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  • The Professional Game Manual Maker

    - staff
  •  Belinda M. Van Sickle has one of those "other" jobs in the game industry, the kind that doesn't neatly fit into the designer-artist-programmer triangle. She is president of GameDocs Inc., and has more than 10 years experience writing and creating game manuals and documentation. Van Sickle has also been an awards judge and a member of the awards committee for the MI6 Conference, a game industry event focused on marketing and advertising. conducted an email interview with her recently to learn more about her job. Your area of expertise in the game industry is essentially marketing. Can you describe the overall principles or theory most companies have when they are creating game manuals, packaging, and documentation?

    Belinda Van Sickle:
    It really depends on the title. For instance, if it's a licensed, movie-based game, the marketing will be focused to work in concert with the film advertising to maximize recognition of the products.

    For original IP, there's a whole different approach. A publisher needs to introduce the game world to the consumer and the marketing needs to define the title for the audience.

    And then there's everything in between...

    Sequels: Do you want to call out why this iteration of the title is different than the last version or are you offering more and better of the same type of gameplay experience?

    TV-related titles: These don't come out day-and-date with a film release, so the marketing will want to capitalize on current recognition of the license and define how that world will work in the game version.

    Clone-type games (a different version of currently successful gameplay mechanics, such as music performance-based games): With this type of title, you'll want to either convince the consumer your title is more and better than what they already like or stress what's new, improved and different about your version.

    My specialty for nearly 12 years has been game manuals. Manuals aren't meant to sell a game, they're intended to add value to the title by adding depth and immersive game world info by allowing players to learn more about power-ups, weapons, etc. The other most important purpose of a game manual is to reduce customer support costs by helping players get the best experience from their game without getting stuck and frustrated.

    GCG: Tell us about the first game project you worked on. Was it freelance or for a company? And then how and when did you start your own business?

    BVS: The first game project I worked on was an Activision hardcore real-time strategy game called Dark Reign.  I had been hired full-time in documentation at Activision from the beginning. I wrote, helped design and did layout for a full-color manual that was about 100 pages long. We used a special textured black coverstock with nothing but a gold foil emboss of the game's logo on the front cover. It was one of my favorite projects ever, because I had a lot of creative choices to make.

    I started my own business nearly nine years after I started at Activision. My department at Activision, creative services, spun off to create a separate advertising agency for games. As the agency grew, the focus turned away from video games, so I started my own company. I had nine years' experience writing and designing video game manuals, and I just love the work and the industry. I knew I could provide a valuable service for cool people who are fun to work with.

    GCG: What do you like best about your job? What do you find most frustrating?

    BVS: I really enjoy the diverse nature of my work. I'm a writer, a copyeditor, a graphic designer, and a project manager. All the different responsibilities keep my job interesting as well as give me the opportunity to see a project from start to finish.

    It can be frustrating to be a small business due to the seasonal nature of the game industry. Part of the year is completely cra
    zy and I keep my freelancers very busy. Other times, we're really slow. It would be cool if the work were spaced out evenly throughout the year, but that's not the nature of the industry.

    Describe what a typical project might entail for you so we can understand in more detail what you do.


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