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Future of Guides

And here we go! ... nur auf Englisch!

All this text is written by Absolute Steve.

I know. This essay is quite lengthy. However, if you have some interest in how the guide writing industry is currently evolving, I invite you to read this essay in which I plead for more recognition for, and more cooperation between guide authors.

Game guides have been around for almost as long as videogames themselves, but in a world where information is becoming increasingly more accessible, how is the format for game guides evolving? In the early nineties, game guides were usually featured as an appendix to videogame magazines, until Prima launched a series of game guides back in 1990. The guides were qualitatively poor and fairly unpopular by today's standards. Another company called Bradygames started selling guides in the nineties. It spawned various over the years, including infamous - yet best selling - books for popular RPG's such as the Final Fantasy series. Halfway the nineties, hotlines also started to gain popularity, if only through heavy marketing. By dialing a certain hotline you had "instant access" to hundreds of cheats for the most well-known games. The hotlines were rather expensive (a buck per minute at least), so it wasn't the preferred option for getting your daily cheatcodes. If you were stuck in a game back then, you either had your friends or big brother help you. If your friends sucked at gaming and you didn't have a big brother (I for one, didn't), then "that was life for 'ya."

At the end of the decade, two new companies arose in the game guide industry, and interestingly, both took base in Hamburg, Germany. Piggyback quickly conquered the European market with high-quality guides for well-known games such as the Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy Series. FuturePress filled in the gaps with 'lesser' titles and remains to do so to date, mainly for the European and German market, one of the reasons it's hardly known elsewhere in the world.

The internet brought aspiring game guide writers the excellent possibility to spread their information worldwide, but it wasn't until around the millennium that the majority of people started to gain internet access. The most popular games were quick to be covered in so-called FAQs: Documents in which Frequently Asked Questions were answered. Jeff Veasey, founder of GameFAQs, started collecting these documents and brought them all together at what remains the biggest online gaming helpsite to date. FAQs started including full-fledged walkthroughs and some of these in turn evolved into strategy guides that left no stone unturned. Lately, since the late 2000's, wiki pages have gained interest. This format allows communities of people to cooperatively work on creating a network of informative pages regarding a certain game. While the obvious benefit is that the amount of people makes contributing easy and the network quickly grows, some of the major downsides are inaccuracy of information, poorly written and vague walkthroughs, and the constant need to browse back and forth between pages. Most FAQ authors foresaw that accessibility was easily enhanced and had already solved the tedious searching problem by implementing a simple Ctrl + F search system with [tags] into their documents.

Presently, there are several camps in the guide writing business. There are the well-known strategy guide writing companies that pay for exclusive publishing rights, and there's the ever growing database of free guides online. We can divide the four official strategy guide companies into two groups, not only geographically but interestingly also qualitatively: On the one hand we have the U.S.-based Prima and Bradygames, whose motto comes down to "selling as many game guides as possible, for as many games as possible." The problem is that they spawn not only strategy guides for games hardly justified for this format, but more so that their books are qualitatively poor. Admittedly there has been a slight rise in quality over the past 10 years, but the sloppy and erroneous layouts and information almost never justify a purchase at these companies. However, the majority of the gaming market - say 90% - doesn't even look at the company name when buying a strategy guide, so there's no reason beyond ethics for these companies to care. Fortunately, there has been a slight shift in approach, where these companies are realizing that one author simply cannot write a complete guide on his own, and as such the quality of a few "big-name" guides has risen slightly. On the other hand, most layout approaches aren't as good as they should be, and the same can be said about various tactical tips, inaccuracy and incompletion of the content.

On the other hand we have the European companies, Piggyback and FuturePress, of which the former is the uncrowned king in the guide writing business. Their approach is to make very few guides a year - two to three at most - but to make them perfect in almost every possible way. While strategy guides always remain a product of marketing, if you need any reason to warrant a purchase at all, it's because their books are in the best condition they could've possibly reached you, having excellent binding, highly qualitative layouts and an ocean of information and trivia. The only downsides to this approach are the fact that not every game can be covered (only highly popular games can be), and that a collector's edition might be pricey in these difficult times for some people.

