Decline of Guides

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What I Observed as the Barbarians Stormed the Gates

by Alan Emrich

Co-authored with Johnny L. Wilson, my first book was a big hit.In an internet discussion on Prima’s Civilization II: The Official Strategy Guide, one disgruntled purchaser named Graham remarked “I may never buy another strategy guide except one penned by Mr. Emrich.” After thanking him for his complement to the rather exhaustive style of strategy guides I write, replied to him indicating that I felt obligated to illustrate what I see as the causes of the decline of official computer game strategy guides. Consequently, my keyboard is once again across my lap, this time not writing another strategy guide, but instead indicting what I see as a very disturbing trend in our hobby.

The Master of Magic book introduced my co-author Petra Schlunk.To begin at the beginning, there are two general types of strategy guides: official and unofficial (or unauthorized or any of a number of synonyms). As a rule, an official strategy guide is one where the publisher of the guide has cut a deal with the computer game publisher. The game publisher, much like the authors of these strategy guides, gets a cash advance and some royalties from book sales, plus the right to inspect the book before it’s printed. The book publisher gets an exclusive to use the official moniker on their tome and, presumably, their author gets to examine pre-release versions of the game and interview people at the company who can answer detailed questions about the game, thus proving some “inside” information.

Conversely, an unofficial strategy guide is one that generally comes out some time after the game is released and is therefore based, primarily, on player experience with the released version of the game. These unofficial guides might also be written by someone with access to programmers, playtesters, or other “insiders,” but not necessarily. Certainly they have access to the various online discussions on the game and have a take for what players want to know about it.

The Ways Things Ought To Be

Before condemning today’s standards in official strategy guides, allow me to state what I believe a strategy guide should offer and how that contrasts to a good game manual.

A good game manual should tell you how to play the game -- what button to press, where to find a particular menu, how to manipulate objects, and other mechanical basics that allow the player to physically play the game. A good game manual will elaborate on the important elements of the game and also offer a modicum of advice on how to play it well.

And don't get me started on the games themselves. Anyone remember the manual for the original version of Sid Meier's Civilization? It not only told you how to play the game, but gave history lessons and strategy tips. Of course, that game spawned one of the earliest efforts at strategy guides, Rome on 640K a Day by Johnny Wilson and Alan Emrich. But that guide was a great adjunct, with even more history lessons and strategy tips different from those in the manual. But Wilson and Emrich unwittingly spawned an evil industry that has supplanted real manuals in games with strategy guides of varying quality that you have to pay extra money for.

Notes from the Lab: Gouging Gamers?

A good strategy guide picks up where a good manual leaves off. (Sadly, good manuals are hard to find, so often a strategy guide has to begin by being the de facto manual and, consequently, building up the reader’s knowledge of the game from the ground up.) This means teaching the player how to play well, explaining why things in the game work and interact the way they do (often this entails some juicy details like tables and formulae or, possibly, some designer’s notes), provide a complete, easy-access reference to anything and everything about the game, be well indexed, help players find opponents (for multi-player games), and illuminate any cheats or Easter Eggs concerning the game.

Five Easy Steps To Inferior Strategy Guides

Step One:

To obtain more sales, strategy guide publishers (primarily Prima, but Brady and Sybex, for their official strategy guides, are, I suspect, just as guilty) want to release each official strategy guide as close to the game's release date as possible. Citing facts and figures, they know that timing, not quality, is the primary engine for sales of their strategy guides.

This is not a theory! I have personally been told this by several representatives at Prima. They're very open about this policy. Sure, all of the publishers would like to have the best quality book. However, speed has been proven (to them) to be far more important for getting the bucks (and, thus, justifying the extra money they’re paying to the game publishers for the official title) out of your pockets. Basically, if you’re playing the game now, you want the strategy guide for it now. It’s almost as if the book publishers perceive their books as impulse items to people just learning a computer game.

Step Two:

Due to the lead time in publishing a book, it has to be submitted about a month or two prior to the game's release. In other words, editing, layout, page proofing, printing, and distribution take at least a month (but let’s assume that the publisher really has it together on their end to speed things along to help increase their sales -- a fair assumption, I believe). Consequently, the official strategy guide will be based on a game that was, at the very least, a month away from the version that hits the store shelves. That month-old version will probably be close to what we’re actually playing, but it’s probably not identical.

