Video Game Guide Writers Help Keep the Lights On But Get No Respect

Plagiarism and poor pay are common in the world that produces the guides and walkthroughs that so many of us rely on every day.

Alex Seedhouse has spent the last few weeks playing Xenoblade Chronicles 3, a mammoth Japanese role-playing game for the Switch that takes a minimum 54 hours to beat. But Seedhouse has been playing for more than 200 hours to write a comprehensive guide to playing the game and finding its secrets for the website he works for, Nintendo Insider. Earlier this month, Seedhouse accused rival website Screen Rant of plagiarizing his work, a claim Seedhouse said was verifiable because of “deliberate errors” in his work that were copied.

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“Without any admission and out of good faith, the article in question has been removed from our website,” said a Screen Rant representative to Waypoint. “Furthermore, whenever we receive a copyright infringement notification, we take these matters extremely seriously. Our company has stringent policies in place in relation to any contributor regarding articles submitted to our websites. In view of that, we are taking steps internally to audit the writer's previous content and we will be doing a revisit of best practices with the guides and overall gaming team to ensure that only original and unique content is posted on our website.”

Nintendo Insider is a small fish in a big pond. Game guides, a combination of walkthroughs that show players how to make it from point A to point B and a way to find every single hidden collectible, are big business when it comes to running a video game website, and there’s good reason you have seen them crop up on every website and all over YouTube. 

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“If something is poorly explained in-game, you can bet people will be asking for help online,” said GameSpot guides editor Mark Delaney. “I love when games don’t explain stuff well because it keeps me employed. [...] A great genre for guides writers is survival-crafting games, because they’re so often a janky, confusing mess of in-progress systems.”

They are more important to the day-to-day business of running a modern media company than most people understand, even if most of the attention goes towards the latest headline.

“A ton [of traffic] comes from guides,” said a former games editor who saw the rise of game guides first-hand during their tenure, and who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the website’s specific policies. “In a year where there are fewer releases and big news moments, guides traffic also suffers, but it becomes the bedrock of stability, generating search traffic and volume that helps offset lower traffic cycles.”

Even if you can’t predict if a game like Elden Ring is going to blow up into one of the year’s biggest releases, you can predict people will want to know how to beat the hardest bosses, which is why most websites have guides. There’s been some innovation in the world of walkthroughs, like having videos embedded directly into the PlayStation 5 interface, but at the end of the day, the easiest path to figuring out what to do next, or how to find one weird object, is to tap the question into Google and click on whatever walkthrough comes up first. 

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Guides also operate much differently than any other piece of writing, like a review or news article, because they are made up of largely verifiable facts, not opinions. Guides have a longer shelf life because they'll get traffic for as long as people are playing and looking for help, whereas a single piece of news or review is relevant for only a brief period of time. 

But in guides, the location of an item will be the same in one as it is in another, regardless of who discovered it. It also means they’re easier to rip off, and harder to prove plagiarism on.

To catch people, Seedhouse said he might introduce a typo, or specific language about the location of an enemy or item. It’s the kind of error that won’t impact a player looking for help, but might not be caught by someone who hasn’t actually played the game in question.

A game like 'Elden Ring' is perfect for a guide, because it's intentionally difficult. Image courtesy of Bandai Namco

“Sometimes it feels like people don't think plagiarism counts if it's about guide material?” said the same former editor. “I was shocked by that. There are some sites that will wholesale rip every page you ever publish. We regularly encountered that and I’m certain we never caught it all.”

These tactics, albeit in different forms and sometimes involving leaving identifiable marks within graphics created for the guides, are common enough that two different people involved with writing or overseeing the writing of guides mentioned them. They can sometimes even result in legal threats by some major online websites.

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“The risk of plagiarism is greatest around launch,” said Seedhouse, “because someone who hasn’t played enough of the game—or may not even own it—can see what other websites have published and look to save themselves the time investment to even have to check what’s written. I completely get it, but anyone can see how clearly wrong and unethical it is to do that. Not only have I put significant time into clearing a game, but I’m the one painstakingly jotting down the notes that I need to be able to help point other players in the right direction.”

