Author of numerous BradyGAMES Strategy Guides such as Star Fox Adventures, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem and Maximo: Ghosts To Glory. Doug is also the co-author of many books including Super Mario Sunshine, Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Banjo-Tooie in addition to many works published online.
Anyone who’s ever been inside a game shop has undoubtedly seen the virtual library of Strategy Guides released alongside the latest hot new games. It goes without saying that most people take these things for granted, but we’d bet that more than a few of you would still be stuck on level 9 or missing that last hidden item if not for someone sitting down and taking the time to create them. GameCritics recently had the chance to sit down with one of these unsung writers, Doug Walsh, and pick his brain about what it’s like to be a Strategy Guide author.
First of all Doug, please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, I'm 26 years old and live in Bellevue, Washington with my wife and two dogs. My main hobby is definitely gaming, but I'm also quite active with mountain biking, triathlons, running, surfing and snowboarding.
What can you tell us about your gaming history and experience?
I've pretty much been playing videogames since I was 4 years old. My family got an Atari 2600 for Christmas, and it really entertained me until the NES came out 6 years later. As much as I loved games like Missile Command and Laser Blast, it was definitely the NES that made me a gamer for life. When I was 12, I remember reading one of the very first strategy guides while lying in bed. It was this enormous black book that provided walkthroughs for every NES game. Man, that book was amazing! I bought it because it had maps for Goonies II, the first adventure game I ever played.
As I went through high school and college, I basically stopped playing games and missed out on most of the SNES and Genesis era. It was mainly because I got really involved with track and cross-country on top of my studies. Surfing didn’t help, either. I did manage to play the occasional game of SNES hockey with my roommate, but it was pretty rare. I got back into games around 1997, though.
So after you started playing again, how did you make the leap from simply enjoying them to becoming part of the industry?
You could quite literally say that I "fell into it". I was training for a triathlon and accidentally crashed my bike and ended up breaking my collarbone. To help pass the time, I went to the local Electronics Boutique to pick up a new Playstation game. While I was there, I saw a flier sitting on the counter about some game-related writing openings. That night I began putting together a writing sample using a level from the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater as my topic. Before I knew it I was authoring 1-900 tip lines and online strategy guides for websites. Things went really well for a while before the PS2 launched and the Dreamcast was still at its peak. Then, the dot-com crash forced many of the online companies to tighten their purse strings.
I got a lucky break a few months later when my industry contact needed a last-minute co-author for the Tenchu II strategy guide. He had convinced his editors to let me help out, and everything turned out really well. After co-authoring a couple of more books with him, I got to go solo. The first project on my own was Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX the next spring.
Wow, that seems like a real one-in-a-million occurrence. I wonder, besides your love of games, writing skills and good luck, what other qualities were necessary to become a strategy guide writer?
Well, you might think the obvious answer would involve being awesome at games, but that’s really only part of it. Your game skills may land you a project, but you have to be a very competent writer in order to make a career out of this. Keep in mind, good writing skills go well beyond having proper grammar and correct spelling. I actually spend a lot of time thinking of other things; like ways to structure my books and how to present the text so that it’s user-friendly.
Also, being organized and managing your time effectively sometimes matter the most. In addition to being a good writer and gamer, you have to be able to work independently and not miss deadlines. To give you an idea of the discipline required, most projects for console games take roughly 2-3 weeks on the author's end. That's really not a lot of time to beat a game several times and then write 150 or more pages of copy.
That sounds a bit like being a Critic. Since you brought it up, are you actually a god at games, or do you get some inside info like cheat codes, level skips or other "secret stuff" from developers?
Am I awesome at games? Hmm… I wouldn't suggest that I'm anywhere near THE BEST at gaming, but I'm definitely no slouch. When I first started out writing strategy guides, I would get really frustrated trying to solve puzzles or beat a boss, but now it comes a lot quicker. Part of it is that I play so many games it's getting pretty hard to fool me. Another aspect is that I've worked on a lot of games from the same company. For example, writing the guide for Banjo-Tooie helped prepare me for Conker's: Bad Fur Day and Star Fox Adventures, by giving me a feel for Rare's style. The same goes for the Activision "O2" titles. Basically, I get better with each project. Sometimes I actually surprise myself with how fast I solve a puzzle or with how much higher my scores have grown.
To answer the other part to your question, one of the nice things about working on an official guide is that a game tester is almost always a phone call or an email away. This way, when I do get really stuck or have a specific question, there’s someone to assist the process. That isn't to say that I'm on the phone with the testers everyday—far from it.
As for "insider info", it all depends on the game and the publisher. With some projects I receive nothing more than the instruction manual, but once I received videotape showing a tester play through an entire game from start to finish. That was a very pleasant surprise! Don’t misunderstand me, though. I say that it was pleasant not because I sat and typed out everything I saw done on the tape (the book was nearly done already), but because it let me verify that I hadn't missed anything. My worst fear writing strategy guides is that I'll submit my text and have missed something important.
