Electron Dance
5Jul/11Off

Turning The Page

This is the sixth article in the Where We Came From series.


PDF. Pee. Dee. Eff. How I hate you. Those three letters are like three alphabetic knives in my back – yes, even the D. PDF is Cthulhu's lesser-known Elder sister, an abomination from outside time. And yet it has become a popular format for game manual distribution.

It was Chad Morelock, over at Alliance of Awesome partner Bits'n'Bytes Gaming, who prodded me into thinking about this. This gradual recession of printed manuals is across the board and not just confined to some dusty retro enclave where no one can be arsed to update or print old manuals for the 21st century customer. Publishers are downsizing their print work and producing less in the way of funky specialist items like cloth maps and comics with back story.

As Morelock points out, manuals were part of the experience that existed independent of the action on the screen. They were something you could take to the commode and read in private; you could pretend you were already playing your new purchase when, in fact, you were performing a bowel movement whilst the program installed.

Learning To Teach

But we're skirting around an important issue here. No matter how much we might like to snort pure manual cocaine, a manual is a manual. It's a well-known truism that no one reads the instructions even if the Slashdot crowd's preferred battlecry is RTFM. RTFM? LMKHTWOFY. In these enlightened times, most developers seek to deliver instruction through the gameplay; those developers who have seen the FACE OF GOD eschew instruction altogether.

Consoles in the 1970s and 80s could just about manage the display of player scores so the idea of in-game instructions was sheer fantasy. Instruction manuals were a necessary evil. Go back to my exploration of the Phillips Videopac G7000 with Professor Steve Furnell: without instructions, the machine and its software were baffling.

But on the next iteration of game platform, design was slow to catch up. Three weeks ago I discussed a game called Necromancer. My family originally rented it from a mail-order game library and unfortunately the instructions for the central section of the game, the Vaults, were missing. Try as we might, we never worked out what to do with the trees in the Vaults and it remained a mystery for several years. All because of a few missing pages.

So the kindest thing one can say is that the manual is a relic, belonging to a past before terms like affordance and feedback were commonplace in design circles.

When manuals go, however, we will also lose the cooler items the cooler developers liked to package with the cooler games. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking Infocom's feelies: the staring eyes of the Suspended box; the Wishbringer stone that glowed purple; the scratch'n'sniff card with Leather Goddesses of Phobos.

But here's the thing: I don't miss any of this stuff. You see, I haven't bought a boxed game for two years.

The Sound of Inevitability

We're actually skirting around a more fundamental issue, the real elephant in the room. The loss of the printed manual is a signal from the future. It is an omen not of the death of print, but the death of product. We all see the writing on the Facebook wall.

I can remember the early days of Steam when it was mocked and insulted. Players were angry that Valve were wasting their technical resources on a useless download service which was slow as a two-legged dog. And then they released Rag Doll Kung Fu through Steam. And then Darwinia. And then we couldn't remember a time when Half-Life and Counterstrike were the only games on Steam. Once broadband had caught up with their ambition, Valve's Steam infrastructure proved downloads were a viable alternative to physical distribution.

Mobile platforms, originally seen as little toys that offered only nutritionless gaming froth, changed overnight when the iPhone appeared. And lo, there was an App Store. A brand new digital-only market was born. No manual. No box. No shop. Just bits and bytes floating in the ether. And it would be foolish to forget another popular and entirely digital gaming platform: Facebook.

A few years ago, it was impossible to think of a world without paper books; today, many of the wired generation cannot ignore the haunting possibility that e-books will become the norm further deepening the divide between the digital class and the technology-starved.

The clock does not go backwards. We are now travelling fast-forward through the future and can no longer live in the present, let alone the past.

It's all about convenience. People who use an Amazon Kindle say they cannot go back, trapped in an alternate future where DRM is media DNA and second-hand doesn't exist. I often wonder about the outrage over attempts to restrict the sale of second-hand copies because it's fighting yesterday's war. In a decade none of that is going to matter. Boxes and physical media will be dead.

Turn the pages while you still can.

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Posted by Joel Goodwin

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (10) Trackbacks (0)
  1. You’re entirely right that digital distribution makes physical manual quality redundant, but considering how many boxed releases we still see these days, I’d reckon they still have their place.

    Games from the big manual era also had the benefit of generally getting right into the game as soon as you passed the main menu. Hell, X-Men 2 on the Sega Genesis did the first level before the SEGA logo! Then again, that game wasn’t very complex, but even a more technical game like Kengo on the PS2 let you try to fight your sensei just so you could play with the controls a bit. The actual swordfighting practice came after, but it was nice to figure out some controls while your master beat you senseless.

  2. The Halo: CE manual is one of my favorites.

    First level tutorials are probably the biggest reason for the decline of manuals, people want to figure things out for themselves, but also know what to do right away and feel like a badass (or competent in some way) — easy, but fun, playable sections right off the bat allow for a reasonable middle ground between instruction and discovery.

  3. @BeamSplashX: Ten years ago sales by download was merely a twinkle in Valve’s many-sighted eyes. Today it is 40% of the business (see the recent MCV figures). I cannot see PC retail hanging on for another ten, with numbers dwindling, we’re going to cross the line of financial viability at some point and then it’s game over. That leaves consoles. There are a new batch of consoles coming up and I imagine they will inject more life through the retail chain, but digital-only consoles will surely be on the cards after this generation with brand new console portals.

    @Jordan: Absolutely tutorials have led the decline of manuals and Valve’s one-pager for Half-Life 2 was quite the revelation. I think this is the challenge to developers: if you need a manual to explain your game then your game has simply failed. (Note: This kind of design law does not apply to niche titles like Armageddon Empires, where fans are willing to ignore those sort of design flaws.) Although I think tutorials have got a bit lazy in many quarters – they’re too much like interactive instruction manuals than playable learning.

