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Dan Birlew Interview with Al Giovetti

Dan Birlew is the author of the Resident Evil 3 and Vagrant Story BradyGames strategy guides. Dan is now reviewing all the new SquareSoft games, including Parasite Eve II, Chrono Cross, and Final Fantasy IX. Birlew's work is of the higest quality. Birlew's opinions are very very precise and set. Birlew believes that his work is the highest quality in the strategy guide area.

Al Giovetti and The Computer Show recently sat in on a press interview with Shaw Rider of GamesFirst!, GameSpin, GameWeek, Birlew and Detra Perry, PR Representative for BradyGames. Dan shared his concepts for how a strategy guide should be put together were combined with his feelings on writing in general. Dan is quite opinionated on a lto of issues and is very particular when it comes to games. His dedication and hard work is certainly reflected in his guides and in his gaming.

Alfred C. Giovetti (AG): Thanks for being with us and sharing with us this great information on a brand new game

Q: Most of your guides are RPGs?

DB: Yeah.

Q: But some of your guides are adventure guides. Whatís the difference between RPG guides and adventure guides? DB: About three or four weeks. Adventure games, for me, having grown up playing things like Beserker and Tomb Raider, mostly playing in the adventure genre, itís very easy for me to play a game like Resident Evil 2 and dissect it to find all of the secrets quickly. An RPG, on the other hand, with a more complicated combat system, longer gameplay time, a more developed story, and usually some kind of a magic system that requires study, usually takes me quite a bit longer to dissect and write about. An adventure is usually something where you have a weapon of some sort, or you find other weapons, and you donít usually have hit points. Itís a little simpler than an RPG. RPGs require you to set up tables for armor, weapons, and equipment, and tables for magic, so the player can understand that theyíve found all the items, or that they havenít, but where they can. I find that thereís a great amount of difference between the RPG and adventure genres. Especially in game length. Adventures usually run about 10-15 hours at the max, whereas an RPG can run about 70-80 hours per game.

Q: In just gameplay?

DB: Yes.

Q: So what happens when you get stuck?

DB: A lot of times I just call up Tim [Tim Cox, Development Editor at BradyGames, ed.] and say, "Iím stuck here. Letís see if we can ask SquareSoft and see what Iím supposed to do next." And Tim will say, "Okay, Iíll get back to you." And then a day or two goes by. I keep working on it in the meantime. Sometimes I have to go back to a previous save game and start from there because maybe Iíve missed something, maybe thereís an area I havenít searched well enough. Sometimes thereís an event that I missed that would be very helpful. That kind of thing.

I donít go into a game thinking Iím going to beat the entire game on the first try. In fact, usually I go into the game with the intention of dying pretty quickly. Some games I determine that I can just stand there and take hits until I die, and some games I want to fight my way through it without any help to see how much damage the party or characters can take before itís Game Over. That way I can form a strategy that will require player to use all of the characterís health, but without any help items. Itís important to learn how strong your character is, and dying isnít necessarily a bad thing. Learning how the character dies, and how the enemies cause the character to die is one of the most rudimentary ways to figure out how exactly to defeat the enemy. Because itís how the enemies defeat your character that shows you how the enemies fight, and how the enemies can be outlasted or defeated.

Q: Could you tell a little about your relationship with Tim and how you guys work together in conjunction with Square to make sure that the guides have the most thorough information and are completely accurate?

DB: As soon as I get the game from BradyGames, I usually pop it in and play it for a dozen hours or so, and I call Tim so we can discuss basically what I think weíve got. We bat some ideas back and forth about how the guide will be layed out, how the text should be formatted, what the guide should look like, in a way that best fits the game. We donít want to layout a guide for Parasite Eve II in the same way as the guide for Chrono Cross, especially because of time differences. When you have a 15 hour game like Parasite Eve II you can go into quite a bit more detail about fighting certain enemies or picking up certain items in certain areas. Where, in Chrono Cross, there are so many events, so many items to pick up, that you would never be able to fit that guide into 200 pages. It would be this monster guide several volumes long.

