Case in Point: The Demise of Manuals

By James Cobb 16 May 2016 8

To be sure, we can embrace Slitherine’s hard copies of manuals for a handful of their meatier games but a quick glance at other games reveals that manuals are an endangered species. How did this happen? A quick history of computer game manuals will set a context but a real answer is part economics and part psychology.

Early manuals were just pamphlets with thyroid problems. Gamers were told the mechanics of “Click here to do this; click there to do that.” Gameplay was simple enough to be obvious. By the mid-1980s, the hobby evolved to the point where an explanation of gameplay and its ramifications was necessary. Play was no longer “intuitive”, that horrible word that actually means players don’t have to think more than five seconds to make a move. Rather, consideration of the game’s overall context must be considered and, for historical games, the concept of timelines and how deviation from history could work out should be weighed. All these elements require developers to explain gameplay more deeply and often provide a bibliography and an index. Such work requires many pages. Thus, the paperback or spiral-bound manual was born.

Games became more complex over the years so physical manuals grew accordingly. They became bulky, surpassing even Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics in size. Two problems were presented: how could gamers handle such behemoths while playing and how could publishers afford the costs of them while keeping games’ cost at the apparently mandatory $50 USD level. Some publishers said the cost of paper manuals was at least a third of the total cost of publishing games.

A solution was found and it seemed nearly perfect. A PDF text on a CD or a website cut cost, saved space, allowed more length in manuals with quick errata supplements and let players quickly search for specific concepts. (Adobe didn’t do us any favors by removing the search function from the menu bar in later versions of Acrobat Reader but CTRL F does the trick.) One would have thought all gamers would appreciate the sense in such an approach; not so. When developers like John Tiller and others introduced the PDF manual, a small but lively firestorm broke out. Many players want the feel of a manual, opening a good subject for psychological theses on the role of tactility on the intellect. Others wanted to read manuals away from their computer and we learned far too much about some gamers’ toilet habits. A further elaboration of non-physical offering was the download-only game. Some publishers rose to the occasion by offering the choice of CD or download only or a physical edition with physical manual, passing the additional cost on to the buyer. Others just let the grumbling wash over them and held to the non-physical variations. For some time, this combination of options stayed the norm with the physical-only sector going to Kinko’s with their discs to get paper manuals.

Technology marched on. Publishers like Paradox Interactive soon provided annotated or narrated tutorial scenarios explaining the basics of the game. However, they always admonished players that tutorials were no substitutes for using the manual. Another venue opened up when gamers started posting “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube. These videos could be helpful but were dependent on the acumen of the poster. Narrations starting with “I haven’t played this game much” raise red flags about the exercise as a tool to learn the game. Lately, publishers have sponsored Twitch shows that demonstrate a game. The interplay between the moderator and the audience often offers insight but, again, may not be as thorough as a good manual. The tutorials in DC: Operation Barbarossa are built-in videos while clicking on the tutorial for Tigers on the Hunt sends gamers directly to YouTube for developer-created videos. As laudable as these features are, the developers also provide good manuals.

Lately, a disturbing phenomenon has appeared: complex games with no manuals at all. Tindalos Interactive’s Battlefleet Gothic: Armada has no manual, just a sparse annotated tutorial campaign. Surprisingly, Paradox Interactive, publisher of fine manuals and errata, has released Stellaris without a manual and an even more terse tutorial campaign. Questions have been raised on forums and discussion boards and the answers seem to be “Play is intuitive” or “The tips and tool tips are enough” or “Here’s a YouTube link.”

Let’s look at the underlying assumptions of the answers. Gamers are supposed to start play at a very crowded screen with instructions to right click a point and follow a bouncing arrow on a control panel without knowing specific alternatives. What do the rest of those controls mean? Players will be told in good time – hopefully. Once they begin play, they’ll learn quickly.  Laconic tips and tooltips will explain all – eventually. The “Let’s Play” video poster will cover everything – as soon as they learn the game themselves. Meanwhile, confused players jump from boards to forums to wikis.

This system – if this approach merits the term – seems like a recipe for frustration. Players blindly following what amounts to clues without access to a more comprehensive resource. Players spending time jumping around the Internet hoping for authoritative answers. Players losing battles because they can’t find the right button or can’t understand what functions do. All these troubles will lead some, probably many, players to shelve the game. We hear so much about user friendliness; some developers seem tone deaf.

Not writing manuals will save money; people who can write manuals deserve to be paid well. However, a literate audience deserves documentation that brings all the components of a game together in one place. Have gamers become so audio-visual dependent that the written word is superfluous? Such a situation must not be the case. Hopefully, the examples cited above represent a flash in the pan. Otherwise, frustration will be a constant companion to us all.

About the Author

Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online. He was adjunct faculty at Cardinal Stritch University for fifteen years.

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