From Strategy Guides to Wikis – Interview with IGN’s Mark Ryan Sallee

Mark Ryan Sallee, Executive Editor for IGN GuidesWith both inFamous 2 and Dungeon Siege III, I’ve expressed my surprise with IGN’s new wiki format for their strategy guides. I’m on the fence about what I think of them, and I really want to keep an open mind. My biggest hold-up is that the wikis seem too GameFAQs for me in that anyone can write for them, no matter if they’re a decent writer or not, the information could always be incorrect, and the guides will not be as timely with accurate information. For instance, the wiki for Dungeon Siege III still doesn’t list all 60 pieces of Lore available to collect. Maybe that’s something for me to introduce, who knows.

But!

Mr. Mark Ryan Sallee, the Executive Editor for IGN Guides, has been very kind in granting me an interview in regards to why IGN made this leap from traditional online guides to open Internet wikis. Thank you, Mr. Sallee, for taking time out of your busy day for this interview.

1. Why did IGN decide to move from guides written by the IGN team to “open-sourced” wikis?

The move to a wiki system is something I’ve wanted to do for years, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, our old system of building guides wasn’t good. Everything was hand-coded in HTML and incredibly cumbersome for editors to work with. The old system allowed us a lot of freedom in our layout and what we wanted to do, but it wasn’t fast and it wasn’t easy for people to pick up. I ended up doing roughly 50-60% of the layouts for guides, which meant I was a bottleneck for publishing.
So the new wiki system simplifies the creation process immensely, and now IGN freelance writers can quickly publish guide content as they write it. The result is more content getting published faster.

Of course, the wiki system also opens up this instant publishing ability to anyone, not just editors and freelancers. I’ve been self-publishing stuff on the Internet since I was 14 years old. I’m a strong believer in the power of the open Internet.

2. What is IGN’s primary (or ultimate) goal with the wiki format? Is it to create an all-encompassing source for everything about a particular game or is it a form of social contribution from the readers?

Originally, I just wanted to create a better method for publishing guides and allowing users to publish guides of the same quality we editors do. Basically just doing the same stuff we’d been doing with IGN Guides for years. But as we started using the wiki it became apparent early that the system opens up a lot more possibilities than just covering “guide” content in the same old way.

We still want to be known as a source of comprehensive game help guides, a place to find in-depth walkthroughs and hidden collectibles information. But the wiki system makes it easy to also start building out more encyclopedic information, like character bios and history, and weapon-specific pages.

Check out the Battlefield 3 wiki guide we’ve already started (see: http://www.ign.com/wikis/battlefield-3). This is something we wouldn’t have done with the old guide system. We’re gathering more encyclopedic information early, because it’s available and people will want to know stuff like when the game is scheduled to be released, info about upcoming betas and where the best preorder deals are.

The ultimate goal? I don’t know that we have that set in stone yet. We’ve got a powerful new tool that opens up a lot of options and we’ll do with it what people want.

3. What was the first game wiki for IGN? Or were all guides transformed at once? (I admit I haven’t looked at every single one…)

I think Dragon Age 2 was the first wiki we started using in testing because it’s such a massive game. We figured that if we built a system that supported coverage of something like Dragon Age 2, that system could support anything.

4. How is this system different from GameFAQs?

GameFAQs is an awesome site, and almost historic except for the fact that it continues to be such a good resource for gamers. As far as I can tell, GameFAQs hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s virtually 100% user-sourced, which shows the passion of its users. I don’t think users have the same control over publishing content whenever they want like we do, and collaborating with other users isn’t an integrated experience. It’s very old school, collaborating over e-mail and text files. I think it’s rad but it’s definitely different from IGN’s wiki guides.

5. Will this affect the timeliness of the guides at all? One of the biggest drawbacks to using GameFAQs is that users have to wait about a couple of weeks for any walkthroughs to pop up for new games.

Absolutely, in a positive way. The improvement in the workflow for editors is incredible–layout doesn’t have to be a separate process from content creation any more. We just write into the wiki, hit “save” and it’s published. Add to that our users’ ability to contribute and get to stuff before a typical editor might. Timeliness is one of the main benefits of the wiki guides over our traditional guides.