Where Piggyback's fashionable office is located in the beautiful Hamburg city center, my trip to FuturePress requires a little more dedication, but I eventually manage to find their headquarters in a back alley of a more sober neighborhood. The people are all very friendly, although it becomes immediately apparent that they don't have the contacts Piggyback does. FuturePress still makes better guides than Prima and Bradygames, but a sore reality is that they only get to buy the rights from Prima and Brady themselves - mostly just for the European market.

Then there's the free, online sources of gaming help, ranging from the vast library of text-based documents on GameFAQs, to the - sorry to say, but poorly made - semi-free guides of Gamespot and IGN, to wiki pages dedicated to specific games, to in-depth guides by prolific authors at Supercheats, to more simple websites that mainly offer cheats only. An interesting format sprung from Youtube recently: Video talkthroughs. There are few reasons to be a big fan of this format, if only for the reason that there's no proper search function, but there are more downsides to it which are all discussed later. In this turbulent world of ever-changing formats for game guides, which direction are we headed and better yet, which direction is best to be headed towards?

It's mostly about making choices regarding the height of your standards and arguably everyone would want the highest standard of quality, even if the information is free. When looking for any source of game information, this would translate into the following criteria: Getting everything out of your game in the most convenient way possible. This is the approach that the better official companies take when making their tomes, so it might as well be your - admittedly ultimate - demand when looking for a free guide online. So let's compare the different formats to see how well they work when this criteria is applied.

I'll start off with the - usually widely promoted - semi-free game guides on Gamespot and IGN. First of all, keep in mind that the guys writing these aren't paid a top-notch salary, and that they have to spit out guides at a rather fast pace. Add to this the fact that writing for video games as a job takes most of the fun out of the gaming experience and you get rushed guides with half-decent text and accompanied screenshots that have no existential purpose but to serve as filler. It's true; the walkthroughs are usually rather globally written, serving only to get you from point A to point B, and will help you only when you're stuck and have absolutely no clue as to where to go. The "in-depth" sections mostly cover only the basics and are hardly worth mentioning. Quite a lot of people *will* however use these guides, simply because they're decently advertised online. A solution for improvement would theoretically be simple, but it's similar to the final conclusion we'll land at in the final section of this essay, so let's stay patient and unspoiled for now. A permanent problem these sites face is the low budget they're willing to spend on game guides (in other words, they lack idealism altogether. This is one of the reasons I'd recommend against using these sites, but that's a complete different story).

Wiki pages are a newly born alternative and their pros and cons have already been briefly discussed above. They suffer from the same problem as the semi-free guides previously discussed, namely that they lack in-depth information incorporated in the walkthrough itself. Wikis make up for this with their nearly infinite amount of pages on subjects, but this is also a weakness; this sometimes leaves you searching around and in circles. Credit is hardly given when editing wiki pages, so for the exception of a few top-notch contributors, it is a business mostly fueled in bit-sized pieces by a large community of people. Unpopular games aren't covered by wiki pages at all, and there are far too few contributors in the first place.

As for cheat sites in general, there's not much more to be found besides just cheats. There's one major exception to the rule, being Supercheats. The guides written here by prolific authors have a few nice additions, including video (and sometimes screenshot) support. Not all guides are of the same quality, but there's a solution for this problem we'll soon land at.

Video talkthroughs have a few benefits, the biggest being that the author no longer needs to write everything down into words when creating the talkthrough. This doesn't benefit the user looking for help, and they are only helped in very specific contexts by this format, which lends itself perfectly for "finding hidden objects", and I dare say it lends itself for this purpose only. It works great if you see someone walk straight to an item you were looking for and that you struggled to find when reading through text. As such, videos are a great addition to text, but not as a replacement. Why not? For one, videos don't have a proper search function, and can never describe handy statistics, such as a complete item/equipment list as featured in most role playing games (but very thinkable in adventure games as well, where this can take the form of a table that compares gunfire power for example). The viewer also needs to deduct strategies from the video and comments of the author alone. This can work for a straight A-to-B walkthrough or for beating a boss, but it's a pain when the author decides against exploring optional parts when you wanted to do just that - or vice versa. An other disadvantage is that videos contain spoilers. You might be able to click away the video right before spoilers come up, especially if the author warns you in advance, but you can imagine this is a stressful situation. A last drawback of videos is that they're time consuming to watch, so it's almost like you're playing the game twice; once by someone else playing it for you. Videos can still be, it has to be said, an excellent addition to text when they visually show something text has difficulties with to describe, but they have little value beyond this feature.

