The rules of strategy guides: how Prima Games pissed off Square & why it killed Harry Potter
Prima Games is the division of Random House that creates strategy guide for video games, and they’ve been doing this job very well since the 1990s. A few weeks ago I was contacted by an ex-employee of the company who wanted to tell the story of strategy guides, and shed some light on the business practices that make the strategy guides such a successful, but high pressure, way to make money.
“This is the story of the rules for printing strategy guides and paints a picture of an industry hogtied by the reality of the marketplace it helped create,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. He asked me not to use his name, but I was able to confirm his employment with Prima Games, although the company declined to comment on the story.
Why make one book when you can make ALL the books
Prima began to dip into video games with the “Secrets of the Game” series that began in 1990. “The content of these books were written with an eye towards entertaining readers independently of the raw information itself, with generous amounts of humor, and even bits of narrative from time to time,” our source said. “They were the first of their kind, and before the Internet, they fulfilled a very real need. They sold well, enough to spawn an industry. Remember, this was back when games had phone tip hotlines that you could call and run up a bill to get answers to difficult puzzles.”
The company learned very quickly that you could sell one book for multiple games, or you could sell 10 books for 10 different games. Creating a single guide for each game was much more profitable, but it also created some harsh realities for the publisher. Here are the rules for making money with strategy guides.
Rule #1: Pick the right game
“Prima and other publishers learned that popular titles like Prince of Persia could be real money makers while Reaches: A Prequel to Kingdom II Shadoan not only wouldn’t make you rich, they could actually put you in the poor house,” our source explained. “Picking the right games to concentrate on became critical. Ultimately, you wanted to write for Myst not Daikatana.
The only easy way to guess the sales of the future strategy guides was to evaluate the likely sales of the games on which they were based. The best place to get that information was from the game distribution companies themselves.”
It’s important to find the right games to focus on when writing a guide. Books take time and money to produce, if you print too many or don’t sell enough you begin to lose money quickly. Hence the second lesson of strategy guide publishing.
Rule #2: Strategy guides have no tail
The “tail” in content creation refers to how long a product will sell. It’s good to have a longer tail, compare the value of The Beatles’ back catalog with Mott the Hoople’s. Strategy guides have no tail, so if you don’t sell your inventory in a day or two, you’re sitting on it forever. This is especially true with the bigger games that are more likely to feature a strategy guide: Once the game has been out a week or two, the Internet is filled with good, free strategy guides and tips.
“So how long is the window for strategy guides? About a week,” our source said. “If you don’t have your guide on the shelves (virtual or otherwise) when the game is launched you can expect to lose 50-60% in sales and that number can go as high as 90% if it’s not available in the first week. In this sense they sell more like magazines than traditional books.” Prima has tried to re-release guides for older games with the “Value Series,” but that idea proved to be a dismal failure according to the source.
“The publishers need to hit that narrow sweet spot where the game is still immensely popular, but before dozens of free online cheat guides and community forums pop up,” he explained.
If you want to see this model in action, look no further than the strategy guide for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Of course, you won’t be able to find it. “I may be one of the very few people to have ever actually held this book. It never made it to store shelves,” our source said. “The review process where EA and in this case, J.K. Rowling’s licensing company, approved the final book for distribution took too long and by the time permission was granted to sell the book, the profitability window had past. It wasn’t even considered worthwhile to ship those guides that had already been printed. I picture a huge pile of rotting Harry Potter strategy guides in a landfill somewhere.”
Books aren’t like other goods; they’re made in the United States due to the cost of shipping the large, heavy boxes that contain them. In this case it made more sense to not release the books due to the cost of the shipping.
This provides a nice segue into our next rule:
Rule #3: If it’s not official, it’s not worth doing
Prima fought Nintendo and proved that it’s legal to release unauthorized strategy guides, but the company learned that if you can’t tie up the official rights to the game, it’s not worth doing. Whoever gets those rights is the company that puts the book on the shelf.
