Magic & Mayhem: The Steve Honeywell Interview

Thanks to a random eBay purchase, recently got the chance to interview video game strategy guide author Steve Honeywell. Having written for some of the most legendary series in history including Metal Gear, Diablo, Command & Conquer and more, his insight into the job and industry during the PlayStation’s lifetime is a fantastic read. Now a teacher and freelancer with his own movie review site, Steve and I take a trip back 15 years when he was still writing guides…

GR: How did you originally get into guide book writing / what was your big break?

Steve: I’d love to give you an inspiring story here, but that would be a lie. The truth is that I worked in the PC gaming industry for 6 years before I did my first guide. In 1991, I was hired as an assistant editor for a start-up PC game magazine called Computer Game Review. About 9 months later, I was the editor. You may not have heard of CGR, but you almost certainly know about our bigger, badder sister publication, Electronic Gaming Monthly; I did the coin-op column for EGM for a few years, too.

When I left CGR, I worked online for about a year. After that, books were a natural next step.

GR: Were you assigned games, or volunteer for them? Were there any games you passed over and regretted, or took on and regretted? 

Steve: Both. Many book authors would go to E3 every year and scope out new titles. Since I had journalism experience, I knew a lot of people, and that helped. We’d usually then go to our publisher in and put in requests. You might think that the game authors would have rivalries, but we really didn’t—not even between companies. So, for instance, the Prima guys and the Brady guys used to hang out together. It was a running joke that, on an average night after we’d spent all day at the convention, a well-placed hand grenade could take out 50-75% of the strategy guide author industry.

There were lots of books I’d loved to have written, but time and deadlines meant most of us did 5-7 books every year. As for regrets, sure—there were a bunch of books I wish I hadn’t had to write, but needing to eat often takes precedence.

GR: How much time were you allowed to write the guide for a game, or how far in advance did you have a game before it’s release? How tight (and stressful?) were deadlines?

Steve: That depended on the book, the project, and the publisher. Most of the time, 4-6 weeks was the normal production time, although that tended to become less and less over time. Four weeks is probably a good average. For reference, though, I wrote the guide for Diablo for PlayStation in six days. That’s not as impressive as it sounds—I’d played the PC version multiple times and had a website on the game, and the PlayStation version was a 98% direct port.

From scratch, the fastest I ever completed a book was 10 days. That was Brute Force for Xbox.

The goal was always to get the book on the shelf the same day as the game hit the shelves. This meant that we worked with beta copies for everything. You couldn’t work too far in advance because the game wouldn’t be ready, but you also couldn’t wait too long or you couldn’t get it done. It was often tight.

GR: How much leeway did you have in forming your own strategies for the game? Considering the official status of the guides, were you ever limited in what tips you could offer?

Steve: Quite a bit, most of the time. You’d do what worked. For real-time military sims (one of my areas of specialty), I focused a lot on general strategies before getting to the specifics. A lot of my RTS books have chapters on the economy of the game system, for instance, and basic attack and defense strategies that are useful in any scenario. That way, when I did have to write about specific scenarios, I always had these core ideas to fall back on.

Game companies always had final sign-off on the books. If there was information we included they didn’t like, they could cut it.

GR: How often would you need to replay a game to finally have everything in place for the book?

Steve: There wasn’t a lot of time for that, really. For RTS games, I would sometimes replay parts of missions from the same save point to try out different ideas. But here’s an example of what I mean.

I did a lot of work with Westwood Studios (and I loved working with them). Because of the way they worked, they would not release beta software, so doing a Westwood book meant going to their offices. I’d fly out late Sunday/early Monday, land in Vegas and check into my room, then immediately head to Westwood. I’d work in their offices roughly 9am to midnight Monday-Friday, then fly back home, where I’d write furiously for two weeks. Then, I’d go back to Westwood for a second week to get anything I’d missed and pick up all of the changes.

Now…in that first week for a book like Emperor: Battle for Dune, I’d have to play a minimum of 12 missions—including the massive final four (attacking each of the other houses, a defense mission, and the final mission) for each of the three houses, Atreides, Harkonnen, and Ordos. So, that’s a minimum of 36 missions, knowing that the final set of missions for each house takes hours by design. In addition to simply getting through the missions, I need to consistently take pictures along the way, plus get pictures of every unit for each army (and each of the lesser houses in this case) and every structure, every terrain feature, etc. And get all of the pictures needed to piece together the maps.

