Strategy guide writer defends his brethren

In a thread on Disgaea, Jason McCullough was complaining about the strategy guide, which led Apekid to post a defense of strategy guides. Which got me going. Since most of you couldn’t care less about Disgaea, I thought I’d start a new thread:

Here’s Apekid’s full post. Quotes follow:

Also understand that we’re often given extremely short deadlines* on beta software and many game bits are added after the guide author has completed the book and the book has gone to press.**

I don’t know who you are or what strategy guides you’ve written, but you’re doing a great job of making a case for why the entire cottage industry of strategy guides is a bullshit scam to rip off gamers. If this is the best you can do to “defend your brethren”, it speaks volumes about your business.

  • I was given 12 days to write the entire guide for Brute Force earlier this year.

Why on earth did you take the job then? I haven’t seen the guide, but I can’t imagine I would be happy shelling out $20 to you and your company after you plowed through a beta of the game in 12 days and cranked out whatever you cranked out.

** I once had a game company change the location of about 40% of the items in a game after they had approved the entire book manuscript and we had gone to press.

And your name is still on that book? Let me guess, you still work for them? And you’re coming here to tell us this? That’s tantamount to me announcing, ‘Hey, guys, I was given three hours to review Master of Orion 3! And, ha ha, you suckers read my review and trusted my judgement. Isn’t it tough being me?’

I don’t mean to be hard on you – like I said, I don’t know you from Adam – but official strategy guide writing is some of the lowest of the low, in my opinion. It’s delegated to hacks who don’t love the games they’re playing and are just in it for a quick buck, so it’s rife with errors, misinformation, and half-assed research. Thanks for reinforcing what I’ve hated about it all along.


Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking when I read Apekid’s post: thanks for describing your industry so accurately, and for reminding me why I almost never buy any strategy guides!

What the hell do you expect him to do, Tom? If they won’t give him the information, what is he supposed to do? If he’s given an insane deadline from above, what is he supposed to do? You act like all this shit is his fault. I’ve worked and written for some shitty outfits in my time, so maybe I’m overly defensive here, but for fuck’s sake, do you want the man to go broke to salve your conscience? Would you feel better if he made a dramatic stand, refused to write the guide, and quit, utterly torpedoing his career, just so someone else could come in and write the guide in ELEVEN days?

Please note that I’m not trying to defend the industry - not trying to defend the people who set the ridiculous deadlines, who refuse to give out the information, who change shit after publication, but for lovva mike, man, how is this shit the WRITER’s fault?

Well, someone has to stop the buck. I mean, I’ve had some pretty crappy deadlines too, and I understand there is only so much you can do, because after all there is the bottom line to consider. But there has to be some negotiation with the customer in mind. You obviously can’t write a quality guide in 12 days.

Quatoria, here is what you do: you go out and get yourself a job that doesn’t morally compromise you. It is as much the writer’s fault as the company he works for. Apekid’s post makes it very clear that he knows he is delivering a sub-par, unreliable product to consumers for twenty bucks a pop. I personally would have a hard time abetting a scam for a living.

I’m not exactly sure what sort of psycho train of events leads one to write strategy guides for a living, but I’m assuming that writing strategy guys is basically the gutter for the guys who had a brief flash of financial independence in the late 90’s cut and pasting for some brief, UGO-infused gaming “news” site. Maybe this is the closest they can come to still writing about games for a living, in which case, it seems like they are maybe trying to skate by on a long dead dream.

The strategy guide business pays fairly well. I did one for Prima – and yes, the experience sucked – and I got $5000. I think if you’re a regular author you can get as much as $7-8K per book, though I’ve heard conditions are getting worse for writers.

I pretty much agree with Tom, but I don’t think there is a way to sell “honest” strategy guides. There’s no incentives to make one; the kiddies will buy pretty much whatever you put out, and there’s a lot more of them than us, so why kill yourself for $5 extra? Hell, anyone who actually did write the Best Strategy Guide Evar would probably get drummed out of the market for taking too long.

