I remember when the only “programming” game was crobots.  It was a game where you programmed a robot (in a c-like language, thus the name) to fight in an arena. While I was okay with that, I’ve never been a competitive gamer, and didn’t feel I had the chops to pit my code directly against someone else.  I always liked programming puzzles, and that drew me to the Incredible Machine games.

Some of those are logic-programming puzzles and some of them are physics puzzles.  The plethora of those (which included games like Angry Birds) kind of separates them out.  And while a lot of hardcore gamers are programmers, it’s a narrower market than even that.  So it’s kind of cool to find some flash game that fall in this sort of programming puzzle Genre

The first game that I ran into (which was not the first at all) is a game called Manufactoria.  It’s probably the most purely programmatic of the games, since it’s essentially about creating a Turing machine, right down to reading and writing from a tape.  I enjoyed it, although I admit there were a couple levels at the end that I didn’t finish.

That’s kind of a feature of these games: some of them are freaking hard.  They fall within my core abilities, and they force me to think, rethink, and try again.  For that reason they may be too frustrating for some people, but they’re also immensely satisfying when you finally do solve them.  I don’t feel bad I didn’t finish Manufactoria (although I may someday) but I went as far as I could at the time, and learned some things in the process.

The author of Manufactoria sites Zachtronic’s “Games for Engineers” as his inspiration. JayisGames has reviews of all the games, and links to them. Codex of Alchemical Engineering is my favorite, of them and the robot battle game the least.  I found the Russian semiconductor one to be a bit beyond me, for what its’ worth.  I’m currently playing SpaceChem, and when I finish the tutorial (or should I say if I finish the tutorial), I plan on buying it.

My main complaint about Zachtronic Institute games is that the tutorials often aren’t.  You’re expected to kind of jump in and maybe even have a basic science background before you can quite get it.  SpaceChem is better, but not perfect in this regard.  Some patience in the beginning is called for — more than modern games typically require.

I want to highlight three more games in this sort of logic puzzle game genre.  These are basically similar games,each with their own twist.  All of these games involve manufacturing something with a particular design or set of features: tiles with a particular pattern, blocks of a certain size or color, or donuts with the right kind of toppings.

The first is Tile Factory, which was made for one of the JayIsGames casual gameplay competitions.   It’s a flash game, with a decent tutorial,and is probably one of the best introductions to the puzzle/logic/programming genre as a whole.  It looks somewhat like Manufactoria, but has a different purpose and tool set.  Once you’re done with that, and depending on your setup,you might want to try the other two games.

One is The Machine, which is a downloadable game written in Unity.  Here, instead of patterned tiles you’re making cubes of various sizes and colors.  The challenge here comes from the very limited positions where you can place objects.  I bought my copy through an Impulse Game sale, but it has a demo.

Lately, I’ve been playing Rocknor’s Donut Factory, which is an iOS game (at the typical $0.99 price) which plays a lot like The Machine, with a bit more options of placement.  Here, the donuts need to be shaped, baked, and sprinkled or jelly filled.  Order matters and while there are less restrictions on where you can place items than in The Machine, often those limitations are the challenge of a level.

In searching for links I see that there’s a PC version of Rocknor’s Donut Factory, which just confirms that I don’t know about all the games in this genre.  So if you know of some that you like or want to chime in on, please leave me a note here, or drop my a line on Twitter.

I’m not picking a game of the year, instead I want to think about what games I’m playing, and what has left a lasting impression on me.  One thing I can say about the past year, is that despite having all three major consoles, I feel less like a console gamer, and more like a PC one.  I started as a PC gamer, and went to consoles because I couldn’t afford the constant upgrades for PCs, along with the games themselves.

Admittedly, we had a chipped ps2 during the close to a year I spent unemployed, and I got to try a lot of games I never would have played. I don’t do that anymore, but the desire for variety is there, so I have GameFly for the console games.  I also used their GBox service, and Blockbuster to rent games, and that’s mostly what I do on them.   The only new game that I bought for myself this year was Rock Band 3, a few others I purchased used, but most I tried and sent back.  Nothing hooked me, and I only finished a few of them (I think Uncharted 2 was one I completed this year).

Not that I’ve completed many big budget games on the PC. I have a huge list of RPGs and indie games that I’ve purchased on Steam — most of them last Christmas, and more this Christmas.  That, and two or three MMOs (DDO, Guild Wars and Lego Universe, although I added STO and Aion for 2011) made up a good portion of my time, but they aren’t what I mostly play.

What I mostly play these days are amusements. Amuse-bouches of the gaming world. Flash games, and free iOS games get some play every day.  If they aren’t good enough, it’s not a big deal, there’s another one tomorrow.  Some of them have been pretty decent, and I’ve linked them on twitter — but not written a blog post about them. It might take almost as long to write a blog post as it did to play the game.  On the other hand, I’ve finished a lot of them.

I wake up a couple of hours before I need to leave for work, and in that time I have the chance to catch up on RSS, write a bit in my journal, and play a flash game. I played Blue Knight last week. It was a very short metroidvania game, and I played it longer than I played the XBLA Castlevania game, and almost as long as I played the latest Metroid game (but not if you discount cutscenes).

In this way games for me have almost become romance novels or porn. They distract and amuse and then they are gone.  This is a bit unfortunate, I think, but it’s part and parcel of their ubiquity.  It’s not that I don’t think games can be great, I’ve just been spending more time with the easily accessible free popcorn ones, and less with the costly (in both money and time) big ones.

Not that the big AAA games have given me a particular reason to spend time with them.  A few have, certainly. Assassin’s Creed 2’s mystery kept me coming back to it to find out what was going on, to discover the secrets.  That didn’t seem to translate for me into Brotherhood, but it’s hard to say depending on what was distracting me at the time.  I’ll probably try AC:Bro later from Gamefly, when I have more time with it, but there’s no rush.

I play some of the RPG and bigger games on my PC for a good afternoon, but when I sit down to play, when I have an hour or two to fiddle about, I just load up Kongregate or Jay is Games and play a bit of tower defense or logic puzzler.  Or I grab my iPod Touch and play whatever today’s free game is. Even if it only keeps me amused for a few minutes, it was free.

If I’m getting the same thing from these appetizers that I am from the big games, then all that money spent on them is wasted.  There needs to be something more to them, and it’s just not there.

Girl got me a PS2 for Christmas, along with a copy of Shadow of the Colossus.  I borrowed Girl’s copy of Okami, and found Amplitude, Katamari Damacy , Jade Cocoon 2 and Final Fantasy X.  I spent most of Saturday playing SotC and Okami, and really connecting with them in a way I hadn’t connected with a game in a while.  Some of it is nostalgia, I know, and some is joy in mastery, since I already know how to kill all those collosi.  But something about those games was more evocative than any of the big Christmas releases was for me, and I came back to them on Sunday.  I’m looking forward to playing them tonight.

There’s a lot of games out there that I really want to play, there’s a lot of books out there I want to read.  I’m reading Name of the Rose as part of Project Eco, and while it’s thicker and more complex than a paranormal romance, I’ll read it in about the same amount of time — slower only because I’m giving it more thought, but not a lot slower.  A big game requires more time than these amuse-bouches, and I’m not sure their promise is as reliable as Eco’s.

So, I wonder a bit. Am I just a casual gamer now, or is there really nothing more meaty on offer? Maybe I’m looking to the wrong companies and places for that sort of thing?  Where is this year’s Today I Die?