Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Oddities From my Library - Strategy Guide

Timescape update: my copy has finally shown up. I can't promise a review for Monday because I want to be able to build up a buffer of read books again. So I need my copy of Book of the New Sun but I'm moving forward.

So here's another oddity from my library:

Yes, a video game strategy guide. It's not however a strategy guide that resembles anything that the majority of people are familiar with.

A long time ago writing on computer games was held to a very high standard. The magazine Computer Gaming World read more like the New York Times Review of Books than Wired. That changed rapidly as computers started becoming a mass market thing. The first issue of PC Gamer in 1993, for example, had a highly positive review of a game by the same person who wrote the prerelease strategy guide. These days you won't find a gaming site with advertising that isn't ensnared in conflict of interest relationships with their subjects.

The few strategy guides for PC games that were released before those days of putting out a guide day and date with the game were very different. For example I have The Official Book of Ultima which is half biography of Ultima creator Richard Garriott and history of Origin Games and half walkthroughs for each of the Ultima games to that point. Then there's books like this Master of Magic strategy guide and Rome on 64k a Day for Civilization (no 2, 3, or 4) which didn't just give you a few paths to victory and a list of units; they contain enough enough data to be able to rebuild the game from scratch.

Let's start with one of the obvious difference. Right there on the cover you'll see that it "covers up to version 1.3". This book was not released on the day the game was released to be sold to suckers purchasing the game who were not aware of free guides online; this book was released months after the game was.

The book is 441 pages long. Across those 441 pages there are twenty screen shots. Small screen shots that fit across one column of text. And almost all of them are in the first one hundred pages. And the text used is small; I've read history text books with less information than what is packed in these pages.

What it does have is formulas. Lots and lots of formulas for every single aspect of the game. And it points out where the bugs are that can be exploited due to those formulas. There's seven formulas for determining each city's gold income, for example. Every one of the hundreds of combat modifiers are given detail.

There's so much information that many people have used this book to remake the game from scratch. This is the nuts and bolts of a computer strategy game from a time when complexity was something people were striving for. You don't get game guides like this any more because the market wouldn't support them.