Hitting the Books: The slow death of the strategy guide

Why pay for the hardcopy when you can get the walkthrough for free?

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The Walkthrough: Insider Tales From a Life in Strategy Guides
by Doug Walsh

Book cover

Players had it tough in the pre-internet days of gaming. If you got stuck on a particular portion of a game, there were no YouTube tutorials or IGN walkthroughs to help you. No, you had to head down to the Electronics Boutique at your local mall and see if you could score yourself a strategy guide.

But as longtime strategy guide writer Doug Walsh and author of The Walkthrough can attest, producing and maintaining analog instruction manuals for digital games is no easy feat. In the excerpt below, Walsh discusses the challenges he faced when Diablo III made the jump from PCs to consoles.

Diablo III was a record-smashing success, selling an estimated 3.5 million copies in twenty-four hours, no small feat for a PC exclusive. To this day, it remains the fastest-selling computer game of all time, having sold 10 million copies in its first three months. And over 14 million unique players took up arms in defense of Tristram within a year of its release. Our guidebook sold comparatively well, anchoring itself in the Amazon Top 25 throughout the launch window.

But the work was far from over.

Plagued by launch day network errors, fan dissatisfaction with the endgame experience (or lack thereof), and the polarizing real-money Auction House, Blizzard's staff had no time to celebrate. Patches came fast and often, addressing the core PC fan base's complaints while more significant tweaks were incorporated into the console release. Additional changes were made, eventually culminating in a complete overhaul of the loot system, released in tandem with the Reaper of Souls expansion in 2014. Aside from the core campaign, the Diablo III players know today bears little resemblance to the one covered by the 496-page hardcover guide I co-wrote in 2012.

To bridge that gap, BradyGames sent me Thom Denick, a true-life Diablo expert to aid in leveling-up the initial guide for the 2013 console release. While I busied myself updating text and replacing the screenshots for the campaign, Thom reworked many of the peripheral chapters, particularly the equipment section, ensuring it would be useful for advanced players.

Then, in January of 2014, we joined forces again for the Reaper of Souls expansion. We stripped every page down to its core and rewrote the guide to focus on the newly-added Crusader class, Act V, endgame content, and the celebrated Loot 2.0 system.

And yes, we finally even got to cover the so-called cow level, Whimsyshire.

After so many months writing—and rewriting—the original book, having to tear it all down and rework it was bittersweet. Writing the guide for Diablo III was a labor of love. It was also a grim reminder of the Sisyphean challenge of producing printed documentation for a modern game. No matter how many nights I spent away from home, no matter how many times I updated my text, the finished book could only ever reflect a snapshot in a game's life. And the more successful the game, the faster it would evolve beyond the scope of our book. Could we ever keep up?

The rear cover of our Diablo III: Reaper of Souls guide exclaims, "So begins the end of all things ..." in reference to the expansion's introduction of Malthael, the Angel of Death. That was but one of many ends being referenced. For BradyGames, it was acknowledgment of the merger between Penguin and Random House, the parent companies set to oversee the inevitable shotgun wedding between ourselves and archrival Prima Games.

On a personal level, the symbolism went deeper. Reaper of Souls was the first strategy guide I wrote outside of an annual contract in a dozen years. And at the time, I was all but certain it'd be the last to ever bear my name.

Excerpted from The Walkthrough: Insider Tales From a Life in Strategy Guides by Doug Walsh. Copyright © 2019 by Doug Walsh. Reprinted by permission of Snoke Valley Books. All rights reserved.