Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
An insult to my readers

Every week I get e-mails from various companies which found my blog via it's Google Pagerank, who want me to promote their wares. Yesterday I got a mail suggesting that my readers would certainly be interested in that company's Farmville guide (not going to give you the link). What an insult! I would most certainly hope that my readers are sufficiently intelligent to play Farmville without a guide, if they play it at all.

But then this got me thinking that a Farmville guide is actually somewhat symptomatic of modern gaming. There is even a Farmville for Dummies book in print, so apparently enough people buy such guides. There are whole publishing companies producing nothing but guides for video games. And that is just the most commercial tip of the iceberg, the internet is a huge repository for game guides, wikis, databases, and even videos explaining you how to play every step of every video game there is.

In general, playing a game consists of two major parts: Figuring out what move to make, and executing the move. With games being played by many thousands, sometimes millions of people, and communication via the internet being so easy, players crowdsource that first part. And there are some good reasons for it: Imagine you bought a game, and got stuck at some point, because you can't figure out how to proceed further. Looking up the solution on the internet is obviously better than never playing the second half of the game.

The obvious danger is using guides all the time, and never even trying to figure out how by yourself how a game works and what to do in it. That reduces playing a game to pure execution. Now obviously there are games in which the execution is the fun part, but that is hardly the case for Farmville. Even MMORPGs, apart from the endgame, are mostly trivial in execution. Figuring out the virtual world is the fun part, and outsourcing that fun to databases and addons leaves us with nothing much.

But not only is there a trend towards game guides, but games more and more incorporate those guides into the game itself. In a way the quest systems of most MMORPGs are nothing more than a big pointer showing people the way towards the next suitable loot pinata. It avoids players exploring the virtual world on their own, and god forbid accidentally stumble into a higher level zone and getting killed.

The most surprising part of this is that the community *wants* all these guides and aids and crutches. You'd be laughed at in your guild if you proposed to do a raid without looking up the boss strategies first, or to try raiding without addons. People would consider it strange if a player would just go out and explore the virtual world, killing monsters without having a quest for them. In a community where the virtual reward for playing is considered more important than the fun you have by playing, it is considered normal to deliberately use tools and aids that diminish the fun to get to the virtual rewards faster. It is the players who write the addons and contribute to the databases and guides that make our games so trivial now. It is hard to blame developers for making games too trivial, if the players then go and further trivialize those games with guides and mods.
I try and always avoid using guides, witht he exception of when we used to raid in WoW - i still recall the diagrams on the ORC forums for Razorgore...

However overall I find them a detriment to the game but sometimes they are just plain unavoidable.

Wiv introduced me to Demonsouls on the PS3 - AWESOME game, however some parts are just so redicously hard that you cannot just wander through without at least either reading up on or watching a video.

People will always want guides, epecialyl the people who like to be completionists about games, Assasins Creed for example, finding every single flag in each region - im sorry theres only so much wandering you cna do free running from building to building.

Its always the case of supply and demand, I would never personally however buy a guide - not when theyre free if required ont he internet anyway

Good for you Tobold
Years ago, when we were kids, my youngest brother played Warcraft 2 with the cheats on. He amassed a giant army then came proudly running to find me, so I could bear witness to the carnage he was about to wreak upon his AI opponent.

At the time, I realized the cheats were on and was internally unimpressed (where was the challenge?) but looking at the earnest little man's gleeful expression, who was I to deny him this joy? This was the game, to him. This is how he found fun.

I had cheated before... Ultimately I found it empty and unfulfilling, robbing me of the actual meat of the game. There was some kind of saturation point for effortlessness. I believe WoW's 'hardcore' raiders found this point, and the answer was Cataclysm.
An answer that drove away a million little brothers.

By contrast, I have a friend who is so vehemently anti-cheating that he will not look up solutions to an adventure game, even if it means he does not get to see the end of the story. He even does this in games whose sole redeeming quality is their story. This seems counter-intuitive, but it's his code and he dislikes games which force him to it.

It comes down to what we're looking for, when we load up that title. All games have a balance between narrative and mechanical challenge. It skews by title and genre, but it affects why we play. As long as one can remain mindful... Cheating shouldn't be an issue.

I wish I'd kept a quote I saw from an art critic who was posting on a game site about video games as art. The quote went something along the lines of:
Video games are the best art form, unlike all others; no painting, movie or book denies you access to the rest of it if you aren't any good at viewing it.
I agree. In fact, I started Rift once again yesterday evening and decided to play my mage without questing.

That was hard! I had a lot of fun just doing the polished gameplay that is combat, and not having to run around all the time .. but it bugged my that those quests would turn green/grey and become even less fun later on.

