Crispy Gamer

Who Spilled Diet on My Instruction Manual?

Instruction manuals are on life support. If you haven't noticed already, the once-precious and colorful booklets have recently been reduced to a few black and white pages. Call of Duty 4 is a fitting case in point. Despite containing just six paltry pages of printed user instruction (PDF here), the first-person shooter would go on to become the best-selling game of 2007. The undecorated manual obviously wasn't missed.

Since videogames were first commercialized, written instruction has accompanied them as a matter of necessity. "Avoid missing ball for high score," read the front panel of Pong in 1972. Shortly after, printed manuals would make their way into homes to help gamers understand increasingly complex objectives, controls, backstories and on-screen indicators. By the early '90s, it was not uncommon for some manuals to reach upwards of three hundred pages in size.

"The more stylish game manuals started with the Atari 2600," says Steven L. Kent, author of The Ultimate History of Video Games. "Then Nintendo took game manuals to a new level with The Legend of Zelda, which stands out as the first great console manual that I can remember -- it came with color map of Hyrule." The high production values would continue to include bonus inserts, elaborate storylines, character bios, posters, stickers, designer notes -- you name it.

At the turn of the century, however, the decline of printed manuals would begin, leaving with it some color, some length, some reference, some identity and some history. The culprit: irrelevance and money.

As games became more interactive in the late '90s thanks to the added storage space of compact discs, developers began to tell stories through spoken dialogue and elaborate cutscenes as opposed to simian text. They would also begin easing the player into the experience using in-game tutorials (often disguised as first levels and sometimes mandatory) and dynamic displays that featured context-sensitive buttons with descriptive text. The instruction booklet would slowly become more quick-reference guide than required reading.

Before the rise of the Internet, manuals were once the only resource for additional tips, information and context without the gamer having to buy an official strategy guide. In addition to the free availability of online help, more third-party guides exist today than ever before, further motivating a publisher to delegate player support to an outside source.

But the real reason for the decline of printed manuals is cost savings. Why spend 50? on printing a manual when you can get by on a nickel? Better yet, why not publish a booklet online as a downloadable PDF for gamers who insist on tangible reading?

Though Activision declined comment when contacted by Crispy Gamer, it's no wonder why the world's largest game maker has lost faith in the instruction manual. With Call of Duty 4 and Guitar Hero 3 as prime examples, they have proven you no longer need a comprehensive and colorful manual to manufacture a top-selling game. Put differently, gamers don't care.

"So long as I learn how to play a game, the instruction manual can go extinct for all I care," says fellow Crispy writer Troy S. Goodfellow. Others share his sentiment. "You have no idea how many homeless manuals live at my house," quips Cindy Yans, editor-in-chief of "MMO Games Magazine." And GamePro senior editor Chris Morell says: "If it were up to me, I'd kill 'em. It's a waste of paper for something I never read."

But not everyone is ready for a quick goodbye. Both Nintendo and Microsoft last year waxed a high-gloss shine on meaty booklets that shipped with Super Mario Galaxy and Halo 3, respectively. A handful of third-party publishers continue to do the same.

"You only have to look at the size of the Oblivion manual to know that we still take our manuals seriously," says Pete Hines, VP of marketing for Bethesda Softworks. "I wrote most of ours, so I know how much work went into it."

He's not the only one. "Developers still love these things," says Morell, who has seen the enthusiasm first-hand when collaborating with publishers on printed materials. "They see them as an extension of the product."

Sony, for its part, has taken a hybrid approach. "At SCEA, we have reduced the size of the manual but have kept the color printing to aid readability and deliver on the high-quality feel across all of our first-party titles," says Jeff Reese, director of software marketing at Sony. "Our goal is to get gamers into the game as quickly as possible, and the tutorial and manual work together to minimize that learning curve."

Still, the general consensus by publishers and insiders is that printed manuals will continue to decline but remain in remnant form until digital sales fully engulf optical discs. "Manuals will continue to shrink and move toward a 'quick guide' one-sheeter but won't completely go away for disc-based titles," says the Sony executive. "But I think you will see the demise of the printed manual with the increase in digital sales over the next several years.

Kent, the historian, agrees. "As long as there are games in boxes, I think some sort of manual will also be found in most of those boxes," he says. "Though I also believe that publishers will continue to pare down those manuals in most cases.

"Maybe spotted owls and gamers will be able to coexist after all."