washingtonpost.com
Free Help for Stuck Gamers

By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, December 22, 2005

It always happens. One minute, you're throwing a pair of swords around, killing monsters in a blood-tastic frenzy -- the next minute, the monsters are all dead and you're stuck in a room in front of some gaudy locked door, confused and starting to feel like an idiot as the adrenaline wears off.

Maybe anybody still playing video games in his thirties should feel like an idiot, but that's another column. This one is a thank-you note to the anonymous guys who help fellow game players out of those frustrating moments by spending long hours writing detailed, step-by-step walk-throughs of their favorite games.

If you get lost in a game this holiday season, help is only a Google search away. Enter the name of a game and, for example, the word "walk-through" and -- voila! -- a number of sites pop up offering almost everything a player could want, from level guides to secret codes to story synopses.

Think Cliffs Notes for the gamer set.

For those players who want more than an amateur-written text file, there are also professionally published game guides that typically cost about $20 each. That's about a $100 million business, according to one publishing company, BradyGames, which competes with a company called Prima in putting out slick, full-color books thatinclude level maps and other bonus material. These publishers pay game developers a royalty for each book sold.

Although such guides benefit from having the cooperation of game developers, players who need just a little help often find that the free stuff is good enough.

This subculture of the gaming world exists because of a few hard-core fans willing to work for the promise of little or no reward. It's even a competitive scene: Some amateur writers with the right language skills will even import a copy of a game that has been released in Japan so that they can get their walk-throughs up by the time the title hits U.S. stores.

College student Alex Eagleson, who usually posts his guides at a site called GameFAQs.com, said he started writing to put a creative touch on a hobby he loves. His latest opus, a walk-through for Dragon Quest VIII, has more than 400 pages and well over 100,000 words. It took him a month to complete.

And yes, in case you were wondering, he is a computer science major.

Eagleson, who has written about 50 guides over the past two years, includes his PayPal account information in case users want to send him a few dollars as thanks -- and he gets a few minor donations for each one he publishes. When his guides are very popular, the gamer sites that host them will sometimes send him a few bucks -- typically in the form of $50 gift certificates from Amazon.com or EB Games -- for helping drive Web traffic.

Matt Firor, at local game developer Mythic Entertainment, says his colleagues regularly read some of the more popular walk-through sites. The fans devoted enough to write a book-length walk-through for hamburger money are also the ones who might have some opinions worth knowing, after all. The Fairfax-based company even employs one person whose break in the industry years ago came from writing game guides. He had such a strong following that Electronic Arts eventually offered him a job.

Game makers such as Mythic say the guides, free or not, are helpful because they can keep people playing the products. Such companies have many years and a lot of money invested in the games. One of the worst things that can happen, said Todd Howard, executive producer at Bethesda Softworks, is that somebody puts a game down halfway through because he gets stuck.

"You never want that," said Howard. "You'd hate for someone to walk out in the middle of a movie and say, 'It just got too hard.' "

Bonus-Level Story

One of the most popular games for the impossible-to-find Xbox 360 is shaping up to be a secret, unmarketed title called Geometry Wars, a retro and souped-up take on an Asteroids-type game that almost looks like it could have been at home on a console from years ago.

The first Geometry Wars game was included as an extra tucked inside the Xbox game Project Gotham Racing 2. The game was so popular that a new version is available as a separate $5 download for the new Xbox, in addition to its appearance in the new version of the racing game. Gamer Web site Joystiq.com proclaimed the title "our favorite title for the 360" and it was a finalist at game biz blog Kotaku.com for the Xbox 360 game of the year. (Then again, the new device doesn't have all that many games available yet.)

Howard at Bethesda said the game is so popular at his company that his colleagues were planning to have a Geometry Wars tournament over lunch yesterday. "You have to try it," he said. "It'll make your eyes pop out."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company