A Walkthrough the Past: Interviews with Former Writers on the Making of Strategy Guides

Ridiculous bugs, tight deadlines, and not much pay: these writers tell us what it was like making guides for Prima and GameSpot a decade ago.

The first strategy guide my two brothers and I ever bought was for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. We were missing a key in the game’s Water Temple and had spent most of an afternoon searching for the damn thing. We called the Nintendo hotline; after half an hour of failing to help us find the missing key, the Nintendo representative suggested we buy the Official Nintendo Power Strategy Guide for the game.

A christmas card Prima sent to sites like Kotaku in 2010, showing 20 years' worth of guides. A christmas card Prima sent to sites like Kotaku in 2010, showing 20 years' worth of guides.

At the time (I was still in grade school) video games were playgrounds of the unknown, and figuring out their mysteries was what I enjoyed most. So to see a book bearing all of a game’s secrets was an enormous revelation for me. Using this book, my brothers and I could become the masters of Ocarina of Time. We wouldn’t just “beat” the game -- we would rout it completely.

Judging by how popular walkthroughs and guides for games still are, I wasn’t alone. Printed strategy guides still fill shelves in game stores and electronics stores, dozens of achievement and trophy walkthroughs are available online for just about any game, and extensive wikis for Dark Souls games chronicle their every obscure factoid. Many players strive for the sense of closure getting everything in a game gives them, and guides offer it spades.

Someone has to find all those secrets first, though. Bryan Stratton and Matthew Rorie were once two of those people. I asked them about what it was like to write those books, what kinds of issues they faced when working with developers, and how they look back on their long hours playing games to make sure six-year-old me got as much out of a game as I could.

A Guide to Writing Guides

Bryan wrote Prima's guide for Super Mario Sunshine. Bryan wrote Prima's guide for Super Mario Sunshine.

Bryan Stratton says he doesn’t really use strategy guides. He remembers following along with Prima Games’ official strategy guides for Myst and Final Fantasy VII, but he’s actually written more guides than he’s used. He began his writing career as an editor for a games print magazine called Incite: Video Games. Eventually Prima offered Stratton a job writing guides for them on a book-to-book basis.

Matthew Rorie, who currently works at gaming website Giant Bomb, remembers similar freelance origins. “I was in college when I hooked up with a few other people doing strategy guides online for a game called Total Annihilation: Kingdoms,” says Rorie. “We formed a company called The Stratos Group, looking to freelance guides to sites that were interested in them.”

After the dotcom bubble burst, many game sites that had been buying guides didn’t have the budget anymore. Rorie took a couple of years off from writing guides around that time, working at a bookstore to make his student loan payments. “In 2003 [GameSpot] started budgeting for game guides again, so I went back to work for them, and was hired on full-time in 2004.”

Randomly-fall-through-the-floor kind of stuff

My younger self never thought twice about how the strategy guides I used were put together. Most of the ones I bought back in the day were “Official,” which I always took to mean they were created by the game companies themselves. In reality, guides are part of a business agreement between companies like Prima and the game’s publisher.

“The book publisher makes a deal with the game publisher, paying them for the rights to use official assets,” says Stratton. As part of the deal, Prima received copies earlier than even press outlets. If a guide did not meet the game’s release date, guide sales plummeted dramatically.

Guide writers also had to deal with incomplete and broken versions of games. “I co-wrote the guide for Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness,” recalls Stratton. “It was unplayably glitchy. [It had] randomly-fall-through-the-floor kind of stuff.”

Tachyon: The Fringe was actually still unfinished when Rorie wrote the guide for it. Tachyon: The Fringe was actually still unfinished when Rorie wrote the guide for it.

Publishers would sometimes send design documents describing how the developers intended players get through the game. “Finding [hidden] things in the game was 100% on the writer,” says Stratton. “The design documents were more for RPGs -- they’d give you numerical values for enemies and weapons, things you couldn’t get otherwise.”

Writers could also ask developers questions, if they needed. “I did the game guide for a game called Tachyon that featured Bruce Campbell that was not quite what you'd call ‘done’ when we were putting the guide together,” says Rorie. “I basically had to get on a conference call with the developers to have them sketch out how the last mission was supposed to play out, since I couldn't actually play it myself.”

Proceed down the hallway in front of you

It was the writer’s job to find every hidden object or secret they could while also putting together and formatting the guide. “Every minute was spent playing or writing,” says Stratton. If a writer found themselves stuck on a game, they could ask the developer for help, but response times varied widely among companies. “You couldn’t afford to wait for the developer, you had to find something else to work on. If you hit a brick wall then it was time to switch gears and work on the other parts of the guide.”

Rorie, who mostly worked on free, web-based guides, was under even more intense pressure to finish the game and write the guide as quickly as possible. “[At GameSpot] the reviewer would get it first, after which I'd get to take it and try to rush through it and hopefully get a guide up the day of the game's launch.”

Depending on the length or scope of the game, writers could spend days or weeks working a single guide nonstop. “The last couple weeks would be crazy with long hours no matter what. You worked weekends and nights, and started early in the morning.” says Stratton.