6. What about the accuracy of the wikis? Will an IGN editor patrol the wikis for quality control?

Editors are looking at the wikis daily, as are moderators and contributors. We’re building a community that’s passionate about veracity and accuracy. It’s a wiki and anyone can publish to it, so there’s a possibility for dubiousness. But it gets squashed quickly because everyone else is interested in keeping the wiki guides accurate. In fact, allowing user edits is a huge boon to accuracy. With the old guide system, it was often difficult to track things like differences between versions of the game.

Take the Professor Layton games, for example. There are a half-dozen or so puzzles in each game that have different solutions in the US and UK versions. I wrote the guide based on the US version, but didn’t have a UK copy of the game to test out the differences. With a wiki guide, UK players can easily add their own clarifications.

It’s similar to product testing. You can hammer on a game, testing for bugs as long as you’d like, but once the game is sold to hundreds of thousands of people you’ll end up finding all sorts of bugs you couldn’t have imagined. The power of the crowd to pinpoint accuracy is incredible.

7. What do you think the biggest benefits are of the wikis over the traditional online guides?

Quickness and breadth of content. I also think they’re a whole lot easier to use as a reader. The omnipresent navigation bar on the left always lets you know where in the guide you are, and what other content is available. Another huge benefit of getting into a new system (and out of the super-dated content management system we used before) is access to content APIs, which are super boring to the layman but awesome for web development. As an example of the benefit of content APIs, check out our wiki guides on an iPhone or Android device. It’s just the beginning of what we can do.

8. What has the feedback from the readers been?

Readers love the layout and usability of the wiki guides. Editors and contributors love to build content in them. We’re still in public beta, so a lot of feedback is bug fixing and wishlist stuff. It’s important that we get the approval of traditional FAQ writers, and they naturally want more control of their content so we’re planning some stuff around that. Also, a surprising number of users miss the PDF guides we did with the old system, so we’re looking into ways to make up for that. I’d love to hear your opinion of the wiki guides. I love feedback, both positive and critical. It’s crucial to making things better.

Thanks again, Mr. Sallee, for your time with this interview. You’ve given me even more reasons to keep an open mind, and I’d love to continue giving IGN feedback on this new venture.

Strategy Guide Writer Interview: Colin Moriarty

Colin MoriartyIf you’ve listened to the IGN PlayStation Podcast (Beyond!), then you are very familiar with the former Guides Guru, Colin Moriarty. I have thought about asking him for an interview for awhile now, particularly to get his point of view on web vs. print guides, and when I heard he was moving from guides to editorials, I pretty much pounced on him on Twitter. Lucky for me, he didn’t take offense and agreed to do an interview.

So without further ado, here’s a strategy guide writer interview from the world of online strategy guides: Colin “He-Only-Does-Everything” Moriarty.

1. How did you get into guide writing?
Back in January of 2000, I wrote my very first FAQ on GameFAQs for Mega Man on the NES. As gaming fansites really began to take off in the late 1990s, I got involved in some of them too, but eventually realized that my calling was to write technical manuals for old NES games. I did this for a couple of years, late during my high school days.

Thankfully, that segued into a freelance offer from IGN to write for IGN Guides. That happened in October of 2002. I freelanced for IGN throughout college (and even interned for a while), and when I graduated college in 2007, I got a full-time job there. And now, here I am (although I don’t write guides anymore as of January).

2. What elements do you like to personally ensure go into a guide?
I think it’s a legacy of my FAQ-writing days, but what’s most important in any guide is exhaustive detail. It’s not necessarily writing to the lowest common denominator, but rather making sure that any question a reader might have is answered for them before they can even ask it. Even if it’s a question you don’t think necessarily warrants an answer. You’d be surprised what confuses some people in any game.

I also think personality is important. Entertaining your reader might not be obvious in a technical guide, but I’ve gotten many compliments over the years for not sounding like a robot.

3. What do you think separates a great guide from a horrible one?
The same two things as in question #2 – exhaustive detail and personality. Organization is important, too. You have to answer all of the readers’ questions, but you have to make sure they know where to look for those answers.

