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by Conor Kostick, Commissioning Editor of Level Up Publishing

 

The Beginnings

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.

 

Writing MMORPGs

        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.

 
 

As an example of a LitRPG short story and a taster of our publications to come, here’s a short story from Stephen Landry.

 
Star Divers Winter Taster
 

“Access”

Checking for necessary update files…

Initializing…

Player environment meets necessary requirements.

Retina scan / Identity confirmed.

Dive 100%

Loading player data…

Name: Breq Age: 17

Level: 10 Status: Alive Class: Scout

Load out:

TX – 7 kinetic Rifle, Short grip energy pistol Combat Knife

Health: 100 Stamina: 100 Mana: 100

December 24, 2073.

Winter festival

Location Discovered: Planet Rem Environment: hospitable Resources: Unknown

A cold breeze brushed my cheek and I felt my sweat turn cold as ice. Digging myself out from the snow-covered ground I noticed my new winter jacket was freshly torn, lucky for me it was only aesthetic. My environmental suit, the only piece of clothing I had worth anything, was the one thing keeping me from the cold. On top of my environmental suit, I had a thin layer of armor giving me +10 Defense and +5 Attack Boost. Compared to most players it wasn’t even worth the scrap but I picked it up around level 5 and have been attached to it ever since. It wasn’t much but it was made out of the same steel used to forge the hulls of starships.

I was alone as I crawled my way inside of a cavern in the middle of what used to be a desert and was now a vast icefield. Unfortunately, Nel, my robotic companion, had crashed the ship again. Having failed to account for the change in atmospheric temperature, Nel wasn’t able to control the Adept-II as we entered low orbit. We had just made a successful delivery run to the city of Alet on the planet Loomis when we were invited here to Rem for an ‘incoming player event’. Unfortunately, my AI assistant still hasn’t quite gotten the hang of flying cruisers.

+10 Luck. I survived.

– 10 Piloting. For crashing the Adept-II

Once a year for the few days, the Planet Rem freezes over as the brutal cold culls the life that sprouts from what is normally a harsh, hot environment. Our track team claims it has something to do with the gravity of a gas giant pulling the planet in such a way as to cause a massive weather change but the truth is, it is nothing more than a scripted event designed to give players like me the chance to work together in a raid. A chance to survive against a type of monster known as the Vrax. Normally the Vrax, a mole-like animal that lives in the sand, are docile creatures but we were deep inside their territory and with the planet freezing over the balance had been strained to the point of no return. The Vrax that were too large to find shelter had gone feral. One, in particular, known as the Vrax Eternal, attacked one of the settlements just as the cold came. That was why we came.

I had just turned seventeen. Having started playing soon after last season ended, this event was my first pick-up raid in Bane, a science fiction survival action game. As the snow touched my hands, it was hard to believe that I was actually here via virtual reality, my mind adrift in a digital landscape while my body sat relaxed inside a pod. All five senses were fooled into a feeling that all of this was real. More than that though, Bane enhances the senses and measures your skills. Bane even gives you points by performing tasks to make yourself stronger. That was the basis of leveling anyway. Although I had been playing almost an entire year, I had just managed to scratch the surface of the game. When I had hit level 10, I had felt ecstatic. My guild, the Corpse Divers, even gave me a small bonus in pay that week which was lucky since I was down to my last cup of ramen. That was a month ago. Now, with the holiday upon me, I was hoping to scrounge enough loot for a decent meal for myself on Christmas.

In real life, every winter felt worse than the one before: more lonely than the last. After I lost my parents, I stopped celebrating holidays altogether. Damien, my closest friend and Bane mentor, said it was unhealthy, promising me that I was welcome to come to celebrate with him and Cass in the real world anytime I wanted. Telling me the guild was family now. It was Damien who had convinced me to play Bane, but it would take more than kind intentions to convince me to change my ways. I think a part of him knew that. I wasn’t trying to be stubborn; I was just couldn’t allow myself to owe him more than I already did. A part of me wondered why he kept pushing me. I guess Damien has been working to break my curse since we met.

Another part of me wondered why I was sent with Nel to deliver some donations to the city of Alet. The city was covered in lights as decorations lined the streets and merchants, both player and NPC, set up tables selling goods from all across the galaxy. It was a spectacle but nothing near the show the alien city of the Chel was putting on in the Spire.

Feeling the cold snow melt in my hand reminded me of my childhood. Of snowball fights with friends; building a snowman with my mother; of the times my parents had taken me to see the city lights. It reminded me too of all I had lost. All that was starting to return to me slowly as each day I grew stronger and stronger. The pain would never end but I was living healthier than I had been and thanks to the income I was generating from the game would be so long as I didn’t ‘die’ here.