If someone would ask me if there is still a need for text-based documents (FAQs) in a few years, I'd wholeheartedly tell them yes, but I'd also tell them that things are in need of a little tweaking. FAQs suffer from less problems than other formats because they're well organized, rapidly downloadable, quickly searchable by using [tags] and Ctrl + F, they're printable, easy to save onto your hard disk, and they have all information stored in one place. There's only one 'problem'; the big differences in quality between FAQs. Some guides remain unfinished, some are finished but have a very poor layout, and only a handful can be considered pure quality. Now I know (of course I do), these authors all write in their spare time and we should all be thankful for whatever they contribute - no arguing there. What would you expect from free guides? But if it's easy to make things better, why not give it a try?

On a side note, I wouldn't think the solution lies in the new html guides that GameFAQs now features. It theoretically allows for a few decent features, especially if authors would choose to include screenshots that enrich their written text (but a danger lies in abundance). Better yet would be placing videos at parts where text lacks in its descriptive function as argued for in the previous paragraphs. Having a few videos to show difficult item locations would be great. Besides these benefits, the format is no longer easy to print (not a disaster), it is arguably not as easy to search through compared to a compact text document, it is a pain to save onto an external space such as a hard disk or USB stick, and for some reason they're not as easy to organize as text. Besides this, it takes more time for both writers and administrator(s) to create this format. If anything, this format reminds mostly of the unsuccessful superguides at mycheats, the difference being that everyone can contribute to those.

Random screenshots as used in the semi-free guides on IGN and Gamespot don't add much value for the reader, and the only purpose they serve is as eye candy. Picture support, as one could call it, derives its purpose from *supporting* the reader in getting something done in the game. One of the main purposes to support a reader is to tell them where they need to go, or to show where a player is headed towards. As a rule, screenshots don't lend themselves well for this purpose. They're too static and can only show a limited frame of information currently going on in the game. Maps on the other hand are much more abstract, and can show readers a wide variety of (item) locations, as well as giving a general overview. This is the biggest drawback of text documents, and although text maps can be functional, picture maps are easier to use. Fortunately, it's very easy to upload a picture map to GameFAQs and integrate it in a text guide as a link. The main point here is that pictures generally distract from the actual guide material. Eye candy is nice, but you'll get enough of eye candy while playing your games.

The solution is already partly being executed by some authors who co-author with each other, but it'd be interesting and easy enough to take this to the next level. You'll unlikely have found yourself staring at a few different FAQs, wondering which one to pick. Perhaps you randomly chose one, perhaps one of an author who sounded familiar, or perhaps you looked for recent updates and the size of the document, or maybe you clicked on all of them and made your decision after briefly browsing each. In any case, several authors all decided to make their own version of a FAQ. Some of them don't cover much more besides the walkthrough, others write complete guides, and still others make an attempt at fully uncovering every aspect of the game. While there's something to say for writing everything all by yourself - you get your own credits and you *can* have fun while writing - it is worth asking the question whether or not you're actually contributing something that hasn't already been done before; do guides exist with better informative text that are faster available than yours, are better searchable, more concisely and clearly written, perhaps more beautifully laid out? Because if they do, realize that the only good reasons to continue writing for such a game are either because you want to practice your writing skills (a completely legitimate reason), or because you think you can do better than the best existing guide available (legitimate, but sometimes difficult to attain). A final, alternative point of view could be to take "a different approach", which always comes down to either using more or using less humor, or describing more or less spoilers, simply because "other approaches" don't exist: The video game you're writing about demands a certain structured approach with little variation possible. Do realize that even with a "different approach", the most important goal is still to write just as qualitatively as the best available stuff already launched elsewhere. Also keep in mind that the author(s) of the most qualitative guide might've chosen to use a fair share of humor and keep spoilers to a minimum (arguably a favorable combination for the majority of readers). Even when there's no information available at all on a certain game, which is common when games have just been released, it can still be important to keep the highest possible quality in mind, simply because someone else might outdo your guide soon.