We work very closely on trying to figure out that format ahead of time. We also try to figure out what kind of lists weíre going to use; whether weíre going to need detailed armor lists, or whether weíre going to something about item combining or armor forging, something like that. We also discuss character sections, and what information weíre going to need on the characters, whether we need statistics or just detailed descriptions of the characters. If you have a game with eight characters, you can go into a lot more detail than you can in a game with forty characters.

Those are the kinds of things we discuss. As Iím progressing through the game and developing the guide, I come back to Tim with text, sections of the guide, and I ask him: How do you think this is working out? How do you think we should format our screenshots? That kind of thing. And also, as I said before, anytime I get stuck, or anytime thereís a part of the game I donít understand, I pose those questions to Tim and he takes those to SqareSoft and we try to get answers. Usually, Tim is working on one question and I already have another.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what your style might be, how it varies from game to game, and how you keep your audience in mind when youíre writing the guides?

DB: I tend to think of the audience as someone who has bought the game and played a little bit of it. I try to fall in with the tone of the game, to reflect the character of the game a little bit, so I can write descriptions and strategies with the same voice that the game has. Youíre not going to write a guide for Vagrant Story the same way you write a guide for Chrono Cross. Vagrant Story is very serious, tense, action-packed, and very dark and gothic. It also has a tone of espionage to it, so when I was writing the character descriptions I wanted to bring in a sort of dossier feel to the descriptions. Something like Chrono Cross is more humorous, and lighthearted. I think itís important to keep elements of light comedy in the guide. Ken Schmidt, whoís also working on Chrono Cross, came up with the idea that we write some of the tips in the margins in the same mannerisms as a couple of the characters in Chrono Cross, and that was a fabulous suggestion. Iíve been working on developing some of the boss strategies to that effect, writing them in the same dialect as some of the characters are using. Basically, all 40 characters in Chrono Cross each have a different dialect, which is tough to keep up with, but I think itís going to come out pretty well.

I think the feel and tone of the game is important to the strategy guide. A player is basically going to have the book open beside them as theyíre playing through the game, flipping the pages. The guide needs to follow the same tempo as the game. For example, in a final boss fight, the wording of the strategy might be a bit more tense, more quick, because the player is going to be more intense, more excited to be at the final boss fight. So the final boss strategy needs to be more consice, and to the point, but it also needs to carry over the tone of the final boss fight so the player is essentially going from the game to the strategy guide and thereís not a lot of break.

Q: The games that are coming out today are more advanced. Thereís been a lot of discussion in the industry about how much harder they are to play, particularly RPGs, and how much deeper the storylines are. Particularly at E3, during the conferences, we heard a lot about how interactive entertainment has reached a different level where people develop an emotional bond with the characters in the game.

DB: Right.

Q: How do you see this impacting the way you write strategy guides for these games, and how much more important will the strategy guide market be for those?

DB: In working very closely with the developers at SquareSoft and everything, we really do try to get inside information about the characters and their background. For instance, with Vagrant Story, we were able to go to SquareSoftís website and download background information about the characters, and that really helps to extend and develop the character descriptions. By buying the strategy guide, the player actually has more information than what is revealed in the game. And so the character is a bit more fleshed out for them. I really do feel thatís a mark of a good strategy guide, that it extends the story. It lets either the long-time, serious player, or the first-time player, get to know the character and the development of the character as the developers have been working on it. That basically sums it up. The strategy guide really needs to expand on the game to a certain extent. Sometimes we just take the small facts that are barely mentioned in the game and expand upon them to round out the characterís background a bit. I have definitely seen from the Internet that players identify with these characters, especially taking on the characterís name as their Internet handle. You can see that on a lot of message boards. I think itís important to further that character identification.

Q: Iím curious about what version of the game youíre playing when you write the guide?