Step Three:

Any self-respecting writer will want to spend at least a some time with a game prior to writing a book on it. (I know strategy guide authors who don’t, and it scares me.) Assuming that the author of the book cares about the game and its players more than making a quick buck, add another two to three months (to play the game, conduct interviews, and write a strategy guide) to the one month it takes to physically publish the book. (Personally, I don't feel that's enough time to really master all of the nuances the game and then write a comprehensive book about it. Readers can judge the value of my opinion on this matter by the quality of the several strategy guides I've written.)

Step Four:

At this point, there is a book author, looking at beta code that is approximately four months from ready, and writing a strategy guide based on that early, possibly very raw version of the game. Every time that author wants to plug in a formula or exact number (thus, trying to realize for the reader the benefits of the book's official status), the answer comes back that, because the game is still in beta, those values are subject to change as the game gets play tested (for "play balance," and not just bugs). This play testing goes on, as a rule, all the way up to the day before the software goes final and is sent by the game publisher off for duplication.

Step Five:

Well, shoot! Now the author can't put any hard information in the book, because nothing's final! If the author does venture to put in some hard data (after extracting promises that they won’t change those numbers or will inform him immediately of any changes -- promises that are not always kept as these programmers are in crunch mode trying to get the software ready for release and not worrying about keeping some out-of-house strategy guide author in the loop), as often as not, a specific piece of hard information about that game will be the truth when it’s written and a lie when it’s published (because someone tweaked some numbers in the code). Garbage in, garbage out.

Personally, that means half the strategy guide (i.e., the details on what is going on behind the screens -- how the numbers interact that explain the results I see on the screen) is either absent (because the author would rather be vague or omit these details rather than attach his name to a possible lie) or suspect (because there’s many a slip between beta and ship).

Just to cite a couple of example from Prima’s Civilization II: The Official Strategy Guide that inspired this article, on page 88 the author bravely puts forth a formula for the maximum number of cites an empire can have before additional population unhappiness ensues. Well, generally I play at the Emperor level under a Republic and, according to this formula, I’ll have additional population unhappiness if I own at least negative four cities! Oh, come on!

Still, there might have been a typo that wasn’t caught, so I went to look up details on space ship construction -- a subject where the game’s manual is particularly vague. I knew that a good strategy guide would tell me how many components of what type would provide what level of bonus points to my Civ score, maybe even a look-up table for cost, victory points, and time. Here I found this official strategy guide guilty of omission. It says nothing more on the subject than I could have looked up in the game’s on-line civolopedia, telling me only what technologies I needed to discover to build the different parts (sigh).

However, the most heinous example remains Prima’s Outpost: The Official Strategy Guide. This book was published quite some time before the game’s release, raising expectations still further from all the usual Sierra pre-publication hype. When published, the strategy guide discussed a good many features and elements not found in the game! Why? Because both game and strategy guide were released before their time, leaving gamers who purchased the strategy guide probably unable to return it (it would have been passed the return privilege window of opportunity after they bought the game and found out that the guide covered the game Sierra wanted to make, not the one they actually released).

Quality or Speed?

Clearly, quality is being sacrificed on the alter of publishing speed for official strategy guides. Players seeking deeper information on a game are turning more and more to on-line services, the internet, and various unauthorized sources (including unauthorized strategy guides). Because much of the material found in these places is based on the game as published (and, generally, patched), it is more relevant to the player. There is usually more truth in these sources as the tips offered have had more time to be worked out in practice -- they’re not just theoretical ideas based on design specs or beta code.

What’s the solution? In a perfect world, publishers would wait to release a product about three months after the code has finaled. Players would get better manuals (most of which are shoddy for all of the above reasons that official strategy guides are) and better strategy guides, as both would have the time to be written based on the finished game. Also, customers would see marketing campaigns for games that are already “in the can,” and thus won’t keep missing their expected release dates. An improvement in product quality that this three month grace period could bestow would beget trust between buyer and publisher, and that would be a good thing. Imagine, too, magazine reviews of actual finished products that would appear concurrently with a game’s release!