While I realize that some of the above might sound radical in the ears of certain writers, I think it also sounds very logical. If you compare the amount of visits of a high-quality guide to a merely decent guide you'd notice a drastic difference between figures. The star system already differentiates - and rightfully so - between guides to make qualitative ones stand out. This is one of the best features GameFAQs has implemented in a long time, and it would be great to see it continue down that road to underline and stress the importance of high quality work. I wouldn't want to argue that guides should no longer be posted if they are of less quality than others (although it would be good to have an unwritten rule that unfinished walkthroughs do not get posted if a starred guide already exists for that game), as it also encourages writers to start in 'the business'. The point here is that everyone would greatly benefit if authors started to work together in an efficient manner.

Wouldn't it be great to have one (perhaps two) excellent - no, nearly perfect - guide(s) for whatever game you desire? Or at least for the most popular titles? The problem with raising the bar this high is that it starts to take very large amounts of time to write such a guide, and few authors are in the favorable position of having endless amounts of spare time (or are willing to devote so much of their spare time to the writing of FAQs). Another problem with striving for extraordinary quality is that the community at least partly consists of younger writers who are still working on improving their guide writing skills.

If authors would form teams that work together on certain guides, they'd not only be sure that people would love their cooperative work, it would also save the authors a lot of time and they'd still have made a beautiful piece of work in the end. This is the approach that the better official game guide companies take. They work in teams, and it shows. Have people focus on a certain aspect of the guide and beautifully shape the guide together, literally. In FAQ writing, this could easily be put to practice. Someone could work on the walkthrough, perhaps coordinating sections with someone else if their writing styles match (which is no necessity by any means). Another author could provide ASCII artwork, still someone else could help work on side quests and parts that require optional exploration, someone could be working on assembling item and equipment lists. Such a team of four to five people can easily be credited at the top of the document, revealing their (alias) names in all pride and glory.

The same idea could be applied to all online guide writing, and it would greatly improve the overall quality of what's available. Ultimately it would find sponsoring and receive some donations from the community, but even without this it can make a great leap towards reaching the ultimate goal of guide writing: To not only help someone from A to B, but to really *enhance* someone's experience of a game in every possible way, giving people the option to fully explore and enjoy a videogame. You can watch linear movies, you can read linear books, but you must actively explore a video game, and in some cases, only a high-quality strategy guide is going to help you do just that. It would be unfair to demand from gamers to purchase such a strategy guide for every game they buy. Ideally, the future of video game guides would have prolific authors overcome their ego and team up to shape perfect text-based strategy guides. Readers could in turn show a little more praise when truly deserved... Now what are some ways to improve and promote quality?

A few great ways that could help promote authors to work together in order to reach higher levels of quality (and faster, too) would be to not only hold a FAQ of the Month contest, but also a FAQ of the Year contest (or alternatively a FAQ of the Season, but that sounds kind of lame). There are too few monthly contributions to really judge quality alone (game popularity and thus guide demand also plays its role), but a yearly competition on top of the FotM contest could really push author(teams) to the limit. Although it'd be nice, it doesn't even need to involve prize money - I bet many guide writers would commit murder to have a gold star featured next to their own or team's name for that matter.

It could also greatly help to put authors a little more in the spotlights. A simple poll could do wonders alone, not to imagine a "favorite author" contest, putting the building bricks of GameFAQs in the spotlight for once - the authors of FAQs themselves - instead of the repetitive character contests that are now being held yearly. A trial would be nice at the very least; contributors really like these contests, as the writer's board has shown repeatedly year after year for over a decade now. It'd also motivate aspiring writers to give it a shot of their own - there's nothing to lose.

On a different but related note, an other possible way to easily motivate qualitative work under authors would be by showing the amount of stars - which implies recommendations or FotM prizes - on the author's forum account, similar to how Karma is displayed.

The idea is that when the quality of text guides jumps, the time is ripe for the contributor recognition to rise as well, and quite frankly, it's been way overdue for a long time. The only thing that currently fuels guide writers are thank-you emails (or the general idea of helping people). With little extra effort, the shrinking community of veteran guide writers can get a new impulse and new goals.

We've got a long way to go, but it should be possible to push guide writing a step in the right direction, starting here. Things like this don't take off without discussions, so spread the word and let GameFAQs know about this.
You can also join the discussion on my facebook page, located at:
On a closing note, I'm currently looking for prolific authors that share this vision and want to join a team. Some spots have already been taken, and places are limited. If you're interested, apply at and send a link to your contributor page and your best piece of work.

All this text was written by Absolute Steve.
Thanks for giving me permission to use it here.

Last modified: 2014-04-26

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