The death of the manual

Publication date: 21 March 2012
Originally published 2011, in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 21-Mar-2012.

 

In days of yore, when memory was measured in kilobytes, games used to come with manuals. Made out of paper. Sometimes quite a lot of paper.

If it'd been feasible to put the manual on another floppy disk then a lot of game companies probably would have done that. But you would have needed a whole other Commodore 64 or Apple II if you wanted to look at a disk-manual while playing the game. So paper it was.

Crusty old gamers wax lyrical about the nifty pack-ins that used to come with games, before graphics were good enough to be worth putting on the box. Tea-towel maps, various other little tchotchkes, and, of course, the manual. "Feelies" was Infocom's word for all of the pack-ins; since Infocom were in the monochrome text-adventure business, they reckoned the player might get more into the game's atmosphere if provided with an unexpected rubber centipede, or some Peril-Sensitive Sunglasses.

Manuals only truly counted as feelies when they were worth reading just on their own account, not as mere instructions. But that was often the case. A good game manual could be as fun to read as a D&D sourcebook.

(And if nothing else, you probably had to look in the manual, or your photocopy thereof, to look up stuff for the copy-protection scheme. Which was way better than modern copy-protection schemes, because people wasted a lot less time making it.)

This wasn't a Golden Age, though, because the manual had an evil Mirror Universe counterpart: The strategy guide.

Which did not, of course, come with the game. And was not, of course, free.

It was common, especially in console games, for information essential to the completion of the game, and almost impossible to figure out for yourself, to be tucked away in the Strategy Guide. Or, even worse, at the other end of a telephone hint line.

(Infocom and Sierra made hint books that used invisible ink, which became visible when coloured over with a "decoder pen". Many of those have been recreated online, too!)

That was then, this is now. Today, the paper manuals for ordinary boxed games have shrunk into miserable little pamphlets, if there's any paper manual at all. Many PC gamers no longer buy boxed games at all, because digital distribution is less of a hassle. Entertainingly, strategy guides have moved into digital distribution too.

For some reason, I find digital downloadable strategy guides that're priced exactly the same as the paper version even more annoying than downloadable games that cost the same as the boxed version. But it doesn't, of course, matter very much, because only small children and people recently released from long prison sentences are dumb enough to pay for a strategy guide. Or pay more than cursory attention to the manual, for that matter.

It's now normal for games to teach you the basics in a tutorial at the beginning, and when you're playing properly and find yourself in need of detailed information, you can just check out the game's wiki.

If a game's at all popular, there'll be a wiki, usually, but not always, at gamename.wikia.com. And unless the game's absolutely brand new, the wiki will probably be much, much better than the manual, tutorial and strategy guide put together. Stats for every place and creature, detailed walkthroughs for even the easy parts of the game, and the one thing you'll never find in the official documentation: Bug lists.

If your chosen game is obscure or extremely young then you may have to hold your nose and hit the official forums, but even then you're likely to get better information than a strategy guide can offer.

I'm delighted that players are now documenting games better than the people who make the games. And not just documentation - also mods that fix bugs. Players of Fallout: New Vegas shouldn't have had to fix those turrets in the bottom of Vault 11 that were incorrectly set to belong to Mr House and made him cross with you when you blew them up. But at least PC players could fix that, without having to wait for the patch.

And, of course, in the olden days, there would never be a patch. There is, for instance, a talking horse in Ultima IV that's meant to give you an important hint, but never does, because they forgot to give him any dialogue.

(Indie developers of complex games pretty much have to rely on crowdsourced documentation. Without player-written docs, only about fifty people in the world would be playing Dwarf Fortress.)

Again, though, all of this is a bit alarming to people whose business model focuses around selling games in boxes. The game publishers are only mildly concerned about the dwindling market for boxed games, but their attention is held to the subject by the game retailers, who are very concerned indeed.

Their response has been to create really, really fancy games in boxes.

Maps, books, art books, comic books, posters; sure. But also action figures! Plastic guns! Boxes that look like helmets! Boxes made of fake carbon fibre! The Special Edition of BioShock 2 included a vinyl record of the previous game's music!

(There's also the rather peculiar concept of Digital Special Editions, which can't really contain much of interest. It's now normal, if not exactly good, to get extra in-game items from a special or pre-order edition. But those items pretty much by definition have to be rather unexciting, or they'll be unbalancingly good, like the guns and armour in the Fallout: New Vegas pre-order packs, or the guns and giant wad of cash you got for pre-ordering Deus Ex: Human Revolution.)

I'll be quite pleased if all boxed games become super-fancy, with the downloadable version for the mass market.

I think I'll hold out for the Silent But Deadly Edition of Counter-Strike, that comes with an actual Steyr TMP.

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