Inside the cave known as the ‘Crystal Depths’, I made a quick stock of what I still had on me. Nel was with me, having somehow survived the crash. I still had my TX- 7 rifle, one power cell with a half-charge, an energy pistol at 10% and a combat knife Damien had given me as a gift. I had enough and if I was going to survive I would have to make ‘enough’ my strength. It wasn’t hard for Nel to pull up a map. We weren’t far from a settlement, one of the smaller colonies. Maps called it Settlement-15 while players and NPC characters had come to call it ‘Alzabo’. Made up of non- playable characters it was their message that brought us here. The timing of the event was random. Anytime between December 17 – 26th. Across the galaxy from the city of the Spire to the wastelands of Orthyia, there were even at this moment dozens of events happening all across the cosmos. This event called us: right place, right time.

We weren’t alone.

Hundreds of players would be arriving a day in and day out to fight the Vrax Eternal. It wasn’t an enemy that could be destroyed by one team but rather a giant that was farmed until there was nothing left. Event rules stated that players had to be level 10 or higher and in teams of four or more to face it; there were, however, rumors of sightings from scouts online just before the event started.

“Can we send an SOS?” I asked Nel.

“Negative, communication is down across the planet’s surface.”

“OK. But how are they sending the distress call?”

“The settlements are equipped with a rather large communications array, ours is the size of the palm of your hand,” Nel answered.

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Conversation wasn’t my strong suit. I lost my parents three years ago and since that time I’ve been trying to figure things out. For the first three months after they passed I didn’t say a word to anyone.

Surviving. Fighting for my guild. Fetching artifacts. My father had worked on Bane and I guess in a way it made me feel close to him. It was my way of moving forward. Not to mention I was part of a company, a team and they were now paying my bills.

“I can do this,” I said quietly to myself so that Nel wouldn’t tell me just how low the chance of my survival actually was. I stood up in the cavern and began to plot my way from where I was to the settlement. It took me a few minutes but I managed to augment my sense of sight to show me a waypoint in the distance no matter how hard the snow fell. As I stood at the entrance to the cavern, I loaded the power cell into my rifle and slung it over my back. If an enemy approached me I would use my energy pistol first and then my rifle as a last resort. Since it was a ki – rifle that meant once the battery went dead it would drain energy from my health. It was a nice trick to use in a bind but it was a death sentence if you were injured or low on health. My hope was of re-supplying at the settlement.

Halfway through the thick snowfall, Nel warned me of an approaching danger. A bipedal creature was stalking us from the shadows.

“Can you identify a location?” I asked my rifle at the ready. I would give it one shot to identify itself hoping maybe it was another player.

“Negative.”

“Can you give me anything?”

“It is one creature,” Nel said chirpily, as if that was great news.

One creature could mean anything. For all, I knew it was the Vrax Eternal coming to get me. Dying in Bane meant losing everything and having to start over with a new character. This was an important part of my job. I was a Corpse Diver, sent into the unknown, it was my job to search for echoes of dead players and recover artifacts left behind. Sometimes these jobs came from player’s themselves, other times we were tracking the echoes, collecting the artifacts and selling them. Artifacts were extremely rare, powerful, and could be anything from a relic to a weapon.

Halfway to the settlement, the snowfall was beginning to clear. I could see what looked like a tall building in the distance. It was faint and covered in white but it was definitely man-made. There was something else. A shadow that stood before me standing tall on two legs, long arms, crooked claws, and with two horns curved back over the top of its head. The creature looked nothing like anything I had seen before in the game, I wanted to shout. Maybe it was another survivor, another remnant like me. I readied my rifle. It was a chance I couldn’t take. It moved closer. Slowly at first but faster. It was coming from the settlement. My hand was shaking not because of the cold but because I thought this was going to be it. I fired. Nothing. It was as if the energy from my rifle passed right through it. The creature came closer towering over me. I fired again as a crooked hand opened up towards me. The creature wasn’t a creature at all but a giant covered in snow and made of steel.

The metal giant grabbed me with its hand picking me up. I let go of my rifle, grabbing the sling before the weapon fell to the ground. A moment later a red flare shot out from the monster’s hand towards the sky followed by another green flare, a signal calling for backup. The area around us cleared of snowfall and I saw the Vrax Eternal towering over both of us not even a hundred feet behind me.

Pro Tip: When fighting monsters try to break them apart.

The giant was a mecha. Another player. They had shaped their mech’s design to be like that of a crimson demon. Covered in snow it looked something like a metal Krampus.