Back in my day, strategy guide writers would derive first approximations to the algorithms by testing if the developers wouldn’t fess up! God knows I’d prefer to pay someone to do it.

I’m on the fence here. On one side, you have the people who want the strategy guide to be 100% accurate and informative enough to get your full money’s worth out of the separate product you bought (the game.)

On the other hand, it’s a job. A thankless job, because of the huge time crunch to work with a beta that most likely will not be exactly identical to the finished code. I can’t imagine any enjoyment to be had from scouring a game technically. It’s quite the inexact science.

Solutions to this are hard to come by. The only palatable option for the gamer is to have the strategy guide come a week to 10 days after the final product is done for maximum satisfaction. Unfortunately, the game companies see this 7-10 day period as lost sales, because there are a lot of places that like to bundle the strategy guide as a pre-order freebie. Not to mention that the Internet can have most of the hints/strategies up within a few days rather than waiting for a publisher to crank out the paper products.

Perhaps in the future, strategy guides won’t be produced on paper/cardboard/whatever. They could be on some official website advertised by the game publisher and have subscriber/pay content going up daily soon/right after the ship date of the game.

Well why the hell won’t developers tell the stuff to the official guide writers? I’ve never seen a good answer to this; it’s not like it would take one guy more than a few days. It’s especially egregious for games that have been out in Japan for a while.

Maybe it’s just my personal quirk, but I could care less about anything other than raw stat tables and algorithms. Hidden items, st00pid fresh map strategies - whatever, I can figure that shit out. Now the tradeoff between 100 points of attack and 100 points of defense, that’s just boring to derive.

Hopefully the internet will save us.

Thing is a strategy guide needs to be on the shelf next to the game the day it hits stores. I imagine that makes writing them based on a finished games almost impossible. And if the developer doesn’t keep you in the loop on anything that makes it even worse. You’d expect an official strategy guide to have access to insights FAQ writers on the internet do not have. They have to put something together for print in a few weeks, while the FAQ writers update their stuff, figuring out new junk for years!

I don’t know enough about the strategy guide industry to know how they could fix the situation. Like as has been mentioned I doubt the writers can do anything, it’s not like there isn’t an army of 18 year old wannabe writers lined up to take the position. I don’t even know how much leverage the guide publishers have. Do they get paid by the game publisher? Do they pay for the rights to publish an official guide?

The last guide I bought was for Final Fantasy VII. It was so much worse than the guide for Final Fantasy III, I was hugely dissappointed. One of the cool things about the FFIII one was it was practically an Amano art book. The VII was sadly lacking in that regard. They did just publish an art book for FFIX, though, so that was pretty cool.

The strategy guide author is usually writing the guide during the time when the developers are in severe crunch mode trying to finish the game. It’s the worst time to communicate with the development team.

Also, when I wrote my guide, I was under strict orders from Prima to NOT talk to the developer or publisher. I was supposed to submit any questions I had to someone at Prima and they would get answers for me.

The whole thing was fucktarded.

Funny you mention that one. I just found it lying around in a junkpile last night and so took it onto the shitter with me. You could tell from the models in some of the screenshots that it was done with prerelease code. Some of the models were missing textures for fuck’s sake! And I loved the summary of each player character. “This guy is good for close up fighting, load up with “some” materia. This guy is good for close up and long range fighting, load up with “a little” materia. She is good for long range fighting, load up with “a bunch” of materia,” and on and on the vagueries went.

Glad I got it for free with some mag sub.

The irony is all the characters in FFVII were basically blank slates and could be whatever you gave them materia to be. I hated the materia, btw. Give me jobs or espers or something less retarded!

He, he, he. I know exactly the guide Brad is talking about, Japanese gamers went ga-ga when news got out that it had some Amano art never before collected in art book over here. I remember thinking if I could just get that one picture of The Rider, I would be happy for the rest of my life. Ah, how priorities change.

