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  • Writer's pictureKevin Mowrer

Play Pattern Is Clumsy Language For Story Development

Sometime, shortly after the dawn of toys, I’m certain that an animal-skin-wearing adult thought about adding a smaller version of that pelt to the bound straw doll he or she had just made for a toddler in their tribe. Amidst the oohs and aahs of the other tribe members, the question was posed: “Why did you do such an interesting thing?” The response was: “Because it’s a fashion doll Play Pattern!”


Over the years, Play Pattern has been expanded and refined to landscape the discussion between toy company and retailer. Combined with ages and genders, it literally describes what aisle you exist within on-shelf and supports arguments as to why this or that toy should be part of the retail mix.

It is also how the toy companies have organized themselves internally, gathering experts in particular lanes for design, marketing, and engineering.

Net/net, it is part of the foundational language of the play industry.


Where Play Pattern has not been as useful or as understood is throughout the entertainment industry; the places where the stories that drive licensed play get created (Shows/movies made by toy companies notwithstanding).

Writers generally know the phrase but can’t tell you exactly what it means nor what the different lanes are. The higher up the chain of creative command you go, the less Play Pattern is a concept that is creatively in the room. Largely, it is relegated to: “Those folks in franchise and licensing who need to figure out how to land a good guarantee.”

There are several very good reasons for why studios and creators don’t deep dive on Play Patterns. I would even go so far as to suggest that it is the play industry that needs to add a new word into their thought lexicon vs the other way around.


That new word is AGENCY.


Generally, thinking about Play Pattern too early in the creation of a story concept can be like running a race wearing a hobble. It simultaneously reduces your exploration and complicates the difficult process of cracking a unique, and compelling, human story. I have personally seen movies in development cancelled because the story has gotten lost due to input from toy companies.

Agency, on the other hand, is core to how your audience will want to engage with your story in their imagination and afterwards. Agency is a narrative concept describing how your characters affect the outcome of the story. Your audience will want to inhabit your characters so the agency they demonstrate becomes the agency your audience wants to use after passively experiencing the original story. That use, in all its forms, is what enables a franchise.


There it is. USEFULNESS. A word that I talk about a lot.


Your story is only franchisable if it is useful to your audience. Once your story team is thinking about how the story can be made useful to its audience, then they can start thinking about how to organically represent that in the characters, places, and things that they will be worldbuilding with.

By focusing on agency, the story team is in their element. As a franchise group or toy company, your ability to give more meaningful, and less destructive feedback, to the story team grows. No more: “Well, it needs a vehicle. Vehicles are the top selling item in action movies.” Story teams will try to put that vehicle in, but inclusion of elements from check lists hurts the story because it doesn’t flow from that unique story’s forms of agency.

Understanding how story agency works changes the discussion to one about increasing the agency in the story and finding ways to represent that agency that are reproducible through product so that the audience can explore how the story is useful to them. Every story has unique agency. Embrace it and get creative about turning that agency into useful, fun, engagement.


There is a lot more to this subject and I hope you’ve enjoyed a thought starter around agency.

Cheers, Kevin

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