One major reason for the rise of guides is because they are SEO (search engine optimization) bait, a chance to appear high in a search engine result. It’s very predictable that people will search for [insert game] plus [thing they need help with]. A good way to make people stumble into your guide is to have it up first, which means working with publishers to gain early access to games. Not every website has that, and yet may still have a guide up.

“If something is poorly explained in-game, you can bet people will be asking for help online. I love when games don’t explain stuff well because it keeps me employed.”

“It's clear that a lot of those sites don't get early access,” said freelance writer Jake Green, who’s spent time making guides, “yet still manage to put out guides after launch at a good pace. Aside from the odd Twitter callout, there's really very little consequence to lifting content.”

I knew guides were big business when publishers started talking about them in the process of allowing early access to a new video game. Traditionally, when a company provides a game in advance of release, you have to sign a NDA (non-disclosure agreement) or at least agree to an embargo, a specific date and time when you can start talking about the game in question. There are usually multiple embargoes, correlated to writing previews, reviews, and eventually, guides. Suddenly, guides had their own embargoes within these agreements.

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It’s no surprise, then, to learn that some writers specialize in writing guides. 

“We used to say the guides team 'helped keep the lights on,'” said Green, referring to one of his previous jobs, “but despite that, my guides team were by far the lowest paid members of the team, and the least likely to get any credit for the direction of the site.”

What wouldn’t be surprising, however, is if you aren’t even aware of the bylines attached to these guides. Unlike a persuasive critical essay or a powerfully articulated review, guides are material that people look up for perfunctory reasons. You’re rarely spending time appreciating the artistry that goes into writing a helpful, articulate guide. It’s the kind of work that you only notice when it’s done poorly. A good guide does its job and gets out of the way.

“I've written for multiple big publications,” said Meg Bethany Koepp, a guides writer who’s contributed to IGN, Eurogamer, PC Gamer, and others, “and I would say I was only compensated fairly for my work at one of them. I don't know if it's just companies not wanting to shell out for the work, or if it's because guide writing perhaps isn't taken as seriously as a review or breaking news at some places, or if they don't realize the amount of work that can actually go into writing a guide. And I know this isn't just isolated to my experience.”

Gee, I wonder if a Pokemon game could benefit from a guide? Photo courtesy of Nintendo

Part of the reason Koepp became a guides writer was because guides were part of her gaming life at an early age, whether it was looking up extensive fan-written guides on GameFAQs, the place you judge the quality of a guide by how long it is, or standing in line at midnight to pick up a new game—and picking up the glossy guide that goes along with it. 

Games writing has always paid pretty poorly, but especially in the online age, when many media companies are struggling to keep the lights on. Video games can take dozens of hours to complete, a much longer journey compared to your average movie or TV show. 

“If it’s a quick, SEO question-style one like ‘Does X have multiplayer?,’” said Koepp, “then it can be done in 15 minutes. But if you’re writing guides that require you to play the game, then it can take up a lot of time because not only do you have to play the game and have reached the point you’re writing about, you also need to take screenshots and take notes. And if it’s a collectibles guide that requires a lot of note taking, taking screenshots, and actually hunting down the collectibles in the first place, then that could take hours, possibly even days. In some cases, I’d say that it can even take longer than a review.”

The thing about guides work is that it is, at least, reliable. People always want help.

“On a personal level,”  said Seedhouse, who made the original plagiarism accusation and runs Nintendo Insider on the side from his full-time job, “it’s been especially hard when you’re trying to keep driving growth largely on your own, with no feeling of reward—nothing seems to be working and there's an overriding sense that Google must clearly hate your website for some unknown reason. However, when you write a guide that ‘sticks’ though, it feels like you’ve captured lightning in a bottle and that pushes you to achieve it again.”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

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Xenoblade Chronicles 3

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