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Constant Companions: Strategy Guides In An Evolving Industry

Strategy guides have been around almost as long as video games themselves, helping players get the most out of their favorite titles. Full of maps, tactics, and secrets, these books have been invaluable resources to countless gamers. Years ago, official guides were the only way to get exhaustive information about a game. Now, the situation has changed.

Almost everything about a game can be found online if you’re willing to look. User-run wikis compile all of the important characters and events. Online forums allow gamers to tap into a community to get questions answered. Walkthroughs can get virtually any gamer unstuck – often accompanied by videos illustrating the proper steps. All of these options are even available on mobile devices, so they can be accessed anywhere. For some gamers, the convenience of these Internet resources is enough. However, enthusiasts know that a guide isn’t a cheat repository; it’s a roadmap to help you enjoy a game to the fullest extent. No matter how much the industry changes, gamers will always be looking for a deeper experience with the titles they love, and strategy guides offer a single, comprehensive, and curated collection of information.

“We have people who have been writing strategy guides for us for over 10 years,” says Mike Degler, publisher at BradyGames. “I would consider them some of the best gamers in the world. We work directly with the people making the game. Sure, you have to pay for this content, but we’ve gone to great lengths to make sure you’re getting the best information you can get between the two covers.” The collaboration with developers is a key part of that equation, ensuring that the official guide is as thorough and correct as possible.

The cooperation also opens the door for other supplementary content exclusive to guides, like developer interviews and commentary. This is one of the major ways that guides have evolved over the years; instead of being a series of step-by-step instructions, modern guides offer behind-the-scenes access that caters to the hardcore fans who want to know anything and everything about a title. While the idea of a book containing information about a game may not seem like it leaves much room for innovation, these kinds of additions can add value and separate official guides from user-created content.

Over time, this approach has created products that are much different from the guides players used in the PS2 era. In addition to developer commentaries, an emphasis on visual instruction and more attractive graphic design has emerged. More charts and diagrams help players optimize their characters. Sidebars summarize the background behind historical events represented in game. Touches like these make today’s strategy guides more informative and easier to read and navigate than ever.

“All of the ideas that we come up with for a specific title, we carry through to the next one,” says Piggyback Interactive managing director Louie Beatty. “So you see a general improvement – a lot of innovation – on our guides as they evolve over time.”

With changes in technology and consumer tastes, strategy guides are different today than they were 10 years ago. Because the business is so closely tied to the video game industry, its success relies on adapting to shifts in the gaming landscape. “What we are experiencing is essentially what’s happening in the games market,” says Debra Kempker, president of Prima Games. “You have your top hit product, and you have a larger gap in the middle that used to be filled out with more titles. It’s as if the games industry has lost its middle class.”

Gamers have seen this in publishers’ increasing focus on a few blockbuster titles, rather than a stable of games that span a spectrum of cost and quality. For strategy guide companies, this means there are fewer viable candidates than there were 10 years ago. “You could pretty much publish on any game that was releasing and retail would take it,” Degler says. “We did guides for Defender at one point in time – it was insane. It was a remake of Defender.” These days, companies need to be more careful about the guides they produce, considering a game’s popularity and whether or not retail stores will even make shelf space for the finished product.

Even the rise and fall of certain genres affects the strategy guide market. Guides for role-playing games are popular among fans (figuring out how to get every ultimate weapon would be torture without them), but the genre has more a niche audience when compared to blockbusters like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. That doesn’t mean guides for RPGs are no longer made, but they need to be approached differently than they were during the genre’s PS2 heyday. Tapping into Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness for guides covering lower-profile games allows the creators to specifically target the interested gamers. “It might be a smaller market, but it’s a smaller market you can still publish to and find an enthusiast crowd,” Kempker says. “There’s a lot of loyalty there.”

It's Not Cheating
Mention strategy guides in a group of gamers and someone will inevitably claim that using a guide is cheating. “That perspective comes from someone who hasn’t opened a guide in 10 years,” says Piggyback managing director Vincent Pargney. “I use guide books in a lot of other areas: sports, photography, cooking. It’s not about cheating; it’s about going deeper... You cannot learn everything by doing it yourself – there’s knowledge to be shared with other people.” Using a guide isn’t about beating a specific boss or solving a puzzle – it’s about finding all of the secrets and experiencing every piece of worthwhile content a game has to offer.

Another way to serve a loyal fanbase is by providing rare collector’s editions. Tying into the aesthetic appeal of owning a physical book, these versions go above and beyond with their hard covers and high-quality paper. “It’s not only the content, but the delivery of that content,” Beatty says. “It is a compelling proposition. Gamers can hold it in their hands, it belongs to them, and it enhances their experience.” These premium editions also entice hardcore fans with extra bonuses, from promotional items to in-game content. “Gamers are really wise,” Kempker says. “You can’t just manufacture any items and pack them in and expect people to get excited about that kind of thing.”

Strategy guides have come a long way, and they aren’t done evolving. In the years to come, gamers can expect them to branch out into even more formats. “[Digital] is our big push right now,” Degler says. “We know there is a certain set of fans out there who absolutely want a print book, and they’re not going to buy anything but a print book. But we also know there’s a different section of people who may not buy that print book; they love their iPad, or Kindle, or getting content on their phones.”

Gamers can already get digital versions of official guides, go to the big guide companies’ YouTube channels, and even download official supplementary apps (like complete maps and collectible finders) on mobile devices. Even as guides become more integrated with technology, the printed product won’t go away; it will just take advantage of the variety of ways gamers can access its information. “I think there will be more and more connectivity between the game, the guide book, and a digital product,” says Piggyback managing director Vincent Pargney. “I think we will see a larger number of hybrid products; that’s where I think the future is going to be.”

[This article initially appeared in issue 248 of Game Informer.]

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