Some friends and I recently beat Final Fantasy IX over the summer and we ended up coming across this:
For those of you who don’t understand the significance of the FF IX guide, do you see the “Enhanced by PlayOnline.com” bit at the bottom? Well, way back in the year 2000, Squaresoft had this craaazy idea that folks might want to use the Internet to look up hints for video games. So they did what was only natural for a big-name publisher at the height of its popularity – they chopped up their product and sold customers half of it.
The way it worked was that you would use the guide like any other, except to get any information out of it other than a bare-bones walkthrough you would be directed to enter a specific code at PlayOnline.com. This applied to the location of hidden items, the solution to several side quests and all boss strategies beyond “use your strongest attacks, I guess,” and “have your white mage cast Cure, maybe, if you feel like it.” To be fair, Square never forced you to pay to access the PlayOnline site but that didn’t help me in the early aughts when my most reliable form of Internet access was a junior high school classroom.
For people of a certain age, there was a certain level of trust between you and your guide books. These were tomes bordering on holy script, passed between classmates during home room and recess. When your parents spent money on one, it had better tell you where to find all the ultimate weapons, exactly which bosses are weak against ice and what sequence of events resulted in awkward man-dates.
You were the coolest kid on the playground if you found out how to go on a date with Mr. T.
What we got out of this guide was a $13 advertisement for some crazy Internet mumbo-jumbo. While the FF IX guide really isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on and PlayOnline today has been reduced to a vestigial limb of Final Fantasy XI, it was indicative of the direction of games media. The Playstation era was a time when print was still the go-to place for game walkthroughs and hints. Publishers, however, saw that the web was where content was going and tried to find a way to make money off of it while still keeping their old business model intact.
As we all know, this didn’t really turn out so well. I can’t remember the last time I bought a strategy guide for a game and I probably would have forgotten about them all together if GameStop employees didn’t keep trying to sell them to me every time I make a purchase. I can’t really comment on the current status of the strategy guide market, but I’d be very surprised if it is doing well. After all, who doesn’t just log onto GameFAQs these days when they get stuck in a game?
If I have a point in all this – and really I’m just musing on some random junk I found lying around my game room – it’s that it’s hard to predict where the future of this industry is going. Square and BradyGames thought that people would pay extra money to get guides from an official source, but it turns out word of mouth and the gaming community beat them to it.