Some LitRPGs just happen to take place in a world that runs on video game logic, and those worlds are no more required to be set up for player convenience or game balance than the real world. Others, however, are about actual video games that people actually play. Not usually in the sense that they’re full dive expies for games that exist in the real world, but still usually in the sense that the premise of the book involves playing a video game that was sold to market to be bought as entertainment just like real video games are now.
Despite this, there’s a couple of common game design mistakes that crop up in LitRPG that are about full dive MMORPGs that people actually play, features that are inconvenient for basically no reason. Books are copying one another without ever stopping to think if what comes before is really the best way of doing things. I have a pretty keen interest in game design – it’s actually a creative pursuit I chase at least as much as writing – so this particularly stands out to me, but even for general audiences, a lot of LitRPG readers want to read about a game they’d like to play, so for the love of God start writing games that aren’t a massive downgrade from what’s already on the market. For example…
1) Size your world to fit your content.
A lot of LitRPG games require you to take somewhere between 15 minutes to over an hour to get from the two nearest points of interest on a map. If you look at how actual MMORPGs or other games with big, expansive worlds are laid out, it never takes more than about five minutes to get between two adjacent points of interest. Hour+ journeys are limited to when people need to cross through multiple different regions, often to run something or someone from a low-level area to a high-level area for the sake of power leveling shenanigans. Usually, you can fast travel to any town you’ve been to before via either fairly swift flying mounts or straight-up teleportation (or both), so even these marathons are limited to people who need to get a brand new alt to areas far from their starting region. For normal situations, though? For when your player is just going from the starter town to the first quest location? Travel time is five minutes, maximum, often no more than thirty seconds.
2) Develop non-painful ways of indicating damage.
Players need to know when their left leg has been mangled. They need to know this without experiencing the pain of having their left leg mangled. At minimum, it should be possible to turn pain down low enough that it can under no circumstances be described as “agonizing” or “searing” or anything else particularly intense. Really, though, there’s plenty of other sensations you can use to indicate damage. Wounded body parts could feel a tapping that speeds up the more damage has been dealt to them, or could feel particularly warm without ever becoming hot enough to be uncomfortable or painful, or whatever.
3) Make all your classes fun to play, not just the one your protagonist gets.
“Archer” is not a real class. Ranger is a class. Arcane Archer is a class. Fighter is even a class, which might reasonably rely on archery primarily. “You get some bonuses to using this one weapon” is not a class. If I chose that class, I would be outraged that instead of actual abilities, I was given some passive buffs and that’s it. That’s the kind of thing that NPCs have, so that when players see that there’s six NPCs in a room who all have the “archer” class, they know that those NPCs will be a steady source of long range damage and nothing else, which means there’s no need to keep an eye on them to see if they’re winding up a powerful attack or about inflict some status effects or anything like that. They’re just cannon fodder. Players should have classes with real abilities, even if they aren’t the protagonist. If, for some reason, you absolutely need “archer” to be a class in your game, it had better be full of trick arrows and multishot shenanigans and such. It had better not be an indication that the character who has it is not important to the plot and can be safely ignored. Sure, out of universe lots of characters are like that. In-universe, a human being chose this class, and if it turns out to reduce them to NPC status, they have been scammed.
4) Mount the HUD to the shoulders, not the head.
When your protagonists turn their head, does their HUD turn with them? It shouldn’t be, because that means you have to move your eyes to look at stuff instead of turning your head. This is really awkward and non-intuitive and will lead to tons of players turning their head to look at health or action bars in the corner of their vision, then realizing that’s useless and turning their eyes instead. That’s not going to happen once or twice, but constantly, and it’ll be irritating every time. Plus, turning your eyes to the edge of your vision like that all the time can be uncomfortable by itself. None of this is a problem if you just mount the HUD to the player’s shoulders instead. Now they can turn their head to look at things, but the HUD will still follow them around when they turn their body or move around the game world.
You might be wondering if being able to turn your head to look at your HUD is actually that important, since unless your monitor is really big you probably mostly turn your eyes, not your head, to focus on different parts of it. Quick experiment, though: Focus your eyes on the center of your screen, then, without moving your eyes, see how far away the object at the furthest edge of your peripheral vision you can spot – the edge not of your screen, but of your actual vision. Now move your eyes without moving your head to focus on that object. You’ll probably notice that it’s a little uncomfortable to push your eyes that far and definitely doesn’t come naturally. Mount the HUD to the shoulders.
