Ongoing Uru Review #3: Why Cyan Needs to Write a Manual

For a while, I thought I was writing an essay about in-character and out-of-character modes of presenting information. It didn't work. I struggled with it for a week. No go. Then I put it off for a week. Then I stared at it some more. Eventually I realized: no.

This essay actually goes like this: "If there is no manual, it's because you failed to write a manual. No amount of waffling about mimesis or social networks or in-character consistency will change your failure to write a manual. So get on the stick, yrs. honorably, hugs+kisses, Zarf."

(While I was writing this, Cyan actually added a manual to Uru. There is now some documentation within the game -- a KI guide in the Neighborhood classroom. Yay! However, I'm still posting this essay. Why? Because I'm an arrogant git, but also for other reasons I will discuss soon.)

What goes into a manual?

I have now been reading the Uru web forums for ten weeks, give or take. Based on the questions I see there (over and over), these are the topics which the manual must explain:

Let me note that "what's supposed to happen" is a critical part of this document. You'd be amazed what sorts of bugs players will accept, saying "I guess it's supposed to do that." Then they struggle futilely on, ramming themselves into a corner, wondering why they're not having fun yet. This is not because these players are stupid. If you don't know what you expect -- if you lack the base experience of how the system is supposed to behave -- then everything looks equally correct.

If a player has encountered a bug, he should know he has encountered a bug. Getting him to realize this is more important than fixing the bug. Conveniently, it's also easier than fixing the bug.... if you don't skimp on the documentation.

Now: Uru needs this manual. Right? Please queue up to reply.

"Uru comes with a manual -- the CD booklet."

Yes, it does. But that booklet is short. About nineteen pages of content (excluding table of contents, ads, and legalspeak). It covers most of the setup and in-game commands and options, but the options are described quite sketchily. The process of logging in and setting yourself up is barely described. There is an overview of the online environment (your home Age and the shared Neighborhoods) but little practical information. And there is no documentation at all of the KI device.

That stuff about "what's supposed to happen" -- that's the biggest omission of the booklet, I'd say. It has the reference material, but not the tutorial or the failure paths.

"That CD booklet is only for the single-player game. Documentation for Uru Live is handled elsewhere."

Okay, I can believe that. So where's the elsewhere? Eh? Eh?

It's not on the CD; that only contains a PDF of the booklet. It's not on the Uru web site. (Go look.) If it's inside the game... bit of a chicken-and-egg problem then, isn't there?

"This is a Myst game; you're supposed to figure things out for yourself."

Yeah. Sort of.

Considering this question, I went and pulled out my original Myst manual, copyright 1993. It too is short -- eleven pages of content. (And much more attractively laid out than the Uru manual, may I say.) But it is short because Myst had such a simple interface. The manual covers everything you can do, in detail. All the menu options. A full page on moving around (including descriptions of the hotspot cursors). A page and a half on manipulating objects. Remember, Myst is a game where the most complicated action is "click and drag". This game interface is not intended to be a mystery; the manual wants you to be thoroughly familiar with it, so that you can play the game.

Uru has a much more complicated interface. Just getting into the game requires you to navigate four menu screens. Figuring that out is not the fun part of Uru! Some players may get a kick out of it -- I did -- but many other players will get confused and discouraged.

Then there's the whole KI situation.

"But the KI is an in-game device! You're supposed to figure out the machines in the game, right?"

Well, yes. Sort of. But don't be misled by the false analogy.

The original Myst could be divided into two layers: the game interface (cursor, hotspots, click-to-push-that) and the game world (islands, books, machines). The manual explained the interface layer in great detail, as I've said. The game-world layer was left entirely a mystery. The manual only said: "...most importantly -- think of what you would do if you were really there."

(Which statement is, I decided many years layer, the truest essence of the adventure game. Trust Cyan to pin it, right off.)

If Uru were Myst, we could divide it into the same two layers. The game interface (cursors, hotspots, login screens, configuration dialogs) and the game world (islands, books, machines, the KI). Document the interface, and leave the player to figure out the game world. Right?

No. The analogy just doesn't work in practice. The KI is too important. If you're confused about it, you're confused about too much of Uru.

I'd call the KI a third layer, interposed between the interface and the game world. Whether you agree with that model or not, the KI has to be documented. Players have to be comfortable with it, or the Uru experience goes all thin and frustrating and unhappy and boring.

(I'm being a bit sloppy here; when I say "KI interface", I'm including the chat interface, the Nexus terminal, and a few other things. They're all tied into the KI, so I'm not being too sloppy.)

"There is a KI manual in the classroom now."

Yes. That's a good thing, as I said. (And I'd look a lot smarter if I'd finished this essay three days ago, before the manual appeared. Ah well.)

The manual covers the KI... which is one of the four general topics I mentioned back at the beginning. That leaves three others.

(I could also carp about the quality of the manual... some of it seems to have been written back in the closed beta phase, and I wish it were more detailed on a lot of topics. Nonetheless: it is a good thing.)

"All the information you need is on the web forums. Players there are happy to answer questions."

Yes. That's true. (See the Forums link on the web site.) I'm one of the people who's been answering questions. And, I've got to say, it's starting to wear me down.

