Game guides are evil

My Ultima Online Story

I’ve long been a fan of online virtual worlds, so when I first started to hear about Ultima Online, I was very excited. But terrible word-of-mouth reports from people I knew in the beta, even worse press, and the fact that I spent most of my computer time on HP-UX in those days kept me from actually playing the game until just after The Second Age came out in 1998. Some friends of mine were playing too, so I signed up for the game and picked their shard.

Even though things had settled down considerably (I think the massively powerful teleporting guards were patrolling the towns by then), I knew from the buzz that it was dangerous out there. So the first thing I did, before I ever logged in, was go out on the web and read what I could on how to play UO. There were various opinions on how to level up various skills, but there was one thing that everyone seemed to agree on at the time: In order to adventure in UO you had to have an in-game income, and the only way to get one was to craft. I’ve learned a few things about game design since 1998, and know that this was certainly not the case, but at the time I believed all the guides.

So I logged in to UO, used my starting money to buy a hachet and carving knife, and set out to become a fletcher. I knew from the buzz that it was a 24 hour PvP bloodbath outside of town, so I stuck to the few trees that I could harvest from inside of the city limits. These were pretty well exhausted all the time, but I did get some logs off them, wittle the logs into arrow shafts, and then sell the arrow shafts to an NPC.

I spent a couple of nights doing this before I gave up. I probably spent all of about 6 hours in UO, and in that time I never had a single fight. For that matter, I never even left the starting town. All because of that stupid “how to play” page.

If I had played UO the same way I played, oh, Ultima IV, V, VII, and IX, it would have been a much better experience. Sure, I might have been PKed. Sure I might have been a terribly ineffective character and never had any significant economic impact on the game. But I would have had a little fun in the process, and maybe I would have even stayed a subscriber past my free month.

And that is my sad UO story.

That was then, this is now

These days, it’s exactly the same problem again and again for every single game. The only difference is that people actually make money selling such guides. Players use the guides and miss the whole point of the game. The most boring way you can plan most games these days is to hunt randomly spawning mobs in an area, then move to a new area when you level to far and start the process over again. That’s exactly what all these guides tell you to do: play the game in the most boring possible mode.

I want to scream every time I hear someone say something like, “That game doesn’t really start until level 50″ or “Levelling to 60 is just practice for raiding.” That’s completely backward: The game is levelling up to the level cap. A bunch of games have an elder game tacked onto the end of their advancement curve, but it’s never the same game as the advancement game, and rarely as good. I don’t want to play a PvE game for a year getting to the level cap just to have it switch to a PvP game. I like PvE, and want more of the game I was playing before the level cap.
Even if people manage to avoid the “kill the same 5 orcs over and over, then move up to trolls at level 20″ trap of game guides, there is another trap that awaits them. The guides tell you all about the “best” way to play your class. They cause people to respec endlessly into the latest “killer build” until the game is dominated by Rifleman/Combat Medics, Fire Tankers, or Beast Mastery Hunters. The game isn’t dominated by these classes because they are unbeatable, they’re just more popular because somebody posted how to build them on the internet. Usually these builds are the least fun builds in the game because the authors of these guides are trying to maximize something other than fun. Sure, you can (or could before the mean old devs nerfed them) tank an entire instance full of bad guys with a fire tank that’s specced right, but after you’ve collected all the bad guys to one corner there’s nothing to do but sit there and wait for them to die. If I wanted to “win” without actually playing I would play Progress Quest.

What can we do about it?

I’ve already done something: I no longer read game guides. If I can’t find a quest objective, I’ll sometimes go find an answer to my specific question, but that’s it. I expect that reading the skill descriptions before I buy will result in a build that’s perfectly playable, even though it’s not optimal. I assume that the nerfs are for good reasons, and if they bug me too much I start another character (or another game, since I switch a couple times a year.) And boy has it made me happier with the games I’m playing.

In a more general sense, there’s probably nothing we can do. We don’t want to stop players from talking to each other, since that’s our best form of advertising. Any attempt to censor the sites that publish game guides would result in a lot of bad PR and be doomed to fail anyway. All we can do is try to keep our in-game help and interfaces friendly and helpful. Every player we can keep from feeling like they have to go to some external site in order to play our game is one that won’t be exposed to the horrors of the game guide.

