Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The End of Game Manuals?

It seems that game manuals are becoming less and less important as the game industry matures.  Once upon a time, players really needed the documentation to confirm that variation 83 was actually different in some way from variation 82, or to understand that the red blob with a white blob on top of it was actually a healing potion.  But modern games tend to build the instructions into the early rounds of play, and many games now fall into one of many well-established genres with more-or-less standardized rules and controls.

The current trend toward downloadable games is also a factor -- when there's no physical box on a shelf, there's no way to include a print manual.  And in fact, I rarely look at a contemporary game manual unless I just can't figure out something basic and critical, like how to save and exit the game, or if I want to check out the development credits without actually finishing the game (also less necessary than in the past, as more games today include a "credits" option on the main menu.)

Ubisoft recently took a little heat from fans and game journalists over the single-page manual included with Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, but I'm not sure this is a bad thing in the long run.  It's an ecologically progressive direction, for one thing, and while the collector in me likes the idea of having something physical in my hands, if I'm rational about it I have to admit that I really have no good arguments against this trend.

See, if I miss manuals, it's mostly for nostalgic reasons.  I'm recalling past times when I was not driving the car, could not postpone other errands to rush home, and so could only read and re-read the manual, building anticipation for playing the actual game as soon as circumstances permitted.  I don't personally run into that situation much as an adult.  And modern games have plenty of resources available for tutorials and learn-as-you-play tips, so I have no problem with treating pick-up-and-play-ability as an aspect of modern game design standards, and letting the paper manual vanish altogether.

What do you think?  Are game manuals rightly fading into the past, or is that collection of decorated paper still a vital part of the gaming experience?


  1. I recently bought Civ IV and read a good portion of the manual before booting it up. I think manuals are still useful for strategy games where unintuitive game mechanics can play a big role in your success.

    (Of course, the best solution is to teach the mechanics through the game. That's something Civ IV does much better than Civ III.)

  2. Built-in tutorials and help menus have meant the end of instruction manuals for console games. They're now just (usually) a quick overview of the control schemes.

    I do remember that some of the old SNES RPGs had 80+ page manuals that often had a story about the game in them.