I don't mean to whine. But new players keep showing up, and each one is just as... new... as the last. We see the same questions -- even more frustrating, the same misunderstandings and confusions -- over and over. It's great to help people; but when so many people need the same help, doesn't that sort of imply that... maybe... the manual should cover those topics?

Besides, you're making an assumption: that every player reads the web forums. Wrong.

It's an easy assumption to make. If you read the forums a lot, you imagine that you're seeing the whole world of Uru players through that window. And that's simply a delusion. Many, many people buy Uru, try to log in, fail -- or succeed -- and never go to the web pages at all.

(In real life -- I mean, outside of Uru communities -- I know just other two people who have played Uru Live. Neither of them has looked at the web forums at all. How's that for a sample?)

"What about the Guild of Greeters, and other fan-created Uru guides?"

Yes, those are great too. I've written one myself. (Unsurprisingly, it covers my four general topics. Take a look if you're interested.)

Many Uru fans have donated many hours of time and effort, creating the manual that Cyan should have. This is good; it signifies life and strength in the Uru community.

But it's got the same problem as the web forums -- plus more so. Many players won't get there. I'd guess that most players won't get there. Most players will read a manual if it's at hand; most will go to the game's web page. But the fan sites are two clicks beyond that, and you lose people exponentially with each click.

If I could bundle my web page and include it in the Uru box, I would. But only Cyan can do that. It's called "writing the manual".

(It's also called "translating the manual into French, German, and Italian". Cyan has the resources for that. I, being a lame monoglot American, do not. My web site is useless for non-English-speaking Uru players; and I know they exist.)

(Extreme logicians will note another problem. I wrote my FAQ based on questions that people post to the web forums. But I just said that many players aren't on the web forums! What about their questions? I have no solution to this; I can only assume that all players are encountering roughly the same kinds of problems. Cyan's support database may have more information. Again, only Cyan can make use of that.)

"Uru is a multiplayer game, and the point is to interact with other players. Information is supposed to spread through the community."

Yes, and that's a nifty thing. Uru does, and should, encourage socialization -- when it's information about what's going on in the game world.

But when it's documentation about how to play the game -- and especially when it's information about bugs -- then relying on the community is a bad idea.

How is the community supposed to convey this information? Fan-created web sites? See previous question. The official Uru web forums? See question previous to the previous question.

Or are players supposed to log in and talk to other players for help? There's the chicken-and-egg problem again. What if they need help logging in, or need help using the chat system?

"Cyan wants to maintain the illusion of a consistent world, by only providing 'in-character' information."

Ah. This is nearly a convincing argument. Cyan likes to sneak information out via the DRC, the (fictional) research group which manages the exploration of D'ni. I like when they do that. The DRC posts bulletins; they make announcements; they appear in the game and make speeches; they get into arguments on their publicly-readable web board. It's nifty.

(The KI manual in the classroom is a good example. It makes sense that the DRC would want to explain the KI device to us; they're the ones putting up signs saying "Please retrieve your KI"! So we get an in-game, in-character source for that material.)

However, the DRC is part of the game world. One of the neat things is that they don't know everything. We players have figured out some stuff that the DRC isn't aware of. This is great storytelling -- but it means any information coming from them is suspect. If I need to know something about the game, the DRC cannot possibly tell me.

For example... recently a software update rendered some Ages very difficult to solve. Now, this could be an interesting in-game development. It looks a lot more like a bug. But how can Cyan announce the existence of a bug without breaking character? We might hear the DRC talk about "strange occurrences in Teledahn", but that doesn't tell us whether they're strange to Cyan. The more they try to work in useful information (possible workarounds, estimated fix date), the more tortured the explanation becomes. Pretty soon they're doing more harm to the sense of mimesis than if they'd just posted out-of-character in the first place.

So, however much Cyan wants to maintain their game-world persona, they can't do it all the time. And in fact, they know this. They've been posting straight-up status reports since the second week. (I wish they posted more, but that's another rant.)

"If the manual is supposed to help players with the most common problems, how can you release the manual with the game? When the game first comes out, you don't know what the common problems are."

(cough) Okay, you've got me there. This is a real stumbling block.

You can get some guidance from your beta-testers. (From the earlier, closed beta phase.) But of course by the time the game comes out, the beta-testers are all expert players, not newbies. Back when they were new, the game was in an earlier stage; it's hard then to get a sense for what the real-world, public-release problems are going to be.

(Not to mention the bugs. The bugs from beta-phase all got fixed -- I assume! The bugs that people are encountering now didn't appear until after the game came out. Hard to put those in the manual.)

That doesn't mean that a manual is impossible. You can still write all the documentation. You may find that you have to revise it after the public release; but that's okay.

Uru's two-stage beta structure actually lends itself to this. Cyan could have made a manual available back in November -- my four pet topics, even if they lacked the bugs and failure paths. Then they could spend the Prologue phase extending it and improving it, based on players' experiences. Then they'd have a shiny, complete, high-value manual all ready to go at launch time.

They didn't do part one, but they still have time to do part two. Maybe they will. I hope so.

Last updated January 23, 2004.

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