I somehow felt like I needed to complete all the quests or I would be missing something - and that's probably even true.

The entire situation was inconvenient!
In a community where the virtual reward for playing is considered more important than the fun you have by playing...

Chis Hecker has a great article on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, Achievements Considered Harmful?

...playing a game consists of two major parts: Figuring out what move to make, and executing the move.

Deciding and Acting are two of the steps of the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) which I wrote about in John Boyd's OODA loop and games
I think it's worth remembering that there are many people playing games now who aren't traditional gamers and don't have a background in playing video games.

Many of these people are completely isolated from other gamers. So someone playing Farmville who doesn't know anyone else who plays, who maybe has children who plays video games but isn't comfortable asking them for advice might benefit from a guide even if the benefit is limited to "I thought this was a good way to do it and the book confirms that".

It's easy when you're good at something to forget how daunting it can seem to someone with no clue how to do it.
Ignoring the MMO side for a second, with regard to some of the solo RPG titles available today I find a guide can let me squeeze every last drop of value out of a game.

As an example in Fallout 3 I played through the main quest line and then when back - using a guide - to find every last puzzle, secret and side quest.

The scope of some games today - if they are not completely linear, which IMO lessens a game anyway - just means it would be very easy to miss areas that are often as good (story wise) as the main content.
The online gaming community as a whole is very hostile towards new players that do not use guides.

It's okay to be a newbie, but to actively reject the 'wisdom of those that know' is a sure-fire way to be ostracised from the group.
Guides aren't always bad. It depends on why you're using them.

Certainly, levelling through Vanilla WoW the first time entirely using a levelling guide would have meant you miss out on a lot of the fun. (Indeed, I'd say one of the problems with Cataclysm is that the quests are basically designed to replace a levelling guide.)

However, searching for Mankrik's Wife for two hours, after you'd gotten bored of doing so 20 minutes in? No. There, looking the location up in a guide actually makes the game more fun.
Ergh Mankriks Wife, that brings back alot of memories

/y Where is Makriks Wife?!?!
South Xroads

/y Where is Makriks Wife?!?!
South Xroads

/y Where is Makriks Wife?!?!
South Xroads....

Most annoying quest ever :)
Strategy guides tend to bring out the completionist in me. This was true in the final fantasy 7/8/9 era where I must have clocked close to 1000 hours across all those games in total. Had the guides not been available I don't think I would have played again and again, trying to perfect battles and get the best items....

With the internet so readily available gamefaqs has been a frequent haunt (not the forums though), for guides but not in the same way. I don't seem to treat these guides in the same way as hardback though, instead of pouring over them I will skim to the bit I have been stuck on for a week and get a hint.

Starcraft 2 was the last guide I brought and felt it was beneficial because I was new to the RTS genre (missed out on a lot).
I would like to comment that not all guides are a waste of time and money. In games like Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 (Both of which I finished without guides) there are many decisions points through the game that will affect the outcome of your character. And for 40-60 hour games, replaying isn't always an option.

Also for many JRPG's, they put in secret bosses that need X and Y and Z to unlock and that's the only way to get uber weapon W. Well... I think guides are needed there too.

But for MMO's and not RPG's games, I agree with you.
I just stopped reading another blog because it did a shameless (and I DO mean shameless) plug for a leveling guide, started with "Z". (not being coy, I really cant remember the name of the guide)

A google search showed NO negative reviews and the first 10 pages were ALL SEO pages. the guide claims to get you to level 85 in record time.

Really? FRACKIN' REALLY?! If you cant level a character in WoW you just aren't paying attention. Get a couple of key add ons (carbonite for utility, comix for humor) and just do it.

sorry for the rant, and thanks for not making me stop reading your blog. :D
Quoting Tobold: "You'd be laughed at in your guild if you proposed to do a raid without looking up the boss strategies first"

Depends on the guild. I'm in a guild where it's the opposite: we are assumed to go and do the first pull blind, without any idea of what will happen. There are for sure players who go and look at the strategies, but they are nice enough to keep their mouths shut. I admit that now I don't even look at the guides anymore, after you have some experience with bosses, it's very easy to see what to do just by reading the debuff tooltips and looking around. I may reach for the guide after the first evening, to see if our approach is right and to see if we missed anything.
It may slow down progression a bit, but it's a lot more fun.
This is a difference between single and multi-player gaming.

In multi-player gaming you are expected to conform to certain standards and guides are pretty much essential but in single player you don't have to consult a guide unless you get stuck.

Great recent example of a game where learning by trial and error is half the fun: Magicka. Sure there are guides on the web but if you are playing singe player you should put off consulting them for as long as possible.
The Master of Orion guide helped me learn to think critically again after my parents left a cult. I'm not even joking. I wrote an email to one of the authors of the guide thanking him for saving my mind. I think he was happy and surprised that his game guide had such an effect on someone.

