By Martijn Pleines
Simulations are complex products. They are more difficult and expensive to produce then other games. On the publishers side, they need all the artwork, sound effects and playability features that a 'regular' game needs and lots of research and background information besides. From a user's perspective, she/he will need a lot of documentation to guide her/him along what is usually quite a steep learning curve, so she/he can appreciate and enjoy the product in all its detail.
Originally, on-line documentation was provided to enhance the printed documentation, not to replace it. On-line documentation can have certain advantages over printed documentation if more sophisticated search facilities, hyperlinks and multi-media presentations have been implemented, as in Flight Simulator 2000, where the on-line documentation complements rather than replaces the paper manual. Lately however, we're experiencing a different style of on-line documentation and it is actually replacing the printed material: Acrobat PDF files that add little or nothing in the way of features compared to printed media. On the contrary.
Try following a detailed tutorial while switching back and forth between the simulation and Acrobat. The reader application is taking away system resources from the sim. It's distracting to have to juggle the windows around, to have to pause and unpause the sim all the time just because you need to look something up, even if it's only a key-combination. Isn't it much better to have that manual in your lap (and no, not everyone has a laptop!), so you can browse and leaf through that while the simulation is running along merrily on the computer? A book that you can take with you on the train to work, or read in bed, or when someone else is using the computer?
So there you are, with your brand new software, eager to get started...but oh, no...you will have to spend a couple of evenings printing out the documentation first! Most users, equipped with only a slow inkjet printer, simply do not have the resources to produce a conveniently sized and well-bound manual; they will end up with an unwieldy sheaf of letter-or DINA4-sized pages either stapled together or in a big binder that won't fit in any software box. Better than on-screen reading surely, but still not as convenient as the smaller, well-made booklet that only a professional publisher could have provided. More often than not, the layout of the electronic manual isn't suited to inkjet printing anyway, with text on tinted backgrounds or images becoming unclear. With the large amount of stuff to print, users are bound to run out of ink or paper, so the work will have to be carried over until the next evening, or worse, until after the weekend...and in the end, it will have cost them more than what a mass-produced manual would have added to the price of the software in the first place.
On a more personal note, I've just finished printing Wilco's 767 PIC documentation...all 300-odd pages of it. Actually, I bought the package (boxed) a couple of months ago, installed it, then put it away as I could not find the time to print all that stuff at that point. Only recently have I found enough time to finish printing it, which took three evenings. As it turns out, I'm very pleased with 767 PIC, but I could have started enjoying it a lot sooner if a proper manual had been included in the first place.
My spare time is limited. I don't want to sit around watching my printer churn out 100 pages or so for two or three evenings on end. And you do have to monitor that process, in case a color runs out or the paper gets stuck or whatever. It's too distracting to do anything else with the computer while that is going on.
Mind you, I didn't return 767 PIC to the shop, as I did with Microsoft's Train Simulator! I was disgusted to find that that big, expensive box was filled with 95% air, and just an install folder instead of a proper manual. Well, I'm not particularly interested in trains, but I love any kind of serious simulation, and I was looking forward to getting to know the world of rail. Unlike 767 PIC however, where I felt I knew what to expect, I wasn't prepared to go through all the rigmarole of having to print yet another thick manual, so I decided not to persevere and returned Train-Sim to the shop. To be honest, there were problems with the CDs too; however, the point is, had there been proper manual, I might have been drawn in and become involved anyway-and I probably would have been working on my local rail network scenery right now.
I'm sure many users would not mind paying a fair bit extra for a well-documented simulation. This is exactly the reason why I have always preferred buying the more expensive boxed version even if a cheap download version was available on the net. Instead, I fear that many potential users will be turned away from simulations altogether if they keep finding themselves confronted with complex software but without the means to get into it in a more convenient manner. Having to print out manuals first is just another hurdle on an already steep learning curve.
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