Ancient map-making required mastery over the disciplines of mathematics and astronomy, the means and courage to venture into dangerous uncharted territories, inhuman patience, artistry and attention to detail, and the ability to perch on the cutting edge of every new technological advancement your cultures most talented minds could muster. David Hodgsons job is arguably more difficult and certainly more tedious.
Hodgson makes video game strategy guides which, much like ancient cartography, is a lost art of primitive methods and painstaking processes.
Not that Hodgson would complain. He started working at gaming magazines in the 90s, but was always drawn back to the world of strategy guides. Currently working on contract for Prima Games, the largest strategy guide publisher in the US, he gets access to some of the biggest games in the world months before the public. And he slaves over their every detail, spending months and months gorging on each new obsession.
I think it’s one of those jobs that you kind of have to pinch yourself, he told me in his workshop a converted guest house behind his Spanish-style Southern California home. The room is equipped with comfortable seating, a large wraparound desk housing three monitors, countless books most of them strategy guides lining floor to ceiling shelves on one wall, and various macabre knick-knacks, from Lovecraftian posters to the crown jewel: Two replica Egyptian sarcophagi flanking the flatscreen like golden guardian deities.
It’s one of those jobs that you kind of have to pinch yourself.
Exact statistics about strategy guide sales are closely guarded info, Douglas Walsh, another longtime strategy guide author, told me over Twitter. As you can imagine, the sales today have consolidated around a few big hits: Skyrim, Grand Theft Auto, things like that, he said. [Sales] have also dropped off considerably, especially for shooters. The Call of Duty and Gears of War books sell a fraction of the copies they used to. But a big hit, especially as a Limited Edition hardcover, can crack Amazon’s top 25. Fighting game books in particular (and Skyrim, GTA, etc.) have even cracked the top five.
Despite those isolated successes, the number of guides produced each year is down along with sales to about 60 every year, half of what the figure was in the PS2 era, Walsh said.
Like vinyl records, the strategy guide as we once knew it all but died as a medium with the internets rise, transforming by necessity into a niche market for hardcore collectors and hobbyists. Hodgson said hes one of around a dozen remaining strategy guide authors.
In the middle of the afternoon, the rays of golden California sunlight barely grazed the exposed rafters of Hodgsons lair. He wore a black t-shirt with the words Who are you a ghost of? a to his brother Ian Hodgsons experimental musical act, Moon Wiring Club, described on its own labels as confusing English electronic music. Hodgson often speaks wistfully of his succulents, and hes frequently sarcastic, though in the dry English way that you barely register after a while.
Each guide Hodgson authors is a massive undertaking involving a six-month-long stretch of seven-day work weeks and looming deadlines, gargantuan organizational conundrums, word counts and page limits, two-week spans of 12-hour days spent hunched over monitors far from home in a game studios back room, trying to beat every quest in a 100-hour RPG. Hes been doing this long and well enough with somewhere over 100 guides to his name (he lost count around 80) that he gets to pick what games he tackles. He mostly chooses massive role-playing games like The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4, simply because he loves diving deep into overwhelmingly huge projects. These are the types of games that seem to get more complex with every release. Each new feature Hodgson must chronicle and quadruple-check is another grey hair in his tangled beard.
I have a very understanding wife, Hodgson said.
The process of creating a video game strategy guide is shockingly complex. Look, for example, at what it takes just to make the hundreds of maps that go into the average guide on which Hodgson works.
In the old days the 90s hed draw maps freehand on graph paper and hand them over to a designer. But the games back then were significantly smaller than the ones he writes guides for now.
He starts by doing fly-overs in a special debug version of the game that still contains developer tools, taking screenshots of every single inch of the games exterior locations. In the case of Fallout 4, that included 3.82 square miles of irradiated wilderness and crumbling city streets.
What I’ve done is I’ve flown over the entire tiles of the map, multiple times, inch by inch. I do a north-south pass, I do an east-west pass, over the course of a week, he said. This isn’t playing the game. This is me floating above each sector in the game and plotting it out.
This isn’t playing the game. This is me floating above each sector in the game and plotting it out.
The game wont be out for several months, and its still very much in development, which unfortunately means that dozens of the points he and his assistants and co-authors have plotted in these exteriors could change.