So basically, don't piss too hard on game guides. You never know who will derive benefits beyond beating a game from them.
I always try to figure out what to do by myself, but then there are some game features which may become hard to understand or even to test them. I such case I go to a search engine and I get information enough about them.

I would never buy a book/guide about games, unless if I CAN make money with the tips that the guide gives me. And money means, REAL MONEY!
I beat Dragon Age without looking up anything and was proud of it. I then looked up all the side quests and played the game several more times to see it all.

What I think happens in an MMO is a player or guild works hard to figure out content and they are rightfully proud of doing so. Other people think the pride comes from the act of beating the content or the reward they get for it. But because it was easy to achieve it isn't very satisfying.

This is one area developers do a horrible job of protecting players from themselves and trivialize their work at the same time. How great would it be to get a quest and have to read it so that you could figure out how to do it? What if every time you zoned into a dungeon it randomly generated the layout and quantity of mobs? I would love a game like this but I don't think it has much chance of getting 5 million subscribers so we will probably never see it.

If you had to read quests it would create immersion, randomized dungeons would promote teamwork and increase the replay value.
emlyn said :

"Also for many JRPG's, they put in secret bosses that need X and Y and Z to unlock and that's the only way to get uber weapon W. Well... I think guides are needed there too."

This sort of thing always strikes me as a ripoff. I suspect ... no ... I'm damn sure those 'secret' bosses/places/abilities/loot are placed in the game for the sole purpose of selling a guide to the players. Thus reaping $80+ from a game that players think they're only spending $50 on.
Using a guide to shepherd you through every step of a single player game is just silly, and lazy, and will spoil the game for you.

But there are simple social reasons behind using guides for MMO content, especially raids.

In a single player game, if you die because you don't know what you're doing, you only inconvenience yourself, and "death penalties" in single player games are either non-existent or just require you to reload your last save. You can undo your mistake.

In contrast, if you cause a raid to wipe because you don't know what you're doing, you've inconvenienced not only yourself, but every other person in the raid. That puts social pressure on a player to NOT screw up, and seek help to make sure they don't screw up. Worse, MMOs have penalties associated with failure and you've just inflicted those penalties on every member of your raid. You can't undo your mistake, there's no save game to go back to.

I'm sure a great many people who play MMOs would prefer to never use guides, but feel like they have to thanks to the obligations inherent in social gaming.
I guess what you say about guides is true for static content and scripted boss fights but not so much for randomized content or pvp. Most people look at guides to save completion time when they get frustrated or save learning time when their guild get frustrated with them.

Isn't that human nature though to not reinvent the wheel? I cannotthink of a single human pursuit where someone hasn't written a guide for it.
This is why WoW raiding is primarily about execution as opposed to figuring out what to do.
I never understood the whole printed guide mentality until I got married. My wife is extremely intelligent, she is a biologist and even though she loves computers and uses them, she loves how a book actually feels on her hands. She knows the information is there, but guides make it so she can read about a game away from the TV or the computer. I like looking up my stuff online, but some people like the tactile thing and having the info away from a sceen.
Logtar is onto something important there. I work in a bookshop and what he describes is something I hear often when selling computer books of the "Missing Manual" variety.

Moreover, many of the people who buy them are computer professionals who know perfectly well how and where to get the information online - they just find having it in a book more convenient.

When it comes to games, if you liek a game, you may well also like to read about it. I have never read a guide for a game while I'm actually playing it, but I've read a few about games I used to play. I also read travel guides to places I've already been.
For me, I never saw the point of languishing in pointless futility. I do have a lot of time to spend on playing games, but a lot of the time, wandering aimlessly in the midst of harsh videogame punishments just isn't worth it. Using a guide allows me to progress through the game rather than give up on the game entirely.

Sure, I get that sometimes, the puzzle is the fun of the game, but when that puzzle is no longer fun to me, why should I stop playing the game altogether when that puzzle is blocking me from experiencing the rest of the game? To me, the guide is like a master key, unlocking the rest of the content when I need it. I don't rely on guides all the time, but when I do, it's to enhance own personal fun and enjoyment.

Got the crux of it right there - 'fun'. Am I having it? If not, identify what's stopping you and resolve it. In some cases, that simply means stop playing. Easy enough for single-player games, but MMOs have done their damnedest to keep folks going past the point of fun. Effective use of Loss Aversion psychology is responsible for a lot of it. Fear, not fun. (The guy over at has many interesting articles about it with an actual bibliography for published studies and reference texts. But that takes some of the fun out of conjecture, which is what we do here, right?)