So you really do have to play through the games…I’ve always wondered about that. I’m a little surprised that the developers don’t give you more information or help. Besides your game talent and work ethic, are there any other skills necessary?
I can't speak for all authors, but in addition to writing I also place the callouts. (Numbers and icons that appear on the maps.) It might not always be necessary, but being at least moderately proficient with programs like Photoshop can come in handy for this sort of thing. I'll typically sort through over 2,000 screenshots for a book, so having plenty of juice in your PC and a good viewing program like ACDSee is crucial. It may sound like a lot of work, but I find that getting a break from the writing by doing something with Photoshop is soothing.
While on the topic of computers and hardware, can you tell us exactly what kind of equipment you use besides a pumped-up PC and those two programs? Did your publisher provide you with a setup, or did you have to devise your own system?
I have a camcorder, laptop and desktop computers, plenty of gaming stuff, and a TV in my office in addition to a plethora of S-video cables, splitters, signal amplifiers, and the like. Oh, and my kickin’ surround sound setup!
When first starting out, I spent a lot of time and money trying to get the right screen capturing equipment. It was quite funny because I assigned the "capture" action to the biggest button on my keyboard (the spacebar) and would hit it with my elbow while playing to try and get a screenshot. However, this process ended up being too blurry. Now I record all my gameplay to the mini-DV tapes with my camcorder. As I watch the tape while I'm writing, I can pause the footage, advance it frame by frame, and capture pixel-perfect screenshots to the Memory Stick.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, can you tell us the main process for actually sitting down and creating a strategy guide?
Without getting into too many boring specifics, the process begins with playing through the game to the end and then writing the text. I'll often take a lot of notes the first time through, and after having seen enough to be confident that I’ve mastered the game, I start preparing the manuscript and taking screenshots.
Often, graphic artists will be creating maps at this point by playing through the game and mapping as they go, or sometimes I'll send them VHS tapes of my play sessions. Meanwhile, the publisher's design team is starting to organize the layout of the guide so that when the editors are done with the text, everything is ready to go. By that point it's pretty much a series of edits, corrections, approvals, and other stuff like that. Eventually the book goes to the press and that's when everyone wipes the sweat from their brow and tosses back a nice cold one.
Can you share some of your experiences with us about writing these guides? What is your fondest memory (or maybe a not-so-fond one)? What was your favorite game to work on?
My fondest memory would be getting the opportunity to write the guide to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3. I was a huge skater back in the days of the Bones Brigade and I was completely psyched when I found out I'd be writing about Tony's newest game. I'm just as excited to get started on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 this month. Actually, one thing that I've been really proud of is that I've been asked to do all the strategy guides for Activision's O2 series. My editors know that I do a lot of snowboarding and surfing, and they’ve really accommodated me when it came to assigning these titles.
My favorite game to work on was definitely Conker's Bad Fur Day. Aside from the fact that the game was hysterical in its own right, I had a ball working on the multiplayer chapters with my co-author and editor. Every day we would take a break from the single player story and have marathon sessions of Death Match and Beach. We got to the point where we could take out all 40 Frenchies on the "Einstein" setting without letting a single one escape alive. He manned the bazooka and I took the sniper rifle. It was such a blast I could play the multiplayer for hours.
Looking back, I really don't have any bad memories, but the way that I got brought into the Tenchu II guide was very trying. I came into the project at the last minute to write the walkthrough for the unlockable character, Tatsumaru. His 9 missions were set at the highest difficulty because gamers would have normally played through 25 missions before unlocking him. Without being even casually familiar with the Tenchu series, doing that was tough! I think I broke quite a few Dualshocks during that project!
Just out of curiosity, how many controllers have you actually broken while working, and since games are work, do you still play for fun?
I lost count! My biggest problem is that the R2 button usually flies somewhere and I have to go hunting for it. [Laughs] Controllers aside, whether I'm writing a strategy guide or not, I'm always playing games. I think anybody in the industry has to enjoy gaming so much that they still do it when they're not being paid to. My work involves seldom feels like "work."
Finally, I have to ask the question that’s on everybody’s mind: Do you actually make a living at this, or is it more like a labor of love?
There are many, many people who write one or two books a year both as a hobby and a good source of income. I'm fortunate enough to not only do this as my only "job", but also make very good money doing it.
I see. I guess that’s one big point where being a Strategy Guide author differs from being a Critic! [Laughs] Joking aside, if someone asked you how to get into the Strategy Guide business, what advice would you give them?
Well, since I'm a freelancer and don't really want too much competition, I'm not going to give it all away. However, I would suggest that you find a game you enjoy playing, write strategy for a level or two, and then submit it to one of the main guide publishers via the links on their website. It's very hard to break into the business without prior experience at this point because numerous journalists from failed magazines and websites are trying to get these jobs as well. You never know, though!
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Doug!