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Ah, we love video game strategy guides, right? No? What's wrong? All the info is stuff you could pick up if you played the game for five-minutes, you say? Well, how about those awesome pictures scattered throughout the guide, those are cool right? What? You've already seen them a hundred times at GameSpot and IGN? What about those hidden tips and special strategies, those are useful right? Wait, you already knew about that because of the dev diaries and 101 gameplay videos on the publisher's official YouTube channel? Well then, welcome to the wonderful world of strategy guides. An anonymous insider who works in the strategy guide business breaks down why today's strategy guides are so crappy, lackluster and rigid in the information they provide as well as the politics that keep them that way.
Penny Arcade lays out all the information in a very detailed and information-rich piece that chronicles the sort of cumbersome rise and stagnation of video game strategy guides.
Now, it's pretty long but there are a few key points in there that kind of expose what many of us already figured when it came to strategy guides. For one, official strategy guides are based on contracts and if you can't land a contract with a company to do an officially licensed strategy guide it means you're stuck doing an unofficial strategy guide and that will more than likely result in expulsion, becoming a pariah in the business of strategy guides, which is what happened with Prima and Square-Enix. As recounted in the Penny Arcade article, the source says...
“Just the suggestion that Prima would produce an unofficial strategy guide for Final Fantasy VII so soured the company’s relationship with Square that to this day the Prima name is considered persona-non-grata at Square and a Prima branded strategy guide would not even be considered,” ... “Prima even needed to partner with European competitor Piggyback to distribute some of their Square-Enix titles in the US.”
If you think that's bad, there was also a case where an official Prima strategy guide for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets never came to pass because it got held up in the approval process by EA and J.K. Rowling's legal team. It took so long to get certified and processed that it was no longer profitable.
That's another thing: strategy guides apparently only have a small window of success with zero tail-end. That may sound ridiculous but the logic behind this is that games are only really uber-popular in mainstream when they first release (which is true), strategy guides have to be out and about for casual gamers and the few hardcore completionist who like to collect them. After the mainstream popularity dies down strategy guides then have to compete with online databases that provide free cheats, GameFaqs and other hubs for free online strategy and game guides. In this instance, it makes complete sense why strategy guides have no tail end: the information becomes a free-for-all thanks to the internet.
Prima actually had a way to compete with the online guide sector by making their content available digitally. Before the boom of internet game guides, they planned to release CD-Roms of their products so people could access content while they were playing games, as well as offer comprehensive guides via their own website. They also planned for e-book releases, however, that stuff didn't come to fruition thanks to publishers...
“Prima has terabytes of content that it could make available but can’t do anything with it without getting written authorization. Ever wonder why Prima’s electronic books were basically the printed book in PDF form with zero modifications even if the form factor was demonstrably unsuitable for electronic reading? It wasn’t because they didn’t recognize this or because they didn’t know how to change it, or even that it was too difficult or time consuming. That part was actually easy. It was that even a single paragraph change had to go through the game publisher and the game publisher’s lawyer for their stamp of approval.”
Ugh. Bureaucracy at its finest.
What's worse is that Prima and other game guides wanted to establish communities around their strategy guides but publishers weren't really having any of that. 'Why go to a strategy guide website when you could go to the publishers website and be a part of their community instead?' so the logic goes.
It's one of those things where the strategy guide business is being lead around by the gonads in order to turn a profit wherever and however they can. The funny part about it is that strategy guides aren't really about providing useful strategies at all, they're about getting information out there as quickly as possible to cash in on a game's popularity while a profit can be made on whatever brand the guide represents. Sounds a bit like the video game review business, eh?
One of the interesting quotes near the end was both sad and telling, stating...
“There are certainly gamers on the staff, but decisions are made based on likely sales and costs, not game quality or nostalgia and that’s probably for the best considering the low profit margin in the industry.”
So there you have it folks. Those strategy guides you buy that have stolid information and “strategies” a lobotomized five-year-old with two inverted thumbs could have figured out himself have to be that way to stay financially competitive. In result, the video game strategy guide business isn't even about strategy guides, it's about milking a brand whenever possible. Just something to consider the next time you decide to pick up a strategy guide for whichever game is the new hotness.