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Consoleation: The not so noble intentions of abandoning instruction manuals

Peter Skerritt's picture

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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.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   Wii   PS3   3DS   Nintendo DS   PSP   PC  
Articles: Editorials   Columns  
Topic(s): Business   Game Design & Dev  

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On the subject of manuals

On the subject of manuals I have to say that they were appreciated at some point for me, but now I'm more than willing to sacrifice their limited usefulness if it means helping the environment in even the slightest. Of course, like you Peter, I'm aware publishers aren't doing this for the environment -- they likely couldn't care less -- but that it actually helps this cause overwrites my usual tendency to hate on them for being immoral money-grabbing bastards.

As for digital distribution you're absolutely correct. It sickens me, for example, to see Mass Effect 2 on PSN for £47! You can buy the physical copy here in the UK for £35-40, so to have an additional £7 for a non-physical copy is beyond ridiculous, and is absolutely in no way justified. It's the same across all formats, with even Steam selling new releases at the same price they'd be in the store (in fact, I still get physical copies of my PC games cheaper than if I were to download them). This needs to change, since there's no excuse for how it is currently.

As long as the pricing of digital games is this retarded it's little wonder pirates use it as their main defence, whether you believe them or not.

I don't miss manuals at all.

I don't miss manuals at all. Games simply don't need them anymore, and any needed information should be contained either in a tutorial or in an in-game accessible instruction section. I don't believe for a second that that they're getting rid of them for purely environmental reasons, but I'm not going to complain about it either.

I agree on all of your other points except for part of the last one-you're assuming that the computer/xbox would be off and the person in question would not have internet service if they weren't downloading the game. That's a stretch, since I'd bet that the person would be paying for those two things regardless of whether or not they were downloading a game, and any extra electricity cost of a machine downloading something is negligible.

era of industry greed?

Peter Skerritt wrote:

in this era of industry greed.

Your articles would be far better if it would not be so obvious that you come from the angry gamer opinion shaping front.

As long as the publishers don't force children to work in mines, or add unhealthy additives in their products, anything that's not acceptable for a possible customer or the employees, it's the logical aim of publishers to gain profits. It always was, it always will be. A consumer has absolutely no proper argument against too high prices, not enough value for his money, except not buying. We are not speaking of staple foods were denial is no option.
The consumers are allowed to be "greedy" themselves.
That's how the market works.

Crofto wrote:

an additional £7 for a non-physical copy is beyond ridiculous

Steam sale prices are often ridiculously cheap.
If you would have to drive some miles, search the game in the shelves, wait at the check-out counter, drive back. That can easily be worth £7. If your time is precious.
Yeah, generally digital is more expensive but they are just another option in the market.
The same with (future) streaming services like Onlive or Gaika... just another option.

Nice post, Peter. I'd like to point out a few things:

Nice post, Peter. I'd like to point out a few things:

1) The importance of manuals depends on the game. Need For Speed doesn't need a lengthy manual, but Civilization does. Depending on what type of games you play, you may find the notion of needing a printed manual very quaint. It's wrong to treat all kinds of games the same.

2) The internet and advances in games development have changed the field. Many games offer short, clear and often even fun tutorials, plus some kind of in-game reference. Apart from that, most information you would expect to find in a manual is easily found on the internet (at least for the bigger games). This makes the need for a printed manual less pressing. Once upon a time, you wouldn't have been able to play the game without a manual, but that's not true anymore.

3) We need pricing systems that reflect the costs and benefits of a manual. It is my personal conviction that - for the prices we pay today - we should certainly get some kind of printed manual. Your game mechanics and controls don't take more that 4 pages to explain? Put in some background information or other useful stuff. It shows that you care about the product and the customer. BUT: If people don't want a manual, they should be able to buy the game at a *reduced* price. This, again, would show some respect and consideration for the customers, as opposed to the blatant fleecing we're experiencing.

I fondly remember the 100+ page manual I got in my Wizardry 7 box back in 1992. The manual was the first thing I looked at back then and a quick way to gauge the quality of a game. I can understand the reasons why those times are gone, but the problem here is once again that consumers are getting a bad deal from this change.

Developers have a tough time...

I don't really buy into the whole idea of big game publishers sticking it to consumers. On the surface this appears true - the reliance on unoriginal 'franchises', the sub-standard DLC, the production of trashy collectors' editions, the elimination of manuals, and even the sweating of assets and the closure of underperforming development studios - but they are really just giving us what we want.

Not all of us, but most of us.

Really though, there's no reason for the canny consumer to complain. We have good competition and pice drops from online retailers, we can avail of trade-in deals at the bricks-and-mortar stores, and there's a constant sale on at digital distributors. As long as we're willing to wait a short while after release, we can get a game for a much-reduced price, and if we particularly hate a certain publisher, we can buy second hand and don't even have to give that publisher a dime. If we chose to. we coukd play free online games for ever more and never have to pay again.

So in that competitive environment, maybe we should have some sympathy for publishers? After all, they're producing the big-production-values games that we are clamouring for in a high-risk environment, and they're the ones that are delivering the polished and sometimes excellent gaming experiences that we all hanker after.

We're not all teenagers. We don't have to have the latest game on release day because all our pals have it. And you never know - it might do teenagers some good to experience the crushing disappointment of firing up that shoddy DLC of their favourite game ever. Life lessons and all that. ;-)

I still buy some games on release day - those that I'm fairly sure I'll like, and which I want that developer to keep making more of. I want that money to go to the developer, and I'll buy new over second hand every time. I feel like I should reward the developer rather than punish him.

At the end of the day, games are luxury items; it's not as if developers are keeping food from our mouths - it's our choice whether to buy their product. If we enter into the contract with our eyes open, there is little to complain about.

Are we really getting screwed, or is it just our famous sense of entitlement that leads us to believe we are? ;-)

Richard Naik wrote: I agree

Richard Naik wrote:

I agree on all of your other points except for part of the last one-you're assuming that the computer/xbox would be off and the person in question would not have internet service if they weren't downloading the game. That's a stretch, since I'd bet that the person would be paying for those two things regardless of whether or not they were downloading a game, and any extra electricity cost of a machine downloading something is negligible.

Download the game has an opportunity cost associated with it, though: as long as you’re downloading the game, you’re not using that bandwidth & electricity to do other things.

As I see it, the flaw in the comparison is that the article doesn’t consider the costs associated with buying a physical copy of the game in a store. I mean, if you take into account the electricity and bandwidth used to download the game, then you should probably also take into account the time & resources spent on driving to the store and back, the storage space allocated to the box at home, the extra time and effort you spend fishing out the disc each time you want to play the game (or just each time you want to install it, if the DRM is slightly less evil)… okay, maybe the latter two aren’t so much to do with purchasing the game as with actually playing it.

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