As game design has evolved over the years one element seems to be fading away, the use of paper manuals and in some cases the use of any manual. There was a time where you couldn't figure out how to play a game without the use of a manual as well as massive manuals such as the ones used for the flight simulator genre.
This past year two big shakeups happened, first was the announcement that Civilization 5 would not have a paper manual; instead the game would use an online wiki that would be updated with changes from patches. The other change was EA announcing that there games would no longer come with any paper manuals and only viewing them online would be possible.
In many ways this is a positive in my opinion as it means that games are getting easier to understand, on the other hand there is a danger in moving too fast. My thoughts on how game design has become easier to understand has already been posted so I'm going to link back to that entry so I'm not repeating again.
Back in the 80s and mid 90s there was no such concept of having a tutorial in a game, first because a lot of games were simplistic enough not to warrant one. The second issue in my opinion would be no one was sure how to design one or perhaps the technology wasn't set up yet, I'm not completely sure on this point. In the war game genre they created tutorial scenarios which were written down in the manual detailing how the game works and giving the player commands to follow in the scenario. I found this concept of having to switch back and forth between game and manual annoying.
Let's talk about the pluses of this movement first. One of the chief complaints about manuals is that with the move to more digital content manuals become outdated fast. Blizzard with Starcraft 2 has done considerable shakeups to the unit statistics and in some cases special abilities with patches which you would not know about from reading the manual.
Of course MMOs have to be mentioned, World of Warcraft has become a much different place from when it was at launch. The idea of having an updated online tool such as with Civ 5 was a great idea. On the console side the tutorials do a better job of explaining the basics to the player compared to the manual in my opinion. I've always been a visual person which is why I personally find it easier this way.
I do have some problems with this move to digital, first is that there is more to learn in a game that a tutorial can provide. Tutorials are set up to teach the player the basics of a game but they do not get into advance mechanics as to not overload the player. The issue is that if there is no manual then where can the player learn about the more complex things in the game?
With Left 4 Dead 1 and 2, while Valve did a great job of teaching the co-op mode to players via the intro movie and tool tips they did a horrible job with vs. mode. Playing as the special infected in L4D is a completely different experience compared to the survivors which Valve does not give any info on how to play. Basic tool tips were not enough as it doesn't say anything about working together or the specific roles of the special infected.
Playing with newcomers I can just see how lost they are trying to get accustom to the new game-play. I've been tempted in the past to write up guidelines on how to play the SI for my steam group to help newcomers out. If L4D had a manual it should have had a lengthy section on vs. mode.
Another case where the in game tutorial was not enough is with Brutal Legend. The game starts off as a third person open world game but later on the game becomes more about third person real time strategy combat. While the game tells you the basic controls it does not go into detail about most of the mechanics present. The main one being the rock paper scissors balance. The player has no idea what units are better than other units until they watch one unit completely tear apart their army.
The manual that came with the game has no mention of this and only has brief comments on each unit. If this game was made a few years ago the manual would have been several times larger detailing all the units.
I believe that there is still a role for game manuals. Instead of being used to introduce the players to the game it could be used as a reference. Two things that would be great to list in the manual would be advance mechanics and the back story or flavor text.
An example of this style would be the Grand Theft Auto manuals, each one of their manuals features very little actual information about the game and instead is set up as a tour guide for whatever city the game takes place in. They instead use the opening missions as the tutorial for the game.
One of my favorite game manuals that I read was Starcraft 1, each side had a section devoted to it that featured: A multi-page prologue detailing how they came to be, all the units and researches along with flavor text about them and a list of the various clans or groups related to it. As you can guess I was dismayed when I opened up the Starcraft 2 manual to find nothing more than a cliff's note version of "last time on Starcraft".
A few years back I saw a reverse of this situation with the game Divine Divinity, the manual was in standard form featuring the mechanics and everything but the game disc had a file that detailed the entire back story.
In today's world it is easy to skimp on the manual thanks to all the improvements made to game design however depending on the complexity of your game a simple tutorial may not be enough. There should be a section that allows advance players and number crunchers a chance to really dive into the game mechanics. The idea of a constantly updated online manual intrigues me and is something I would like to see developed further especially for the strategy genre.
Lastly I do hope that the concept of a manual is not completely erased as I really want to see more designers have mini design diaries featured similar to what Soren Johnson wrote at the end of the Civ 4 manual.
It feels like fewer games these days require a manual and I am curious to see how this trend will develop. Although I will miss the days of having 100 plus page manuals with mechanics, list of skills and a back-story the size of a small novel.