~Joe


6 Responses to “Game guides are evil”

  1. Psychochild said on :

    I agree with your general assessment: people tend to think too much about the goal and not about having fun along the way. I approached EQ2 with the attitude of having fun, not just trying to race to max level. I found the game to be quite fun in that frame of mind.

    We’ve seen in many online games that people focus so much on efficiency that they lose track of how to actually have fun. They take the safe, yet boring, route and then complain about “the grind”. Of course, most games are notorious for encouraging this mindset by dangling rewards just out of reach, separating people by levels, and putting all the really cool stuff at the top end.

    As far as guides go, I think we can blame the single-player game industry for that. Strategy guides have become additional income for developers, so there’s the encouragement to skimp on the instructions and expect the players to go buy the strategy guide (and provide a bit more money back to the developer). Some people have gotten hooked on playing the game with the strategy guide, and I think they take this same mentality to online games. Personally, that attitude boggles the mind because part of the fun of the game is discovering things; on the other hand, it is nice to know that you can get help if you need it.

    But, the whole thing seems even sillier when you talk about online games. These games change, and recently some games have changed quite radically. A crafting guide for EQ2 from just a year ago is already horrifically out of date. The EQ2 guide you linked above talks about getting level 50, but the max level is now 70 in the game. Free updates mean little if there’s no updates made! So, it’s likely this guide is outdated and potentially useless.

    Interesting things to think about.

    Have fun,

  2. isildur said on :

    While I basically agree with you that a game should be playable without some stupid guide, I have a comment about your guide links:

    1) The definitive WoW guide is Jame’s Alliance Leveling Guide. It starts at level 30, and goes through to level 60. It has only one purpose: to make sure you know which quests are appropriate for you to take on solo, that will be efficient and productive. It doesn’t try to tell you how to play the game; it’s basically a roadmap through the available content.

    2) EVE needs a guide. I haven’t read one, but I did spend a lot of time asking people in my corp how to play the game. Even so, I still don’t feel like I ‘get’ EVE, and I’ve played it for 40 or 50 hours at this point.

    So I’m seeing two cases where a guide is really useful: When the guide is primarily an information resource instead of a set of instructions, and when the game is impenetrable without some kind of guide.

    The second variety is a failure on the part of the game’s developers; they should be providing that guide, not relying on fans to do it for them. Their game’s content should act as that guide.

    But the first variety seems perfectly acceptable to me. I see it as going to a restaurant with 100 things on the menu, and your tablemate who’s been to that restaurant before recommending the pasta.

  3. Taelorn commented on :

    I tend to look for guides because I’ve found I can’t always trust the information the game gives me. That is to say, too many times I’ve ended up playing characters only to find they are completely undesired in groups and cannot function solo. More frequently, there are skills or abilities that don’t behave even remotely like the description, don’t have enough information to judge their value or are just plain broken. That is something that can easily be solved by developers, but many MMOs have trained players to react the way I do now.

  4. Kleptom thought on :

    Joe

    I come from the other side of the fence; being a guide author and owner of a site that offers guides on some of the more popular games, I think I can add a different perspective on this subject. Like yourself I have been a gamer going back to the old pen & paper D&D days, I have played in UO, Everquest, WOW and even now I am delving into Vanguard. You make some valid points about the fun factor and in truth I believe that the fun factor is being killed more by in-game economy sales (gold, platinum, powerleveling, etc) than from guides. It’s true that this new emerging market is rife with hacks, cheats, exploits and content designed specifically for power gamers, but not all guide sites and authors are created equal. All of our authors are gamers as well, they are each driven by what they like the most in each of these games, however virtual guides offer some things you cannot or will not find in an over the counter strategy guide.. Updated content. For every guide you mention that is not updated I can show you a guide that is updated regularly, and contains information beyond a basic farming frenzy. Class guides, trade skill or profession guides, if created properly do not spoil the game, do not contain repetitive tasks with the single goal of making in-game currency. What some guides (when done professionally) can do is give the reader some better information about how to play the game. Arm them with information that has been tested and filtered by actual players and in some cases even enhances the game. The problem with over the counter guides is that the content in online games changes so rapidly that once a guide hits the retail market it is pretty much outdated and the costs to update those guides is huge.
    I guess the main question here is “Should Guides have any reason to exist in the gaming arena”? I would argue that Guides when professionally created and managed can actually extend the life of an online world, give it more depth and arm its players with information they might not have found on their own. I agree that it should not become an endless drone of farming and some responsibility should be shown by those who produce guides, The reasons sites like mine exist can vary, but they all share one theme. Market! There is a market for it. Where you find it crazy that a people buy guides I find it crazy that a player pays $1000.00 real dollars to buy an in-game castle.
    That being said I would love to open dialogue with you on this subject. Speaking to individuals like yourself helps me create a better product.

