FAQs: Journey Suggestions or Only Solutions?

Knights of the Old Republic is one of those games that either demands more playthroughs than most could ever handle, or it requires some comparing of notes. There are enough alternate decisions that there's at least an illusion of non-linearity, so some measure of FAQ-ness is required to figure out what you missed the first time through. This illusion of depth is great when you play it the first time, because you feel like you're wading through important options, but on repeat playthroughs (again, if you can stand it) you start to find redundancies, with dialog options that look different in text but elicit pretty much the same result.
 
We depend upon people with a lot more time and obsession than we do to know the ins and outs of a game. Star Raiders monster is about as close as I've ever gotten to writing something on this scale, and the more complicated that games get, the more you need to be detail-oriented and (this is key) scientific in how you approach solutions. 
 

Only Solutions


Way too often in these FAQs I've run into solutions that merely repeat what the player had done to beat the game. That in itself isn't bad, but it's how it's framed that's a problem. The way things are written, it's suggested that THIS is THE solution to the problem.
 
Take Dynasty Warriors 4, for example. It has some rather arcane and weird prerequisites for unlocking weapons and special items, so it almost demands you get a FAQ or interpret the old stories in the same way as the game designers did in order to figure things out. Yet the way many FAQ solutions are written suggest authority with HOW to perform a task, rather than simply saying "this is what I happened to do to get it done."  If you have a FAQ that demands you run to area A, kill X, Y, and Z, then run back to area B in time to receive the message, you may be able to get the item, but you may find, in the course of making errors, that killing X, Y, and Z wasn't even necessary!  
 
It reminds me of a general tendency in human superstition, where we happened to be doing the laundry when a relative died, so we refuse to do laundry anymore (then, as clothes get stinky, we figure out alternate ways to do it, still trying to avoid the exact conditions of that day, even though it had nothing to do with the relative's death). Same here, where you happened to do all these things and it brought about a result, never mind that you may have even missed what was actually required. At least these solutions will often bring about the desired result regardless, but it may not always.
 
The problem lies in the assumptions made by the FAQ creator as to what objectives are necessary to achieve the ultimate goals (in the abstract example above, maybe all you needed to do was run from area A to area B after an event, but because the player assumed the event had nothing to do with it, a player following the FAQ may get repeated failures because they never waited for the event to occur).  
 
In Knights of the Old Republic, one of the coolest parts is the planet of Manaan, where you are asked to take part in a murder trial. Trials themselves are a bit of a tedious cliche in a lot of games, and Bioware seems to enjoy plopping trials into their RPGs, but they wind up being riveting if they're done well. The Manaan trial provides an excellent example of how the "what I experienced is the solution" attitude can ruin the experience, if you can stand spoilers

 
I'll assume most of you read the spoilers there, since it's an old game and most who were interested have either played it or read about it to some degree, but the FAQs I've read pretend that their particular solutions were The Way to Do It, either not understanding all the detail inherent in this unusually nonlinear side mission, or not caring.
 

So, What Do You Expect from a FAQ?


It comes down to what you want to use a FAQ for. If you want to speed through a game and just complete it, to check it off on your to-do list, then FAQs that just give you rote solutions and don't give you any idea of the inner workings should fit fine; you wind up missing out, though, whenever the game designers do more than just have a linear story to tell, and you may not even know this is the case depending upon how the FAQ is written. If you want to understand the totality of a game situation, the more detailed and honest the FAQ writer is about their own limitations in data and ability, the better. 
 
So, I guess my proposal to FAQ writers is simply this: if you're going to write a FAQ about a game, make damned sure you tell the reader the limits of your experience. Try to take into account what you did to bring about a result as much as you can, so that other players later might be able to compare their experiences to this. Also, don't imply that your solution is the only one unless you've actually experimented with alternate paths.  Some Gladius FAQs I've read, and they are few, assume universal solutions based on incomplete experimentation (some side quests never reward you with anything if you wait too long to complete them, and some side quest triggers are buried under strange prerequisites, some of which I honestly don't expect a FAQ writer to know because they're just too arbitrary).
 
It's not just on the FAQ writers, though. I think game designers are sometimes guilty of obscuring things a bit too much at times. A hidden clue might be subtle in the Manaan trial can often come off as deliberately obscure in a Dynasty Warriors item unlock. If a designer wants to obscure their team's hard work, that's their business, but I'm pretty sure that designers want their work to be seen as much as players want to see it. It might help if there was still an interest in maintaining authoritative FAQs on the websites of the game designers themselves, either through moderated forums or file postings. To me it just makes sense because if you're going to make something complicated without making it easy for the player to try all the options, why not show off your own genius by making sure everyone knows all the work you put into it?  That is, unless the complexity was illusory.
 