Alas, we live with a get-it-out-there-and-start-recouping-our-investment-now computer industry. It’s hard for these companies to sit on a even a small, two-million dollar game project (that’s probably slipped 6 months and had a 20% cost overrun) for an extra three months so that all of these vital support elements can be properly timed and accurate. Once Einstein proved that T = $ (i.e., “time is money”), then who are the bean counters at the strategy guide, computer game company, and magazine publishers to argue? That is the consumer’s job.

For my part, I won’t be buying any official strategy guides that are released near the ship date of a computer game. No author could know what I, the player, want to know that far in advance of a game’s completion. I’ll wait and take a look at the unofficial guide, where at least I know the author has played the same build of the game that I have. For my money, that’s the minimum level of information detail that I expect.

What are your plans?

I received the following thoughtful letter in response to this editorial:

From: David Wessman [DWessman@aol.com]:

Having coauthored strategy guides for several very successful computer games, I can only agree with Alan. Being a part of the development team with primary responsibility for game play and story, I was delighted to have the opportunity to assist with the books. My contribution was strategy tips and screen shots for each of the missions I had designed. Our game manuals were on the thin side, (though not lacking in any essential information), so we really tried to cram as much information as possible into the strategy guide... not just tips on how to beat specific missions, but data on craft, data extracted from our mission building tool, etc. The lead author organized everything and contributed original story material to hang it all together with. Overall, I was quite pleased with how they turned out.

Unfortunately, the publisher kept pressuring us to get each book done more quickly than the last... all so they could be on the shelves the same time as the game. I kept trying to explain that, as the game was still being debugged and fine-tuned (practically up to the last minute before release to production), there was no point in rushing things until the game was really done. Not to mention the fact that my first obligation was to the game, not the book! This fell on deaf ears.

Now, since the games were based on a licensed property, it is the owner of the license who is the ultimate arbiter of who gets to do derivative products. Their chief concern is to jealously guard their license and ensure maximum profit share on any licensed products... not product quality. They will allow strategy guides to be done by anyone who will accept their typically lopsided deals. Coordination with or input from the game developers is not even seen as necessary! Anyone who's compared Brady's TIE Fighter book with Prima's knows what to expect. Brady's had absolutely nothing in it that you didn't get from the game manual, or from playing the game. (The reason is the game had quite extensive briefing information and "online" help in the form of debriefings ... information they merely rearranged and regurgitated. But you did get full color screen shots throughout ... ooh ... aah!) Prima's had the game's mission designers as coauthors and their book is a wealth of useful information.

I think Alan's right... if the book hits the stores at the same time as the game, (or before), it's probably crap. At minimum, a game manual should provide all the information you need to play the game and have something that helps set the mood and prepare you to immerse yourself in the game experience. Ideally, it should add to the overall value of the product so as to make people want to own their own legitimate copy, not a bootleg with a Xeroxed "cheat sheet". A strategy guide should help you play the game well and understand its workings, perhaps even reveal what's "under the hood." I personally especially enjoy any information provided by the developers/designers as to why they made the game the way they did. The sad fact is that publisher's don't seem to care about anything other than sales figures. If you let them get away with it, why should they change?

Oh, and one other thing: retailers order books based on projected sales and the publishers then print enough books to satisfy those orders. If sales aren't as good as the retailer's imagined they'd be, they will then send the unsold copies back. Now the publishers accept any that come back and the returns are counted against the author's royalties. At least this is how it has been explained to me. Inevitably, it is the author, (the one(s) who actually did the most work), who get the least share of profit and are the first to get screwed by mismanaged publishing and distribution deals. My most successful book so far made about 1.6 million dollars at retail. My share was about $4000, or 20 cents per copy sold. I won't be driving a new Ferrari any time soon at that rate.

Here's another article on the subject of the Decline of Computer Game Strategy guides along a similar vein to mine: click here.

Alan Emrich is the former Strategy Games Editor at Computer Gaming World magazine, has written several computer game strategy guides, and has designed and developed several published board, card and computer games since the 1970s.