A Guide To One Of The Best Video Game Guide Books

Game Changer: Two decades ago, an Indy-based publisher filled stockings with one of the best-selling video game guidebooks of all time.
This Christmas, when kids unwrap their copy of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate or God of War, they’ll head directly to the internet to look for strategies to help master their new video games. But not so long ago, the only shortcuts for gamers were in the pages of guidebooks. And a local publisher put out a book that became almost as coveted as the game itself, helping to launch the genre into the realm of collectibles and ensuring these tomes survive even in the digital world.

In the mid-1990s, BradyGames—an imprint of Pearson Education, global publisher of technical manuals—was little more than an Easter Egg buried deep in the bonus levels of the gaming universe. Brady started out producing strategy guides that resembled the dense, black-and-white books of their parent company. Success was modest. But then in 1997, Final Fantasy VII (FF7) came out for the Sony PlayStation. And due to a confluence of events, Brady’s Official Final Fantasy VII Strategy Guide would sell more than a million copies, making it one of the most successful gaming guides in history.

First, FF was a role-playing game (RPG), in which players act out long, decision-based narratives set in complex worlds. “RPGs were so vast,” says David Waybright, who managed licensing for Brady at the time. “You could ‘finish’ the game but not do everything in it. Completionists need to squeeze out every little thing the game has to offer.”

Secondly, thanks to the 1994 PlayStation’s revolutionary graphic and play-control technology, there was suddenly more that programmers could squeeze into the games—more characters, more worlds, and more secrets.

The final and most important reason was that by 1997, a generation of adults had grown up with video games like Final Fantasy. They wanted more than a dry instruction manual; they wanted something to collect. Brady had already started fleshing out their guides with four-color artwork and limited-edition hardcovers—the models for today’s books.

At the time, guides—which came out at the same time as the games—sold pre-orders in the 10,000s, with the most successful topping out at 70,000 copies. Within weeks of FF7’s release, it had sold 150,000. “Initial sales of any book of any kind like that is crazy,” says Waybright. “Those are New York Times best-sellers.”

Brady continued to hone its product into the 21st century, but none of its titles ever quite topped the success of FF7. In 2015, Brady merged with Prima Games. The company is still in Indy and still puts out gaming guides. But it seems that FF7 might have been the industry’s high-water mark. “If you ask 100 kids how they get their info today, 100 of them would say YouTube,” says Waybright. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But that’s why today’s guides tend to rely on appealing to the hardcore fans.”