    Brian Fisher
    Marketing & Media Director
    http://www.GuideBazaar.com

  5. Joe thought on :

    Brian, RMT may or may not be causing problems of its own, but isn’t that kind of beside the point on game guides?

    Taelorn demonstrates a key difference between he and I. I don’t actually care if my character build is 30% less effective than it would be if I had read a guide and had all the information. I’m more likely to enjoy the game if I don’t know that to min-max my experience I really need to pick powers A, B, and D (because C and E are underpowered.) Once I have that information in my head I will never be able to see powers C and E the same way again. If everyone reads the same guide, the slice of content represented by powers C and E will be significantly under-utilized.

    And the thing is, the guides are often wrong when they make “this is better than that” type statements. I’m sure those statements are true in the specific scenario described in the guide, but is the same thing true if I never PvP? Or if I avoid going to “spooky” zones so my kids won’t be freaked out by the monsters there? Or if I always play with my wife, so I’m always in a group of two? Chances are, the guy writing the game guide is pretty hard-core, and doesn’t have the same goals for his play-time that I do for mine. I don’t need his advice on how to enjoy the game, and I don’t think most players need his advice either.

  6. Kleptom commented on :

    Joe

    By reading your last statements I can see you are not in the Guide demographic. Like all things in life, one man’s junk is another man’s gold. We have authors who fall into different categories of play not all are “hard core” gamers, some are fathers, some are kids, some are pvp’ers, etc. We try to bare the authors writing style out in the description of the guides so we have products that appeal to the broadest audience as possible. I think the main point here is that guides serve no purpose for you, you just want to play for fun and I can respect that, however I think the more important question is: does the existence of these guides hinder the person who dislikes guides game play? I would argue No!. You have the choice to buy or read. If you personally find no value in the guide you don’t have to buy and the fact that others buy it does not adversely affect you (even though in your opinion they would enjoy game A better if they did not read a guide). If I thought that the existence of my product had the potential to effect those who did not wish to follow its strategy then I would be out of this business, in fact that is why I have such animate views on the selling of in-game items, currency and powerleveling. These forms of “secondary Markets” have the ability to negatively affect players who wish not to be a part of it by screwing up the in-game markets, unbalancing play etc.
    Do you honestly feel you can make an argument that the existence of guides, read by others adversely affects you or those who choose not to buy and read them?
    If you feel that something in a guide sets a perspective on class A or skill B that will prevent a player from following a certain path, then the Internet and all its information would have to cause the same affect by your standard. I can find people making definitive statements about skills, strategies, etc on every single forum about every single game. I can show you a million instances where an official forum has people saying this is the best skill or this is the best talent build, etc. How do you make a distinction between guides making these claims and the average Joe(no pun intended) making the prediction on an internet forum? They all boil down to personal strategies, and though I will agree they may not work for every single play style out there, there are those individuals who would love a different perspective on the game they play and that is why a market exists for guides. I wish I knew the guide writer who gave you your first bad experience, because like most things on the net our industry has its fair share of half truths, empty promises, bad products, scammers, etc. But I believe debate such as this is valuable and I appreciate the opportunity.

    Brian Fisher
    Marketing & Media Director
    http://www.Guidebazaar.com