“This isn’t to say that there is no competition in the strategy guide business; it’s just not on the shelves. The real competition is in the board room and on conference calls,” our source explained. “Whichever of the big publishers can tie up the official rights to a game basically decides whose guide will be on the selves. With a few rare exceptions, almost all contacts for first party strategy guides are exclusive within a single market. Publishers offer big bucks to game distributors for the rights to be the only official guide available.”
Being official is mandatory. You need early copies of the game to play in order to write the guide if you’re hoping to release next to the game itself, which is necessary to get your sales. You need licensed art and images to grab the customer’s eye on the store shelves. There is limited shelf space, and retailers will put one version of the strategy guide on the counter next to copies of the game. They’re always going to pick the official guide. If you’re not official, you’re nothing.
If you risk writing an unofficial guide, companies can also hold a grudge. “Just the suggestion that Prima would produce an unofficial strategy guide for Final Fantasy VII so soured the company’s relationship with Square that to this day the Prima name is considered persona-non-grata at Square and a Prima branded strategy guide would not even be considered,” our source claimed. “Prima even needed to partner with European competitor Piggyback to distribute some of their Square-Enix titles in the US.”
It’s also dangerous to talk about these relationships, and our source told the story of a contractor who went public and said that interference from the game company led to a guide that was less than optimal for the reader. His contract was terminated instantly.
This brings us to the last rule of strategy guides:
Rule #4: You have to keep the game companies happy
According to our source, Prima Games saw the Internet coming, and had multiple ideas to benefit from the digital age. They thought about releasing electronic guides with interactive maps and narrated videos, with built-in community tools. Before broadband was popular the idea was to release these on CD-ROM. They also considered a strategy marketplace where they could crowd-source strategy guides, with community members voting on their favorite writers. Prima later pushed for standard e-books long before the Kindle, complete with multimedia content and to focus on downloads so they weren’t as beholden to the retail chain.
“None of these came to pass, at least not in the way originally envisioned, and they all were stopped dead in their tracks by one thing: licensing,” our source said. Every tiny thing has to be approved by the company once you’re an official licensor. “Prima has terabytes of content that it could make available but can’t do anything with it without getting written authorization. Ever wonder why Prima’s electronic books were basically the printed book in PDF form with zero modifications even if the form factor was demonstrably unsuitable for electronic reading? It wasn’t because they didn’t recognize this or because they didn’t know how to change it, or even that it was too difficult or time consuming. That part was actually easy. It was that even a single paragraph change had to go through the game publisher and the game publisher’s lawyer for their stamp of approval.”
Our source said that game companies stopped almost all form of innovation at Prima. “Online communities? Prima embraced them, even starting a rudimentary fan site building program. Game companies hated it. They wanted the community on their sites, not other places,” he explained.
Plus, every bit of content had a price tag. “Whether or not the venture was profitable the game company needed their cut or it was nixed. It got to the point that new ideas were just dismissed because it wasn’t worth the effort to even ask for permission.”
Is it any wonder people dislike strategy guides?
Our source said that he’s not surprised about customers not liking strategy guides.
“Both BradyGames, owned by Penguin Publishing, and Prima, purchased by Random House in 2001 are far more book companies then they are game companies. I don’t know anything about the management of BradyGames, but none of the Prima or Random House executives are gamers,” he said. “There are certainly gamers on the staff, but decisions are made based on likely sales and costs, not game quality or nostalgia and that’s probably for the best considering the low profit margin in the industry.”
It’s not that Prima is an evil company, or that other companies handle this better, the problem is that the realities of the market work against anyone trying to make a profit on strategy guides. As much as it’s hard to end on a down note, it’s unlikely things are going to improve. “Every so often you see a push towards trying to get more involvement in the gamer community or becoming a more respected brand with that group, but the realities of the strategy guide publishing work against them,” our source concluded.