BTW, the textureless models in FFVII stuff are actually part of the official art, I should know, its in the guides over here as part of the “sketch” log. But still, yeah, Nomura sucks in comparison to Amano, some nice moments of brilliance, but otherwise, oh so average and its a crime that a series as aesthetically nice as FF is saddled down with him these days. Luckily, FFXII has the Vagrant Story character designer on the prowl! Woo! :o

I know its still a sticky story for games released first in the States, so I wouldn’t know what there is to be done, but I ask again, why not just either import the Japanese game and write the guide or translate the Japanese guide and then add in the appropriate English screenshots when the final translation comes through? That way, not so much crunch time. Probably a good idea to the same thing with European games, I’m sure there are guides for games released in Europe first and you may not even have to change the screenshots. I mean, is their a Gothic 2 guide out there? They would have more than enough time to try out all their theories and stuff on the German version before the US release right?

BTW, you know what’s cool? Those old-type hint books, where you use the pen to reveal increasingly more obvious hints. Those used to fascinate when I was smaller.


I think it might have something to do with bilingual, qualified translators being more expensive to employ than guys in their early twenties. But, yeah, I think you’d at least want to know what secrets and hints the Japanese strat guys had discovered. I imagine it’s even more difficult to get info from developers when they’re half way around the world and speak a language you don’t.

Maybe you should start up a boutique strategy guide business specializing in writing English guides for Japanese games to be released alongside the localized versions! We can split the profits 50/50. You do all the work and I’ll have come up with the idea!

The solution from an “artistic” point of view is to release the guide after the game is on shelves. That would mean the writer starts with pre-release code, but doesn’t finalize anything until the game is gold, and the designers have time to chat and review stuff. Even better, guides that work with the developers very closely, and also take the time to do it right. Very feasible in a technical sort of way…

…but apparently commercial suicide. I don’t know when the idea that the guide had to appaer simultaneously with the game became graven in stone, but it’s the single biggest factor in guide suckage IMO. Perhaps I’m not remembering correctly, but in the old days, didn’t, say, the guides to Civ (“Rome on 640K a Day”) and games like that come out after the game was available?

One reason the online FAQs/guides can be very good (some suck, some are fantastic) is that they generally are labors of love. My wife downloaded and printed out a 300+ page KOTOR guide from the web that blows away the official book (which I’m ashamed to say I purchased). I’m a guide whore, I admit it–I love reading catalogs, guides, anything that has a lot of discrete info in many different parts. Something to do with my incredibly short attention spa

Remember, the gamefaq website rocks (most of the time). Who needs strategy guides? BTW, Asher what game did you do a strategy guide for?


I remerber really liking the CIV strategy guides back in the day, and the Might and Magic I and II guides. But one day, a great shadow fell across my world. One of the later Might and Magic guides, I think it was III or IV didn’t have the tables in the back of every base item’s stats and the list of all modifiers and their properties. “What,” I thought to myself, “is the point, then?”

Suddenly strat guides contained only terrible vague prose and a bland walkthrough. The ones by Prima were the worst. I hated every one, I won’t even open a Prima strategy guide now, to see if it’s worth getting.

I stopped buying guides, but my little siblings didn’t. They would play the game with the walkthrough open. “Don’t you want to play the game,” I would say, “instead of following the instructions?” They did not.

My point is that the kids don’t mind the crappy strategy guides. I suspect that just posession of a guide, whether it is helpful or not, has a psychological value, elevates the owner of the guide to a more elite set of players.

So how to get the guides we want? I don’t think the style of “Official Guides” will change, but there may be a small market for a “Geek’s Guide” to a game. Something with all the numbers and algorithms in it. It could come with an Excel spreadsheet so that if the game is patched you can recalculate everything, and have everything you need in front of you, rebuild all your test characters, etc. I would probably buy something like that, but if I had to make a random unsupported guess, I’d say there aren’t enough people like me to make it viable.

Every writer has the option to not take the assignment. The crap that Apekid mentioned is the reason why I don’t write strategy guides.