If not, identify what's stopping you and resolve it. In some cases, that simply means stop playing. Easy enough for single-player games, but MMOs have done their damnedest to keep folks going past the point of fun. Effective use of Loss Aversion psychology is responsible for a lot of it. Fear, not fun. (The guy over at has many interesting articles about it with an actual bibliography for published studies and reference texts. But that takes some of the fun out of conjecture, which is what we do here, right?)

@Bhagpuss: Oh man. Can you remember when you actually had to read manuals to know what the keys were, because they hadn't all been homogenized into WASD and there were no helpful tutorial missions built into the start of all games? Game manuals of a certain era (80s-early90s?) were thick, weighty things with dozens of pages, which you could read on the bus or train on the way home after your purchase. The perfect amuse-bouche to the game you were about to play.

I know in particular the pages and pages of concept art riddling the Warcraft 2 and Diablo manuals had me enthralled, long after the PC had to be turned off. Chris Metzen and Samwise Didier taught me how to draw.
I stand by my old mantra, if a game, including WoW, requires reading a pre-written guide to succeed, that game is broken. A boss fight may not be won on the first time but if it requires secret knowledge to beat, then it is a worthless trick and not a legitimate game.
Totally agree with, and want to echo what Stabs said above.

I'm older. I found WoW 3 years ago after only having played Oblivion for a few months. That was the only post-2000 game I had ever played. I had never even read a blog.

Farmville For Dummies is for the people that wonder what this whole "Farmville" thing is all about.

WoW and games like it are nearly unplayable in any meaningful way without awareness of and access to databases, class/skill guides like EJ, AND the WoW community. The game itself gives almost ZERO help.

I found that mystifying when I started, but, the game introduced me to this amazing player-created content that I now take for granted.

Seriously, I can't thank WoW enough for that.
It never ceases to amaze me the sweeping generalization that occur with these types of posts. "Figuring out the virtual world is the fun part." Err... no. That may be fun for you, but that has never been the case for me in MMOs. Indeed, what MMO is about the fun of exploration and not execution? Do you explore as a group in a social setting? No. Your exploration is always a personal thing, a single-player thing, to be done in adventure games, not MMORPGs as such.

Did you ever play Silent Hill? That was all about exploration and basically nothing about execution - it was difficult to be "good" at killing the monsters, and usually irrelevant (provided you weren't killed of course). Reading about where all the monsters were and what would happen next would definitely ruin the experience. What about, say, Halo? Execution all the way. A buddy or guide could spoil the entire story arc and it would still be a fun game.

Now ask yourself how someone could spoil WoW for you. Cannot be done. "We kill Deathwing." OMG PATCH 4.5 IS RUINED!!!11... right? This has nothing to do with guides or availability of information, but 100% about the fact there is nothing about WoW gameplay that depends upon unknown information to be fun. Would Firelands be any different if you knew what bosses were in there or their abilities or even step-by-step video guides for defeating the modes? Just knowing these things doesn't mean you could actually do them yourself, or that you could get 9/24 other people to do it the right way simultaneously.

If you want to explore uncharted wildernesses, do it on your own time, in your own world.

I played Final Fantasy XI for a couple of years and I can say, without a doubt, that group exploration was my favorite part of that game. There were areas of the game that were extremely hard to reach but had the payoff of getting to see some amazing game art and obtaining a screenshot that would make your friends exclaim, "Wow! Where is that and how did you get there?!"

It was rarely a solo exploration adventure either, because soloing above level 15 was an impossibility for most classes going almost anywhere by yourself was a good way to get killed. Exploring with a group of friends was a great way to get to know one-another and bond, in fact I made several friends doing just that.

Exploration has always been a large part of my enjoyment of all games, including MMOs. Until recently that included WoW, but with flying mounts now there really isn't much exploration involved anymore and I think it's taken away from the game.
You assume exploring is the point of MMOs and thus guides are noxious because that's the part of the game you happen to enjoy the most. Not everyone may necessarily play for the same reasons. For example, if someone was playing WoW because their friends loved the PVP side of things (or whatever), they may want to use a guide to catch up to them faster.

More broadly speaking, developers design games with the knowledge that guides and addons are or will be created for it, so the devs factor that into an encounter's complexity. That's partly why every raiding expac has increased the complexity of the encounters. Therefore, you're a fool not to prepare ahead of time, because the developers expect you to in order to play the game.
I see three types:

1) Flash/Facebook/iPhone/iPad games you "just play"

2) Serious games with either an extensive rule book/instruction manual or external books. I can't see playing bridge/chess/go/poker by "just playing."

3) virtual worlds - ( Second Life ) - no external objectives

So I see a lack of a guide/entertainment as being a sign the game is trivial.
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