There are a lot of horrible guides in both print and on the internet, and I think they speak for themselves. Half-assed, rushed, not full of the pertinent information. The authors do themselves a great disservice by even releasing them at all. I stand by everything I’ve written. I wonder if the authors of bad guides can say the same?

4. Can you take us through the general process of what it takes to develop and publish a guide on IGN?
We have several in-house guide editors, and then an army of freelancers that write everything we can’t do in-house. Each writer goes about his or her business in their own way, but for me, I like to jump right into the walkthrough, fleshing out the ancillary parts of the guide (like collectibles) as I go along. I wrap everything up with a robust Basics section, and then put it on the site. Naturally, we capture screens and video as we go.

As you may have noticed, we’ve segued in recent years from only putting our guides up when they’re done to putting them up incomplete, and then updating them as we go. The latter is useful for our readers, letting them know that we’re working on this guide, and also giving them information that they may find useful early or midway through the game.

5. How do you decide which games will get guides and which will not?
It’s easy, really. We only have so many writers, and so many resources. Only the biggest games, and the games we think will require the most help for the most readers get our attention. We’d love to write guides for every game released, but it’s simply not possible.

IGN Mass Effect 2 Guide & Walkthrough6. It sometimes appears that IGN doesn’t really have a timetable when it comes to guide releases. Some guides are out on gameday release, and others appear in piecemeal over time. What is the general timeframe that you like to set for a guide’s release?
We like to get our guides up as soon as we possibly can. But we also don’t want to sacrifice quality, and that’s something we put before everything else. It’s all about what we can get done when we can get it done in the most quality-oriented fashion possible. If a guide isn’t ready for primetime the day a game comes out, we don’t release it.

7. What is your biggest pet peeve when writing a guide?
I don’t really have one. When I left guides to become a regular editor at IGN, I went back and counted all of the IGN Guides I wrote. It was almost 100 in an eight year period. When you write that many strategy guides, you get into a groove. If anything, writing guides has made me more organized, a better writer, and prepared me for the unexpected time-sucks that all sorts of games can unexpectedly throw at you.

8. What do you like most about guide writing?
Guide writing is a process, and one that experienced guide writers get better and better at maneuvering through the more they write. What I really like is sitting down with a huge game – Mass Effect, or Red Dead Redemption, or Fallout 3 – and 500,000 words later seeing the end product. And of course, I love knowing that my hard work has paid off for gamers who found the help they need. Their continued e-mails of thanks are what make writing guides so rewarding.

9. Has guide writing affected how you view video games? In what way?
It’s certainly made me more of a perfectionist, more of a completionist. I rarely go through games just to beat them now. I like to see and do everything, find the collectibles, do side quests, earn all of the Trophies. Having to do that for so many guides just to make them as complete as possible has allowed me to explore a product in greater depth.

10. What is your favorite genre of game to play and what is your favorite to write about?
Back in the day, I was a huge J-RPG nerd. Now that that genre has effectively fallen off the cliff, I’ve in recent years become enamored with W-RPGs. Some of my favorite guides – Fallout 3 and New Vegas, Mass Effect 1 and 2, et cetera – are all of that genre. I also love sandbox games. Infamous comes to mind. And then there are shooters which I enjoy too. I’ve written all sorts of guides, and play all sorts of games, but I suppose my three favorite genres would be W-RPGs, Sandbox, and FPS. But honestly, I can find something to love in every genre.

11. Before you became the guides guru of IGN, where did you originally write and publish your guides?
I started off at GameFAQs. You can still find my guides there under the name CMoriarty. But my content has called IGN home since 2002.

12. Of all the guides you have written, which one is your favorite?
That’s a tough question. I think a lot of my guides since I became an editor have been top notch. My swan song on IGN Guides, New Vegas, is a guide I’m especially proud of. But really, there are probably a solid dozen guides that I look back on fondly.

IGN New Vegas Guide & Walkthrough

13. Now which one do you think is the best?
I think the readers have pretty resoundingly answered that question: Fallout 3.

14. Do you have any advice for writers/gamers who would like to break into guide writing?
You have to have passion. You have to have focus. You have to have an eye for detail. And you have to have a lot of time. You need to be willing to write for no money to get your foot in the door, and you need to be willing to take the risk, put your name out there, and realize that it may or may not pan out for you.

