Games Don’t Tell You How To Play Them

I’m a longtime player of sports games on the PC, and a recovering technical writer. So I take an interest in the manuals that accompany the games I play. As most gamers will attest, game manuals are usually awful. They’re under-written, incomplete and, for narrative games, spend too much time on useless back story.

This problem is usually solved by the far-superior in-game tutorial. Learning by playing is much more effective than learning by reading. There are few tutorials, however, in sports games. That’s fine, because usually gamers know how to play the sport in question, but not always.

When I worked in Ireland, we often played PlayStation games around the office at lunch time (or, you know, other times). A favourite game (and I don’t think it was my Canadian influence) was EA Sports NHL 2002. Most of the Irish guys playing the game had never actually seen a hockey game, either live or on TV. Their understanding of the term “hockey” was strictly verbal. They had a vague idea what offside was from football (i.e. soccer), but no sense of what the icing rule was about. In any case, they mostly played with those rules turned off.

I was just glancing through the manual of a reasonably new soccer (i.e. football) game, and encountered this section:

Soccer Manual Screenshot

These are team-wide tactics which you, as their godly overseer, can instruct them to execute. Though I’ve casually watched soccer for years, I only have the vaguest idea of what these are. Wing Play? Flat back? And ‘3rd Man Release’ sounds downright dirty. The manual doesn’t include an explanation of what these tactics are for, how they work or when you might use them. It assumes, like icing and offside, that I already understand them.

Missing G and H on the A to Z Scale

Lee recently described a kind of learning model that applies here:

From talking to educators and influencers, we’ve learned that our videos are often used to introduce a subject – to get everyone on the same page at the beginning of a class, workshop, etc. Recently, as part of our planning for 2009, we came up with a model that helps tell this story. We call it the A-to-Z Scale.

The scale represents the path to learning a subject. On the left side are the basic, fundamental ideas. On the right, the details and applications of the ideas.


Thinking about sports games manuals, they’re really missing the Gs and the Hs of the games they’re simulating. Most players will understand that you throw the ball in the basket, or hit the ball into the hole with the stick. However, many casual players may not understand the nuances of the neutral-zone trap or the dreaded third man release.

Do we need to grasp these details to enjoy the game? Probably not (though the jargon in an American football game is pretty thick and commonplace), but all it would take is an extra couple of pages in the manual or a game tutorial to explain these concepts. I’d imagine that the developer looks at both of those as cost centres, though, so I’d expect they feel that less is more. What do you think?


  1. This may be why I’ve almost never played any team-sports videogames. I don’t enjoy watching any sports (except for a few from the Winter Olympics), so I hardly know the first thing about any of them, and it’s nearly impossible for me to get started on a game if I don’t know anything beyond the “A-B” level “put the ball in the goal” rules.

    But I’m fine with sojourns into Super Mario and Guitar Hero. I’ve never been an Italian plumber battling spiky misanthropic turtles, but at least I play in a band. Not that it helps much.

  2. This is why they call me Crazy Thumbs when it comes to sports games. Lots of pounding of buttons, little actual understanding of what’s going on. I’m thinking specifically of the Madden franchise.

  3. I used to work in video games, and often the short answer is this: Most of the “Technical Writers” or Associate Producers who end up being stuck with writing the manual have usually been so absorbed in the game for the 1 year+ worth of development, that it often never occurs to them to explain these concepts. That, and the manuals are rarely checked over by QA or the “average” person for comprehension 🙂

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