    My point is just that there’s no point lamenting the loss of the manual when the box it comes in is going to vanish too.

    I have the fat manual for RTS Dark Reign around here somewhere. Half of it was devoted to back story. I think I read it once; that kind of thing I just wouldn’t bother with these days as I’d need a great deal of convincing a manual story was (a) good and (b) tied into what I saw on the screen.

  4. Embracing this future is EDF: Insect Armageddon. That came with no manual at all.

    Nothing to do with the Publishers being cheap bastards or anything.

  5. I bought Deus Ex from a shop in India. It had a reference sheet (in English) for all the keys and nothing else. The fact that the tutorial also gave background on the world that the main game didn’t have gave it incentive, for sure. That and the fact that it was a separate option.

  6. Hahah, Armageddon Empires. Yep, I took the Solium Infernum .pdf, laser printed it at work double-sided on decent paper, got it spiral bound and now it sits on my coffee table next to where I play and stroke my (non-existent) beard. It’s had a lot of use. I fully intend on doing the same with Space Rangers 2 and possibly Alpha Centauri as and when I get round to them. Shame on the PDFs that come as spreads, they’re a bastard to impose and print properly.

  7. @BC, I wish I understood this whole EDF thing you’ve got going on over at Arcadian Rhythms. I guess being locked into PC land excludes me from such knowledge. And of course publishers are cheap bastards. This is a given. And who is going to “punish” them for not providing manuals as you rush out and buy the first copy you can get your hands on…?

    @BeamSplashX: India is a long way to go for a copy of Deus Ex. I think you could have probably got one delivered by Amazon if it was that important.

    @GreggB: Don’t tell anyone but I also printed out the AE manual at work and brought it home. It didn’t help any though. I still needed Dubious Quality to walk me through it. These games will always have their manuals. I just hope we always have these games.

  8. IT’S THE CITIZEN KANE OF COMPUTER GAMES.

  9. I don’t agree that the loss of physical media is “the sound of inevitibility.” Interesting how you quote the bad guys from The Matrix, though. We’re already seeing what purely-digital media means for us: the loss of ownership rights, the intrusion of invasive software like DRM, the increasing use of DLC/IAP, and the danger that these products will become lost to history, once the computers and servers shut down.

    No, I believe there is still an interest in books and video game boxes and manuals. The younger Millenial Generation only has to discover these things for themselves. Why couldn’t there be a “Criterion Collection” video game console that offered classic games with stylish packaging? Wouldn’t it be cool to see extras like comic books, catalogues, and hand-crafted maps make a comeback? I know I’ve been missing these things terribly, and digital download games are far poorer for the loss.

    I think humans place greater value in things, solid objects that they can hold. As a digital file, it’s ephemeral, like pixie dust, or a fragment of a nonlocal dream. It has many advantages, which I am thankful for, but I find myself reaching for a Sega Genesis cartridge, or Saturn joypad and stack of discs. Maybe that’s just me, but I strongly suspect otherwise.

    In any event, passively accepting whatever the corporate insect overlords are pushing on us will not work. Nothing is “inevitible,” and as Terenece McKenna loved to say, it’s the business of the future to be dangerous. Anyway, great article and terrific website. Thanks for all your hard work.

  10. Daniel, where were you a year ago!?? I was expecting more arguments over some of the points made in this series.

    I am absolutely with you when we start talking about the creep of DRM. By making consumerism so easy and cheap the DRM lock-in enforced by Steam, the App Store, and the like has been easier for the public to swallow. But even when DRM used to get up in people’s faces with machine-throttling hidden device drivers like Starforce the games still flew off the shelves. I have all sorts of problems with what has happened today and one of these days I will launch into this almighty rant about it. Maybe this year if I get in the mood. The quote from The Matrix was chosen carefully to not entirely sing the praises of our new corporate-vaulted futures.

    I understand your feelings for the solidity of things but there are a few thoughts that have persuaded me to let go of some of that past. (I mean the past of physical consumerism, not the history of video games.)

    One is that these physical items do not last and, in time, only a few of these machines and their associated media will still work. Digital forms can be copied and persist (this gets us into DRM hot water territory again plus the value of piracy, but I’m going to leave it here.)

    The other is that I have been too wrapped up in Stuff and Possessions all my life. In 2000, I relocated to Japan and had nothing for a year except a bunch of clothes hanging in a small closet. It was a wonderful experience. And I miss that feeling. So I don’t really miss taking care of all the computer boxes and paraphernalia that used to come with games. Don’t get me wrong: I miss the things I had, but I do not miss the things that I never had or, going further, do not exist.

    Another point is that all this physical stuff is really the exclusive preserve of the AAA release and if it were not for the digital market, the indie surge would not be happening. Boxes and print and retail: a chunk of expense for any new business.

    There is a serious downside to this – glistening quietly amongst the paragraphs I’ve just written – that bothers me like an itch I can’t scratch. But that’s a whole different curmudgeonly story, so I’ll just acknowledge that I’m not exactly applauding this future but I am accepting it. I don’t think the next generation will have much regard for physical media – of course, they’ll be fascinated with our “clunky past”, but our present will indeed be their past.

    Thanks for stopping by and writing such a heartfelt comment. Now, if you have the time, maybe you should explain what Project Phoenix is. Is it your “Criterion Collection”?

    DAMN IT I HAVE GOT TO STOP WRITING ESSAY COMMENTS


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