Thousands of gamers stuck in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" have Alex Eagleson to thank for getting them out of a jam.
A 19-year-old computer science student at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Eagleson has written one of the most popular strategy guides for "GTA" on the Internet. If a player wants to know how to steal Madd Dogg's rhyme book or where to jack a private jet, Eagleson's walk-through has the answers.
Hosted on GameFAQs, one of the premier sites for video game walk-throughs, the guide spills across 150 single-spaced pages. And that's a medium-size walkthrough for Eagleson, who has contributed more than 40 others in the last two years, including a 240-plus-page guide for "Dragon Quest VIII," written in just three weeks late last year.
"It's almost a habit now," he said in an interview from his dorm room. "I don't even want to play through this big game unless I'm going to be writing for it." On a slow school day — or even a hectic one — he's often busy writing gaming guides. "I end up setting aside schoolwork rather than this work."
For gamers in a jam, the free walk-throughs available on sites such as GameFAQs and IGN are a lifesaver and a welcome replacement for the dollar-a-minute help-lines of old or even the glossy strategy guides sold in stores. GameFAQs currently hosts more than 36,000 guides that cover more than 12,000 games.
The backbone of that burgeoning body of work consists of high school and college students, who, like Eagleson, have just the right mix of free time and game passion to pen what writer Clive Thompson has called the video game equivalent of travel literature.
Dan Van Kley, a 21-year-old electrical engineering major at Georgia Tech, who wrote his first and so far only guide this fall for the Xbox 360 launch title "Perfect Dark Zero," just wanted to help people. He was playing the game on launch day and got stumped.
"I went online because, you know, this is what you always do," he said. "I look online and [there's] nothing. I didn't expect that. It's something I hadn't encountered before." So Van Kley started writing his own guide and submitted it to GameFAQs.
Brian Sulpher, 25, another guide writer from Ontario (and admitted "old-timer"), said he got the bug in 2002 when he entered a friendly challenge with a fellow gamer to see who could get Mike Tyson to stay down for a 10 count on a first knockdown in "Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!"
"After I got to about 70 knockouts I figured out how to make him stay down every time for a 10 count," he said. "On my birthday I had about two hours to kill, so I wrote it up and submitted it to GameFAQs." He's written more than 100 complete guides since and is now part of a group dedicated to writing walkthroughs for every game ever issued on the Nintendo Entertainment System (see their work at faqs.retronintendo.com).
Sulpher said older game guides often didn't delve into much detail, but the ethic of today's FAQs calls for intricate explanations of where every hidden item can be found and multiple strategies for beating any game boss. "A friend of mine once got an e-mail asking, 'Where's the table of contents in your FAQ?' " he said. "So from now on he lists a table of contents." Sulpher's recent "Pac-Man" guide even explains what pushing the control stick in each direction does.
GameFAQs was started in by gamer Jeff Veasey, who remembers the early days of fans on the Internet teaming up to discover the hidden fatality moves in the arcade version of "Mortal Kombat." By 1995 he noticed there were a lot of game guides and tip sheets online, but they weren't collected in one place, so he started the site.
His site would solve that problem and, shortly after its launch, was playing host to a few hundred guides and getting 10,000 hits a week, according to Veasey. By 1999, he said, he was getting millions of hits a day and sold the site to CNET. He's still the administrator and said he reviews every guide that comes through. He's been able to quit his day job.
Most gaming guide writers don't make any money for their efforts. IGN and GameFAQs offer gift certificates or free games to those who contribute guides for select new games, but otherwise contributions tend to be for free. However, Veasey thinks those who prove themselves in the online sphere should be able to find paid work writing the print guides that are sold in stores. "If you're skilled, if you've written well, there's a job market out there," he said.
Eagleson includes a request for PayPal donations on his guides and says he's netted about $50 a year. One appreciative reader earnestly made a donation for 45 cents. Sulpher said he can deal with not getting paid for now, as he sees GameFAQs as a platform to gain wider recognition for future writing work.
But just as there are FAQ writers content with not getting paid for their walkthroughs, there are others out there ready to make a quick buck — even if they don't write guides themselves. "I recently got an e-mail from a guy who says he bought a guide on eBay for like five or six bucks," said Van Kley. "It was advertised as an incomplete 'Perfect Dark' guide. And it was my guide — just without my name on it."
The FAQ writers have at least earned a bit of minor acclaim. Eagleson said a fan in Greece e-mailed to announce the existence of an Eagleson fan club.
Sulpher keeps the e-mail from a grandfather who was grateful for one of his "Zelda" walk-throughs as a memento. It helps balance out the negative feedback from gamers mad at the occasional error in his guides. He responds with an apology: "Yeah, how dare I go and write something for free and help people. What was I thinking?"