This has been bugging me for a while now. In fact I just tweeted about and decided 140 characters just wasn’t enough. I’m cranky and this has been bugging me for years. It was just in the past I was never in a position to write about it. (Unless I wanted to be in a position to NOT write about it very soon after I posted it.)

I’ve been a gamer for 30 years. Admittedly those early games didn’t really require a manual. The old black and white console we had that played Pong really didn’t need any explanation. You plug it in, in ten seconds you’ve figured out what’s going on and HARDCORE TENNIS ACTION is right there. RIGHT THERE IN YOUR LIVING ROOM!!!!

Games have gotten progressively more complicated since then obviously. You put an old Atari 2600 controller in front of a modern gamer below a certain age and they’ll be like the chimps with the monolith in “2001”. We only ever needed one button, dammit! Perhaps the pinnacle of one button controls was “Sensible World of Soccer”. You could do so much with just one button. Even the Amiga released of “Street Fighter II” was surprisingly playable with just a one button stick. (This was before I got my beloved Competition Pro joystick.)

There were games like Elite with tons of controls, but they were all keyboard based. In fact for a while I measured certain games by how many keyboard commands they had. The more commands, the better the games, but then I always did like complexity. (And as review systems went it was extremely flawed.)

Now another relic from days of yore is the game manual. I miss the days of buying games with epic sized manuals that made Lord of the Rings look like a leaflet from the Beirut Tourist Board. Part of the experience for me was buying a game with a chunky manual, then curling up with the manual before ever loading the game. The manual would invariably make the game sound a hundred times more complicated than it really was, but that was the joy. You read something complicated, when you actually manage to do it in game you feel like a genius.

Then the tide began to turn. I actually stopped gaming for a while due to the fact the only computer I had when I moved to Canada was the wifes crap 386. If a game had been made in the mid 90’s, chances are I couldn’t run it. (The thing could barely run “Doom”.) So it’s hard to pinpoint when manuals disappeared. As time has gone on game packaging has shrunk down, making manuals even smaller. The push for this has supposedly been on environmental grounds, but I call bullshit on this, and for one very simple reason.

While the demise of the manual has been depressing, what has been more depressing is the rise of companies like Prima and Brady Games putting out game guides. As I said to a friend the other day, “I remember when game guides used to come with games for free and were called manuals.” It’s hard to take any claims of environmentalism seriously when the games are now accompanied day and date with a 300 page dead tree book to guide you through the game you just paid $70 for and that came with a manual that lists the controls and obligatory epilepsy warning and that’s it.

Games still sell for the same price, regardless of whether they come with an epic manual or not. The game guides cost about $20 and include information the like of which we used to get with the game. In fact in many cases information vital to the game will now be in the damn guide. Now imagine going to a restaurant and ordering Beef Wellington. The smells from the kitchen are divine. They come out with a saucepan and just dish it onto the table. “Oh, didn’t you know? Plates are extra.” In this day and age with the complexity of games the manual is essential. However all but the most rudimentary information required to get you going is dumped into the Prima guide now and sold at a price. (We’ll skip the fact that in many cases these things are not exactly printed to the highest quality standards.)

This in itself would be annoying enough. In some cases though the guide is out of date the minute it’s released. Take a game like Warcraft 3. I bought this a few months after release bundled with the Brady Games guide. I thought it was a bargain. It was only when I stopped to think about it I realised why it was bundled.

With strategy games a lot of the post release patching is to deal with balance issues. You can have 1000 beta testers and find glaring problems, but it’ll take the million or so player to find the smaller errors and inconsistencies. Unit details are changed. Units are made weaker or stronger, abilities are tweaked, modified etc… Meaning a whole chunk of that game guide you were suckered into buying just became inaccurate and pointless. The bare essentials are still there. Build orders etc… But the actual unit details and now completely wrong. Every patch takes the game further away from the experience outlined in the guide making it more and more worthless.

I’ve only ever bought two of these damn thing as I think they are a vile, reprehensible idea that amounts to greed and nothing more. There’s the aforementioned Warcraft 3 one, and this year I bought the one for Madden 10. My reasoning was this is the first Madden game I’ve ever bought within two years of its release, so I’d like all the info and chances are I won’t buy another Madden game for at least 5 years. A game like Madden though, a yearly guide release is even more reprehensible than the regular games. How much changes in football every year? You have a couple of pages outlying the new features of the game, and then what? 90% of the info is going to be the same because football is football. It’s not like the NFL have suddenly added exploding balls or anything. So there’s very little work to do other than updating the rosters. I realise ultimately it’s consumer demand and they wouldn’t print them if they didn’t sell, but the thing is the majority of gamers these days don’t know any better. All they’ve lived on is gruel and have become accustomed to buying bread to go with it separately, unaware there was a time bread was actually included with the meal! (I have no idea what’s with me and food analogies today.)

I felt really bad contributing to the farce of manuals you have to pay for, but it was a rare exception. A lot of these guides are pirated and online within days. I am not one to advocate piracy, but I have no issue at all with people using this option. If you spend $70 on a game (that’s the standard retail price for an Xbox or PS3 title here in Canada) and it comes with next to no manual, you have every right to feel aggrieved in my opinion.

Or of course you can take the more law abiding option and head to GameFAQs where you’ll find the majority of this information anyway after a couple of weeks. In fact often times the information that you can get there, for free, is massively superior to that which is provided in these dubious guides anyway. The site is also wonderful for imported stuff. As a huge fan of the Fire Pro Wrestling series, until we had an English release of the last title, it was always a case of trying to figure out what was going on in Japanese, and the fine folk on GameFAQ’s made the game playable.

As gamers we are increasingly fleeced by publishers and developers. (I’ll save my thoughts on DLC for another day.) They put out shameful excuses for manuals, expect you to buy a game guide if you want to get the most from their game, and in the case of sports title then they do it all again 365 days later with Madden etc… What’s worse is the suckers continue to fall for it.

I’m all for reducing packaging, but riding the green horse while authorizing 300 page oversized dead tree guides to your product is hypocrisy of the highest order.