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.