Then you have 500 maps that need to be drawn of all of the different interiors in the game, he continued. You have to figure out first how many interiors there are in the game. So you go to every location in the game, and you see how big it is, then you estimate it, then you tell [strategy guide maker] Prima, ‘It’s going to be about this big. Find more mappers please.
At this point, hes still far from done. I’ve figured out how many primary locations there are. I’ve then figured out how many secondary locations there are that don’t appear on your worldmap. Those are just like, Oh, it’s a shed. Does it appear as an icon on the world map? No. Shit. Well, it has to go in the guide, he said. I’m talking about stuff that isn’t even a quest-related location. I’m talking about a pond with some barrels in it. Maybe he doesnt have to be that thorough not all strategy guides take inventory of every nonessential part of the environment the author can find. But thats just his personality, and its part of the reason hes so good at this job.
With the exterior and interior maps more or less complete, the rough versions based on screenshots are sent to a team of around 20 designers. Its now been weeks since Hodgson first received the early build of the game, and he hasnt even written anything yet.
He hasnt catalogued, sorted and described every single gun, sword, helmet, potion, blueprint, material, artifact, food, enemy, character, spell and skill in the game; he hasnt completed every possible branch of each and every quest, mission, side-quest, bounty, treasure hunt and optional objective; he hasnt compiled strategies for every mini-game, tactics for every boss, solutions to every puzzle and tricks for every fight; and he hasnt taken the hundreds screenshots that need to accompany it all.
A lot of it isnt playing a game necessarily its just checking something in a game and then checking it against an Excel document or a map or something like that, he said. If Im playing Skyrim for 6,000 hours over ten months with a co-author, Im not Woohoo! playing Skyrim; Im going here and checking to make sure that the guides accurate at that location.
The part of my brain that says ‘You don’t need to be this meticulous’ doesn’t work.
The games change in sometimes major ways, even after the guide goes to print. In that case all they can do is update the guides online component and point readers to the web should anything in the final book prove inaccurate. Whenever possible, though, Hodgson redoes a lot of work every time he gets a new build. For 2001s 007: Agent Under Fire, for example, he had to retake all of the screenshots two days before the game was going to go to print because they changed the color of one of the lasers, he said.
The part of my brain that says ‘You don’t need to be this meticulous’ doesn’t work, Hodgson told me.
Hodgson began working in the video game industry in the mid 90s after graduating with a history degree from the University of Sheffield in South Yorkshire, England. Hed wanted to become a history teacher, but instead used a PlayStation fan zine hed started called PlayStation Frenzy to get a job at Maximum, a new gaming magazine from a media company called EMAP.
He wrote massive 40-page features on individual games a precursor of things to come in his career while living on a disused German fishing trawler called the St. Michael that he says was moored illegally on the River Thames in London. They had to siphon power from a nearby car scrapyard.
It sounds quite idyllic, but it wasn’t, he remembered. It was dripping with different weird poisonous acid from roofs that hadn’t been sealed, and it was sort of slowly dissolving.
I kept my PlayStation, but not my sanity, he continued.
Maximum folded after seven issues, and Hodgson went on to a brief stint at Official Nintendo Magazine before receiving a call from Dave Halverson, publisher of the popular GameFan magazine.
Hodgson moved to LA and worked on his first strategy guides at GameFan for games like Super Mario 64, Soul Blade and Doom 64 under the magazines GameFan Books division. He flitted among various publishers and magazines until 2000. He called Prima, at the time one of the biggest strategy guide companies (its main competitor, BradyGames, would later be bought by publisher Penguin Random House and folded into Prima). He sent Prima his Metal Gear Solid guide, and they assigned him Armored Core.
That was 16 years ago and I’m still doing it right now, he said.
Hodgson flipped lovingly through his creations as we chatted, pointing out where hed embellished a simple description with some flowery joke, or where hed really gotten into it and written entire sections in the voice of a character from the game.
That love goes both ways CD Projekt Red, developers of The Witcher 3, built Hodgson his own tribute in the form of book merchant Marcus T.K. Hodgson, a character in the games Free City of Novigrad.
We just wanted to honor David for all the awesome work he does, CD Projekt PR Manager Radek Grabowski told me over email. This is just a tribute.
Hodgson seems to always go above and beyond. His humor is often self-deprecating, but hes also proud when he talks about some of the things hes accomplished within the limited medium of strategy guides, like the note he received from Hideo Kojima about his Metal Gear Solid guide in 1998.
