So there I stood in Chapters, facing the bookshelf as one would stare down a rival gunslinger at the crack of dawn. Tried, I did, to conjure a justification for potentially spending over thirty dollars on a player’s guide for a video game that I already beat almost a year previous. (Dead Space 3, for those so inclined)
Oh, but it promised to be more than a guide: ‘twas a limited edition guide, with exclusive series lore, extra developer commentary and canon timeline, and a gorgeous hardback finish. And so I thought, ‘wait, when did this happen? When did game guides become the kind of fare that demands ‘collector’s edition-ness’?’
Go on up then, the nagging voice in my head said, You know this will make for a decent Looking Glass piece: the evolution of the game guide. ‘Course, you don’t yet own any of these newfangled ‘limited edition guides’ to better understand them, so…
Grab, march to the counter, swipe card.
That scene played out in 2014, and to that point I hadn’t bought an honest-to-god player’s guide ever since…Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, so about six and a half years.
But player’s guides were a huge part of my childhood reading syllabus. What was it I said about them earlier? Oh yes: “In the 90s and early 00s, the mags were almost like a way for me to live vicariously through their pages and get info on the games that the kid-me knew I wouldn’t be able to experience firsthand anytime soon, and as a way for me to connect with the “gaming community” at the time.” (Me, this, the past)
After all, video games were and are an expensive endeavor: a guide cost a fraction of what it cost for a game. Though now, we see the curious scenario playing out where that Dead Space 3 guide actually costs more as of this writing than the actual game does.
And those guides from my childhood, typically paperback, were generally straightforward fare. You would have some random character vectors from the game scattered about the pages between the text tips, screencaps and maps, maybe a secrets/codes section on the last page you would turn to if you were feeling like a rascal, but overall their purpose was clear: to help you beat the game. Occasionally you’d be so lucky as to have the guide in question be written by someone like Zack Meston, whose quirky humour breathed life into walkthroughs that in lesser hands would be simple do-this-and-go-there affairs, but the guides were still meant to fill that very specific niche.
Somewhere along the line, game guides went from that, to being hardbound, weighty monsters that cost over half as much as the game itself, and including various things that elevated them above simple walkthroughs.
My conclusion here isn’t going to be controversial or groundbreaking: it’s because of the internet. What happens to the paid purveyors of a niche when the same information is all of a sudden being filled for free? Sure, the early guide sites may have been text-only, but everyone who wrote and writes guides for those places, anyone from plucky young gamers to actual published authors, did it for free. Sure, Prima and Versus Books had to be paid for, but they had screenshots and maps and then Youtube dropped a big ol’ video revolution into the world and uh oh for the guide people.
The word of the day is Incentivizing. Companies like Prima needed to give people a reason to buy physical guides again instead of just hopping on Youtube and getting everything for free. I also see a certain reaching-out to collectors like me with the notion of “limited edition” guides; that Dead Space 3 guide is individually numbered, almost as though to give the impression of an elite cadre of impeccably-dressed Dead Space players sitting in a room, sipping imported cognac and…I dunno, reading the Dead Space 3 guide, I guess. Let’s see what I got…
And it’s a pretty large room, it seems. Still, I can’t imagine them going out of their way to do that in the 90s, the golden era of player’s guides.
The 360/PS3 generation saw the rise of these ‘collector’s edition’ guides on a timescale that runs nearly parallel to the rise of the ‘collector’s edition’ game. Strange as it seems to think in 2014, there was a time not so long ago when the idea of the high-value limited boxset for an individual game just wasn’t a thing in the mainstream game world. The occasional limited-edition triple-A title would come along (Halo 2 on the first Xbox came with a documentary DVD if you got the collector’s edition), but the whole “big box with statue, soundtrack, artbook, etc” package hadn’t come into full force quite yet. Oh, it existed, but it was on the margins.
Similarly, during that generation guides were slowly becoming more elaborate, though not to the extent that they are now.
So what we’re seeing here might be a bit of impressive self-reflexivity on the part of game guide publishers. They’ve recognized that the niche they once cornered the market on has been overtaken by a more viable option, so they’ve adapted. Has it worked?
Well…we’re talking about them in the present tense, aren’t we?
I suppose it fits in with the new norm of everything being just that much more expensive in the game world: controllers now cost as much as a full-price game (yes, it’s not just in your head; you are being ripped off), games seem to have hiked in price with the new generation, and these guides now offer certain ‘feelie’ incentives that you wouldn’t get from a Youtube walkthrough.
And while I haven’t played the game, I saw that the Titanfall guide actually comes with strategies (or possibly a DVD; yay for writing by the seat of my pants instead of fact-checking!) by some popular Youtubers. Which, to me, is intensely cool, bridging the gap between fans and those who contribute to the mythology of these things. What’s next, a horror game that comes with a DVD of popular Youtuber Markiplier playing it and getting scared by it?
Personally, I’m more interested in the popularization of video game art books. I have a good number of them myself, and I can attest that they really take advantage of the physical format with big, colourful images that jump right off the page. Even then, I’ve seen a few art books that actually do come with DVDs; it all speaks to how the supplemental material for games is reaching a certain evolution, in some cases cross-media.
And that’s awesome!