Monday, October 27, 2008

Where all da big manuals at? (or Why's the box so small?)

Forgive me, but I do so enjoy editorializing and it’s a hard habit to shake. Kinda like politics or heroin. My next post will be a review but for now there is something I must get off of my chest.

With Fallout 3 about to hit the shelves on Tuesday and already up for purchase and download on Steam (Hah I say, hah! Digital is the future!), it’s manual was let loose a bit early. Turns out that if you preordered it on Steam they let you download the manual early. And while it’s at least a well written and designed manual it is, sadly, very short. It’s just big enough to explain the controls, vaguely explain the setting and that’s it. While some might expect that in a manual, I believe I am entitled to something a bit more impressive.

In my youth, I remember games with great and mighty manuals. Massive paper bound books that dared you to read them. If you mock me or doubt my veracity, then I say to you look upon this and cower!!

But they weren’t just massive books that explained everything about the game in painful detail. Some were cleverly written and disguised as everything from FBI reports to company presentations. And in some cases the developers actually included additional material. In the case of X-Com: Terror from the Deep, they included a booklet of interviews with soldiers from the first game describing their battles and the horror of intergalactic war, newspaper clippings from the events of the first game leading up to the second and even a couple of pages from the X-Com soldier’s handbook (complete with a soldier’s notes and doodles in the margins).

In the original Fallout, the manual included a section on surviving an atomic blast and a rather comprehensive explanation of the effects of an atomic bomb going off nearby (the vacuum created by the blast forcing out all the air followed by the sudden crushing pressure of the air rushing back in sounds rather nastier than the wall of fire).

And code wheels. Once, long ago, RPG designers would include these little paper discs, riveted together and covered in runes, letters, words, symbols and holes cut out. It was a method of copy protection but it was also kinda cool. You’d come across Dwarven runes in a dungeon and you had to use the code wheel to translate the riddle needed to continue on. It was oddly interactive and I mourn their passing.

But it seems that manuals just get smaller and smaller every year. I still remember the dark day when I noticed PC games coming in smaller and smaller boxes, eventually equaling those of console games.
In the case of Oblivion, for $10 bucks extra the "collector’s edition" of the game came with a fake coin (the currency in the game) and a book explaining the setting. The coin was not worth $10 and the booklet was the kind of thing I’d expect to get for free. However the normal version of the game came with a rather small leaflet.
Now I hear some of you saying, "But what about maps? Many RPGs come with pretty poster maps of their worlds." No, you are correct, but these are for the most part crap. Pretty crap, and I applaud the effort, but sad all the same.

What’s worse are the tech tree posters. Starcraft or Command and Conquer are great examples of this trend. They give you a chart that outlines which units each building produces and what upgrades each can receive. An interesting idea but it’s info that you have at your fingertips when you’re actually playing the game. It is the thought that counts, but the same can be said for getting socks on x-mass. (In Starcraft’s defense, the manual was nice and big and showed off all the units in game and their possible upgrades.)

There are many trends in the gaming industry that sadden me but this is one that I feel cheapens the experience for us all. And sadly, as we see digital distribution gain popularity I doubt the situation will improve. Though there are a few brief and wonderful exceptions to this decline. And to the lazy and cheap developers who have slowly strangled I say
Dotted line, #1,

10 Old School Gamer points if you can translate that one.


Richard R. said...

Excellent post. The increased digital distribution of gaming will likely kill an often overlooked part of the game package: the manual.

I looked back at some of my old NES manuals recently and most of them were chippy, cute and incredibly useful.

The original Mega Man manual listed all of the point totals for every enemy you defeat, which, while most people didn't care about points in that game (living is an achievement), the point totals was a nice added feature.

The original Metroid manual featured something more amazing. That is a map in the manual that shows the entire layout of Metroid. A fucking map! That would have been SOOOO helpful in playing that game as accidentally walking into Norfair was NOT fun.

There's actually a site that shows manuals, though I doubt they are legal in doing so. I talk about them in this post here.

The nice things about manuals is that they were optional to read. No forced in-game tutorials rock. Some games admittedly don't NEED tutorials, but I think manuals should be a part of the package as they are great resources to look to when you have a control or interface issue.

Though, with the internet now, you need manuals even less. Not producing them also probably saves a bunch of money also, since that's less labor on both the textual and art design front.

However, the growth of the digital distribution of games allows for other creative ways to share free add-on content in the spirit of optional manuals. What I'm referring to here is what Valve does with Team Fortress 2. Meet the Sandvich is a digital (and hilarious) representation of something that would likely be in a manual. And if more companies do things like Valve does, then I can accept the death of manuals.

That being said, why not have both?

Oh, and wow, you now hold the record for me making a the longest comment I've made on this site yet. Awesome.

Richard R. said...

Oh, and I have NO idea about the translation. No old school gamer points for me.


TheNightgaunt said...

I forgot about the Metroid map. Ok, for that one I'll take back my comments regarding the game maps that come with some of them.
And the Super Mario manuals were great too. They were a bit short but they had cartoony pics of all the enemies with little bios and the like. How else were you to know that brido was actually a dude?

TheNightgaunt said...

Oh and as a hint. It's based off of the old Pool of Radiance pc games code wheel.

Anonymous said...

I did enjoy how they used the manuals for copy protection, at least when they did it in a fun way.

For the most part, this was the extent to which I checked the manual. Occasionally, when I was really excited about a game, I would read the manual on the way home from the store, just to satiate my craving for it, but that was it.

Since I don't really read them, I happy bid their era a farewell. And if what Richard mentioned about the digital add-ons in there place becomes mainstream, then all the better.

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