Reinventing Game Manuals

Being of a certain age I remember a time when games came in big boxes with an actual manual that took the form of a weighty book, a lot like this (from my personal collection):

Game Manuals

However, this golden age of bog boxes, CDs and manuals has sadly long passed, replaced by DVD slim-cases and digital downloads, and “proper” game manuals are a very neglected part of development of modern games.

SimCity 2000 Help fileThat’s not to say you couldn’t fit a decent manual in a DVD case; in the early 2000s a lot of companies did – and then digital downloads happened and you simply can’t fit a bound book onto Steam without breaking the laws of physics. Another innovative and user-friendly approach, in my opinion, was the usage by certain games in the 1990s of the standard Windows help format – Age of Empires and SimCity 2000 (example to the left) come to mind immediately. Why this practise died out is a mystery – it really did work!

Modern games tend to encourage learning as you play, either through dedicated tutorial or training levels or a gentle slope up in difficulty while exposing mechanics at a rate players can deal with – which is fine, but certain games don’t lend themselves too well to this. A strategy game like Civilization V includes a great training and tutorial system but is so complex, layered and in-depth that diving into the manual can be just the ticket when players encounter new or unfamiliar gameplay elements.

Civ V‘s manual is presented thusly when bought on Steam:

Civ V PDF Manual

This is an approximation of what the manual would’ve looked like if 2K Games had bothered to have the Civ V manual printed; the key part being that 2K Games did not have it printed, and thus the layout of this PDF (and that of many other games) is certainly not optimal to on-screen reading. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it’s less optimal than the Windows Help-style format that SimCity used above. Apple realised recently that such skeumorphism (that is, making digital things look like analog things for “familiarity”) is no longer needed these days, so shouldn’t the PC game industry follow suit?

How can this problem be addressed? Simple: instead of wasting time laying out a manual for print when it will only ever be confined to a PDF, create a universal HTML version that can easily be converted to an eBook. There are excellent software packages available, such as Scrivener which I use a lot, which can take “master” copy and transpose it into multiple formats with relative ease – if one guy like myself can create a professional-looking eBook, imagine what a resourceful games company can do. It’s not as much work as it may sound.

A HTML or eBook version would have all the benefits of a PDF – portability, compatibility  and hyperlinking for contents – with none of the needless visual clutter. It would certainly be a better experience to navigate too – I see the mid-90s approach from SimCity and Age of Empires as the on-screen gaming manual benchmark – it’s easy to navigate and use and isn’t afraid to be a “help file” or pretends to be a book.

In terms of cost to games companies, this would be negligible as the content for a manual is written before it is laid out and formatted to create the PDFs we know today. If anything, skipping that layout stage and going straight for digital formatting would save companies money.

I’m certainly not proposing that game publishers should go back and retroactively transpose their game documentation into HTML or eBook formats (though that would be nice), but going forward I feel it would be a very beneficial move for players.

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