Better Gaming Guides: Strategies for Being Unsucky

This article was originally published on Site of the Gaming Dead, a now-defunct video game blog, on December 31, 2009. I have attempted to recreate it here, complete with images (when possible).

Ah, strategy guides. To some, the very phrase is synonymous with “cheating.” For others (like me), strategy guides serve merely as a means to an end, with the end being “getting every damn item, character, secret ending and bonus scene available.” But it’s a little hard to do that when your strategy guide is lacking, often in more ways than one. If you’ve ever found yourself flipping through a glorified art book and wishing for just a few more details (or directions on how to find them) on enemy stats or items, or tossing that 300-pager across the room before finally heading to GameFAQs, read on.

Regardless of the genre, gaming guides exist for practically every game out there: RPGs, side-scrollers, first-person shooters, puzzle games. You name it, there’s probably a guide for it.

Two major publishers exist for gaming guides: Prima and BradyGames. Having had a few bad experiences with Prima, I tend to buy Brady when and where I can, and usually, there’s not too much crossover between the two houses. What one company covers, the other company won’t. I don’t know if this is because of some sort of agreement between the game distributors and the publisher or between the two big publishing houses, but it’s the way it appears.

I’ve never needed a gaming guide for Tetris or any Mario game, but I haven’t played a single Star Ocean title without one. With well over 80 endings for my favorite in the series, Star Ocean: The Second Story (and its PSP remake, Star Ocean: Second Evolution), along with hundreds, if not thousands of items from food to armor, bombs to jewels, a strategy guide seems like a must for such a huge game. For the sake of this article, I’ll be comparing the two guides released for the game in its first iteration for the PS1 and the remake for the PSP. Both guides do some things right and others horribly wrong, but since both make flubs that apply to a variety of game genres, one can learn from both versions.

Prima released the guide for the PS1 game, and it was downright ugly. While it was helpful to a degree, telling players when and where they could engage in Private Actions (special side-trips into towns to view special scenes and alter relationships with the other characters), some information was either missing or wrong.

After years of publishing gorgeous (and expensive) guides for a variety of games, you’d think BradyGames would get it right with the Second Evolution guide, especially with famed guide writer Dan Birlew at the helm. Alas, they’re missing even more information than the Prima guide, which is no strategy for success, if you ask me. What follows are some tips for making the best, most complete strategy guide ever: sometimes it’s Prima that gets it right, other times Brady, and more often than not, neither of them.

1. Include everything. Yes, everything.

One thing the Prima guide does well is it includes what might, at first glance, be interesting but generally useless information. Hours into the game (and likely long after), you’ll realize that the “starting relationship values” and a given character’s favorite instrument aren’t such useless tidbits of information after all.

In the Brady guide, Claude, the male lead of Second Evolution, is decidedly lacking in a birth month. His birthday is just “23.” No one has a chart of starting relationship values like they do in the Prima guide. And the Brady guide is also missing a complete customization section (which ends up being a pretty vital part of the game, especially when you only have so much Fol/iron/special event items to play with), many descriptions of what some items actually DO, and of course, a list of possible endings (and in the PSP version of the game, there are over 100!).

2. Take a design class.

A strategy guide is more than just tips and tricks bound together in a pretty package. What separates guides that people shell out upwards of $10 (and sometimes even as much as $50!) for and the info they can get on GameFAQs, Neoseeker, RPGClassics, and other such sites is all in the design. A crappy design can make the information that a gamer is looking for inaccessible. The Prima guide is a bad example of design: the private actions are put in large boxes with “label maker” headlines in them, while the rest of the text is big and bold. The only way to tell the two lead characters’ private actions apart is that they’re slightly tinted: Claude’s is blue, while female lead Rena’s is red. Shared PAs are tinted green. The boxes are often randomly placed all over the page, as are screenshots.

No gaming guide would be complete without maps, and here’s where I think most guides fail miserably. Both the Prima and BradyGames guides for the second Star Ocean game toss screenshots on a page willy-nilly, with arrows supposedly leading from one area of the map to another. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a dungeon and referred to the map, only for the arrow to point to a location very different from what’s on my screen. When dungeons are puzzles, this kind of thing can be dangerous. Instead, do what the famous Japanese Ultimania guides do (and do excellently): stitch all those screenshots together and make a complete map! No more arrows, bunches of colored shapes with strange labels, or scattered screenshots!

