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Three Moves Ahead Episode 17 — Manuals, Documentation and You

June 16th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


This week is all about Bruce as he goes on and on about how hard it was to write the manual for Dominions 3. The panel talks about how a manual is not the same as documentation, how even good games could be better with a paper friend and lots of other commentary that only reveals just how old we four actually are.

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Rome on 640K
My thoughts on the Dominions 3 manual
GMT Games
Bill Harris on Dwarf Fortress
Bill Harris on Armageddon Empires


10 Comments so far ↓

  • spelk

    Another good cast folks, keep up the good work!

    With increased digital distribution, you’ll get manuals that no doubt will be brief and functional. If they are any more elaborate than that, and the gamer will then have to print it out, shedding wads of paper. Perhaps the more detailed and elegant manuals will be bundled with the more expensive special or collectors editions of the game, to fund the extra outlay?

    The whole “meta-gaming” experience is a vital part to many games for me personally, and getting involved with the games lore or history is a key part to fuelling my enthusiasm to play. When this additional meta-game information isn’t present, then often I would actively seek out other media detailing similar situations and experiences. So for some Civil War strategy games, perhaps I’ll delve into some Civil War DVD’s to enrich the gaming experience, by massaging my gaming juices for the game, before I actually play the game. Sometimes you can work yourself into a frenzy, and the game itself doesn’t fulfill the meta you’ve populated from other sources.

    There are instances where strategy games need some flavour, because they can often come across as dry, numeric, and sterile. If the manual contains the backstory or the bigger picture, and rewards the player with developer insights, it can flesh out the game experience.

    I also have participated in meta-gaming in roleplaying situations from many MMO games, the characters I create, and develop also have a lore surrounding them, especially if the source for the Lore is something like Tolkiens world, and you can totally immerse and build meta communities outside of the game itself. Not directly related to the manual discussion, but it does touch on the additional material for a game fuelling the players enthusiasm for it.

    I’d also like to say that Three Moves Ahead itself is part of the meta-gaming process for discussing games, getting others thoughts and enthusiasm for different games, and inspiring people to try these other games..

    I remember one of the manuals that impressed me early on in my strategy gaming, was Microprose’s Across the Rhine and 1942: The Pacific Air War, they had a lot of history background to support the games and they were key to drawing me into war era gaming. Nowadays I think most manuals are pretty bad, undernourished and thrown together to fulfill some checklist for retail packages, rather than produce something with vital and supplementary flavour information.

    Nowadays, I do rely heavily on in-game tutorials, rather than manual based tutorials. Having to print out, or just read out instructions whilst trying to digest a game on screen, seems out of place with how games should ease players in and make them more approachable and playable. So for me an ideal manual would be the documentation on game functions and how-to’s, additional information with game flavour and designer extras BUT provide tutorials in game.

    Lastly, as a UK resident I was very surprised to see I couldn’t obtain Dominions 3 via digital download, since I could purchase the majority of games from Shrapnel that way. I realise that Bruce’s manual plays an important part in the draw of Dominions 3 and also is used as an anti-piracy mechanism, because you can only get the game via retail, but it seriously hinders the ability for overseas folks for paying up and delving into the game, especially considering the fact that you can download the demo, but not get the actual game that way. I had to source it (via advice from the Qt3 forums) from a UK company importing Linux software. Admittedly I am glad to finally see the fabled ring bound Dominions 3 manual. :)

    A topic for a future podcast that I’d like to see, is “co-operative online strategy gaming”, or perhaps a discussion on strategy games that are considered “lifers”, games that you play solidly for an extended period of time simply because theres so much depth to them, or so much complexity and longevity built into them.

  • Christopher

    Two other great manuals worth mentioning are the manuals to SimCity 2000 and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (even though I never had the physical copies, only the PDFs – I got both of these games as budget priced, jewel case only editions). When the good doctor talked about how he loved the flavor that a good manual can provide, I immediately thought of these two manuals. SC2k had these neat little sidebars which explained the development of the city and opening quotations for each chapter, as well as tips on growing your city while explaining the game. It even had a “gallery” of poems, short stories and pictures and even a bibliography. SMAC had an entire appendix devoted to the physical parameters of Alpha Centauri and Planet, and it also came with suggested reading list. Brian Reynolds also wrote “Designer’s Notes” at the end (which didn’t really explain the nuts and bolts on how the game was designed and why it was so), telling the fascinating story of founding of Firaxis and how SMAC came together.

    I like to get into why paper manuals have fallen (which you only touched upon), and I think it is the convergence of several trends. The consumer PC market as a whole has been moving away from paper manuals to a mix of third party how-tos, in program help and online user-generated guides, all of which have their gaming counterparts. Also, the PC and console gaming have been converging, and IIRC, console game manuals have never been great. Another reason could be that as PC gaming packaging has been reduced over the years, leaving less box room for a manual (although I got SimCity 4 Deluxe and Rise of Nations Gold in the smaller boxes and they have decent enough manuals and documentation).

