I came out pretty strong on Twitter recently, decrying the loss of instruction manuals as publishers such as Ubisoft and EA Sports have made moves to abolish print manuals in exchange for digital manuals that can be found as extra content on the game disc. While publishers are reasoning that eliminating such manuals is better for the environment, it seems evident to me that there are more significant factors at work here—most notably the cost-cutting nature of such a move and the general lack of effort or desire to continue the practice. Defenders claim that new, in-game tutorials are an acceptable substitute for this omission, and while I can see their point, I don't agree entirely that it's acceptable.
For starters, what if you wind up going back to a game after some time away and forget how to duck or cover, for example? I, for one, don't think to run the tutorial again for one move… so I usually consult the manual to check what the proper controller action is. I don't have to walk into another room to check my computer, and I don't have to quit the game in order to access the on-disc manual. I realize that it's an antiquated notion… but I actually read the manual, just like I have done for the better part of the last 30 years. Perhaps it's my own failure to adapt to an ever-changing climate, but it's damned inconvenient for me to have to jump through hoops to access a command list. I realize that publishers haven't been putting much effort into documentation for the last few years, but how much of the Earth are you really saving by eliminating what little documentation that you give us now? More importantly, do publishers think that consumers as a whole really buy into such a flimsy explanation? I sure hope not.
That's the second point here. Saving the environment is indeed a great cause, but publishers wouldn't be making such a bold change to how video games are packaged without some sort of kickback on their end. Eliminating manuals cuts down on overhead and—SURPRISE!—cuts costs in a way that only the publisher benefits. Game prices aren't ever going to reflect cost savings in this era of industry greed. No way. You need to only look as far as Microsoft's digital distribution model for evidence of this. There's virtually no difference between buying digitally and buying in-store, except that you have to wait an hour or two to actually play your game once you buy it digitally. You're paying the same prices in Microsoft's Games on Demand store as you are at most retailers… and Microsoft's pricing is sometimes higher! Digital distribution is supposed to cut costs, but when do consumers see the benefits?
I understand that I'm a bit of a dinosaur in comparison to the average video game-related personality these days. I won't pretend that "the way it's always been" isn't partially fueling my disdain when it comes to this topic, but I also think that the intentions set forth by the industry here aren't as noble as they're portrayed to be. Of course publishers aren't going to come out and agree; it's bad PR. Just once, though, I'd like to see somebody step up and just be honest when it comes to stuff like this. Consumers aren't all dumb. Some of us see what's going on. We know that video games are a big business. The difference is that the industry is more direct about its intentions during this generation than in any other generation before it, with changes that really only put more money in the industry's pockets.
- Hardware prices are higher and the hardware has a higher defect rate during this generation than any before it.
- Software prices are higher despite lighter content and fewer features.
- DLC adds expense to software for things once found in games in generations past, such as game modes, costumes, and extra characters.
- Instruction manuals have gone from full content to four-page controller schematics to being phased out of existence in favor of in-game tutorials and online manuals.
- Game cases—especially for the Xbox 360—have become more environmentally friendly as the cost of putting too much pressure on disc spindles, causing damage.
- Digital distribution hasn't cut costs at all; in fact, it's more costly since prices are the same in addition to energy and internet costs for download.
All of these things, either directly or indirectly, steer extra revenue into the industry that was never there before. The loss of instruction manuals, while a minor omission or even welcomed by some, is just another screw being applied to the consumer. It's getting to the point that it's no longer accurate to point the finger at the industry for such behavior. Instead, we need to look at ourselves and point the finger of blame. As long as we continue to buy into and simply accept these changes without questions or changes in our buying habits, we're basically admitting that we're OK with paying more and getting less for our entertainment dollars.
That's something that we can control, and unless we do, the next console generation stands to stick it to consumers even worse. Perhaps we should start bending over now.