Sometimes, playing games is like being in the Matrix. You’ll be doing your thing, getting into the flow of your session, when all of a sudden, you notice something you always overlooked before. At first, there’s confusion. Something you had assumed – or been led to assume – was one way turns out to not be exactly like it first seemed. So you look at it closer. And the gears start whirring in your head. And then, BAM! It hits you. You have discovered a new interaction between the abilities given to you, one that could very well be the ‘???” before the ‘Profit’.

For me, there have been a number of moments like that in my time playing games. Many of the earlier ones harken back to the Final Fantasy series, V, VI and VII specifically. Level your archer and your ninja classes in Final Fantasy V, equip the skills ‘dual wield’ and ‘multi-shot’, and voila, instant blending machine. The ‘Vanish+Death/Vanish+X-Zone’ combos in Final Fantasy VI. Equipping 16 Counter Attack Materia in Final Fantasy VII. To me, that was the Golden Age of the series.

In more recent years, that particular torch has been passed down through the Magic: the Gathering and Diablo-WoW dynasties. Infinite combos or ‘engines’ aren’t necessarily the rule in M:tG nowdays, but they certainly aren’t the exception, and are built into cards much more readily than they were ten years ago.

 The talent trees in Diablo and WoW fall into a very similar category to M:tG cards. At the top of the trees you have the ‘common’ cards, available sooner and more readily to the player. In fact, a hybrid talent build in WoW is very similar to a basic two or three colour deck, or a multi-class character in Dungeons and Dragons. You are essentially sacrificing focus for versatility. On the other hand, a build that goes heavily into one tree is akin to a monocolour deck or one with a heavy emphasis on one colour and a splash of a second. Your options are more limited, but you rely on your powerful ‘rare’ cards to carry most of the fight. At this point the analogy starts to break down, because WoW has a second aspect, gear, which don’t have a parallel in Magic – although at the rate we’re going, it wouldn’t surprise me if Magic introduced ‘Avatar’ cards, like they do in the online version, which different starting hand sizes, life totals and special abilities and drawbacks.

The other game where I see a very similar kind of mechanic is The World Ends With You. There are literally hundreds of pins you can use in combat, each with different effects. Some of them are obvious ‘support’ abilities, like increasing the number of uses on some pins, or increasing the likelihood or duration of status effects on enemies. These interactions are fun in and of themselves, because they can be used to devise strategies based around a particular pin or a particular statues effect, but they are essentially given to the player. In terms of Magic cards, these are the Lord-type cards, or the enchantments that enhance other effects. In WoW terms, these are your vanilla ‘Increases your X/Y/Z by A%’ talents. These aren’t engines. They have a chance at being parts of an engine, but they don’t do anything to write home about on their own.

The real beauty of the system for me are the interactions that the player figures out on their own, the ones they share or brag about to their friends, or use to beat their friends to a pulp to cries of disbelief and shock – brief tangent here, Tin Pin slammer is fun and all, but vs. combat in TWEWY could be frikkin’ awesome. Take, for example, a telekinesis pin that allows you to throw enemies around the screen, which you use can use to bunch all the enemies together, followed by a multi-hit attack that damages everything in a small area of effect – the area now occupied by the five foes you are facing, who are collectively receiving a well-deserved 100+ hit combo of electric death. Said combo then goes on to give you a multiplier to the experience you receive at the end of the battle, becoming a reward in and of itself, which then triggers the positive feedback loop of looking for ever-crazier comboes to perform. It’s brilliant.

These less obvious interactions are the equivalent of the Magic engines. You take a bunch of abilities, active and passive, and mix them together for explosive effects. I love seeing stuff like that in games. Or rather, I love to see games with deep enough mechanics that part of the fun is discovering the crazy stuff you can do without actually cheating. It’s another thing to do after you’ve beaten the game or hit the level cap, or it can be the key to deafeating an otherwise overpowered boss – perfect examples are Shinryu and Omega in FFV. Of course, the connotations of making such a discovery are different depending if you’re playing a single-player game or an MMO. In a single player game, all cheating nets you is completing the game sooner, and bragging rights of the ‘look at the crazy stuff I can do’ sort.

The question of whether it is cheating becomes a lot more prickly playing an MMO. Your newfound powers could be working as intended, part of the metagame of allowing the player to customise their character through skill trees and gear. It’s one of the things I like to do in WoW: look at their talent trees, what kind of gear is available to them, and look for the crazy combinations.

Let’s just say I’m working on something right now which might be kind of fun to see. If my search yields results, this will be the place where it comes to light.