DB: Lots of times we start with the Japanese version. The game is usually released first in Japan. I received Vagrant Story and Parasite Eve II from BradyGames simultaneously. I started on Parasite Eve II, and, playing the Japanese version, there wasnít a whole lot of language in the way. So I was able to play an entire game of Parasite Eve II using the Japanese version, and there wasnít any difference between the Japanese version and the American version. Vagrant Story, on the other hand, has very complex menu applications. Having the minimal knowledge of Hiragana and Katakana that I have, I was not able to play Vagrant Story in the Japanese version. I had to wait until we got a partial American version. And then we get continuous versions. In one of the first American versions of Parasite Eve II, there were still some instances where the characters were obviously speaking to each other, but their dialogue wasnít ready yet. So there was no dialogue; however, we were still able to play the game to see what the item names were, the names of the areas, and that kind of thing. So as early as a month before the guide actually goes to print, we usually have a version of the game that enables us to play it in English. That helps correct a few things about the game, and you can catch things you maybe shouldnít have put in.

Q: What inspired you to start writing guides?

DB: It was early in the development of fan sites on the Internet and message boards. I started going on message boards to find strategies for games, and I would share my tactics for games. I found that people were sharing tactics that were more costly in time and harder than what they could be doing. In other words, my tactic would be better than what was being offered. I kept finding this over and over again, that people liked my tactics a little better, so I started pulling my messages from the boards together into guides for games weíd been discussing. I would send it to Internet sites like GameFAQs or GameShark or whatever, and ask them to post it. Then people began asking me questions, and emailing me, because they recognized my handle Ė President Evil. Putting guides together was a way of not repeating myself ad infinitum. I was giving them away for free, and then my wife said I was investing a lot of time in this, and I should try to do something as a carreer, that I should start submitting them.

Q: What did you do for work before writing guides?

DB: I was an office clerk. For IBM. I worked on presentations and production, in their computer graphics department.

Q: Speaking of your wife, sheís a pretty big gamer, too, huh? DB: Yeah, my wife and I are going to be featured in Official PlayStation Magazine in September as a gaming couple. Weíve always had a system in the house, and weíre always looking for good two-player games. It used to be that all we could find was fighting games and such, and Iíd have to lay off and let her whip me, otherwise sheíd get mad and not play. But lately that hasnít been the case. Her skill has increased to where she can take me out at full throttle. And Laura has actually been very helpful in writing guides. She helps take the pictures that appear in many of our strategy guides. Iím a real lucky guy. Sheís very supportive.

Q: Iím curious about your thoughts concerning the explosion of information that, as you pointed out, is free on the Internet, and how that affects your position as an author of these guides. What is your take on the future direction of guides relative to the free exchange of information?

DB: The Internet definitely has its own kind of market. Everytime we publish a guide, Iím eager to go out and see what kind of free guides are being offered as a sort of competition to the guides weíre trying to sell here at BradyGames. I usually find that these amateur guides will, to a large extent, help you get through the game. But they arenít as well organized, arenít as coherent, donít have screenshots to help you get through the game, and just arenít as useful for really conquering a game.

Q: As a followup to that, do you see that the availability of broadband will allow you to explore new types of media to deliver the kind of information youíre putting into the book now?

DB: I envision that as games continue to move onto the Internet, and as we have more games that are played solely on the Internet, we will be writing a strategy guide that will be accessed from the game, while youíre on the Internet. I see that basically, as youíre playing the game, you can hit your Help button and the strategy guide will appear. Weíll have to work out some kind of a download fee for that, but I see that kind of thing coming along, especially in games like EverQuest. Also, in Vagrant Story, there is a very complete in-game strategy guide available from the main menu. I can see in the future, hopefully us writing that strategy guide that is available in the game.

Q: Does BradyGames have any plans to develop an online interactive strategy guide for Squareís Final Fantasy XI, and what are your views on online only RPGs?

DB: As online only RPGs develop, I think weíll need to develop along those lines. I donít know that that is going to happen, Iím speculating, but I think that probably will be in the future of game guides. The publishers are going to have to go into an electronic medium and have the guides available as players need them. In about five or ten years, it seems thatís the way weíll want to go.

Q: Beyond what youíre working on now, what titles on the horizon are you really excited about?

DB: Well, Final Fantasy IX, and Squareís first title for the PlayStation 2, The Bouncer. Those will be really good titles. Beyond that, Iím not really sure what will be coming out.

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