“Maybe next time save your bullets for the bad guys.”

“Thanks,” I said in return as his voice echoed beyond us, calling for support.

The mecha giant fired an ion blast at the Vrax Eternal, knocking it back while at the same time he threw me a pack of batteries.

“Do you think we can take it?” I asked.

“Probably not. We can stall it till more players arrive!” he shouted, leaping forward, head to head with the Vrax boss.

The mecha’s metal arm began to glow red as a psionic blade expanded outward from the body. He was going in close to draw the Vrax’s attention away from me. I was easy prey. The distraction worked as I found a spot near a crashed barge buried in the snow where I could take cover. The Vrax Eternal had half a dozen weak spots but since this was a boss they all happened to be covered in a shell that had to be torn off first. My new mystery friend knew exactly what he was doing as he went in close, sliding his psionic blade under the Vrax’s armored shell and tearing it apart. When a weak spot was revealed I began firing everything I had.

“I got it!” I shouted after a barrage of my shots hammered home.

“Nice job, not bad for a noob,” he called back.

I hated that word but it was still common to call anyone under level 15 by that term. Truth was, I was indeed still new. There was so much to see and do I had barely begun: seventy-six quadrants filled with various solar systems and thousands of worlds.

“Err, thanks,” I said trying not to keep my displeasure from my voice. “What’s your name by the way?”

“I’m Amp,” he said.

“I’m Breq.” I continued to blindfire from a distance as Amp carried on with his assault of the Vrax. Each time Amp tore a piece of armor off, he had to take a quick step back and recharge for his next attack. As I fired, the wound quickly sealed up: the Vrax regenerated ALMOST faster than we could deal out damage. It didn’t quite stop us though. Piece by piece we were wearing it down.

Amp stayed positive the whole fight. At one point I’m pretty sure he was more talking to himself than me. I overheard him say something about how he had been waiting for this fight all season. That the loot gathered from a Vrax Eternal would help feed his family for Christmas.

“Pretty last minute to be out hunting,” I said.

“Yeah, could say the same about you.”

“No family, no friends,” I called over.

“You are a part of a guild, I saw the patch on the back of your jacket; don’t you think they are worried about you trying to solo a raid like this?”

“I wasn’t trying to solo,” I laughed at the idea, “I was answering the distress call and crashed. I didn’t think this thing would be stalking me,” I had to switch the battery from my rifle. I could feel the TX – 7 overheating. Thanks to Amp though I still had about a dozen power cells left, which at the rate we were going would last me another ten minutes. “I’m going to be low soon,” I shouted.

“That’s OK, the cavalry is three minutes out.”

For those intense three minutes, I fought side by side with the mech until my stamina was near zero and my health at 60%. Despite my cover the flurries of diamond-hard ice chips blasting across the battlezone were wearing me down.

Several others shortly arrived. A dozen players total. Kicking a box across the ice towards me, Amp sent some more batteries my way as another mech stepped into the ring with the Vrax and Amp could take the time to charge up his next attack. Several scouts, soldiers on the ground like me, joined me behind the barge while others brought portable shields. The mechs never let up their ear-shattering blows, even as pieces of the Vrax broke away and eventually it went running, digging into the ground to escape.

I raised my gun and cheered victory with the others as some players even began singing and dancing. When it was finally all over and the wounded beast was killed, I climbed on top of Amp’s mech and we returned to the settlement. As a result of being in on the success, I gained 5000 EXP and leveled up to 11. This gave me 15 skill points to spend, which I decided to split, 10 into my Ice Resistance and 5 to Detection (Stealth).

Amp never left his mech even as I handed over more than half of my loot. I had collected a dozen gems and Vrax scales from the body of our fallen enemy. I probably could have taken them all and forged new armor but I had collected more EXP than I dared hope for and the truth was, he’d done far more than half the fighting. The white and red demon had saved my life and somehow that made this winter less cold than the ones before.

I felt grateful, smiling, happy.

The next day I logged out and spent the day with Damien and Cass. I told Damien what happened, my meeting with Amp and how we took down the Vrax Eternal. As I sat drinking hot chocolate and eating a tangerine Damien promised come the new year I would be leveling up twice as fast.

Bigger bosses, dangerous missions, deeper dungeons, bigger mechs, and let’s not forget the loot and rare artifacts I would be hunting.

The real game was only just beginning.

Breq’s story continues in….

STAR DIVERS DUNGEONS OF BANE

Spring 2019

A novel by Stephen landry

LEVEL UP PUBLISHING

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