If there’s one thing I’m well-aware of, it’s that while I had talent when IGN recruited me to freelance for them, I worked with a lot of talented writers who didn’t get that break over at GameFAQs. I’m blessed, and I was lucky, but not everyone is so fortunate.

Work hard, get your name out there, make great guides, and see where the cards fall.

15. In terms of online vs. print guides, what advantages and disadvantages do you see?
Print guides don’t really have an advantage. They’re dinosaurs. The only advantage the reader has in a print guide is expediency. Print outlets have access to games very, very early, so if a gamer needs help right away, print might be the only solution for them, since the final product is ready to go on day one.

But if you can wait a week (or even less), online alternatives will crop up that are almost always better written, more detailed and more useful than their print counterparts.

I still don’t understand why someone would spend $20 on a print guide. I’ve asked myself that question for over ten years.

16. Do you think that online guides are the way of the future and print guides are on their way out?
Absolutely. I’m surprised print guides are still going, to be honest. free alternatives.

17.  Now for the hard question. What is your favorite video game of all time?
Oh, that’s easy. Mega Man 3 on the NES.

Thank you so much, Mr. Moriarty, for your time in answering this interview. However, I think I may have a couple of more questions for you, based on your responses:

  1. Do you think I’m crazy for buying print guides?
  2. Do you think my overall purpose for this site is crazy?

Please don’t answer them.

Strategy Guide Writer Interview – Joe Epstein

Joe EpsteinJoe Epstein is a co-author for several guides I own, including Final Fantasy Dissidia, Crisis Core, and NIER. Despite his busy guide writing schedule and his multiple hard drive failures, he has graced me with an interview.

Which strategy guide company do you write for, or are you a freelancer?

Like most guide authors, I’m a freelancer.

How did you get into guide writing?

A manifold answer, here. For as long as I can remember I’ve read and written a lot – when I was about ten years old I noticed a hardcover of Stephen King’s “It” in my parents’ bookshelf, thought the dust jacket looked interesting, and asked if I could read it. My parents, probably somewhat amused, said sure. So I did, and I haven’t stopped reading since. All sorts of stuff, from an infatuation with King that sustained my teen years, to classic authors like Steinbeck and Hemingway, to poets like Service and Eliot, to foreign authors like Camus and Lem, to nonfiction like Feynman on physics or Sagan on astronomy. So I love reading, writing, and literature, and always felt I’d do something with writing. This dovetails into part two of this answer, my actual “in,” which was covered about a while ago on a blog entry I wrote for the BradyGames Facebook page:

http://www.facebook.com/#!/note.php?note_id=76452124092 [Read more…]

Strategy Guide Interview – Prima Games’ New Strategy Guide Design


Prima Games NCAA Football 11 Strategy Guide

Courtesy of Prima Games

I mentioned last week that I wanted to interview a big wig at Prima Games in regards to their new spiral-binding design, and the great Paul Giacomotto agreed to my questioning. He returned my interview last night, and he had some really interesting things to say about Prima Games’ new style. Check it out below!

Prima Games Interview – New Guide Design

1. Where did the idea for spiral-binding for your guides come from?

We’ve had spiral binding in our brains for quite some time. The beauty about spiral binding is how well it lays open. A common complaint with any book is the binding not allowing the book to stay open whether on your lap, desk, etc.. This can be more important with strategy guides because gamers tend to use the product while playing the game. We’ve been excited to use spiral binding for years because we could imagine ourselves and other gamers alike having a strategy guide lay open for us while we play and read.

2. What was your primary reasoning for this change?

Change can be a scary thing. This is Prima Games 20th year creating strategy guides and it’s not always easy for us to change things up. However, with any successful company it’s necessary to evaluate your product and see if you can be doing anything better. I don’t think there was any one reason we made a change other than it made some products “better”. I’d say it was the right combination of factors. The question we ask ourselves everyday is, “What’s best for the product”? That question drives our creative process. We have to take into account the wants and needs of the community, game licensor, and retailers when answering that question.

3. Was the Peace Walker guide an experiment? If so, was it successful?

Everything we do follows a lot of planning and forethought. We were excited to use spiral binding on Metal Gear Solid®: Peace Walker because it made a lot of sense for the product. For this detailed PSP-only product it was very important to organize and present the information a little differently and a way we felt the gamer would need it. The first guide we did with spiral binding was Battlefield: Bad Company 2. We’ve heard a lot of positive feedback thus far.

4. What is your plan for this new style? Are you going to limit it to certain game genres, or is this something you’d like to see for all your future guides?

Spiral binding is something we’ll continue to do on specific titles only. For example, we’re doing a full size spiral bound guide for Madden NFL 11. It can be used similar to a playbook, which makes tons of sense for a football videogame that uses playbooks in the game. Again, it’s “What’s best for the product”?

5. How has the feedback from readers been?

Feedback has been very positive in general. Positives have included: book stays open, lower cost, easy to find in store next to the game, better layout organization, and optimized walkthroughs. To be fair we’ve also had some negative feedback. Negatives included: smaller book, don’t like spiral on books, paper might rip on spirals. We’ve been pleased with the overwhelming positive feedback from customers, licensors, and retailers. We really listen to all feedback and it does influence us when making decisions. If a majority of feedback were negative we wouldn’t be going forward with spiral bound guides.

6. What do you think the benefits are with this design?

The guide stays open, it seems easier to use, and it enables us to design/layout a little differently if needed. For example, with the Battlefield: Bad Company 2 guide, it made sense because we oriented the book in a landscape format rather than typical portrait. Think about taking the typical strategy guide and turning it 90 degrees clockwise. This allowed two pages to lay open at once showing a map of a region on the top page with the strategy on the bottom. It’s possible to view both pages at the same time in a well-organized format.

7.  What do you personally like about the spiral-binding?

Personally…I love two things. The first is the obvious ability to lay the book open and not fight it by pressing the binding down so hard it messes up the pages or book. Secondly, I love that it doesn’t take up too much space. My “gaming area” has game discs, game cases, paper, and other random stuff around so having something a little smaller is just easier for me to use.

8. Can we expect more new-fangled designs from Prima Games in the future?

Ooohhh…”new-fangled”, I like that. While we can’t disclose all industry secrets, I can say we’re always looking to improve and there should be some additional cool stuff soon. Collector’s Edition strategy guides remain a strong product for us and we’re going to be including some unreal stuff there too. It’s worth mentioning here that we’ve improved our digital strategy guides as well. The different digital products we offer now are: digital download guide, website strategy guide, video strategy guide, and iPhone & iPad apps. You can expect a lot more content being delivered both in print and digital form for years to come.

In closing I’d like to thank Keri for reaching out to us. She’s been awesome to work with since connecting on Twitter. I try to send her guides every now and then because I know she really appreciates them =). Go to www.primagames.com to see what we’re up to and make sure to follow us on Facebook (Prima Games) and Twitter (@primagames.com) because we like to keep you informed and give away FREE STUFF! Gaming is good!

Thank you, Paul for agreeing to this interview and thanks also for making me blush. I look forward to seeing what else Prima Games comes up with next, both with guides and guide design!

Power Button Podcast!

Power Button podcastLast week I was asked to be on The Power Button’s podcast to discuss all things strategy guides and brag on my site. My good friend and fellow guest reviewer, Matt Green, has kindly posted the podcast and it’s available for the world to download and listen to me blab on about how great strategy guides are (as well as talk about their production and some really sucky guides).

Please support Matt, The Power Button, and myself by spreading the news!

Here is Matt’s summary:

When people need a quick gaming tip or clue these days, they just hop over to GameFAQs or one of the other sites like it for free advice. Once upon a time, however, way back before Internet access was common or especially useful, people would get their gaming help from actual printed and published strategy guides that mapped out each and every part of a game. Guides are still printed in our modern era, believe it or not, and one woman has carved out a niche in the industry by reviewing them. This week on Power Button we sit down with the owner of Strategy Guide Reviews, Keri Honea, to talk about the art of the strategy guide. We cover the aspects that make a great guide, how guides are made, why proper printed guides are still relevant in the electronic age of information wanting to be free, and more.

Thanks again to Matt, Joey, and Brad for letting me be on the show!