Where have all the manuals gone?


In the early day of PC gaming, when you got your new game home and opened its box (yes there was physical media) one of the first things you did was pull out a book, a real book, called a game manual. This book gave you information on what the game needed from your computer, what the various commands were and some insights into the game itself, some even included deep lore.

These were not PDF files on the storage medium, these were real physical, in your hand, no computer needed manuals. Sure, you could figure out how to play without them, but they eased you into the game, set the tone and sometimes even were the copy protection of the game.

In the digital world we live in today the written manual has disappeared and in its place we have PDF files that we need a device to view. We could print them and bind them up real nice but that means dropping a few more bucks for the game. Plus, the manuals we get in todays games are like the quick start cards we used to get with computer games.

Let’s go into our way back machine and compare. We will be using RPGs for this as they tended to have the most content in their manuals.

In 1998 the classic Baldur’s Gate was released with a manual that was around 159 pages. That was not a PDF but a printed and bound book. In 2000 Baldur’s Gate 2 came out with a printed manual of about 258 pages. In 2022 or 2023 we will get Baldur’s Gate 3, right now there is no manual for the early access, but we can use Divinity Original Sin 2 as a good indicator I am sure. The DOS2 manual is a PDF of 58 pages.

That is a crazy drop in data, but did we really lose that much? I mean the basic information is there for playing DOS2, you have races, classes and so on, same as BG2 manual. If you took time to actually compare the two manuals however, I mean really read them, the difference is massive. The BG2 manual explained the game to you while the DOS2 manual, well is a quick start basic description guide.

What if we used something more comparable? The people that made the game Pillars of Eternity loved to talk about how they are the spiritual successor to game like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Well, Neverwinter Nights had a printed manual of 218 pages, while Pillars of Eternity has a PDF of 80.

With the move of game publishers to digital media, I get that a physical manual does not make a lot of sense. I understand that in some ways I am waxing nostalgic and recalling the good old days. I can accept that there really is no reason for a physical manual into todays digital world.

However, I do have a question. With PDFs being easier to distribute, costing less to produce, why has the actual content shrunk down so drastically. Why do we get less info in the PDF than we got back in the days of printed manuals?

Have games been made so much easier that we no longer need a manual to tell us how they work? Have gamers become so limited on their attention span that a deep manual is a turn off? Are the game developers so overworked that creating a good manual is now too much for them? Is reading becoming so passé that there is no reason to make the effort?

I will admit it, I miss the old days of the big thick manual. I remember when a game called Rules of Engagement 2 came out. I was excited for the space sim it promised to be and literally giggled with glee when I opened the box and pulled out the 250+ page manual. I sat in the mall and waited for my wife to finish shopping, devouring every word I could in the manual. I was almost halfway through the manual before I even started installing the game. I recall similar experiences with Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate, reading the manual in bed before going to sleep.

Manuals used to be more than an afterthought, a quick reference guide to know what keys to press. They used to be an appetizer, preparing you for the main course that was to come in the game. Today’s “manuals” are not even a snack sized candy bar in comparison. I am just getting old I guess, missing the days of holding that book in my hands and do not even get me started about the death of the real strategy guides.


The articles content, opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed in SAPPHIRE NATION are the authors’ own and do not necessarily represent official policy or position of SAPPHIRE Technology.

Edward Crisler
Edward is the definition of an “old school” gamer, playing computer games as far back at 1977. He hosted a tech talk show for 20 years and is now the North America PR Representative for SAPPHIRE as well as SAPPHIRE’s unofficial gaming evangelist. You can follow him on Twitter @EdCrisler.