by Conor Kostick, Commissioning Editor of Level Up Publishing
During the 1980s, when personal computers became affordable for individuals, the first multi-player online games appeared, such as MUD. If you’re old enough, you might remember the anticipation as the phone line screeched through it’s dial-up handshake. Then the excitement as you entered the dungeon and lines of text appeared on your screen. Then the deflation as some player with a faster connection and more powerful character rushed past (described via all-too-slow to appear lines of text) and looted the treasure before you.
Bring on the 1990s: decent online speeds, lower phone bills and really good games where you could navigate your avatar visually. By the end of the decade, online RPGs (Role-Playing Games) had fully animated 2D graphics and with Ultima Online, released September 1997, came 3D graphics and widespread popularity for MMORPGs (Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games).
Now, of course, these games are hugely popular, with millions of players and incredible immersive visuals. And gaming is only going to become a more intense sensual experience as new generations of VR enter the market. But for all the fun and pleasure online games can give, they are flawed by one crucial consideration: the market. It is not in the interest of game companies to create scenarios that can be solved quickly. They don’t want their users to charge through the content and finish with the game. The storylines in MMORPGs tend to be interrupted by massive time sinks, where the players have to grind away for hours to attain the ability to meet the next challenge. And for some players, who aren’t part of large collective organisations of raiders, the quest challenges become impossible barriers to progress.
This is one of the reasons for the emergence of a genre of writing that appeals to gamers. A defining characteristic of LitRPG is that you are reading about a character who is progressing in an online game or game-like world. And in that read, you can experience an RPG in a fashion that actual play thwarts: you can vicariously enjoy levelling up fast and engaging with the best high end encounters that the game has to offer.
From it’s earliest days, the experience of gaming online stimulated writers to think about new plots involving MMORPGs. Early examples of such stories include Tad William's Otherland series (from 1996). There, the characters can enter into full immersion into virtual reality. And in this series, William's takes advantage of the fact that as people can cross into virtual reality they can reinvent themselves to explore the question of identity. One of his central characters appears to be an all powerful game warrior, but the muscular avatar is being played by Orlando Gardiner, a young boy with progeria, whose weak real body has to be sustained with medical care.
My own Epic (2004) is premised on the idea that a fantasy MMORPG has taken over a colony's economy and everyone has to create an avatar and play the game for the sake of their wealth and legal standing.
Meanwhile, in the far east, enthusiasm for these kinds of role-playing games also led to books with plots inspired by the idea of action within the game world being crucial to the real world. In Taiwan, Yu Wo wrote the first of her series of nine 1/2 Prince books in 2004, while in Japan, the first of the very popular Sword Art Online series by Reki Kawahara saw publication in 2009.
These early examples of books with MMORPGs as central to their plots were not yet grouped together as a genre, but that changed in 2013, with the decision by EKSMO, Russia's biggest publishing house, to begin publishing titles in a series they labeled LitRPG. This Russian initiative has defined the genre and explains the origins of the name. In an English-language country the more obvious term would have been RPGLit.
Many authors and readers of LitRPG enjoy a focus on the in-game achievements of the characters and for them LitRPG has to contain text that tells the reader - as an aside from the narrative voice - the current stats, levels, abilities, etc. of characters. Others have coined the term 'GameLit' to cover books that are light on the game mechanics and character progress.
Here at Level Up we are inclusive. We aim to publish both LitRPG in the classical sense and GameLit that doesn’t have to be heavy on stats, game mechanics and progression. Yes, there should be some, that’s what readers want. But readers also want empathetic characters, stimulating plots and intense drama. Those aspects of LitRPG/GameLit, like with any books, are the most important.
Level Up Publishing
Like any genre, LitRPG has its great reads but also some fairly weak ones. Perhaps, though, even the least well crafted is worth a read, especially if you've been frustrated by the difficulties of participating in the high-end raiding or need for elite gear in a real MMORPG.
LitRPG books provide the antidote to such frustration, as you can cover the progress of a character in the game with a short read of a few hours. At their best though, they are more than a substitute for gaming, they are a genuine contribution to a new literary form, one that allows the author and the reader to explore new characters and plots together.
As of July 2018, the genre largely exists in the form of eBooks. But we aim to change that. Level Up Publishing has been created to publish LitRPG authors both in eBook and print form. We aim to bring the genre to mainstream bookstores and so introduce LitRPG to a wider reading world than has developed around online sales alone.