Manuals in an Age of Digital Distribution

MMOs broke me of reading manuals. I used to read them, all of them. I am a junkie for rules and design — I have read rulebooks for far more pen-and-paper games than I have ever played. I have read ~200 page manuals for 4X games.

I now rely on tutorials. Almost all games come with them. Even games without explicit tutorials have a way to ease you along the learning curve.

MMOs broke me of reading manuals because the manuals were wrong. I do not blame the manual writers. What they wrote was presumably correct when they wrote it. Then two classes were cut in the last month of beta, one was re-done, one changed its name, twelve abilities changed names the week before the game went gold (including several that swapped names), and half the numbers changed. Then everything changed within the first three months, so only the general class descriptions were correct. Then the vision of some classes changed a year or two later. The developers’ online documentation is rarely completely correct, so let us not even hope for the printed version that needed to be finalized a month before the release date. (And people buy printed guides as they would for single-player console games, ha.) Some MMOs learned this and made the manual uselessly vague, which is another non-solution.

Even a decade ago, you went to the fan sites to learn how the game really worked. Now every game has a wiki and multiple forums with new user guides. It has become a measure of how newbie-friendly a game/community is: you need some small number of helpful, literate people to write the guides, so either the game is popular enough to have several of those people (good sign) or a small game has enough concentrated awesomeness in its community to have several (good sign). If a game is worth playing, people will be encouraging you to get started.

Now I get many games via digital distribution. Do they come with manuals? A few games have something on the start menu that directs you there, but I do not know if they included PDFs of the manual. Maybe it is in a folder somewhere? It would be helpful if the Steam library included a “manual” button, but the prominent one is “play.” So I play, rely on the tutorial, and that usually sees me through.

: Zubon

14 thoughts on “Manuals in an Age of Digital Distribution”

  1. I recently bought King’s Bounty The Legend through Steam and was having trouble getting the hang of the game without reading some kind of manual, even if I went through the tutorial.

    So I went to the net, and found out that under the Steamapps Folder for your game, there ought to be a manual for most of the games that you buy. So I read that, and now I feel more confident once I decide to restart playing. :D

  2. Even when a game has a solid manual, it’s often the case that players don’t bother reading it. Sword of the Stars is a well-crafted and fairly popular 4X strat game that recently released their Complete edition, which includes (as you would expect) all expansions for the game but also some perks, including an updated and quite comprehensive manual in .PDF format in the game’s install directory. Nevertheless, while the dev forums are generally a good place for newcomers to get pointers on how to get started, there is a certain level of wistfulness at times when questions are asked where a dev or one of the more experienced players is tempted to reply with a terse RTFM.

    Sots2 will integrate their manual into the game in the form of a SotS-pedia with unlockable content, which will not just be for general game info but also where a lot of the game’s backstory will be found (and the SotS universe is big on backstory, which is part of the appeal for many players.) Other games just link to an external wiki and provide an in-game way to browse it. It would definitely seem that conventional manuals are pretty much a relic of days gone by, however.

  3. Steam does indeed have manuals available… what they said above. It’s a nice convenience to have them archived by such a well-known thriving company making oodles of money, since I can count on accessing them when I need them.

    You can even view them without having to purchase the game, which forms another avenue of game evaluation besides a demo, despite the frequent dissimilarity of manual to game these days.

    And before Steam, there was

    Ironically, I still hoard the manuals that come in boxed games. Mostly to save the serial number that tends to come printed on the back or inside of the manual. But it’s so much easier these days to read the digital pdf. Think the last physical manual I thumbed through religiously was Baldur’s Gate 2 and games of that generation.

  4. EVE went one better. They have an official wiki. The item database is fed directly from the database dump so is relatively accurate even after a patch.

  5. The majority of games today seem to be either sequels or cookie-cutter genre titles. If you’ve figured out how to play one Floating Gun FPS, for instance, you can probably play them all. Likewise with Cover System TPS games, Theme Park MMOs, Dialogue Tree RPGs and so on. Further, the trend seems to have been toward simplifying games (or dumbing them down, depending on your perspective) to make them more accessible, so manuals to detail the specifics of a game don’t seem all that necessary anymore.

  6. When I buy a washing machine or a TV I read the manual first before I plug it in. When I buy a computer game I dive right in and see how I get on. If it is a complex game I will sometimes go looking for a manual later but more often than not I will consult Google first.

  7. Interesting. The manual is in the Steam store page, not the library screen for the game. So to read the manual, you pretend you are looking to buy the game rather than already owning it.

    1. Actually, it is also available as a right-click option to view the manual from the library screen as well.

      But you would’ve known that had you read the Steam manual. ;)

      1. Not for most games, it’s not. Valve games seem to get that. A few of them even have a manual link on the right side in the library screen. I just right-clicked through some of my games and found only one non-Valve game with a manual option on the right-click screen.

  8. I think the thing that holds me back from Eve (Aside from it’s blackness which I feel at times may consume me in a bad way :D) is it’s lack of decent tutorial, or at least one that has never managed to engage me and make me feel welcome. I suppose this may be a reflection of its sandbox nature and general aimlessness. I should really make the effort to get through the tutorial or research externally, but it starts to feel like work at that stage, just to get into it….

    On a similar topic to the one you raise, is MMO reviews. You could almost replace every instance of the word ‘manual’ with ‘review’ and it would apply. Additionally, I would imagine reviewers get even less of a sense of an MMO(RPG in particular) than other games due to the time investment most are designed for. I have often thought we need annual reviews for MMOs, not just on each major expansion/patch.

  9. “I have read rulebooks for far more pen-and-paper games than I have ever played.”

    I am totally with you there. My ratio of time spent reading rulebooks and imagining playing versus actually laying out and campaign and actually playing is astronomical.

    I dig rulebooks. Must stay away from the DriveThru RPG site….

    Game manuals though… I went from read the manual, to skim the manual, to find the quick ref card, to swearing when the game just didn’t work like I thought it should, and I am not sure it was the manuals that got me there. I think age and expectations helped a lot more.

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