it what is frequently called “genre,” though it can be what distinguishes one game from another in an ostensibly similar genre. In Dead Head Fred, the play premise is that you collect heads which give you different abilities and can interchange them on the fly like a Swiss Army knife. This play premise obviously affects the game’s 3D third-person perspective and environmental puzzles, but it remains separate from them. The great frustration of this game is imagining how great it could have been had these elements been more tightly integrated.

In the case of Tiger Woods 09 PGA Golf, the premise is much simpler. You collect (or lose) confidence in each round of golf you play, and that affects all successive play, so if you rock Annika Sorenstam at St. Andrew’s, then you’ll sink more putts the next round. Conversely, if she beats you, you’re going to have to work harder. There are all sorts of mini-games (clean your shoes, time your breathing, spot your fan) that help to increase your confidence. You can even buy confidence-improving clothes and equipment at the in-game pro shop. The play premise is integrated into the gameplay, albeit a bit heavy-handedly. Notice also that this has little to do with it being a golf game; the same play premise would work in almost any other game.

I would argue that a large part of a game’s success has to do with how tightly the play premise is integrated with the game’s rules, narrative, and controls. Or, in economic terms, did the designers maximally capitalize on the premise? A successful example that springs to mind is Crush. Its brilliant play premise is that the player may move freely between 2D and 3D views but is subject in each case to the restrictions particular to their geometry. In Crush, the play premise is the game. Focusing on play premises might prove fruitful when trying to design original games within saturated genres.

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