Bad MotherFaqers

By Robert Janelle

Originally published in The Escapist 16/03/2010

Steve Huijboom defeats a level boss and quickly turns his chair to face a nearby computer to make a note. “When you shoot, you’ll see green �goo' indicating that you’re hurting the boss” he writes. “When it’s in the air, don’t waste too much ammo; rather, just burst at it until he gets back down and repeat the process.”

It’s March 5, 2009, and Huijboom is playing through Resident Evil 5. The game isn’t set to be released in most of the world for another week, but Huijboom had pre-ordered the Japanese version with the highest shipping priority.

This isn’t the way most gamers play through games, but then the 22-year-old psychology and philosophy student in the Netherlands isn’t the average gamer. He’s carefully working his way through the game and taking meticulous notes in order to write a finished walkthrough before most people have even placed the disc in their console. Huijboom is one of the thousands of gamers who spend extra time documenting their first play through a game to create guides, walkthroughs or FAQs and post the results online for free.

Many gamers have probably encountered a scenario that leads them to consult a guide � a boss battle that just seems impossible, a puzzle section that looks incomprehensible or simply a situation with no indication of what to do next. Thanks to the efforts of people like Hujiboom, the Internet has vast repositories of detailed guides that lay out instructions on where to go, what hidden dangers exist, where to find the key and what the bad guys' weak points are. A good guide usually includes maps, charts and diagrams, often drawn using nothing but ASCII text. Along with instructions, there’s frequently a fair bit of humor and tidbits of trivia included. It’s a style of writing that technology journalist Clive Thompson once described as “travel literature of the damned.”

While game guide writers come from a variety of places and backgrounds, what most seem to have in common is how they got started: dissatisfaction with the information currently available for the games they were playing.

Daniel Engel, a 27-year-old from southern Ontario, started writing game guides after playing Equinox for the SNES. Not finding much information on how to get through the game, he decided to start writing out what he already knew to try and gain some clarity and insight into how the game worked. “It was good to collect my thoughts and work my way through it,” he says. “It helped me get through the game, so I shared it with everyone else.” Engle has kept at it: To date has written and shared more than 100 guides.

For Huijboom, part of the motivation to write guides comes from being unhappy with the quality of “official licensed” guides, particularly for a fairly linear game like RE:5. “I don’t think it warrants a purchase of a $20 guide,” he says. Meanwhile, other games have puzzles so insanely complex that you could be forgiven for thinking they were created specifically to sell strategy guides. (“Wait, that creepy poem about mutilating someone’s face was actually the order to push buttons on a keypad?!”)

Player-written game guides have been around almost as long as videogames themselves, though they haven’t always been as easy to find as they are now. In the early days of the internet (before it was synonymous with “the web”), game guides were scattered around various Usenet newsgroups with no central repository. Long-time game journalist Andy Eddy would change this.

In 1992, Eddy was Executive Editor of the now-defunct VideoGames and Computer Entertainment. Like many gaming publications of the time, the magazine included strategy guides and cheat codes in each issue. The editorial staff got help from FAQ writers on Usenet for these guides, and Eddy decided that this work should be collected somewhere. As the magazine did not have its own website at the time, Eddy uploaded the text files to the personal FTP space provided by his ISP. The FTP site became popular very quickly.

“It was one of those things that just took off and gelled,” writes Eddy in an email. “As more people knew about it, more people used it; as more FAQs authors heard about it, more would put the address in their FAQs and make a point of sending me a new or revised FAQ.”

As the web became the most common way to access and publish information online, people starting creating sites that mirrored the content of Eddy’s FTP site. One of them was a gamer named Jeff Veasey, who created a site on his AOL user space called The Video Game FAQ Archive. In 1996, the site moved to its own domain and the name was shortened to GameFAQs. More than a decade and 45,000 contributions later, the site is one of the first stops many frustrated gamers make online to find answers and one of the main gathering places for guide writers.

Although the FAQ writing community is largely based around sharing, most writers prefer their guides only be hosted on a handful of large sites like the CNET-owned GameFAQs and IGN FAQs, as sites with professional administrators are faster to post updates. Having your name attached to a guide with outdated or otherwise incorrect strategies can result in a flood of hate-mail.

That said, it’s the outpouring of thank-you emails that inspire many FAQ writers to keep up their time-consuming and largely voluntary efforts. “It’s definitely a motivator,” says Huijboom, who reads every email he receives regarding the 19 guides he’s written.

But it is a rather massive amount of work for a volunteer project. A detailed guide can weigh-in at more than 50,000 words � longer than many novels and certainly longer than the average game journalist writes for pay. Along with the lengthy writing, there’s also the fact that guide writers have to make it through the sections that other gamers go running to the guide to solve.

Patrick Summers, a general store clerk in small-town Montana who has written about 75 full walkthroughs in his spare time, taps the community for those sections. “They’re a tremendously helpful knowledge pool,” writes Summers in an email, noting the importance of giving credit in these situations.

The process of putting together a guide can vary as much as the contributors themselves. While Huijboom likes to write the guide while playing the game for the first time, Summers uses the first play-through to build an outline and then take more detailed notes with a section-by-section breakdown the second time through.

Once the notes on playing are complete, there’s the layout process which is not too dissimilar to a print publication. Writers add the table of contents and section headings, as well as any artwork to go with the guide. (Despite the multimedia bent of the web, the majority of writers still prefer barebones text files with the ASCII art.) To save time, most long-time guide authors keep templates for this purpose.

Finally, writers post the guide for public consumption and edit them based on feedback. Many players will send in their own strategies to authors or are very quick to point out errors that need to be corrected. The entire process can take between 50 hours to several weeks according to several writers.

While that time and effort is mostly unpaid, there are a few ways FAQ writers can receive compensation for their efforts. Many authors put a PayPal donation link in their guides, while larger FAQ hosting sites frequently put contributors in a draw for Amazon gift certificates, among other prizes. Writing a good guide can also serve as a portfolio piece to get paid work. Both Huijboom and Engel have taken on freelance assignments to write guides for professional sites. “It’s like a part-time job,” says Huijboom.

Huijboom’s portfolio includes one mammoth piece: his Final Fantasy VII guide, which was his attempt to put together every piece of information that could possibly be found about the game. Like other projects, it was motivated by what he felt was a “really horrible” official guide. “It’s really astonishing that they put out such a really, really bad official guide on the market,” says Huijboom. Almost 900 pages later, he felt he’d filled the gap in FFVII knowledge. “It really satisfied me to create such a document for my favorite game,” he says.

This body of work, along with the freelance work he performed, led Hujiboom to a rare opportunity: He was recently contracted by game guide publisher Piggyback Interactive to contribute to the publisher’s officially licensed Final Fantasy XIII guide.

On the other hand, even with paid work available, some authors prefer to keep FAQ writing as a hobby. Summers has turned down paid assignments, fearing it would take away from his writing. “Turning play into work is a good way to get burned out,” says Summers. “It’s important to me to have zero deadlines.”

As with any community, FAQ writers have different motivations and work styles, but their end goal is the same: providing solid information to help out fellow gamers. Whether it’s documenting the locations of every hidden package in a game, figuring out how to defeat that pesky fifth boss or determining which order the soup cans need to be placed in to open the door, somebody is probably working out the solution and ready to post it online.

“These guys do it without complaining or compensation,” says Summers. “[They’re] really just a stellar assortment of authors.”