Any disappointing or tremendously useful FAQ experiences?
9 Comments
9 Comments
Posted by ahoodedfigure

Knights of the Old Republic is one of those games that either demands more playthroughs than most could ever handle, or it requires some comparing of notes. There are enough alternate decisions that there's at least an illusion of non-linearity, so some measure of FAQ-ness is required to figure out what you missed the first time through. This illusion of depth is great when you play it the first time, because you feel like you're wading through important options, but on repeat playthroughs (again, if you can stand it) you start to find redundancies, with dialog options that look different in text but elicit pretty much the same result.
 
We depend upon people with a lot more time and obsession than we do to know the ins and outs of a game. Star Raiders monster is about as close as I've ever gotten to writing something on this scale, and the more complicated that games get, the more you need to be detail-oriented and (this is key) scientific in how you approach solutions. 
 

Only Solutions


Way too often in these FAQs I've run into solutions that merely repeat what the player had done to beat the game. That in itself isn't bad, but it's how it's framed that's a problem. The way things are written, it's suggested that THIS is THE solution to the problem.
 
Take Dynasty Warriors 4, for example. It has some rather arcane and weird prerequisites for unlocking weapons and special items, so it almost demands you get a FAQ or interpret the old stories in the same way as the game designers did in order to figure things out. Yet the way many FAQ solutions are written suggest authority with HOW to perform a task, rather than simply saying "this is what I happened to do to get it done."  If you have a FAQ that demands you run to area A, kill X, Y, and Z, then run back to area B in time to receive the message, you may be able to get the item, but you may find, in the course of making errors, that killing X, Y, and Z wasn't even necessary!  
 
It reminds me of a general tendency in human superstition, where we happened to be doing the laundry when a relative died, so we refuse to do laundry anymore (then, as clothes get stinky, we figure out alternate ways to do it, still trying to avoid the exact conditions of that day, even though it had nothing to do with the relative's death). Same here, where you happened to do all these things and it brought about a result, never mind that you may have even missed what was actually required. At least these solutions will often bring about the desired result regardless, but it may not always.
 
The problem lies in the assumptions made by the FAQ creator as to what objectives are necessary to achieve the ultimate goals (in the abstract example above, maybe all you needed to do was run from area A to area B after an event, but because the player assumed the event had nothing to do with it, a player following the FAQ may get repeated failures because they never waited for the event to occur).  
 
In Knights of the Old Republic, one of the coolest parts is the planet of Manaan, where you are asked to take part in a murder trial. Trials themselves are a bit of a tedious cliche in a lot of games, and Bioware seems to enjoy plopping trials into their RPGs, but they wind up being riveting if they're done well. The Manaan trial provides an excellent example of how the "what I experienced is the solution" attitude can ruin the experience, if you can stand spoilers

 
I'll assume most of you read the spoilers there, since it's an old game and most who were interested have either played it or read about it to some degree, but the FAQs I've read pretend that their particular solutions were The Way to Do It, either not understanding all the detail inherent in this unusually nonlinear side mission, or not caring.
 

So, What Do You Expect from a FAQ?


It comes down to what you want to use a FAQ for. If you want to speed through a game and just complete it, to check it off on your to-do list, then FAQs that just give you rote solutions and don't give you any idea of the inner workings should fit fine; you wind up missing out, though, whenever the game designers do more than just have a linear story to tell, and you may not even know this is the case depending upon how the FAQ is written. If you want to understand the totality of a game situation, the more detailed and honest the FAQ writer is about their own limitations in data and ability, the better. 
 
So, I guess my proposal to FAQ writers is simply this: if you're going to write a FAQ about a game, make damned sure you tell the reader the limits of your experience. Try to take into account what you did to bring about a result as much as you can, so that other players later might be able to compare their experiences to this. Also, don't imply that your solution is the only one unless you've actually experimented with alternate paths.  Some Gladius FAQs I've read, and they are few, assume universal solutions based on incomplete experimentation (some side quests never reward you with anything if you wait too long to complete them, and some side quest triggers are buried under strange prerequisites, some of which I honestly don't expect a FAQ writer to know because they're just too arbitrary).
 
It's not just on the FAQ writers, though. I think game designers are sometimes guilty of obscuring things a bit too much at times. A hidden clue might be subtle in the Manaan trial can often come off as deliberately obscure in a Dynasty Warriors item unlock. If a designer wants to obscure their team's hard work, that's their business, but I'm pretty sure that designers want their work to be seen as much as players want to see it. It might help if there was still an interest in maintaining authoritative FAQs on the websites of the game designers themselves, either through moderated forums or file postings. To me it just makes sense because if you're going to make something complicated without making it easy for the player to try all the options, why not show off your own genius by making sure everyone knows all the work you put into it?  That is, unless the complexity was illusory.
 