Do that in five days, or roughly 70 hours. Twice.

So, yeah…not a lot of time to replay missions.

GR: Were in-game secrets provided to you by the developers / publishers, or was that part of the guide writing experience? Were you allowed console commands on the PC to help with the writing (for example, having Infinite Health)? 

Steve: Depends on the game and the developer. I did use them at times—for maps, for instance. Since we were often working with beta code, cheats helped with buggy patches of games or allowed us to get particular pictures.

For real, though, I always tried to play the game without the cheats. After all, the strategy guide is supposed to help you get through the game legitimately, so the strategies ought to work, right?

GR: On a broader scale, how much information were you provided from the developers, and about how much was truly just you exploring a game’s content?

Steve: Same answer—some developers were wonderful and would provide complete design documents. For others…well, you got a disc with the game on it.

GR: Your library of books covers a wide range of genres and game systems, including the PC. What was your favorite and least favorites genre and platform to write for?

Steve: I was always a PC guy first, console guy second. I was always more comfortable working with a PC than a game system.

We tended to be not so much pigeonholed, but specialized. If you look at the books that I wrote, a substantial number of them are first-person shooters and real-time military sims with a couple of RPGs thrown in. I didn’t do platform games, adventure titles, or sports games because they weren’t my skill set. Book companies in general were great about that—but it makes sense. They want to put you with a game where you have legitimate skills. I’d be terrible dealing with the ins and outs of baseball statistics, but let me micromanage a galactic empire in something like Pax Imperia II and I’m a happy dude.

I don’t really have a least favorite platform other than saying I was never a big fan of the N64 overall.

GR: What was your favorite game of those you wrote books for, and why? Which was the worst experience? 

Steve: I loved the Command & Conquer engine and Red Alert 2 is probably the best game I ever worked on, although the first No One Lives Forever was such a surprise. I expected that game to be a throwaway, and it was so good. I loved Warlords Battlecry, too.

But there were some bad ones. Here’s a trio of horror stories.

Icewind Dale II: This should have been great. It was a straight-up D&D role-player, and I’m an old-school pen-and-paper RPG nerd. But, Icewind Dale II happened just as D&D was switching from 2nd Ed to 3rd Ed, and the game was caught in the middle. It’s a muddle of D&D systems, about half 2nd and half 3rd, and the cobble is really bad. It was just confusing and ugly.

Thief: The Dark Project: Should have been such a good book and game. But it’s confusing, and the developer was no help on my end. Worse, they signed off on the book and we went to press, and then the developer changed the location of a bunch of the items—after­ we printed the book. So the book is wrong in so many places, and because my name is on the book, it’s my fault. This is a case where the problems aren’t really my fault, but they are still my responsibility—I get (and yes, accept) the blame for the problems with the book even though they were literally beyond my control.

Clive Barker’s Undying: Again, this should have been great. It’s a first-person shooter and a horror title. That’s like it was made for me. And it’s actually a really good game and one of the few games I’ve played that genuinely scared me at one point. Anyway, I get the beta and play about a third of the way through when the game hits a hard crash. I contact EA and am told, yes, this is a known bug. We can skip you through the problem, but you’ll lose all of your weapons, ammo, and essential items. So, one-third of the way through a shooter and back to a pistol with 10 rounds? And no active cheat modes/ammo and weapon codes? No thanks. So I wait for the next beta.

Next beta shows up. Old saves don’t work, so I have to start over. I got literally five minutes further into the game when it crashed again. I contact EA and am told, yes, this is a known bug. We can skip you through the problem, but you’ll lose all of your weapons, ammo, and essential items. So, one-third of the way through a shooter and back to a pistol with 10 rounds? And no active cheat modes/ammo and weapon codes? No thanks. So I wait for the next beta.

I played the first third of Clive Barker’s Undying three times.

GR: There’s a Japanese game or two that was ported to American consoles, like Metal Gear Solid VR. Were you ever stuck using a non-English copy of the game to begin work on? 