“Usually, I wrote the guide as I played the game, using a laptop or second monitor,” says Rorie. “I had to take screenshots and video as well, so there was a lot of stopping and starting during gameplay. Beyond that, it was mostly just playing and writing - lots of writing.”

No matter how quickly or efficiently a writer worked through the game and guide, all sorts last-second issues that could derail the entire project completely. “Once, I had done about 90% of the screenshots and copy on a guide for an RPG,” recalls Stratton. But the developer made a last-second change to the UI, recoloring it from red to blue. ”I had to play through the game again retake every screenshot.”

Stratton says his guides could take as little as three weeks and as long as twelve to fourteen. In Rorie’s experience, “First-person shooters took about a week, since they were usually pretty quick and they didn't require a huge amount of strategy to get through.” Other genres could be much more time-consuming. “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion guide took around three weeks and 80,000 words to get through,” says Rorie. (You can still find that guide here, actually.) And if a game was hard, it could add a considerable amount of time to the project. “Character-action stuff like Devil May Cry 3 or Ninja Gaiden required a fair amount of skill… it was usually difficult enough to get through them on the default settings for me, let alone record awesome videos for the boss fights.“

Stratton’s work with Prima required an extremely thorough editing process, since the book could not be ‘updated’ after printing. At GameSpot, Rorie remembers the editing process being far less stringent, mostly because of the size of the staff, the size of the guides, and the more compressed deadlines. Often, much of the copy that ended up going live on GameSpot’s website were first drafts without much revision. “Luckily I'm a pretty competent writer when it comes to grammar and avoiding typos, so they at least came across as legible.”

The salad days of freelancing

The long hours, tired eyes, and thrown controllers that came with writing guides also included a paycheck, but for both Stratton and Rorie, it became less lucrative to work on guides as the years went by. “I started out at around two thousand dollars in 1999 for most guides, but that amount steadily went down each time I returned to freelancing,” says Rorie.

Rorie feels lucky to have been a full-time GameSpot rather than a freelancer. “I wouldn't want to go into recent details in case GameSpot decides to run more game guides in the future, but let's just say that the salad days of freelancing seem to be well in the past.”

Stratton was paid for each of his guides individually. “I stopped writing guides in 2009, and the high point back then was around $12,000 [for a guide].” Stratton would usually be paid more for intricate or long games, or games for which guides were enormously popular, like many of the WWE games, which were popular in Stratton’s heyday. The low end for an individual project was somewhere around $6,500 for several weeks of work.

“Over the years, I felt like I was making less money,” says Stratton. “The books became longer. When I first started, you could have a guide that came in around 96 pages. As games got more complicated and the licensors got pickier, you could expect the average guide to be about 150 pages around the time I left.”

There was also competition from the world of online guides. Companies like Prima have always tried to assert their value against free guides online. “There was pressure to try to put content in the guides that was involved more than ‘here’s how to beat the game,’” says Stratton. “We added a lot more art, character descriptions, and supplementary material.” Prima also began adding more video content to their guides as time went on. “I did a couple of ‘live guides,’ which were DVDs which involved putting together about 45 minutes of script, some marketing videos, and some voiceover.” He wasn’t always paid more for this extra material.

Sixty books to my name

Neither Stratton nor Rorie currently write guides for a living, and they have reservations about recommending it as a career path. “When I started, Prima was publishing about 170 to 350 guides every single year,” says Stratton. “Now it does about six dozen per year. There’s only one game in town for strategy guides, and if anything should happen to get you on the wrong side of Prima, you will lose.” Writing guides isn’t exactly a lucrative business, either. “For the amount of work they ask of you, the pay is not good,” says Stratton. “A few people do alright for themselves, but I don’t think that number’s growing at this point.”

As a contractor, Stratton didn’t get official time off, either. Writers are constantly jumping from one guide to another, since they’re not offered bonuses or vacation days. Often, Stratton planned his vacations around the multi-book contracts he negotiated with Prima in later years.

Stratton is also unsure of the current guide-writing market as a whole. “I love achievement guides and wikis. It’s great that with one quick Google search you can find out anything about a game. I love that it’s a collaborative thing. But I don’t see business model, I don’t know if you’ll ever be able to build a publishing model as lucrative as selling twenty-dollar guides used to be.” Stratton isn’t confident in the old model, either. “I don’t think the traditional strategy guide will be around much longer. People will look back on them as weird novelties.”

He’s not wrong. I don’t use guides anymore, but I still flip through my collector’s edition The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess guide every once in a while whenever I reorganize my bookshelf and recall the time I spent using it to find every collectible in the game. Guides made the unknowable and intimidating nature of large-scale video games a little more friendly, and part of me misses them.

And despite his issues with the current guide-writing market, Stratton stresses that he enjoyed his time working for Prima, helping players around the world get as much as they could out of their favorite games. “I got to enjoy a career with my brother Stephen, who still writes for Prima. We got to play games together and write about them. I made some good long-term friends there, and I’m happy to be have been a part of it. It’s nice to have sixty books to my name.”

Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who read the official Nintendo Power Super Smash Bros. Melee front to back at school. He was at least reading something, so his teacher didn’t seem to mind. He’s written for ZAM, Paste, and many others. You can follow him @SurielVazquez.

Thanks to Heather Alexandra (@transgamerthink) for the feature image!