Why is videogame “documentation” so often bad?

Documentation for players of videogames (ie Manuals, Help) is often bad, full of holes or missing entirely. There is a practice in games of leaving gameplay, interfaces and product features undocumented that would not be acceptable in other types of software. For simple, intutive games, little documentation should be needed. However many games are complex, and include lengthy paper manuals, and yet the content  is still patchy.

Patchy Documentation Examples

Elder Scrolls Morrowind

Its documentation does not include

  • What your magic spells actually do
  • What a permanently visible on-screen dial is actually showing: the red dial beneath the active spell icon in bottom left corner. I spent an hour Googling for it, didn’t find out, but it appears everybody else is wondering too.

    SimCity 4

    My retail copy  of this 4th generation city simulator came with only an install manual.

    The online site has a “Tips-n-Tricks” section, but no coherent high-level description of how the interface and game works.

    Black and White 2

    A complex Simulation/Real-Time-Strategy game that comes with a 40 page but very scrappy manual. The player grows towns and their people, but manual does not mention anywhere how to create new people, nor is there any visible control/button to do it. You need to drag one “breeder” person onto another breeder, and then they procreate and multiply. (Obvious, huh! …only it wasn’t for me.)

    Civilisation IV

    As similarly complex as a 3D tool like Maya or a programming tool like Visual Studio. To its credit, it comes with a 205 page manual and an in-game “Civilopedia” help. Evident effort was spent on documenting the game. Despite this, there are holes in the documentation where key aspects of the game design go unmentioned:

    • Civ allows you to group units together and issue orders to the group. First mention of this is in a keyboard shortcut reference chart in the appendix! No description of how Groups “work” is given.
    • Coverage of multiplayer internet play is half a page. You just have to try it out and then try to figure out what is going on. This is despite the fact that Civ has some really innovative and unusual multiplayer features that a player is very unlikely to understand at first.

      Let players write the docs?

      A result of this trend is that fansites that spring up around successful titles to compensate for their own lack of decent documentation, such as WowWikiCivFanatics, Simtropolis or TES3 . The quality of the material on many of these sites is amazing.

      Is it a cop out to let your player’s do your work for you? Well, to a large extent this player-driven documentation proves that players desire such material. Possibly frustration at not understanding the game has motivated them to contribute. And what tends to happen in many decentralized fansites is that fact, opinion, misinformation and spam get smeared together in an unstructured ball, and it takes a great deal of effort to dig out the answers to questions of interest.

      Good Docs => Informed Choice => More Fun

      Like most players, I really enjoy figuring out how to play a game well. I greatly value what Damion Schubert dubs Tactical Transparency, the principle of knowing what your options are and making an informed choice. When I simply do not understand how a game or interface works, and dont have a ready place to get help, both Tactical Transparency and my enjoyment are reduced.

      What Good Docs look like

      Its a stark contrast to the level of documentation I enjoy as a software developer, as a momentary look at the docs for Hibernate or Spring reveals. They describe both the Concept/Model behind the software, and the details that you need to know once you get the concept. I guess we programmers value knowing precisely how a piece of software works.

      Time to eat my own Dog Food. Yum!

      At Playscape Games, we shall ensure that Heroes of Arcadia’s game mechanics and interface are well documented online soon after the product becomes available.