the secret life of a strategy guide writer / 03

Last time: I detailed elements of the planning that ensure a strategy guide is a pleasant, rather than suicide-inducing experience. This time I reveal the creeping sense of half-terror, half-excitement that envelopes a strategy guide author when that game finally arrives at their door.

Part 3: Initial Wandering and Pondering

When a menacing man in a motorcycle helmet approaches my door, I’m not ready to attack him with my baseball bat; he’s almost always a courier, handing me an early version of the game I’ve been spending the last two weeks craving. After ripping open those asbestos-filled yellow envelopes and coughing up a lung, I place the disc in my debug unit, and switch on.

  Fast-forward 6-12 hours later, and I’ve finished my first playtest of the game. This is partly due to my claw-like arthritic hands needing a rest, but mostly because I take a break, and break down the guide into the sum of its parts. How many levels is the game? Do we need a weapons table? How should the maps be labeled? Can I go to the toilet please? These are some of the questions that are initially answered in the first 48 hours of game time. Then an author usually checks their calender, figures out how many days there are until deadline, and crosses off all social interaction for the next month.

  You get to play a video game for the strategy guide you’re working on between two to six months prior to the game shipping. “That’s plenty of time,” you’re thinking. Well it would be, except the game’s probably in what the cool kids call “a pre-Beta state.” This basically means you’ll be playing through an exciting level, hammering down on foes, or beating rival vehicles in a crazy city-wide escapade, and suddenly you’re thrown out of the game. The Xbox 360 in particular loves to assign not quite enough memory to the game you’re playing, and the action freezes, and “the blue bars of death” slowly chug across the screen. Expletives are yelled, consoles are rebooted, and the level or race is tried again.

  But newer and more stable builds arrive, and the process continues. That is, unless the gaming company wants you to play the game at their place.

Next time: What’s it like traveling to Nintendo, Microsoft, or Bioware to play a game on-site, and is it easier working remotely instead of in your home office? Hint: It’s not.

Just finished: Claiming incredible, god-like status and rampaging through a virtual world, looking for hard-to-find items and area.

Currently: In the thick of revealing some juicy quest details for a massive RPG.

About to: Continue pillaging my way across a continent-sized landscape, searching behind every rock, and rummaging through hundreds of corpses for that extra-special item.


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June 2008
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