Dev diaries: the successors to manuals?

Over the past couple of decades numerous words have been written about the disappearance of the lavish printed game manual, but until this Open October submission from Cornerite Tom Goodfellow (aka Wilson) landed on my desk, the idea that we had a passable substitute in our midst had never occurred to me.

(Disclosure: Tom was involved in the marketing for Isonzo, a title briefly mentioned below)

One of the casualties following the rise of digital storefronts has been the chunky physical manual. I still remember my dad’s copy of the M1 Tank Platoon manual – a solid 205 page brick of arcane tank knowledge – or so I imagined. I never read it because I was only 5 or 6. Much the same went for the intriguingly ring bindered accompaniment to Aces Over Europe.

^ From my dad 🙂 Still in good shape! The M1 Tank Platoon may have been ‘retired’, however.
A manual I did enjoy was the one for Pirates! Gold, which included lovely side-view drawings of the different ship classes, not to mention the various different pirate flags you might encounter through your spyglass in-game. It inspired the drawing of many, many wobbly sailing ships.
As someone who (stubbornly?) prefers reading words to watching videos, manuals falling out of favour left something of a gap in my gaming life. Games magazines and websites have plenty of words, but getting in-depth gameplay info or analysis is sadly rare. Wikis and forums can cover technical details well, but often lack the flavour of the best manuals. Manuals themselves still exist too of course, especially for strategy games, but they don’t feel like they have as much design philosophy in them as the classics. That could be rose tinted goggles on my part – there were certainly manuals like that of Quake II which had little more than a list of items and enemies with typical 90s excited teenage writing style – e.g. the (full) description of the Berserker: “This Bald-mutha is one deadly freak. He may hit the dirt easy, but he’ll get up and is relentless in his pursuits.

^ You can see this fan wiki page has much more in-depth info on the strengths and weaknesses of different enemies, and can make for some interesting reading.

In the everything online age only one thing reliably scratches my itch for wordy game information: developer diaries. These can range from the longish, technically detailed posts put out by Paradox where they even respond to player queries in the comments, to more thematic writeups like this one from my favourite strategy series which covers the Imperial Sunrise scenario that Tim highlighted previously.

I can’t get enough dev diaries. I’ll keenly hoover up whatever tidbits are put out, whether it’s a few rushed paragraphs with the barest description of planned features or thoughtful meditations on how to get players to care about their subordinates in a strategy game.

^ WIP screenshot from Burden of Command, a game I’m very much looking forward to.
This applies for games I have no interest in playing as well! I just want to get a glimpse at how the people making games are thinking about their products. Even those aforementioned rushed paragraphs still tell you something about what parts of their game the devs care about most (or perhaps what they’ve managed to get working so far).
I’ll end with a selection of my favourite Dev blogs, and a question, given that they don’t often seem to get all that much engagement: am I alone in my love of dev diaries?
  • Burden of Command – another one of their blogs, this time about language, word choice, and how to implement player communication.
  • Cantata – a bold discussion of a major gameplay design change, exactly the kind of thing you can’t find anywhere else.
  • Workers and Resources: Soviet Republic – this blog on waste management also include a variety of other little additions and plenty of screenshots. Overall I find their blogs to be a great balance of text, visuals, features and design theory discussion.
  • Isonzo – lots of nice gifs and a video flying over a new map, but not much juicy dev or design info.
  • Strategic Command: American Civil War – a nice discussion of scenarios in a DLC, with more gameplay info and design choice reasoning than the one I linked above.


  1. One of my favourites are the ‘milestone’ updates from Eugen for Warno.
    All their game updates are named after military commanders from the Napoleonic wars (interestingly enough, the game is not avout that period of time). About half of the update is a tiny history lesson and the rest is patch notes and futures about the game.
    The latest for example is named after ‘Marshal Brune’.

    • Oh I can’t believe I forgot Eugen! I really liked their updates and previews for the Wargame series, and some of the Steel Division ones were good too. A nice mix of history and game info as you say. I’ve got some reading to do on Warno then 🙂

  2. I miss those big old manuals of yore. Plus the maps and other stuff you’d often get in those big boxes. I have an old copy of the OG Red Baron with basic maps of each section of front you could fly around. Quite rudimentary but appreciated. Falcon 4.0 had a nice big map of Korea included in the box as well which was really well done. Not quite the same looking at a PDF or whatever. I read through some of those dev diary examples and they were pretty good. Those old sims often came with nice history sections as well that could run into tripple digit pages.

    I often read the Paradox CK3 ones, they can get quite detailed which is good, but also they seem to fail to explain things in game when they release new updates, expecting people to have read the diaries, so bit of a mixed bag really.

    Of course some devs have dev diaries that are pretty bad, Microsoft Flight Simulator for example. Their weekly ‘dev’ updates are basically just a couple paragraphs of some very careful PR plus a a sales pitch for all the stuff added that week to the in-game marketplace.

    Also I can’t wait for Burden of Command!

    • Yeah, there’s nothing like those old manuals. Maybe strategy guides or game artbooks? I think it’s not the same though.

      Regarding the Paradox dev diaries you make an interesting point about the detail of the diaries versus what you get in-game. I wonder if a canny dev could write out a big manual chunks at a time while releasing it in the form of dev diaries? Except that things change too much during dev for it all to stay relevant probably…

  3. Thanks for the kind worlds Tim! Also Pollux, Wilson, Goodenough 🙂

    Dev Blogs take a lot of effort unfortunately. And as a small indie we are always balancing bang for buck. From a small indie standpoint I can put a dev blog out or I can put a YT dev video out (we have a YT channel with 92 videos each 1-2 minutes login). Each takes similar effort… around 1/2 day (maybe bit more for dev blogs). The realities are that the YT videos get more views. So bang for buck. Paradox can afford to hit all bases. Every time I do a ‘dev blog’ or video it takes away from coding 🙁 So I have to triage.

    On the upside in terms of design dives in depth, just did a talk on the marriage of cardboard and digital in Burden on Georgetown wargaming society YT channel. But plenty of verbal words Tim 😉

    I miss the written manuals too BTW. Still have a few around (Steel Panthers, Campaign Series, Fallout 2, Wizardry 🙂 ).

    Luke (lead Burden of Command)

    p.s. We are in Alpha right now. Steady small groups of playtesters going through campaign in cycles. Heading towards beta… So we are getting there.

    • I totally understand putting your resources where the views are! I’m under no illusions about the general balance of how many people favour reading versus watching stuff, certainly in the gaming space. And it takes a lot of time + effort for sure. I’ve seen and enjoyed your Twitter posts with little dev snippets as well.

      Will definitely check out the YouTube channel and the Georgetown talk. As you say, verbal words are words too, haha. Hope the alpha testing is going well 🙂

      So far everything I hear and read only sounds more promising!

  4. The ai war2 dev comments were often so long and detailed I often wondered if they had time to do any coding.

    • Hahaha very true, I found them a mixed bag: some of it was too technical or needed a bit too much deep knowledge of how the game plays for me to fully appreciate them, but there were also some great parts about design and when they were making changes to their original plan for 2 as compared to 1. Still, great example of chunky dev diaries for sure!

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