Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fatal Flaws: Short Instruction Manuals

Going forward, whenever I'm doing an article which highlights a weak design feature, but not a game as a whole, I'll be using the "Fatal Flaws" tag.

In this case, the subject of discussion is Call of Duty: Black Ops's instruction manual. I know, weird thing to be concerned about right? Hear me out though.

Black Ops's manual for the Xbox 360 is a total of 12 pages long. One of those pages is the cover art, the next is your standard seizure warning an ESRB info page, followed by the table of contents, then we have a page about connecting to XBox Live, another is a blank "notes" page, two pages are your standard "software license agreement" begging you not to pirate the game, and finally we have the back page which discusses customer support.That leaves us with a grand total of 4 pages actually providing instructions related to the game.

I was shocked by this lack of content. Then, I pulled out my copy of Modern Warfare 2. It has the same amount of pages, and is almost the same exact text.

While most people wouldn't make a big deal about the manual, as it isn't really part of the game, it seems a shame to me. First, I find that manuals are often indicators of quality in games. Guild Wars's manual is, for example, over a hundred pages, with half of that length discussing the game's setting and cultures. It really emphasizes the effort the design team had put into developing the context of the game and told me right away that this would not be the last title set in the world of Guild Wars. Blizzard tends to take similar steps, with Warcraft 3's containing a piece of short fiction telling the story of the ancient evils which once beset its world. The recent Call of Duty manuals, however, seem like afterthoughts. If so little thought was put into this aspect of the product, the user may think, where else where corners cut?

Second, I am dissapointed in that game manuals have, historically, been a part of the process for me. When I got a new game a kid, I would be absolutely ecstatic about bringing home a new game. I had days of amazing fun and wonder in that box, but it couldn't be released until the car ride was over. This anticipation resulted in me opening the case and reading the manual on the ride home. I would read every word, contemplate the significance of esoteric terms, as these were often JRPGs at this stage of my life, and carefully look over each peace of art. Before the disk ever hit the tray, the game had already started for me.

Recently, I experienced this ritual again with Halo: Reach. The delivery man came to my door right as I was leaving for work, so I didn't have time to pop the title in the Xbox for a quick game. On my way out the door, I stuffed the instruction manual in my pocket. Whenever I had a free moment at work, I would pull it out and tear through it. This was, again, a highly designed product. It had little in the way of fluff, but was covered in Halo flavor graphics and full of information. On the down side, however, I think there may have been a technical problem with this manual. Anywhere I touched smudged the ink. I tried washing and drying my hands, but the problem persisted. It seems that graphics on every inch of the page might have been an overuse of ink in this case - or Bungie simply used a low quality printing service.

I hate that, over time, the trend has become to focus less and less on game manuals. I hate that this ritual may be lost on future generations of eager gamers.

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