Strategy guides were usually just go here, do this, go here, do that. I wanted it to be a bit more of an ‘official mission handbook.'”
He loved the guide. He liked the fact that I’d put box-outs for the history of the forklift truck in the first level, Hodgson said. Strategy guides were usually just go here, do this, go here, do that. I wanted it to be a bit more of an ‘official mission handbook,’ we called it. Kojima said hed shown the guide to his mother, who didnt really understand video games but of course knew what a book was.
For 2004s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II Hodgson planned and orchestrated an easter egg on the strategy guides DVD pack-in: Pressing a secret combination on your DVD player remote results in a special menu where you can access videos in which the voice actor for HK-47, a popular droid from the games, quotes other famous fictional robots and AI. Hodgson was excited to get the voice actor involved for a secret he deemed so obscure although his assertion that Nobody A) cares or B) has ever found that, because we never published the easter egg code is more self-deprecating than accurate, based on the above YouTube video and this .
But he nevertheless lit up when he talked about it, or about the more creative work hes gotten to do, like A Fractured Land: Tales of the Northern Realms, a 96-page lore book that came with the of the official The Witcher 3 guide, or The Improved Emperor’s Guide to Tamriel, a 224-page illustrated guide to the lands of Bethesdas The Elder Scrolls Online that was packed in with the games .
Hodgson wrote the Emperors Guide in character as the scholar Flaccus Terentius, conjuring the characters imagined journal entries as he walked the games fictional lands. It has annotations like Strange to find such Daedra worship among the devout, nestled next to detailed sketches, diagrams and paintings.
I studied history. Its sort of finding the evidence for something and then writing about it, and that was my transferrable skill, Hodgson said. If I wasn’t going to become a history teacher, I was going to maybe become a travel writer or something like that. And in a sense I am, except the places that I write about don’t really exist.
But travel writers dont go to Paris and painstakingly catalog every street sign and boulangerie.
Though travel writers much like strategy guide authors have been made obsolete. Why read a book about a place when you can simply search for photos of it on Instagram? Likewise, why buy an expensive book when everything you could want to know about every game ever made is a Google search away?
For one thing, you only have to look at one of Hodgsons guides to see the value for collectors and hardcore fans. And while the internet is always playing catch-up to catalog new releases in YouTube guides and Wikis, the official strategy guide arrives on day one (or earlier). That makes the physical strategy guide, ironically, the first choice for players who want instant, day one gratification.
“There’s a nice archaic nature to strategy guides that I enjoy. I can write about something that’s cutting edge, like Fallout 4, but I can publish it using 16th century technology.
Hodgson has his own reasons. I can’t show you the writings I’ve done for Maxim.com and Gamespy, because those sites aren’t there anymore, he said. Stuff disappears when you’re on the net. But this Akuji the Heartless strategy guide on paper, or in fact the Fallout 3 strategy guide that’s in the Library of Congress. So even after the bombs drop and we’re in the future apocalypse, you can go to the bunker down below the Library of Congress or even now, if you’d like to do it properly [and] you can search my books out. I think I’m the only person who will ever do that, but there’s a nice archaic nature to strategy guides that I enjoy. I can write about something that’s cutting edge, like Fallout 4, but I can publish it using 16th century technology.
Hodgson works on guides ten months out of every twelve, and he rarely plays video games for fun anymore. At the end of a long stretch, Im just sick of staring at screens, so I just go outside or I go and buy another aloe tree or an agave or a different type of succulent, he said. I maybe go on Facebook, but just to see what some of the people that I never get to see do. Friends.
You are suffering from extreme fatigue, and the dogs looking at you going I need to be fed and walked. Immediately, he said.
But if he quit tomorrow, hed still play games after a six-month sabbatical, at least.
After your first week [off] youre just like Ah, sort of semi-retirement, this is great. This is fantastic, he said. And then another week goes by and youre sort of starting to get an itchy feeling. Cabin fever sets in. Youre like, whats next?
Hodgson recently wrapped up work on the Complete edition guide to The Witcher 3 and the official Watch Dogs 2 strategy guide, and at the time of writing hes putting the finishing touches on his Ghost Recon Wildlands guide. You can find his work wherever strategy guides are sold.
Mike Rougeau is a freelance journalist who lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs.