“The thing about strategy guide publishing is that it’s a parasitic industry,” says Doug Walsh, who spent 18 years writing video game guides for the two biggest publishers, BradyGames and Prima. Perhaps that’s why the infamous Final Fantasy IX guide turned out the way it did.
Today, Walsh is publishing The Walkthrough: Insider Tales from a Life in Strategy Guides, a memoir about his life and career writing guides for dozens of games big and small.
It’s a fun, entertaining read that begins with a lucky encounter that led to Walsh’s first gig and ends with the death of Prima Games, the last hurrah for print strategy guides.
Over email, Walsh answered some of my questions about what it was like to be a professional strategy guide writer and how that Final Fantasy IX guide wound up so atrocious. It was essentially left half-finished, with every page directing the reader to go to PlayOnline.com for the full walkthrough.
“At some point, SquareSoft alerted BradyGames about their plans for PlayOnline.com and BradyGames pushed back against it, knowing it would ruin the guide and cheat the fans,” Walsh told me.
“My understanding is that they tried to get SquareSoft to only shift non-essential information to the portal, but Square wasn’t having it… Everyone at Brady knew the fans were going to be pissed off about it, but they couldn’t risk not getting the rights to Final Fantasy X by refusing to comply.”
Here’s our full interview, lightly edited for clarity:
Schreier: First of all, can you tell me about the process for writing a strategy guide? Did you play through a game and write out the walkthrough as you go? Did the developers typically send you any sort of basic outline or structure that you could use as you wrote, or was it entirely on you to figure it out?
Walsh: Typically, I’d spend a solid one to three days playing the game in attempt to get as deep into it as I could without worrying about writing or recording video. At this stage, I’d be thinking a lot about organisation—how best to structure the guide—and the assets we’d need to request from the licensor (maps, art, ballistics data, etc.). If it’s a shorter game, like a shooter, I may race through to the end just to have the peace-of-mind that comes from knowing the full scope of the title. For example, while on-site at Microsoft for Halo: Reach, my editor and I each blitzed through the game in a single day, but most games are too lengthy for that. That was impossible for a title like Borderlands 2.
Once I felt comfortable with the mechanics, I’d set up my video capture equipment, and get started with a fresh game save. Typically, I’d spend the mornings writing the walkthrough from the video I recorded the prior day, then resume recording in the afternoon. I’d capture screenshots from the video as I wrote, while also populating the various peripheral chapters with notes and pertinent data. When at all possible, I’d have multiple game saves going in effort to reduce the chance I miss something.
As a general rule, we strategy guide authors were left to figure everything out on our own. We might receive attack/hit points or ballistics and some bestiary data, but that would be about it. More often than not, we’d get access to the game, character/item art, and that’s about it.
Schreier: How far in advance would you get builds of games so you could start writing the guide? Did you ever have to play builds that were unfinished or full of game-breaking bugs? If so, can you tell me what that was like?
Walsh: This is one of the things that changed the most over the 18 years I’ve been doing this work. Back in the PS2 era, guides would rarely take more than three or four weeks to write. The books were shorter—typically less than 160 pages—and so were the games. My very first time on-site at Nintendo was for Banjo-Tooie. The book was 144 pages and we wrote it in two weeks. Compare that to our Super Mario Odyssey guide which was 352 pages and took nearly two months. Those shorter games (and guides) meant we could get started later in the development process, typically after the games had “gone gold.” And BradyGames, who I started writing for in 2000, only needed the text from me a month before the game’s release.
Nowadays, thanks in part to the safety net afforded by day one patches, many games are in a much less polished state while the strategy guide is being written. In a word, it’s frustrating. Unbeknownst to me at the time, my very last strategy guide turned out to be Darksiders 3. Though I really enjoyed playing the game, large swaths were virtually unplayable until the week of my deadline. The game ultimately came together nicely, but I was having to start over seemingly every other day as new builds were provided. Making matters worse was that after Prima Games and BradyGames merged, the parent company, Penguin Random House, insisted on a production schedule that was, in essence, completely unrealistic for our niche industry, thus requiring the books to be written even earlier in the game’s development cycle.
Schreier: How different was playing a game for a strategy guide than playing a game for fun?
Walsh: I was under contract for nine books a year for the bulk of my career, which left little time to play games outside of work. I was seemingly always working on a guidebook or about to begin one. This isn’t to say I didn’t buy games, though. My backlog is enormous! Rather, I effectively missed out on all of the larger, AAA titles that I didn’t write guides for. True story: the only Grand Theft Auto I ever played was about two hours of San Andreas. I never played a Mass Effect or Dragon Age or a single Final Fantasy since FFVII (though I did co-write the guides for Crisis Core and Dirge of Cerberus).
Instead, I gravitated toward games that I could pick up and play without commitment. I abused the Xbox Arcade versions of Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan. Played tons of multiplayer Gears of War and would gravitate toward games like Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies.
You have to be of a certain mindset in order to write strategy guides. There has to be an OCD-component of your play style where you refuse to walk down an alley without checking inside every garbage can for a handful of coins or Remedy Herb. The trend toward open world, crafting, survival games melts my brain. Maybe one day I’ll be able to play a game like Red Dead Redemption 2 or the next Elder Scrolls and see more than the first few hours, but I doubt it.
Schreier: What’s the best game you got to play early for a guide? And, what’s the worst game you had to play to completion for a guide?
I can’t possibly pick just one, but it was a tremendous thrill to be one of the first people to play Bioshock, Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Metroid Prime, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, and Super Mario Odyssey, among others.
I devote complete chapters in my book to my experience writing all the guides for Gears of War and the less celebrated Enter the Matrix. I’d be remiss not to mention how excited I was to work on those, at least at first…
As for the worst game I ever wrote a guide for, it has to be Death by Degrees, the Tekken spinoff starring Nina Williams (2005). To this day, I can recall emailing the final chapter to my editor with a note that said, “I still have no idea how to play this game.”
Schreier: As you worked on guides, how much did you communicate with the developers? Would they always tell you about the obscure hidden easter eggs or secret endings, or would you have to find everything yourself? (I’m sure every game was different, so please feel free to share some specific examples.)
Walsh: You’d be surprised how little contact we had with developers. The majority of the time, we were dealing with licensors who, generally speaking, seemed to know little more than what was public knowledge. They hadn’t played it and many hadn’t even seen it. That’s what made working on-site at studios like Epic, Gearbox, and Blizzard so helpful, as the producers were always within reach.
But when it came to easter eggs—especially if there were any Achievements tied to them—most developers had a general rule that we could include it in the guide if we found it, but they wouldn’t tell us. One exception to this was the giant golden chicken in Gears of War 3. We were explicitly told not to mention that in the guidebook, as Epic wanted the fans to discover it on their own. Same goes for Whimsyshire in Diablo III. It wasn’t until we updated the book for the Reaper of Souls expansion that we were finally allowed to cover it. Again, since there were no Achievements tied to these secrets, we didn’t object.
The same couldn’t be said for the Data Pads in Halo: Reach. Despite their being an Achievement linked to them (and some being extremely well-hidden), BradyGames and our contact at 343 Industries had to really push back against Bungie’s desire for us to not mention them. Ultimately, Bungie relented and allowed us to proceed with my suggestion of a list of cryptic clues without screenshots. On the one hand, the advent of Achievements often made it easier for us to know if we found everything in the game, but on the other it sometimes led to disagreements on what can be covered. I can assure the readers that, in almost every case, the strategy guide author and publisher fought the best they could to include everything. Any obvious omissions were at the demand of the developer/licensor.
Schreier: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in a strategy guide? What have you gotten the most complaints about?
Walsh: In the book I discuss a few minor bumps in the road involving Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 and Starfox Adventures and why sometimes callouts on the maps might not be accurate, but the one book I really wish we could take back was our guide for Tales of Vesperia in 2008.
My co-author and I received no data, maps, or list of secret quests from Namco Bandai. And, because the game was coming out the same month in Japan, we didn’t have a JP guide to crib from (we’d often get quest lists and data tables translated from the JP guide when dealing with JRPGs). We did the best we could, neither of us having ever played a Tales game before, but as the reviews are quick to point out, we missed a lot of secret side quests, among other things. The biggest complaint, fortunately, was about the lack of maps, which was beyond our control. By the time we realised that Namco Bandai wasn’t going to be providing them, there was no time to create them ourselves, especially not for a hundred-plus hour JRPG. There was brief mention of us re-releasing our 2008 guide last year for the remake, but when I cataloged how many things would need to be added, Prima Games decided not to proceed.
Schreier: What’s the most tedious thing you’ve had to do in a game for the sake of a strategy guide?
Walsh: Perfect segue. By far the most tedious thing I ever had to do involved transcribing the skills, equipment, and level data from the Japanese guide into Microsoft Word for the PSP remake of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. My co-author and I each sank hundreds of hours into writing that guide, with him writing the main walkthrough and me covering the side-quests, characters, and equipment sections. Square Enix recommended we pull the data from the Japanese guide, as that would be easiest. Unfortunately, not only did it mean weeks of data entry, but a lot of comparing and matching Kanji in order to translate from a master vocabulary file. I absolutely loved playing that game, but it was one of the most time-consuming guides I ever worked on.
Schreier: In the book, you talk a lot about the process of writing a guide for Diablo III — a game that, in some ways, encapsulates why strategy guides have become obsolete, because a guide written for Diablo III in 2012 would be useless today. Can you talk about the ordeals behind that guide and how you feel about it now, in retrospect?
Walsh: Ain’t that the truth. Sigh.
Leading the writing effort on the guide for Diablo III was certainly a highlight of my career, but also one of the most gruelling experiences I had thanks to how much the game continued to evolve throughout development. I knew going in that the randomness of the side-quests, dungeons, and loot drops would make for a tough guide to write. What I didn’t expect, however (this was my first Blizzard title), was how much change major systems would undergo throughout development. We began working on the guide a full year before it finally released and, in that time, I witnessed the skills system be completely overhauled at least three times. With each revamp requiring me to rewrite over a hundred pages of text. Sadly, that’s not even the most frustrating part.
Despite it being commonplace nowadays given the popularity of Fortnite and Destiny 2, among others, requiring an Internet connection was a big deal back in 2011-12. Especially for a single player game. Going into the project, I knew the fans were angry about this, but I had no idea how much it would impact me on-site at Blizzard. The Battle.net servers seemed to go down at least every other day during the three months I spent working within the Diablo III studio. This would often necessitate a new build of the game—sometimes multiple new builds in the same day—and game saves seldom transferred between versions. As someone who firmly believed a strategy guide author should always replicate the end-user experience, I resisted the temptation of the debug controls whenever possible, and instead started fresh over and over. And over.
We knew the bestiary and skills data would change right up to—and beyond—launch day. And though that’s never ideal, there’s still a lot of content that made the guide attractive to players. It’s also worth pointing out that the major changes didn’t come until the Loot 2.0 update and the Reaper of Souls expansion, nearly two years later. Given that the bulk of a strategy guide’s sales are in the first several weeks following the game’s release—the book was updated for the console port in 2013 and Reaper of Souls in 2014—the guide did have a fairly lengthy run of relevance.
Schreier: In your book, you talk about the Final Fantasy IX guide, which I’ve described as the worst strategy guide ever made. It was deliberately left half-complete, designed to send readers to the now-defunct website PlayOnline.com for info and walkthroughs. Can you explain for our readers how that turned out the way it did? Was there resistance from BradyGames and the writers involved?
Walsh: In the interest of full disclosure, I had just begun writing for BradyGames when that guide was being worked on and I didn’t have any involvement in it. That said, I heard PLENTY about it over the years and don’t mind sharing what I know.
The thing about strategy guide publishing is that it’s a parasitic industry. We exist at the pleasure of the host, in this case SquareSoft (pre-merger). Game publishers, i.e. the licensors, have the final say in what goes to print. It’s part of the agreement. BradyGames paid a hefty combination of licensing fees and/or royalties in exchange for the rights to be the only official guidebook for the game. And the licensor, as part of the agreement, gets to review the guide before it goes to print. Normally, they’re checking for design-related issues or making sure Spider-Man is hyphenated or that Boomshot is one word. But they can also strip content.
I have no doubt that the authors of that book wrote a complete guide, and that everything that was eventually moved to PlayOnline.com did, originally, exist within the manuscript. At some point, SquareSoft alerted BradyGames about their plans for PlayOnline.com and BradyGames pushed back against it, knowing it would ruin the guide and cheat the fans. My understanding is that they tried to get SquareSoft to only shift non-essential information to the portal, but Square wasn’t having it.
Nobody at BradyGames was happy about this and despite their efforts to change Square’s mind, they ultimately had to give in and do what was demanded. The Final Fantasy series was one of the few whales existing back in the early aughts. It would make or break the year for BradyGames. Everyone at Brady knew the fans were going to be pissed off about it, but they couldn’t risk not getting the rights to Final Fantasy X by refusing to comply. Not to mention, doing so would have resulted in all manner of legal trouble. They were contractually bound to bend to Square’s will. Fortunately, SquareSoft never tried that trick again.
Schreier: What’s your favourite memory from your days writing guides?
Walsh: I made a lot of good friends through this job, especially with co-authors and editors. And, knowing that it’s all over now, it’s really tempting to get mushy about hanging out with co-authors, having drinks, playing multiplayer, and laughing all night. But that’s not what anybody wants to read. Of far more interest, I suppose, is my memory of my very first day on-site at Epic, for Gears of War. I was in a play-test session that morning and in the very last match of the hour-long session, it came down to me versus Cliff Bleszinski on Gridlock. Cliff had the Boomshot, and I was running for cover, scared for my life, with barely an hour’s experience with the game. I managed to avoid dodge his first shot, then in a panicky search for a power weapon, I ended up rolling toward him as he fired again. The rocket sailed high and I stood up, meleed, then fired the Gnasher at point-blank range, two-piecing the game’s lead designer into a pile of chunks.
The room erupted in laughter and trash talk and I immediately had a new favourite game.