The Paper Trail: Game Manuals (Part 1 of 2)

Posted: March 21, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

When I opened Mass Effect 2, I was more than a little surprised to see that the manual was…more of a booklet. No, not even a booklet. It was a pamphlet. No, even smaller. It can only be described as a trifold leaflet. And it wasn’t even a manual, to be honest. It was just a little slip that essentially told me the manual was on the disc.


You call this documentation?

Now, I don’t particularly like on-disc manuals, mostly because I like to be able to have my reference material handy. I understand that the future is supposed to be paperless and all, but call me old-fashioned: I like my well-written and illustrated paper manuals.

When I started playing PC games in the early to mid ’90s, games had a tendency to come with a detailed manual, a reference card and, more often than not, “feelies”, which were extras that served not only to provide cool collectibles, but to draw the player deeper into the game world. These would include things like mini-newspapers, maps, and other helpful little goodies; and often these goodies were important components of copy protection (before the age of CD keys or invasive DRM we had to scour manuals for such and such word on whichever page number – hey, it’s still better than SecuROM). If you ever picked up a game by Infocom or Origin, you’re probably familiar with feelies. It was kind of like the stuff you have to pay twenty or thirty extra dollars for in the collector’s editions these days.

Now, the Mass Effect 2 leaflet claims that it’s putting the manual on disc in an effort for EA to reduce their impact on the environment. On the other hand, there’s a separate leaf to provide the Cerberus Network code and a third slip to advertise Dragon Age II. Now I have no problem with advertising or with saving a few trees, but honestly? 2k and Bethesda don’t have any problems printing out full-color, detailed manuals. Now, when you pay full-price for a game, is it too much to ask for twenty-five or so pages of text?

In the case of an RPG like one of the Fallouts, or Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect, I like to look at the perks or abilities or whatever the particular game has. I come from a tabletop background so I like to think ahead a little, plan out how I’m going to build my character. Again, call me old fashioned (I’m currently playing through Baldur’s Gate, with a couple of Second Edition DnD rulebooks handy, and the game is wonderfully faithful to the rules). I’m sure I’m in the lunatic fringe here, but I’m sure I’m not the only one. Right? (echoes). RIGHT?

But in any case, it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s been gaming for any length of time (especially PC gamers), that the contents and even size of game boxes have been shrinking faster than an ice cube in Death Valley in August. Remember how big game boxes used to be? Well, anyway, I figured I’d draw some attention to the ever-shrinking amount of decent game manuals.

Share Your Thoughts: What do you think? Is a good manual a helpful addition to a game, or is Chad simply living in the age of grunge music and Crystal Pepsi?

(Join me for part 2 where I’ll talk about strategy guides!)

  1. Ugh, I’m completely with you on this. There’s been an absolute dearth of decent manuals for an age now. Morrowind had a fairly respectable manual and Oblivion’s CE (which was only about €10 more than the standard edition) had a map, coin and ‘Guide to the Empire’, a lovely and fat booklet with brief histories of all the races and their politics.

    The most amazing manual I can recall belonged to Empire Earth. At 238 pages, it was illustrated, had incredibly deep tactical guides and resource strategies, plus succinct histories of each ‘epoch’ the player advanced through. I particularly liked reading its interpretation of the ‘Nano Age’ from 2100-2200.

    Those were the days. 😦

  2. Joe Walker says:

    I’m going to have to side with EA on this one; I think pairing the smaller manuals with the new cases that are friendlier to the environment (the new ones that use less plastic) is a good thing. The reason manuals were so big when we were kids was because there wasn’t an internet to turn to for help and games rarely had tutorials. These days a manual isn’t even necessary anymore.

    They’re neat to have, but as someone who’s studied the paper industry’s effect on the environment, I really don’t mind them not being there.

    • Chad M. says:

      This is all true, although I think “going green” is in reality EA’s excuse for firing their manual writing staff and generally eeking that extra 25 cents out of a product. I’m a cynic, yes.

      The fact is, I dislike ingame tutorials. They break immersion and take you out of the game. For an example- there’s Rebel Strike, where Yoda is breaking the fourth wall with complete seriousness, telling you to press A to jump, and just triggering full blown horror responses in me.

      If you miss something in a tutorial you might have to go back through it to figure it out. The fact is, most games don’t give you the option to skip tutorials on starting a new game. At least make it optional like the early Final Fantasies had.
      *releases he’s gone off on a tangent* Sorry bout that.

  3. Cassie says:

    I miss the days of real manuals. You’re going to be spending a lot of hours looking at a screen, I hate that to access the manual you have to spend more time looking at a screen. And it’s getting worse. Just look at Valve now, their PC games come with one page. One side has the cover art for the game and the CD key, the other has the buttons you use for what. And those can be changed anyway. At least they’re nice and glossy. Oblivion on the other hand (and I know you mentioned Bethesda) came with a novel. The Bioshock 2 manual was a full booklet, plus a double page ad for Borderlands.

    I remember getting a new game and trying it for the first time with friends. Guaranteed at least one of them would flip through the book while we were getting to the start menu.

    I still have my books for my Genesis games, my older PC games, etc. They’re like a little introduction to the game to build you up before you play. The books at to the excitement I think.

    Great article, looking forward to part 2.

    • Chad M. says:

      2K, for all the stupid things they do (XCOM!!!), does great with manuals. The Borderlands and BioShock games both come with gorgeous full-color manuals. Heck Square/Eidos included TWO manuals with Arkham Asylum, one in French and one in English.

      I think it largely depends on whether the company believes the manual is part of a game’s presentation- I think Bethesda go with this idea, as does Sony for their first party stuff (while short, the manuals for the Uncharted games are wonderfully designed).

      Valve should at least let you print out a reference card, but then I try not to complain too much about Steam. 🙂

  4. kiranmcurpen says:

    I’m with you, I miss the days of having character details in manuals for one, I love having the little backstories, my favourites being from “Brutal: paws of fury” but my favourite manual of all time was the original starcraft manual, details about wach unit, each building and then lore about the whole game to really get you into the whole world. It was incredible and I’m so sad that I misplaced my copy when i was younger and less careful about these things! If what Joe says is really the way things are, then at least make the effort to havea good website associated with the launch. (I’m not saying people don’t I’m just saying this should really be the payoff for not having good manuals)

    • Chad M. says:

      Blizzard used to do really great manuals with lots of artwork and story (Starcraft included), up to and including WoW. Which is why I was really bummed to see Starcraft 2 only came with the small “startup guide” as opposed to a manual, even a short one. I miss the cool art and the pages of lore, too.

  5. marcsart says:

    to play devil’s advocate: Who needs a manual? Now there is so much information about a game online and in-game that there is literally no need to waste paper on a manual. When I get a new game I just pop it in without even looking at the manual because I know at the beginning of the game there will be some sort of in-game tutorial to tell me what to do. I don’t think they should even waste paper printing them.

    • Chad M. says:

      Loved the Infocom games…
      A Mind Forever Voyaging is probably my favorite of them, and since I got it in one of the two Infocom box sets for the Mac in the mid-90’s, I didn’t have all the “proper” feelies. Took forever to track one down with the ballpoint pen…

  6. Armand K. says:

    I still have about 3 shoe boxes full of old game manuals, maps, and booklets from the 90’s, when people cared about that sort of thing.

    I’m thinking of doing an updated MineCraft manual once the game is finalized.

    • Chad M. says:

      I was gonna print the MineCraft manual out on some nice paper…but if you’re gonna update it when it’s finalized I might just wait.

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