Steve: No, but I did have to use Japanese guides for one game. I did a book on Grandia Xtreme for a company called Versus Books. There were no English manuals/guides for the game available, so I had to use some Japanese Perfect guides and more or less muddle through them.

GR: Did you ever do screenshot capture or provide input on how artwork and maps should be designed? Aside from the writing, what other elements of the book creation were you involved with? 

Steve: As the author, you were responsible for the text and the pictures. Some companies would provide art for the interior of the book and some would provide maps. Everything else was the author’s responsibility. There were a couple of cases where, because of the schedule, I couldn’t get a particular shot and would ask the developer, but more than 99% of the pictures in my guides or my parts of those guides were personally snapped by yours truly.

In the case of maps, this was a frequent use of cheat codes. For a Command & Conquer game, for instance, I’d get a new map and immediately pause and save the game. I’d use a code to reveal the whole map and then take a painstaking series of pictures that would then be cropped and spliced together in Photoshop to produce the whole map.

For Total Annihilation Kingdoms, we did something different. I’m credited as an author for that book, but I didn’t write a word. I did the maps—and for that game, I hand-drew all of those maps and then scanned them.

GR: How many of the games you have written books for do you still play today? Any of them that will always have a special place in the heart?

Steve: None—I’m pretty much out of gaming. It’s sad but true—working as a professional gamer killed gaming for me as a hobby. Aside from a Flash game or two on my phone now and then, I don’t do video games/PC games at all.

As for fondness…

  • Hexen II was my first-ever guide.
  • Dune 2000 was my first Westwood Studios guide, and was written both before and after the birth of my first child.
  • Starcraft Campaign Editor was the first book for which I earned praise from someone I admired.

GR: What made you stop writing guides?

Steve: This sounds like a joke, but it’s not. I looked at myself in the mirror one day and thought, “If I died tomorrow, my legacy would be that I was really good at Mario Kart.” I didn’t want to be playing video games for a living when I was 50.

Coincidentally, I turned 50 last year, and I teach college English and communications now.

It’s worth noting that this would not have been the case if I were actually creating games. I wasn’t—I was in the least creative end of the industry while still being marginally creative. I was giving people advice on how to play other people’s creations. At some point, I felt completely superfluous, like the weird fringe element of a big and lucrative, but ultimately non-essential industry. That’s a sobering thought for a Tuesday morning when you’re in your early 30s.

GR: If you were still writing guides today, what game series would you love to tackle? 

Steve: Since I’ve been out of games for so long, I’m not sure I know enough current games/game series to make an intelligent choice.

GR: If you could open up any guide with the statement, “Your best tip is to not play this game.” what game would it have been? 

Steve: Koudelka for the PlayStation, at least in terms of games for which I wrote the book.

GR: You currently maintain a movie blog discussing the movies from a series about watching over 1,000 movies. Is this more challenge or passion? Do you plan on getting through all 1,001 movies? 

Steve: Heh, I have gotten through the 1001 movies multiple times. There is a new version of the list published every year with minor changes. Usually, about a dozen movies are removed and a dozen added from the last year or two. I finished the complete “everything that’s ever been on the list” version in 2013, so since then, it’s just been maintenance every year when the new edition ships. Currently, there are 1199 movies that have ever been on the list at one point or another. I’ve seen 1198, and the one I’m missing released on DVD three days ago…so I’m guessing I’ll be seeing it soon.

Because the 1001 list for me now is about 10 movies/year, I’ve switched to Oscar categories and a few large lists of horror movies. Right now, for instance, I’m down to nine Best Picture nominees all-time that I haven’t seen.

I get asked how I have time for this. I don’t watch any television outside of Game of Thrones and The Great British Baking Show and I don’t watch any sports. I watch about 400 movies/year, which works out to about 2 hours/day, which is less than most people watch of television.

GR: Favorite all time movie? And if you could write your own version of it, how would you re-write or re-cast it?

North by Northwest. A top five would be that, Amelie, The Devil’s Backbone, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and 28 Days Later.

Honestly, I wouldn’t touch any of those films. I once saw someone (can’t remember who) comment that we shouldn’t remake great things because they’re already great and we can only damage them. We should remake things that are terrible and try to make them great. and Jason would like to thank Steve for taking the time for the interview. If you’d like to pick up an autographed guide for yourself, you can check out his auctions here.