Dan Birlew is the author of several strategy guides for BradyGames, including Resident Evil 3 and Vagrant Story, and has been assigned to the SquareSoft roster of games. He has and is covering new Square titles like Parasite Eve II, Chrono Cross, and Final Fantasy IX. Birlew has a reputation for high quality work, and a distinct dedication to his craft. GamesFirst!, represented by yours truly, was lucky enough to sit in on a press roundtable discussion with Birlew and Detra Perry, PR Representative for BradyGames. Also in attendance were correspondants from Just Adventure, GameSpin, GameWeek, and The Computer Show. We all had a really nice, and quite long, discussion, ranging in topics from the nitty-gritty construction of a strategy guide, to linquistic and style considerations, to the future of strategy guides and gaming. It was all so fascinating that I followed up the interview with a few more questions, nagging Birlew about some of the deeper issues involved in gaming in general. You can find the GF! Exclusive Followup to the Dan Birlew Interview here, and keep reading to get the rest.
Q: Most of your guides are RPGs?
Q: But some of your guides are adventure guides. Whats the difference between RPG guides and adventure guides?
DB: About three or four weeks. Adventure games, for me, having grown up playing things like Beserker and Tomb Raider, mostly playing in the adventure genre, its very easy for me to play a game like Resident Evil 2 and dissect it to find all of the secrets quickly. An RPG, on the other hand, with a more complicated combat system, longer gameplay time, a more developed story, and usually some kind of a magic system that requires study, usually takes me quite a bit longer to dissect and write about. An adventure is usually something where you have a weapon of some sort, or you find other weapons, and you dont usually have hit points. Its a little simpler than an RPG. RPGs require you to set up tables for armor, weapons, and equipment, and tables for magic, so the player can understand that theyve found all the items, or that they havent, but where they can. I find that theres a great amount of difference between the RPG and adventure genres. Especially in game length. Adventures usually run about 10-15 hours at the max, whereas an RPG can run about 70-80 hours per game.
Q: In just gameplay?
Q: So what happens when you get stuck?
DB: A lot of times I just call up Tim [Tim Cox, Development Editor at BradyGames, ed.] and say, "Im stuck here. Lets see if we can ask SquareSoft and see what Im supposed to do next." And Tim will say, "Okay, Ill get back to you." And then a day or two goes by. I keep working on it in the meantime. Sometimes I have to go back to a previous save game and start from there because maybe Ive missed something, maybe theres an area I havent searched well enough. Sometimes theres an event that I missed that would be very helpful. That kind of thing.
I dont go into a game thinking Im going to beat the entire game on the first try. In fact, usually I go into the game with the intention of dying pretty quickly. Some games I determine that I can just stand there and take hits until I die, and some games I want to fight my way through it without any help to see how much damage the party or characters can take before its Game Over. That way I can form a strategy that will require player to use all of the characters health, but without any help items. Its important to learn how strong your character is, and dying isnt necessarily a bad thing. Learning how the character dies, and how the enemies cause the character to die is one of the most rudimentary ways to figure out how exactly to defeat the enemy. Because its how the enemies defeat your character that shows you how the enemies fight, and how the enemies can be outlasted or defeated.
Q: Could you tell a little about your relationship with Tim and how you guys work together in conjunction with Square to make sure that the guides have the most thorough information and are completely accurate?
DB: As soon as I get the game from BradyGames, I usually pop it in and play it for a dozen hours or so, and I call Tim so we can discuss basically what I think weve got. We bat some ideas back and forth about how the guide will be layed out, how the text should be formatted, what the guide should look like, in a way that best fits the game. We dont want to layout a guide for Parasite Eve II in the same way as the guide for Chrono Cross, especially because of time differences. When you have a 15 hour game like Parasite Eve II you can go into quite a bit more detail about fighting certain enemies or picking up certain items in certain areas. Where, in Chrono Cross, there are so many events, so many items to pick up, that you would never be able to fit that guide into 200 pages. It would be this monster guide several volumes long.
We work very closely on trying to figure out that format ahead of time. We also try to figure out what kind of lists were going to use; whether were going to need detailed armor lists, or whether were going to something about item combining or armor forging, something like that. We also discuss character sections, and what information were going to need on the characters, whether we need statistics or just detailed descriptions of the characters. If you have a game with eight characters, you can go into a lot more detail than you can in a game with forty characters.
Those are the kinds of things we discuss. As Im progressing through the game and developing the guide, I come back to Tim with text, sections of the guide, and I ask him: How do you think this is working out? How do you think we should format our screenshots? That kind of thing. And also, as I said before, anytime I get stuck, or anytime theres a part of the game I dont understand, I pose those questions to Tim and he takes those to SqareSoft and we try to get answers. Usually, Tim is working on one question and I already have another.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about what your style might be, how it varies from game to game, and how you keep your audience in mind when youre writing the guides?
DB: I tend to think of the audience as someone who has bought the game and played a little bit of it. I try to fall in with the tone of the game, to reflect the character of the game a little bit, so I can write descriptions and strategies with the same voice that the game has. Youre not going to write a guide for Vagrant Story the same way you write a guide for Chrono Cross. Vagrant Story is very serious, tense, action-packed, and very dark and gothic. It also has a tone of espionage to it, so when I was writing the character descriptions I wanted to bring in a sort of dossier feel to the descriptions. Something like Chrono Cross is more humorous, and lighthearted. I think its important to keep elements of light comedy in the guide. Ken Schmidt, whos also working on Chrono Cross, came up with the idea that we write some of the tips in the margins in the same mannerisms as a couple of the characters in Chrono Cross, and that was a fabulous suggestion. Ive been working on developing some of the boss strategies to that effect, writing them in the same dialect as some of the characters are using. Basically, all 40 characters in Chrono Cross each have a different dialect, which is tough to keep up with, but I think its going to come out pretty well.
I think the feel and tone of the game is important to the strategy guide. A player is basically going to have the book open beside them as theyre playing through the game, flipping the pages. The guide needs to follow the same tempo as the game. For example, in a final boss fight, the wording of the strategy might be a bit more tense, more quick, because the player is going to be more intense, more excited to be at the final boss fight. So the final boss strategy needs to be more consice, and to the point, but it also needs to carry over the tone of the final boss fight so the player is essentially going from the game to the strategy guide and theres not a lot of break.