Bryan Stratton, writer of guides that include Mass Effect, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, and Wind Waker, was kind enough to let me interview him about his glamorous life as a strategy guide writer. Bryan has had extensive experience with both Prima Games and BradyGames, and he provided a hilarious outlook into the industry as well as into his own products.
1. Which strategy guide company do you write for, or are you a freelancer?
I’m a freelancer, and I’ve been writing guides since 2000. Most of them were for Prima Games (where I was an exclusively contracted author for several years). I began writing guides for BradyGames in 2005 as well, which is where I’m spending most of my guide-writing time these days.
2. How did you get into guide writing?
My friend David Hodgson, a contracted author at Prima Games, was my in. He convinced them to take a chance on me after the two of us had run two gaming sites into the ground within 12 months. 🙂
3. What elements do you like to personally ensure go into a guide?
My main priority is to create a clean, comprehensive walkthrough that’s easy for a gamer to jump in and out of, while still being enjoyable enough to read from start to finish. I’m a huge fan of detailed appendices for quick-reference purposes, and I’m not afraid to present the same information in several different formats, if that helps the reader find what they’re looking for quickly.
There are a lot of things that can make a good guide great, or an average guide terrible. Support from the licensor is a big one—getting solid, playable builds early in the writing process is a must, and being provided with as much accurate, nuts-and-bolts information as possible gives us a solid base to work from. The publisher’s editorial staff is also a vital component; the less an author has to worry about chasing down info or editing and revising submitted text, the more time they have to invest in the game and the writing of the guide. But ultimately, it comes down to the writer’s commitment: if you’re not willing and able to dedicate some extremely long hours and maintain focus on a highly detail-oriented project, this is probably not the job for you.
5. When you first start on a guide project, what are some prewriting steps you like to take in addition to playing the game?
Clearing my schedule is a big one. I treat the week before I start a guide like it’s the last week before I’m deployed overseas—hanging out with friends, going to shows, quality time with the girlfriend, etc.—because I know that, once I get going, the momentum is very difficult to maintain if I knock off early and meet my pals for drinks. I also try to do as much research on the game and franchise as possible before I get the first build of the game. And because I’ve written over 60 guides by now, I can start mentally outlining the guide before I even receive the game, because I know what a solid guide for a game of that genre should include.
6. Can you take us through the general process of what it takes to develop and publish a guide?
Well, it starts with a comprehensive playthrough, during which you create an outline and table of contents for the guide. This is also the point when you compile a “wish list” of assets to request from the licensor (character art, weapon data, spell lists, etc.). As you’re going through that first playthrough, you also have to determine which parts of the game are finished enough to be able to write final text from, and which you can only outline until you get a more polished build of the game. As soon as you’re able to start writing and taking screenshots, you have to hit the ground running, because there’s a ton of work to be done in a very short time.
Ideally, 6 to 8 weeks with a finished, polished game would be perfect. In reality, we’re lucky to get that amount of time with an unfinished build.
8. What is your biggest pet peeve when writing a guide?
The absolute WORST thing is when you get a new build of the game toward the end of the project, and they’ve made a meaningless but universal change to the game, like the shape of the crosshairs or color of the health bar. 99 times out of 100, that means that the guide writer has to play through the entire game all over again and take all new screens because of that one element. When you’re already running on empty, that can really break you.
9. What do you like most about guide writing?
I like getting to play with new toys before anyone else. Oh, and the checks. 🙂
10. Has guide writing affected how you view video games? In what way?
It makes me really appreciate the times when I play a game for fun and realize that I don’t need to earn every achievement and find every hidden item—I can just enjoy the experience and turn it off when I’m tired of it!
11. What is your favorite genre of game to play and what is your favorite to write about?
In both cases, third-person action-adventure games.
I don’t know if I could choose just one, but the two Legend of Zelda guides I co-wrote (Link to the Past and Wind Waker) are very high on that list, both because I love the games and because my brother Steve was my co-author. I’m also personally quite proud of the UFC 2009 Undisputed guide that I wrote, if only for the outrageously comprehensive training section. And way back in the day, I wrote the guide for Uru: Ages Beyond Myst as a first-person narrative, which was a lot of fun. All of the guys at Cyan Studios were absolutely fantastic to work with.
13. Now which one do you think is the best?
It’s a first-place tie for all 60+. 🙂
14. Do you have any advice for writers/gamers who would like to break into guide writing?
Honestly, I’d caution against it. It’s not a growth industry, there’s not a ton of work available most of the year, and it’s not the sort of job that prepares you for anything except writing more strategy guides. I really enjoy the work, I’ve been lucky to have been involved with some great people and titles, and by virtue of my track record and seniority, I’m able to make a pretty good go of it. But I also got into the business almost 10 years ago, when it was a very different industry. I don’t know that the same opportunities are there for someone just coming into it today.
15. Now for the hard question. What is your favorite video game of all time?
That’s not just hard, that’s impossible! 🙂 But if you’re going to make me choose, I’ll go with Resident Evil 4 on the Wii.
16. Do you have anything currently in the works that you can discuss?
Well, I’ve just started work on a new guide for BradyGames that will be out shortly after the start of the new year. I’m also a game reviewer for G4TV.com, a product evaluator for Kalypso Media (publishers of Tropico 3), the PR manager for social media developer StepChange Group and co-writer of a fumetti (photo-comic) called Gunslinger Girl. So, yeah, I’ve got a pretty full plate. 🙂
Thank you so much, Bryan, for participating! I look forward to your upcoming guides.