Any disappointing or tremendously useful FAQ experiences?
Posted by Mento

I've written a few FAQs in my day, so let me give this is a shot:
 
When writing FAQs, you have to speak authoritatively, even if you don't actually have all the answers yourself. It's because you're writing a set of instructions with all the linguistic rules that apply to that type of writing; It's all (or at least mostly) terse imperatives like "go here to kill this and get this." Unfortunately, it tends to come off a little like some sort of omniscience, instead of the FAQ writer just relaying what worked for them. Most FAQ writers aren't professional writers that have been given the design document with which to write a $20 guide around, so their work is bound to have a few errors and misconceptions. It comes down to giving them the benefit of the doubt in the end, and assuming what worked for them will work for you even if it turns out not to be the most ideal solution. I'd say with your KOTOR example, though, that a more thorough FAQ should be written. With something as popular as Bioware RPGs and Star Wars, there should be more than a few second opinions floating around.
 
As for designers being obscure, you can either argue that they're cynically pushing the necessity of the aforementioned $20 guides, or that they simply made an error in judging how obvious the clues were and how resourceful their players may be. Game balance is always the hardest part of the development process for designers, and given BioWare's recent habit of rushing towards the end of the development cycle (to which EA deserves some of the blame, I don't doubt), I'd be way happier if my quests had accidentally ambiguous solutions than an identical copy/pasted dungeon template each time. Not that I have a particular example in mind or anything...

Moderator
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Mento: Are guides still pretty easy to find? I assume that FAQs have sorta diminished that market, but I don't really know.
 
I realize that some level of writing discipline might be to blame there, but I figure I, personally, would rather have someone be honest about their failings so I could fill in the blanks on my own, than assume authority where there might not be any. I don't see style as being absolute in this case BECAUSE writers tend to be non-professionals. But that's coming from someone who would prefer all authoratative writing to be written under the assumption of actual authority, I guess.
 
One solution to the "go here and kill this" thing might be a caveat that says this guide is for completing the game, not finding everything out or even showing the branches. Mission statements, even saying what type of guide it is in the title, makes a huge difference. Reading some of the KOTOR FAQs, If I hadn't already played the game and fiddled with the alternatives I would have assumed it was even more linear than it really is. That said, I haven't done an exhaustive search; maybe the perfect fan FAQ for the Sunry trial lies out there somewhere.

As for game balance, it's always a problem when making puzzles, you're right. Too few clues and you alienate almost everyone, too many and only the clueless are satisfied. I have in mind games like Gladius and Dynasty Warriors, which often never gave much of ANY idea what to find, especially the latter where it feels terribly arbitrary. It's a case-by-case issue, though, I suppose.
Posted by Mento

I assume professional guides are still around because I see ads for them in the back of manuals still. At this point, I think people are buying them for the glossy artwork as much as for referral.
 
For games with various paths and rewards to its quests like KOTOR, I tend to find the wikis people make for them (including Giant Bomb's own take on "everyone can edit this guide") are beneficial to that sort of game: If someone finishes a quest in a different manner to what's written, or they notice they found some hidden treasure the guide missed, they can simply edit the guide to include it. I mean, you'll get the occasional jackass who will post that you can unlock Sonic in KOTOR if you beat Darth Malak in under 1:30 minutes without blocking, but overall I think it's a format that will end up replacing the usual text file FAQs one day.

Moderator
Posted by ahoodedfigure
@Mento: Yeah, I was going to say that collaborative guides are sort of the next logical step if you expect all the branches to be figured out. It's a lot better than going it alone when just about everyone might pick the same path unless they knew what other people were doing.
 
Those "without blocking" assholes, at least in abstract, are pretty funny, although I remember being annoyed on several occasions by similar rumors. I guess that much will always be there but with enough hawkish editors that'll probably be kept to a minimum, assuming the editors don't get overzealous with the immediate demand for proof.
 
I was tempted to buy a WoW guide despite my never having played WoW, but when I actually looked inside it was filled with stats and tiny pictures. I figured it would mean more to someone who actually played the game and let it lie. I did buy the Mass Effect artbook, though, but that's not quite the same.
Posted by ArbitraryWater

To expect some sort of perfection from people who write guides is asking a lot, as the average GameFAQs user probably doesn't get paid that much even if they're smart enough to include a paypal link at the end of their FAQ. Generally speaking though, most of them are good enough for you to acheive the purpose you went out to find as long as you are willing to accept a medium of unprofessionalism. Some of the older guides for older games though... not so much.  I'd love to cite the sole Realms of Arkania 3 guide on GFAQs as a good example of that, not really assisting the player at all, instead insulting such recent hits as Diablo in broken english and not giving any transparency to the mechanics (which is what any good guide should do, especially for the older stuff where everything is so opaque)
 
Obviously, the most standout example of a guide I've seen is probably this one dude's extremely thorough and detailed Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate 2 and Planescape guides. Although, sometimes they're a little too thorough, and then you get to the point where every pithy encounter and hidden item is worth a mention, and it starts becoming a little overwhelming.
 
