Now that you’ve had a chance to get a little more background on the Fallout 3 Strategy Guide, check out the interview below I conducted with David Hodgson.
Fallout 3 is the 67th Strategy guide you’ve authored. How did you get into this business?
Bear in mind that my body of work includes everything from The Official Strategy Guide to Gex: Enter the Gecko, Akuji the Heartless, and Star Wars: Demolition to Half-Life 2 and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I started off in the UK, working for some defunct video-game magazines that no one has heard of (Maximum, for example). I then fled the UK and landed a job at the part-fraternity, part-sanitarium known as GameFan magazine in 1996. During that time, I helped out with GameFan Books, wrote a guide for Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, then helped start up a magazine called Gamers’ Republic, and also wrote a well-received guide for Metal Gear Solid shortly before that venture imploded. In 2000, I decided to go freelance, and work for a “proper” strategy guide publisher, and I’ve been working on Prima guides ever since.
About how many guides do you work on in a given year?
Due to the sheer enormity of the tasks (of which Fallout 3 has been far and away the most challenging and rewarding), I’ve cut down my workload to 5-6 books, but these are usually very challenging. I’ve done anywhere from 5 to 12 in a year, but the latter almost hospitalized me.
In your blog post, you mentioned the guide’s fold-up map is massive. Can you talk about the effort that went into putting that together?
There are two terms I’d like to use here to describe this effort; “collaborative” and “deranged.”
The map poster, which is about the size of a movie poster in the Limited Edition of the guide, is double-sided, and actually three separate maps. While working on the rest of the guide, I first received information from Bethesda regarding the labyrinthine connections that snake through the main DC landscape. You guys wanted a way to show how every location links to every other location. So, I trekked through the entire DC Metro area, and flagged connecting zones together, as if making a real map. This turned into a cartographical overview, showing how every area links to every other area, and looks a bit like a subway map.
The second “map area” of the poster are the Zones that exist within DC itself. These are self-contained and highly detailed areas, with a large number of key buildings and monuments in them. Bethesda provided rough maps, which were stitched together, then beautified by a team of map makers from 99 Lives Design (who were responsible for the dozens of maps inside the guide itself). I then labeled notable areas and hazards on top of these high-detailed street maps.
The third part of the poster is the “rest” of the Capital Wasteland. This one almost drove me mad, as I wanted to show every major (and minor) location throughout the irradiated countryside. Firstly, I segmented the entire Wasteland into nine giant Zones. Then I found the location of every settlement, overturned truck, billboard, strange shack, and countless other buildings, and provided accurate locations and coordinates for each of them, and linked them to descriptions within the guide. I haven’t even mentioned the interior maps that are inside the guide, either.
Map aside, which section of the guide was the most difficult to put together?
Heh! The “Tour of the Capital Wasteland” chapter, which was written during the map-making insanity. This took around two months of work on its own, and clocks in around 200+ pages. Basically, I wanted the reader to bring up the Pip-Boy’s World Map in the game, situate themselves, and then flip to the appropriate page of the guide to find out the dwellings, cave systems, disused factories, and other locales in the general area. So I gave each primary and secondary location its own entry. Each location has its own threat level, the items contained, a map where appropriate, a bio of each inhabitant, the type of enemies encountered, and a walkthrough listed all the major booty you can collect. Locations ranged from tiny abandoned shacks to massive and frightening catacombs. I took a screen of each location, too.
In a “normal” game, with, you know, 10-15 locations, this would be straightforward. But making sure I didn’t miss any “collectible” or rare item was a real challenge. Fortunately, I also wrote up over 20 Appendices in the back of the guide so the reader can see what specific area houses an item they’re particularly interested in.
When you say that spoilers are flagged throughout the guide, how is this done? For folks that don’t want too much spoiled about the game at the onset, how would you recommend they use the guide?
Firstly, don’t let your eyes wander, or open the book at random! If you don’t want to know the outcome of the main overriding Quest, try not to skim read to the end of chapter three! We have a special “Spoiler” box out that warns of game-changing elements and revelations, but these occur at the start of each sub-chapter, so as long as you’re careful, you won’t see something you’re not wanting to see. Of course, as the guide is complete, the information is in there! The designers at Prima and Bethesda also worked very hard to ensure that each section of the main quest is segmented properly (along with a tab at the edge of every page), meaning you only need view the bits of the quest you’re wanting help with. We’ve also included some very handy flowcharts which plot out every quest decision and eventuality, if you’re more interested in playing than reading.
Recently at the office, we had a Fallout 3 speed run competition to see who could complete the game in the shortest amount of time. The winning time was 75 minutes. Given the amount of time you’ve spent with the game, is it safe to say you could compete with that?
I take my hat off to the chap who was able to finish in that quick a time, and I’d postulate that the guy must have played the game at least a dozen times to remember all the exploits and shortcuts to reach that conclusion. I’d come close, but even now, I still can’t help going off and exploring other areas instead of concentrating on a main task at hand!
I’d also be interested in figuring out how long it takes to complete every single Quest and witness every occurrence in the game. Although you can race through in under two hours (I’ve managed around 90 minutes myself), I’ve seen everything in the Capital Wasteland, and my gameplay time was upwards of the 500 hour mark. Heck, I spent an entire week in Megaton alone! Now, that’s with some serious exploring, but it does showcase how differently you can play the game.
For gamers out there that might be interested in working on strategy guides, what advice can you offer?
Well, if you’ll forgive a quick plug, I recently wrote a book on this very subject, called Video Game Careers, which reveals this all in greater detail. To be a strategy guide author specifically, you need a combination of good English skills, an analytical mind, the ability to describe convoluted puzzles succinctly, the patience to play a game as much as a Tester, social skills to liaise with a software company at just the wrong time in their development cycle, and a work ethic that allows 12-14 hour days for weeks at a time without you breaking down and sobbing. All this sounds difficult, but I can’t deny it’s great fun.
Finally, if you hadn’t been given the task of putting the guide together, how do you think you would have played the game? Good guy, bad guy, right down the middle?
There’s simply too many hilarious and frightening outcomes for me not to play as the bad guy, I’m afraid. I’d make all the smart-ass comments, use Beer and Whiskey to augment my combat skills, and eventually turn to human flesh as sustenance, before rampaging through all the tiny hamlets in the remote mountains of the northern wasteland. It wouldn’t end well….