Dan Birlew has been writing strategy guides since 1999 and has cranked out over 60 guides since his debut (more than a few have a place in my collection). Despite his current busy writing schedule, he has been kind enough grant an interview and let us all get a brief glimpse of the world of guide writing.
Which strategy guide company do you write for, or are you a freelancer?
I’m freelance, but I work mostly with Bradygames.
How did you get into guide writing?
I was writing online FAQs for games in the late 1990’s such as Resident Evil and Silent Hill, and my readers were very complimentary. The encouragement led me to spend a lot of time on it, and my wife got upset. She said I either had to turn video games into some kind of job, or cut down on the time I was giving it. So I took a sample from a Resident Evil 2 FAQ I was writing up at the time and submitted it to Bradygames. My timing was unbelievable, because they were looking for a freelance to write a guide for Resident Evil 3. So I was hired basically the next day.
What elements do you like to personally ensure go into a guide?
Accuracy, comprehensiveness, good grammar, understandability, plenty of tips, and as much coverage of side quests or bonus play material as I can cram in there.
What do you think separates a great guide from a horrible one?
A strategy guide is a reference manual, and the writer’s ability to organize the information is what sets good guides and bad guides apart. If the writer doesn’t arrange the information in a way that allows the reader to easily and quickly find what they need, then the guide fails in that respect.
When you first start on a guide project, what are some prewriting steps you like to take in addition to playing the game?
Sometimes developers pass along design bibles or highly technical design documents. Sometimes these files are in Japanese or some other language, and need to be translated for the best possible understanding. Other than that, I continue to study the craft of writing and the rules of grammar, because strong writing skills are key to producing a better strategy guide.
From the time we receive a pre-release build of the game, I begin playing it almost nonstop. While playing, I record video in the highest resolution possible. From this video I capture screenshots and make notes in the form of a skeleton walkthrough. Then I rewrite the notes as text submissions. The stage walkthrough comes first, and then I write the peripheral chapters. Sometimes the developer provides game and promotional artwork for the guide. The writer often has to be the one to sort those materials, since he or she is the usually the only one involved who actually plays the game. Then we must coordinate and mark maps, capture still images from the video, slap it all together in the book layout and give it to the developer for corrections before going to the printer.
How much time in advance do you prefer to have a game before the final guide deadline? How much time do you actually receive?
I prefer to have as much time as possible, naturally. If I get six months with a game, it’s awesome. But that’s only happened once in my career. Exterior factors can reduce the time you have with a game, such as licensing and corrections. Most of the guides I’ve worked on had to be done in 1-3 weeks.
What is your biggest pet peeve when writing a guide?
Stale gummy worms, and Red Bull breath.
What do you like most about guide writing?
Helping people enjoy video games to the fullest. And I’m always gratified to hear that a book helped.
Has guide writing affected how you view video games? In what way?
I’ve definitely had some behind the scenes access and experience, and traveled to some great companies like EA and Nintendo, but no matter what the developer may want the guide to say I still enjoy the games in my own way. And I think that’s important to writing a guide, because the writer must bring some perception of playing the game to the reader, so they have your personal experience to build upon. It’s no different than hiring a Sherpa to lead you into the Himalayas. You want someone who can remember to say, “Hey, watch out for that loose boulder,” and bring you back alive.
What is your favorite genre of game to play and what is your favorite to write about?
I really enjoy playing adventure and action games with some story, regardless of the engine style. I buy first-person shooters, third-person shooters, platform jumpers, RPGs, jRPGs, action RPGs, and even many fighting games and driving games.
You have an incredibly extensive strategy guide bibliography. Of all the guides you have written, which one is your favorite?
I think my Resident Evil 4 guide, since I just had the best time playing the game. Sometimes, a really fun game can make the writing effortless. Seeing that game come together and develop from one build to another was also truly memorable.
Now which one do you think is the best?
I guess I did a pretty good job with the Kingdom Hearts guide, and I’m still proud of that book in spite of how long ago that was. One of the localization guys at Squaresoft (as it was called then) added a different strategy for Sephiroth, which I appreciated because it really made the book complete.
Do you have any advice for writers/gamers who would like to break into guide writing?
Playing the games isn’t as big a part as you might think. Sure you have to be a good, experienced game player, but writing skill is key. Writing coherently, quickly, in a highly organized manner is essential. Graduate from college and study the writing craft. Be a word nerd more than a game nerd. Also understand that the field is extremely limited. There’s maybe 20-25 published guide writers working today, and maybe only 10-15 of us working at any given time.
Now for the hard question. What is your favorite video game of all time?
I’ve played Castlevania Symphony of the Night about 368 times, it’s like pixel crack.
Do you have anything currently in the works that you can discuss?
I’m about to start writing another strategy guide, and I’m currently marketing a young adult novel and trying to hire a literary agent.
Thanks again, Dan, for the interview. I look forward using and reviewing your future work!