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What's in the box matters too...


I still remember opening my first modern computer game. We had just gotten a new Packard Bell (the dude at Staples had assured us we'd never need more than 2mb of video ram in our lives) and the next day my dad let me pick out a game at the Babbages near a relatives house that we visited. After looking around I picked up Wing Commander IV. The box had sold me.

Looking at the back panel you could see space battles, full motion video cut scenes, and it had Mark Hamil, John Rhys-Davies, and Malcolm McDowell! The production values looked amazing, not that I understood what that meant or that that was even a buzzword back then. I had the box open by the time I was in the car and peered inside. It had the the usual flier that Origin/EA included at the time that listed upcoming games, it had a keyboard layout card showing what seemed to be endless control options (well, compared to SNES at least), an install guide, and then there was another booklet that I'll talk about in a second. My prior experience with games was limited to SNES and NES games with their instruction manuals that I would read the moment I was able to open the box. They were really the introduction to the games back then.

One that sticks out from SNES was the manual to Donkey Kong Country. It was fully of glossy background pictures from the game, it established some narrative and gave the world context. It showed off all the Kremlings in glorious pre-rendered 3d that I couldn't wait to experience in the game. It had humor with comic style interjections (by Cranky Kong if I recall correctly), and it did its job and taught you the game.

But WC IV had something new, it had basically half a book with it. Included were the first couple chapters of the novelization to the story. I read the entire thing on the hour and a half drive back to our house. I had owned the SNES version of Wing Commander, but it never clicked. I never got into it, I never understood it. Frankly, I didn't even connect the two games until weeks later when I came across it, relegated to the back of a box of my SNES games, rarely seeing the light of day. Those opening chapters opened up the universe of Wing Commander for me. I met Maniac and Blair and learned about the Kilrathi War that was covered by the 3 previous games. It gave the whole game depth. By the time I installed and ran my first game in Windows 95 I had an idea of who was who.

A few years later I got the Jane's Combat Simulations "Fighters Anthology" for Christmas. It came with the biggest manual I had ever laid eyes on. It was something like 200 pages! Opening it up I found explanations of tactical manuevers, discussions of radar, descriptions of jets, armaments, how to handle engagements, hell after reading that I felt like I could be an ace myself! I read that manual into the early morning, committing nearly everything to memory, and then I read it again the next day. I would repeat that when I got 688i and Longbow 2 as well, both of which had tomes of equal length and tons of information.

These manuals made the experience richer. Reading about those tactics, learning the background story, they all added to the worlds I was about to enter. It set the stage for the Border Worlds war in Wing Commander. I was the Captain of a submarine before I even fired up the cd. They made the games better and more immersive.

Somewhere along the cost cutting line, these were deemed unimportant. Publishers stopped giving a shit. I bought Jane's Fleet Command and opened the downsized box to find nothing but a cd case and a warranty slip. Where was my manual? Turned out to be a file on the cd. Cost cutting, yes, but at what cost? I could never get into that game. The tutorials were garbage, and I never played it much after that first attempt. This instance grew into a trend that I've seen over and over again. The excitement of opening the box to see what is inside has vanished. I no longer have any expectations for published manuals and it sucks.

Neal Stevens over at www.SubSim.com had this to say in his review of the recently released Silent Hunter 5:
"The game manual is no longer printed (US versions) but still quite awful and sparse. It spends a mere 1/2-page about torpedoes and targeting, nothing about the TDC, but six pages of cheesy crew profiles. It's galling that a simulation cannot come with better information about the game and how to play it, let alone tactics and historical background, when the manual is not even printed. Why can't the developers assign someone to write out simply how the game works? What are the yellow and red disks around ship icons in the tactical map? What are those lines coming from you sub when you are submerged? Why are some black and some blue? How do you steer the boat? An experienced player who cut his teeth on Aces of the Deep in the '90's can figure it out, but what about some high school kid who bought SH5 as his first subsim? "

This is pathetic. There's no excuse. That is just sabotaging your own hard work. Neal may in fact have a point as well. Simulations really took a nose dive in the market around the time that they switched to the pdf manuals. Everyone talks about accessibility these days, but did it ever occur to them that all that might be needed is a printed manual? Help the player help themselves by giving them the information in a readable format. I sure am not going to sit and read a 50 page manual on a screen, but I'll read 3x that much in a well done paper manual. Asking the player to print it themselves is a disservice as well.

Ask yourself for a moment, how much quicker and fuller would you have understood Mass Effect and its world if the opening codex entries were part of the manual? How drawn into Dragon Age would I be if there was an addendum covering some of the history of this new world of Ferelden instead of picking it up piecemeal? Or the world of the Elder Scrolls, the list can go on. Not only does it serve these purposes, but it gives us a chance to imagine this world before we experience it Or even while we experience it.

There certainly are games where a simple card showing controls is all that's needed. But pdfing manuals, ignoring source materials and not inviting the gamer into the world in other ways is not only doing the gamer a disservice but the people working so hard to produce these wonderful experiences as well. After spending millions upon millions in development, this is a drop in the bucket. What comes in the box matters as much as what is on the disc.
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About SirKerraldone of us since 11:55 PM on 03.04.2010

I'm a dude from Cape Cod who enjoys himself some games. What more needs to be said?
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