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 bestselling - 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. 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. FAQs quickly included 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 vast, some of the major downsides are the 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 to 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 weak and erroneous layouts and information almost never justify a purchase at these companies. However, the majority of the gaming market - say 90% - doesn't look at the company name when buying a strategy guide, so there's no reason beyond ethics for the companies to care.
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 pricy in these dark times.
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 qualitatively poor - 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 that there's no proper search function, but there are more downsides to it which are discussed later. In this turbulent world of ever-changing formats for game guides, which direction are we headed and better yet, which direction should we be headed?
It's mostly about making choices which standard to use, and I think the best criteria you could apply when looking for any source of game information is: getting everything out of your game in the most convenient way. 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. Now let's compare the different formats to see how they fare.
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 entire 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 global, 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. A lot of people *will* however use these guides, simply because they're decently advertised. The solution would be simple, but it's similar to the final conclusion we'll land at soon, and I'm not about to spoil that for you just yet.
Wiki pages are a newly born alternative and their pros and cons have already been briefly discussed before. They suffer from the same problem as the semi-free guides discussed above, namely that they lack in-depth information incorporated in the walkthrough itself. Wikis make up for this with their vast amount of pages on subjects, but this sometimes leaves you searching around and in circles. Credit is hardly given when editing wiki pages, so for the exception of a few raging 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 either, 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 by prolific authors have a few nice additions, including video (and sometimes screenshot) support. Not all guides are of the same quality, but we'll get to a solution in the conclusion of this article.
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. This format 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 struggled to find when reading through text. As such, videos are a great addition to text, but not 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 even thinkable in adventure games where it can take the form of a table that compares gunfire power. 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. Videos can be, it has to be said, an excellent addition to text when they visually show something text can struggle with to describe, but 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 the other formats, because they're easily organized, quickly downloadable, searchable in a fast manner by using [tags] and [Ctrl + F], printable, and easy to save on your hard disk. There's only one problem, and that is 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, 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?
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 based 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. Better informatively, faster available, better searchable, more clearly written and more beautifully laid out. Because if it has been, realize that the only reasons to continue writing for that 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 as 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 as qualitatively as the best available stuff already launched online. Also keep in mind that the most qualitative guide might've chosen to use a fair share of humor and keep spoilers to a minimum (which is arguably a favorable combination). Even when nothing's available at all, which is a common sight when games have just been released, it's still important to keep the highest possible quality in mind, simply because someone else might outdo your guide soon.
Wouldn't it be great to have one excellent - no, nearly perfect - guide for whatever game you desire? Or at least for the most popular titles? The problem with raising the bar is that it starts to take very large amounts of time, and little of us authors have so much spare time (or are willing to devote so much of their spare time to the writing of FAQs). If authors would form teams that work together on certain guides, they'd not only be sure that people would love their cooperative work, but 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. In FAQ writing, this could easily be applied as well. Someone could work on the walkthrough, perhaps coordinated together with someone else if their writing styles match. 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 in wonderful teams to shape perfect text-based strategy guides. And the readers? They can give a little more praise if they want to…
A few great ways to promote this type of grouping to reach higher levels of quality would be to not only hold a FAQ of the Month contest, but also a FAQ of the Year contest. There are too few monthly contributions to really judge quality alone (demand also plays its role), but a yearly competition on top of the FotM contest could really push authors to the limits. Although it'd be nice, it doesn't even need to involve money - I bet 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 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.
(On a different but related note, it'd be easy to motivate quality work under authors by showing the amount of stars - which implies recommendations or FotM prize - in the author's forum account, similar to how Karma is displayed.
If you agree, let at least GameFAQs know about this. Post it on forums, tell your friends, fire up the discussion. I'm currently looking for prolific authors that want to join a team of authors aiming to write some great guides in the future. Places are limited; feel free to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you want in. Be sure to link to your contributor page and your best work.