5) Have good quests.
In fairness, actual real MMORPGs mess this up all the time. “Kill ten rats” shows up constantly. But, listen, it’s bad. It’s not a good quest, it’s filler, and filler quests should only be in your novel if you are specifically making a commentary on their existence in MMORPGs. Otherwise, it is both better writing and better game design to have all your quests involve actually accomplishing something, just like they would in a D&D game, a regular novel, or in most singleplayer RPGs (not that some of them haven’t been infected by bad quest design since MMOs made it huge back in the mid-to-late 00s). Also, the quests should be available to everyone, even if they aren’t your protagonist, so something like Guild Wars 2’s event system is probably a good way to go. If your protagonist, for whatever reason, ends up in a quest chain (or equivalent) that has far more impact than most, that should be because they’re doing something earth-shattering, not because most players are stuck killing ten rats in a cellar that respawn every five minutes. Yes, that actually happens in some MMOs. No, it is not good design, and not something you should be including in a novel where you can imply the existence of a more substantial quest system without having to actually create such a quest system (unless, again, you’re actually making a commentary on the lame quests endemic to MMOs).
6) Have good stats.
There are ways to balance stats such that one of them is less useful than the others, yet still worth spending points on – for example, because you’ve maxed out or hit diminishing returns on the one stat your build really needs, and as a wizard you just don’t care about anything but intelligence that much, so you may as well pump up charisma in order to add a small multiplier to your faction renown rewards. It’s fine if nobody wants charisma as their first choice so long as it’s a popular second choice, and there’s a hard or soft cap on stats such that pumping everything into your first choice is either impossible (because of a hard cap) or requires spending tons of stat points for tiny gains (because of a soft cap).
However, one build should not require more points to be effective as another build. If you have the standard D&D six and your meaty warriors need lots of STR and CON, then your wizards cannot be reliant on INT alone. Maybe they have their attack derived from INT but rely on defenses which use WIS to stay alive, or maybe they need to either get a bunch of CON to make themselves less squishy or else a bunch of DEX to be more evasive. And if wizards and warriors both need two stats to keep their attack and defense running, rogues can’t get all of it from DEX and have their build running at the same efficiency as the warrior and wizard but for half as many stat points.
You’re probably not using the D&D six, but whatever set you use, you need to make sure that each build requires more or less the same investment of stat points for more or less the same level of power. The difference between a warrior and a rogue should be the difference between direct attacks and sneaky tricks, not the warrior being a newbie trap flat-out inferior to the rogue.
7) Let people make alts.
Some MMOs have a limited number of character slots in the interest of convincing people with alt-itis to pay $2.50 for each new one, or a six pack for $10. This is fine. The usual default number is two, and reducing that down to one to force your broke protagonist to make do with whatever character they roll up first, even if they make some mistakes along the way, is also fine. Making it categorically impossible to have more than one character is pointless, especially when it’s easy to enforce on your protagonist if you want them glued to one character whether they like it or not. You may need to add in some reason why they can’t delete their current character to start fresh if they really mess something up. Maybe the company running the game disallows all character deletion in order to extort people into buying more character slots, which is clearly scummy, but it’s probably fine to have the company running things be scummy.
8) Your characters don’t need to be physically scanned into VR.
People with deformed limbs who subsequently have the limb chopped off (usually in some kind of accident) have reported that their phantom limb is not deformed. Also, phantom limbs exist. And people who dream from a third person perspective tend to look pretty similar in their dreams to how they are in real life, except when they’re specifically dreaming about being someone else. The idea that our brains have a mental map of what we look like (or what it’s decided we should look like, which does not appear to always match reality, to a level of discomfort reported to vary from “unnerving” to “debilitating psychological incapacitation”) isn’t completely rock solid science, but it’s way more solid than the mind-machine interface posited by full dive to begin with. It’s perfectly fine for people to usually show up in VR looking like themselves automatically. It would even be fine for character customization to be banned, if it’s known to cause mental health issues for people to swap their human body out for a cat person just because they want the DEX bonus. We have no idea whether or not something like that would happen in full dive, so your guess is as good as any.