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A Tale of Three Manuals

October 31st, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

It’s commonplace for longtime gamers like me to complain about the dearth of big, honking manuals like they made Back in The Day. The truth is, manuals as instruction booklets aren’t as important as they used to be since tutorials and easily accessible in-game documentation make them redundant. Three recent manuals have reignited some of my ancient fire about the death of books with games, largely because they either succeed or fail to do the job set out for them.

Company of Heroes, a shining success of a game has terrible documentation in game and out. The last ten of the thirty seven page pamphlet is given over to credits and ads for other games. Unit descriptions are accompanied by gigantic icons and huge text. There is no explanation of the Allied supply cost effect or the differences between the Axis and Ally build trees. None of this is in the tutorial either. The relative strengths of outposts, vehicles or Doctrine improvements is also nowhere to be found. It’s a good thing that the game is amazing enough to make you want to explore.

Space Empires V uses a good portion of its 77 page manual – almost a fifth of it, in fact – to reprint the instructions for the in-game tutorial, instructions you will see by simply playing the tutorial. The manual descriptions are plentiful, but mostly definitional (i.e., this is what the 20+ treaty elements entail.) There is no information on precisely how to invade a planet, limits on ship speed, descriptions of ship types or a tech tree. Some of this is in game, but much of it is not. SE5 is huge – one of the deepest and most baffling games of recent years. With practice, its quality becomes apparent, but you have to wrestle a little first.

Speaking of wrestling, Dominions 3: The Awakening, will pile-drive unprepared newbies. Infamously forbidding, the Dominions games have also had inadequate documentation. Not this time. I can think of few manuals in recent years that were as old-timey as Dominions 3. Like Space Empires V, it has a tutorial walkthrough but it’s not duplicating anything in game. It has intro strategy tips, primers for every nation, pointless backstory and more charts than I ever hoped to see in a manual . The last half of the manual is charts. Plus some humor. It goes some way to making Dominions 3 less intimidating, but you will still get your ass kicked in the early going. The print is tiny, too, so you know they were trying to keep it to under 300 pages. Which they barely did. (Full disclosure: The manual was written by friend of Flash of Steel and boardgaming ass-kicker in chief Bruce Geryk.)

Even this huge tome repeats some text you will find in game. It’s easier to find in print, though, which hearkens back to what people really miss about manuals – reading them away from the computer.

The Company of Heroes manual is the type of thing you will scan while the game installs. Then you will never touch it again. Space Empires V is better; the type of thing you would read on the subway trip back from the store or maybe while dinner was cooking. It prepares the palate for the game ahead, but isn’t something you will need to consult. Dominions 3‘s manual is the stereotypical bedtime book from the Good Old Days. You will go back to it for hints, suggestions as to which race to lose as next and charts you can use to create your own graphs to plan your strategies.

My other soft spot for the Dominions 3 manual is the foreword by Kristoffer Osterman on the origins of the game world. (A lot of this sort of thing also pops up in national descriptions.) I’ve written about the lack of good designer notes in games and this is a decent one. I was clamoring for more, though. I have so many questions now. (Note to self: arrange developer interview). Space Empires V has a paragraph talking about the franchise and Company of Heroes has nothing at all. Neither does current addiction Caesar IV.

I don’t want to get all curmudgeonly. Cost is a major factor here and I can appreciate not going all out for your manual. But why spend money on a manual that either wastes space repeating things in game or is just brief unit descriptions? If Company of Heroes had not come with a manual at all, I wouldn’t have noticed. Think of the money developers would save if they just stopped pretending to care about paper documentation. Only commit if you have something interesting, like long lists of details that both SE5 and Dominions 3 insist on putting in their manuals, or additional color and insight.

Oh, and while I’m on it, do we need instructions telling us to put the CD/DVD in the CD/DVD drive? Or that we can launch the game from the Start menu? Aren’t PC gamers supposed to be the smart ones?


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  • On Site Review: Dominions 3: The Awakening

    […] I’ve already praised the print documentation. But Illwinter has recognized the importance of visual cues, as well. Gone are the vague banners that provided a poor estimate of enemy armies, replaced with rows of soldiers, clueing you into the size and composition of their forces. Who is holding which gems or items is now clearer – a small thing but it means a lot fewer menus to go through. There is a tutorial that goes a long way to getting people into the rhythm of play, though it won’t necessarily make you any good. The random map generator is in from the beginning now, though experienced players may miss a wider range of custom deisgned maps. […]