Tuesday 4 June 2019

RTFM(!) - The Evolution of RGCD's Instruction Booklets

Here at RGCD we're currently knee-deep in near-completed projects, and one of the biggest milestones in getting a game published is of course the print material finally coming together. With that in mind, I thought it was time to introduce Chris Mantil - one of our unsung heroes. But first, let's reminisce a little...

When I was a kid in the early 90's, buying a new video game meant taking a 30 mile bus trip into Exeter, walking down to either the independent or chainstore, handing over my £20 or so, then catching the bus home again - and as soon as I got on-board I'd tear open the cellophane and pull out the manual to digest on the way home. Manuals back then were pieces of art themselves, often full of the promise of the excitement ahead, if not more exciting than the games themselves (I recall loving the novella that came with Frontier: Elite II much more than the actual game!)

Of course, in today's gaming environment no player is expected to look at a manual - modern-day game developers are encouraged to either make their games so intuitive that instructions are unnecessary, or provide extensive tutorials that hold the player's hand. Gamers have never had it so good, you'd think. But for me, part of buying a physical release was always about the manual, and for this reason I've always striven to provide full, printed documentation with every RGCD release.

In many cases, this has meant writing a story for an already completed game. Particular examples I'm most proud of include Get 'Em DX - an arcade game which really doesn't need a back story, but received one anyway, and Moonspire - where I had to crowbar a believable sci-fi background into a game that seemingly had no setting at all, despite the futuristic title. (Thankfully, for the sequel Rexbeng, Dusan and I have actually been working out all the plot details before building levels and have even moulded the gameplay to suit!)

However... I'm no graphic designer. Early RGCD releases came with manuals that I put together in MS Word, printed out and cut and stapled together. The text may have been full of plot, trivia and facts, but the presentation was basic to say the least. Then, back in 2016, I received an email from Chris whom introduced himself as a graphic designer (and RGCD fan) who wanted to join the team. The timing couldn't have been better as we'd just agreed to ship Tiger Claw as a perk in the "The Story of the Commodore 64 in Pixels" Kickstarter - a game that very much needed a decent manual. And now in 2019, thanks to Chris, all of the games in our currently available catalogue are up to the standard I always hoped for - with beautifully presented manuals deserving of the player's attention.

One of the things Chris has introduced for RGCD is the 'compatibility grid' - a collection of cells on the first few pages of each manual highlighting features and system requirements. Rather than present these in a bullet-point list (as previously managed), Chris chose a more visual approach that has remained consistent over the past few years - making it immediately clear to the user what they need to run each game.

In addition to this, there's the consistent style he's given each game manual so that it fits the overall package; with Rocket Smash EX's manual having a 1950's aesthetic that matches Flemming Dupont's box illustration, and Aviator Arcade II's 'Field Manual' having the appearance of a fictional Military file. In fact, every time I receive a new set of PDF proofs from Chris my inner kid gives a whoop and a high five!

This year we're continuing the laborious process of working through our back catalogue of 'deleted' games to give them a much-needed refresh and re-release, with 2011's Fairy Well by Wide Pixel Games next to come off the assembly line. I'm hoping to continue to do this alongside the new releases, but it's a pretty expensive venture to redo the manual, create new labels and update the prints, so it will take time for all of our games to become available again.

However, if you have any of our early revisions it's worth noting that some of these can now be (cheaply) updated by purchasing one of our upgrade packs. In fact, if purchased alongside another game or item, the postage is free - so check them out - and please, put my original hand made efforts where they belong - in the recycle bin! :D

Words from the Designer

I emailed Chris a copy of this post for him to check over for factual errors prior to publishing, and in his reply he asked if he could add a few words. What I received back from him was a bit more than 'a few words', but it was so warming to read his thoughts about his time working with RGCD I just had to add it here. Chris, thanks again for all your help!

"I blame C64anabalt for my rekindled love of the C64. After finding out the game had been ported to the 30 year old computer, I quickly fell down the rabbit hole that is the C64 scene. It blew my mind seeing people not only porting games, but also creating entirely new games for the system.

I was so young when we owned a C64, It was hard not to remember it as anything but this funny little computer that our grandparents handed down to us. I wasn't really sure what it was. All I knew was that it was the only form of videogames in our house and that my sister was way better at playing Jumpman than I was.

Diving into the scene as an adult let me track down all the games I played as a kid and appreciate them on a whole new level. I also got to discover a ton of new games, like Knight and Grail, which was easily my favourite game I played that year.

I soon discovered RGCD and again was just blown away by the amount of games that were being released. I also really appreciated that RGCD was committed to putting games on cartridges. As kids, we only ever had a stack of floppy disks, and as much as I loved playing those games, I was never a huge fan of how tedious it was to get them loaded (I didn’t even know games came on tapes)."

"I could tell that there was a lot of care going into these games, and (despite what James may say about his original manuals) I really respected the level of polish that was being put into the packaging. I wanted to be a part of that so I sent James an email and offered to help in any way I could.

It's been three years and I have worked on 18 game manuals as well as boxart for the 2015 16k Cart Competition. It's been a ton of fun collaborating with RGCD and I am very proud of the work we have done together.

Despite being relatively simple, these game manuals are always a bit of a challenge. We usually have limited art assets to work with and often times what we do have is 8-bit sprites. The fun comes from trying to work within these limitations. I always want the instructions and controls to be clearly communicated, but I also want to visualise the tone, energy, and style of the game.

I am particularly proud of the C64anabalt manual. C64anabalt is simple but extremely stylish and relies heavily on atmosphere, as well as a sense of speed and momentum. By replicating the onscreen visuals across double page spreads and the selective use of text, I think we did a great job of conveying the games atmosphere while also communicating how the game moves and plays. Other standouts for me are Super Bread Box, LuftrauserZ, and Rocket Smash EX.

I remember how much fun it was as a kid to pour over game manuals, and I hope my work brings back those fond memories for other people too. It's a ton of fun getting to be a part of this scene. I am constantly impressed by the amount of work people are putting into keeping this computer relevant and I am so glad I get to help out in any way I can."

C. Mantil.

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