While the Brady guide has a bestiary, a staple for most game guides these days, the Prima guide puts monster information in boxes on over the pages that cover the area where those monsters appear. Though the guide writers undoubtedly tried to make them look neat by putting them in columns, they don’t always succeed, because there’s a lack of consistency with where these sections are placed. Plus, sometimes additional information on the enemies (beyond HP, MP, and known strengths and weaknesses) is helpful, but there’s no room for it here! And what’s with those gutters so wide I can easily fit a finger in them? Too much empty space, not enough helpful information!

3. Check your work!

There are errors in a few strategy guides that I couldn’t have gotten away with in my old 10th grade English class! Sure, a lot of the errors that appear in a guide tend to be small and irrelevant overall (like the missing month for poor ol’ Claude’s birthday), but they can add up and make the guide look a lot less worth the paper they’re printed on.

Whether you’re writing a glossy guide or a basics GameFAQs guide, the point is to have someone check your work. Have a fellow gamer read through it (thoroughly) and see if anything’s confusing, missing, or just plain wrong. It’s also helpful to get a fresh set of eyes and maybe a gamer with a different play style than you. Not everyone reads a guide (or a section of a guide) through when they’re playing. Whether you’re a writing for the player that’s replaying a game and working from memory but referencing the guide every now and again, a gamer that only glances when you get stuck in a rut, or the gamer who’s a complete n00b to the whole affair, you’ve got to write a guide that they can all use.

The Brady guide makes the mistake of assuming the readers have played through the previous sections and memorized them like they’re the times-tables in second grade. Don’t do that. It doesn’t matter if a boss later ends up becoming a random encounter: give strategies that work for the player who might think to look on that page (be it the section of the guide that covers that area, a portion of the story, or just monsters in general)!

4. Love your inner Lister.


Let’s face it: a lot of game data involves lists. Lists of characters, lists of weapons and armor, lists of attacks or spells. The important thing is to make sensible lists and consistent lists. That means if you have a particular style of marking where items in treasure chests can be found, and a list that corresponds to what each item is, keep it up–for each area, each world, each dungeon. You don’t have to use the same style, but you should use consistency when doing other lists, even if they’re for different things in a different part of your guide.

Here the Brady guide shines: it’s got orange lists of people to pickpocket (along with their locations in orange squares on the area map), green lists of stores and what’s in ‘em, and blue lists of enemies in the area. Unlike the Prima guide’s enemy lists, the Brady enemy data lists are always neatly off to the side and only contain the most necessary of information: enemy name, HP, Weaknesses, what it drops after the battle, and the enemy sprite on a simple blue background. That’s it. If I wanted to check the bestiary in the back, I could do so quite easily and know just where to look, too. Lists make everything easier, don’t you think?

5. Everything in its place.

So now you’ve got tons of data, a beautiful design with some nicely-colored and positioned boxes, consistent with the rest of the guide and from one section to the other, some pretty screenshots, lots of lovely lists, you’ve checked your work…and there’s MORE!? Well, yes. Great guide writers know that it’s not enough just to have a lot of “stuff,” even if that stuff is darn shiny. Everything should not only look pretty and be consistent in that prettiness, it should also be a place that makes sense.

Star Ocean: Till The End of Time, the third game in the series and the first for the PlayStation 2, required an even more massive guide than the ones for its predecessor. It was a big, thick thing, and while it had a lot of great information, fabulous art, and high-quality screencaps, it was hard to tell where to look for what. Half of every page for the first section of the book had a summary version of how to get through the game–something that would have been better off in its own section, not in a blue box at the bottom of every page. If it might confuse a reader as to “why is this here?” or, if they’re in another section, “why isn’t something here?” then you need to rethink your organizational strategy, no matter how pretty it looked before.

Pretty means nothing if it’s not functional. If I can’t use a guide because it makes no sense, it’s about as good as kindling.

Five simple steps to making a guide great: would they work for you? What are your biggest irks with gaming guides, whether they’re plaintext or purchased–or do you not bother with them at all?