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The Problems With Strategy Guide Game Design.

Secrets have always been a mainstay of games, but there is such a thing as being too hidden which leads to the requirement of a strategy guide. Today's post talks about the right and wrong reasons to use a guide.

Josh Bycer

October 24, 2011

7 Min Read

Secrets have always been a mainstay of games, but there is such a thing as being too hidden which leads to the requirement of a strategy guide. Today's post talks about the right and wrong reasons to use a guide.

Two things that go together like peanut butter and jelly would have to be RPGs and secrets. If you have played just about any RPG within the last two decades then you have probably ran into (or not,) hidden side quests so obscure that the average gamer would never find them. This has been one of the reasons to pick up the strategy guide for the game (or go to gamefaqs,) next to needing help to continue. However, this raises a design problem and a major mistake that some designers make: designing content that only people with outside information of the game would know.

Having content that the game gives no information about is just lazy design and feels out of place. Good game design should give the player everything they need without having to resort to help. Even if random NPC #20 casually mentions that throwing a turkey into a fountain will do something good, that is still better than having the player just guess to find any secrets. One of the more infamous examples of this is from Final Fantasy 12, in the game there is a secret item that the player can find by opening treasure chests in a specific order. However, nowhere in the game does it tell you that order or even hints at this side quest, that information is reserved for the strategy guide. I believe in a few rules of design and in this post I'm going to share a few with you, starting with this one:

A player should not require any outside information to finish your game.

To define finishing the game is simply, beating the normal content in a game. I don't care if you are designing a game as easy as Sonic The Hedgehog or as hard as Ninja Gaiden, the rule stands. The player should be given all the information they need from either the manual or in game to succeed. The point of contention is if the player can understand the information that they are provided which I'll be coming back to later on in this post.

One of the complaints I had with Dark Souls was on the lack of bonfires allowing the player to effectively "checkpoint" their progress. Looking at guides online showed several bonfires that are hidden behind walls. That to me is a huge no-no and an arbitrary way of inflating difficulty. There was no reason to explicitly hide these from the player; several of which are behind walls that look like every other wall in the area which is just adding salt to the wound.

The core mechanics and systems of your game are vitally important and should be explained as thoroughly as possible to the player, which leads to this rule:

If the player cannot figure out the base mechanics of your game either through in game or the manual, then you have failed at your job of being a designer.

Something is very wrong if after reading the manual that someone can't figure out how your game works. Granted, in today's age the quality of printed manuals have degraded somewhat, but that's why we have in game tutorials or tips. A player should never have to turn to a guide or the Internet to answer questions about the basics of the game. In Dark Souls, two of the new basic mechanics: humanity points and kindling bonfires are never explained in manual or in game. For the longest time I thought that being human affected the drop rate, but it turns out that I was wrong after having to look it up online.

Now while this post has been largely negative towards guides and saying that you shouldn't need a guide to play a game, but that doesn't mean that guides are useless, which leads to several caveats where a guide can be beneficial to the player.

1. Walk-through: Let's face it, we've all had a point in a game where we were hopelessly stuck and no amount of playing the game would fix it. These are the points where the next step is simply giving up and quitting the game. Sometimes we just need that one push in the right direction to get us over the hump and that's where a game guide can become useful. As I said further up, the game should give the player all the information they need to succeed, but for the times that we can't find that information, a guide can be useful.

2. Statistical Information: When it comes to more complex titles like RPGs, there is a lot of information to keep track of: equipment attributes, enemy information, what each shop keeper sells and so on. Some games are decent enough to give the player easy access to this information, however there are titles where there is just too much for the designer to catalog in game, case in point, all the information in a Nis America SRPG.

Having a one stop spot for all this information in the use of the guide can be helpful to cut down wasted time scouring for the information and helps players make informed decisions in game. I read the sections in the Demon's Souls strategy guide about equipment information and enemy drops more than the general walk-through.

3. Advance Play (AKA Post Game Content): I'm a believer in saving post game content for the times when "the gloves come off". This is where it is best to save all the toughest, game tester mind breaking content for. Some games feature very advance mechanics designed to work with the post game content. Going back to Nis America, their SRPGS are famous for having complex mechanics and systems that aren't needed for the regular game, but are used for the post game "super grind."

While the player can find out this information on their own, having a guide nearby can trim a lot of the fat of digging through the mechanics to find what you're looking for. Each Double Jump guide for Nis's SRPGs has a section detailing the exact ways to use the mechanics to completely overpower your characters and the formulas for how all this works. Reading these sections gave me a better understanding on how the interplay of the various systems works.

Now there is a caveat to this caveat, post game content should still be accessible without turning to a guide. If you want to hide an entire dungeon requiring the player to solve five puzzles, three math problems, translate a phrase from Latin to English and have the character run in place for one minute, then there better be clues in the game to tell the player to do all that. This is one area where Disgaea slips up; one of the post game mechanics involves attaching NPC monsters called "specialist" to your weapons. Each specialist enhances the weapon in a different way, with the better ones very important for the post game grind. However, nowhere in the game does it mention the difference between the various specialists.

Going back to that famous Sid Meier quote that a game is about a series of interesting decisions, in order to make said decisions, the player must be given adequate information. That is the point of in game help and manuals, to give the player the knowledge they need to play the game. The best game designs don't tell the player what the choices are, but let them find out for themselves. For the times where the player wants to find out about the choices, that is where strategy guides come into play. While game manuals are getting smaller, there should be no excuse at shrinking strategy guides. A good measure of a strategy guide should be how much damage you can inflict on someone with it, and with the Disgaea 2 guide from Double Jump, you could probably give someone a minor concussion with that beast.

Josh Bycer

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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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