The trial of Sunry is a pretty good example of a guide dang it moment (to steal from TV tropes.) in which there are plenty of answers for what is a pretty involved side quest, but a lot of them are buried pretty deep. If you want to solve the trial "correctly" you have to do some pretty specific things or risk screwing it up, and the reward isn't even that great. It's not like I had to solve a towers of hanoi puzzle or answer a fairly logical riddle to get the answer either (as both of those things have been in multiple Bioware games)

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@ArbitraryWater said:
To expect some sort of perfection from people who write guides is asking a lot, as the average GameFAQs user probably doesn't get paid that much even if they're smart enough to include a paypal link at the end of their FAQ. Generally speaking though, most of them are good enough for you to acheive the purpose you went out to find as long as you are willing to accept a medium of unprofessionalism. Some of the older guides for older games though... not so much.  I'd love to cite the sole Realms of Arkania 3 guide on GFAQs as a good example of that, not really assisting the player at all, instead insulting such recent hits as Diablo in broken english and not giving any transparency to the mechanics (which is what any good guide should do, especially for the older stuff where everything is so opaque)
 
Obviously, the most standout example of a guide I've seen is probably this one dude's extremely thorough and detailed Baldur's Gate, Baldur's Gate 2 and Planescape guides. Although, sometimes they're a little too thorough, and then you get to the point where every pithy encounter and hidden item is worth a mention, and it starts becoming a little overwhelming.
 
The trial of Sunry is a pretty good example of a guide dang it moment (to steal from TV tropes.) in which there are plenty of answers for what is a pretty involved side quest, but a lot of them are buried pretty deep. If you want to solve the trial "correctly" you have to do some pretty specific things or risk screwing it up, and the reward isn't even that great. It's not like I had to solve a towers of hanoi puzzle or answer a fairly logical riddle to get the answer either (as both of those things have been in multiple Bioware games)
While I don't expect professionalism, I think there are certain standards that could be maintained, or at least agreed upon, but that takes some memes to get it going. I sometimes think of video playthroughs, done by amateurs but they're already developing a bit of a classification system, so you know if you're getting into a quick playthrough, detailed, whatever. I consider this to be a pretty easy switch for the kinds of detail-oriented people that often write FAQs, although I don't expect it'll happen across the board by any means.
 
I think any good, detailed guide benefits from some indexing. I haven't seen the D&D guides you mention, but do you think part of the problem wasn't enough search numerals (those things that you can use to skip around the guide by searching for them)?
 
Ugh, tower of hanoi. I know how to do it and it still annoys me.  *Is* there a "correct" way to do that trial? I was pretty sure from what I'd read that it can't solve neatly, but maybe even the Bioware forum's knowledge was incomplete.
Posted by melcene

I look at FAQs as something different than Guides or Walkthroughs.  But I'll go into both, since you basically discuss both types. 
 
I don't really do Guides and Walkthroughs usually.  I am NOT the type who likes to beat my games in a hurry.  I much prefer to take my time and enjoy the hell out of a game.  I may go to a Guide or Walkthrough if I get well and truly stuck and haven't been able to figure out how to progress past a certain part in the game, but that's about it.  
 
However, there is an exception to this, sort of.  Strat guides.  I like strat guides for those things that I may have missed, whether they be stupid little achievement things, or collection quests that I end up needing help on.  But I don't play according to the strat guides.  I go to the strat guide every so often, make sure I'm on the right track, not missing stuff, etc.  Otherwise, I play the game my way, right or wrong.
 
As for FAQs, what I expect from them is the very simple stuff.  Tell me if there's an autoattack, and if there is, what button it is.  Tell me how to pick up items or interact with items.  I expect from FAQs a game manual sort of thing, but broken up into quick Q&A.

Posted by ahoodedfigure
@melcene: Yeah, I never really thought of those distinctions, but you're right. You sort of detail one of my issues, though, with a lot of these projects. They rarely classify themselves well enough that I'll know the scope of what they're trying to do. A "FAQ" need not have a single question in it; the meaning of the term has sort of drifted toward any pooled source of information.  
 
I guess some people want to finish games quickly, but I can't imagine that would be very satisfying. Only if I'm really stuck, or I think I've broken the game, or if I think the game makers have screwed me do I bother and look stuff up before I've taken perhaps a bit too long to puzzle things through.  Even then I'll sometimes get someone else to read the pertinent bits for me so I don't spoil any more of the game :)