  • Lizard Dude

    As a kid, I read the SimAnt and SimFarm manuals over and over. They were quite thick and the second half of each was completely dedicated to explaining real-world ant behavior and agriculture.

  • Andy

    Great Podcast as usual.

    Ya’ll forgot to mention one extra important reason for the inclusion of manuals: bathroom reading material.

    Thanks guys, have a good one.

  • Troy

    I never read manuals in the bathroom. I never even read in the bathroom. It’s not a library.

  • clever id

    Liked the podcast, intersting topic. I recently ordered Baulder’s Gate 2 and had a flash of nostolgia when I opened the box and a 1″ thick ring bound manual fell out. It got me thinking about this very topic.

  • vendolis

    Civilization 4 in the first edition had a over 200 page manual (in germany at least). Other than that I can realy say that Strategy Guides and Collectors Editions with Art books realy take the place of that.
    I am a huge fan of those and the best ones for me where Age of Empires III Col Ed., Warhammer Online ColEd and the Final Fantsy XII and Fallout 3 Strategy Guides.
    They are just greatly done. Sadly most ColEditions today are more of a joke and rip off than realy nice to have.

  • Josh

    Blizzard are well established with the polish applied to their games, and the same thing should apply to their documentation also. Go through the Warcraft II manual, or even the Warcraft: Orcs and Humans manual. Within those beautifully illustrated covers will be not just concise instructions on how to play the game, but much more. There is extensive backstory to each game, the creation of the Dark Portal, the defeat of Azeroth, a story which just fleshes out and justifies why the player is playing the game.

    On top of that is the other illustrations which accompany unit descriptions which add flavour to the manual. Of course, I am alluding to what Bruce Geryk indicated with his thoughts on the Dominions III manual, and his inability to get line drawings.

    Unfortunately, I do not remember what the Warcraft III manual was like. However, with Diablo, Diablo II and Starcraft, I remember the game documentation to be a great addition to the game.

    I suppose one question remains though. Is it the size of the manual which counts, or how well it serves its purpose. Is there much point having a 300+ page manual which is poorly written, and does little to explain game mechanics when the content can be written concisely and effectively with much less. Or is it the further eye candy and additional information that turns an ordinary manual into something to be treasured. The time and money devoted to writing and publishing such a manual, would it in fact be better off spent on game design and beta testing, paticularly as the number of PC configurations, consumer demands and expectations grow.

    Likewise, I do think Christopher hit upon a good point however. Back in the day, game boxes were once large, almost A4 designed ‘behemoths’ which naturally took up more room on the game store shelf. However, with the advent of games simply coming in DVD jewel cases, and the need to maximise profit by minimising shelf space, and box production, there really isn’t much room for those large game manuals anymore. And with electronic distribution growing, what proportion of users will be keen on printing off an entire manual, paticularly if it has a lot of filler such as backstory and developer notes. The best option now I believe is a “Civlopedia” design, extensive in game help being made available, hyperlinking to various other pages when indicated, and crucially, easy to navigate. Clearly Sid and his team are well and truly ahead of their time when it comes to game development.

    And for another example of poor game documentation, look no further than Supreme Commander. I still have little grasp on how it works. All I know is build unit, send it to crush enemy. I am sure there is some depth to Sup Com, I just fail to see it.

  • JonathanStrange

    The Dominions 3 manual is awesome, truly a great resource and entertaining in its own right. Having the game and not having the manual? Inconceivable!

    I used to love large printed manuals and used to think them de rigueur for a top-flight game. It suggested to me the developers truly enjoyed the game themselves; and wanted to share a backstory, developer notes as well as providing the more mundane hotkey info or basic tutorials.
    I never, ever, regarded them as filler.

    However I don’t much miss them too much anymore. Gaming forums usually provide lots of feedback on backstories, developer ideas, tutorials, etc.

    The large well-done manual had its day but that day appears past. They’re not alone: my father sometimes says that my downloaded books or music can’t download bookjackets or cool album covers with liner notes . But it’s hard to miss what you’ve not really experienced though.

    I do want good documentation somewhere though. If it’s online, frankly, that’s usually most convenient. I do like if there’s some place where I can “get in on” the game’s mythology and backstories: they do matter to me, if only to whet my appetite for replacing their myths with mine.

  • EyeMessiah

    Wait. Back up for a minute.

    There was a manual for Galciv2?

    Wow, that would have been really handy during my first 50 or so floundering games. I guess that’s the trouble with digital downloads, you don’t really have any concept of what you get with the game, aside for buying the right to press “Go!”.