What We’ve Learned About LitRPG

Reviewing LitRPG books turned out to be a great source of easy content, though apparently not so great a source that I wasn’t able to keep that up while traveling, nor, despite promises, immediately after traveling. I’m just super wiped out right now and I’m not sure why, but I’ll be bringing things back online over the course of the next week or two. Its actual purpose, however, was an investigation of the LitRPG market. By examining the books that were popular and the reviews left on them, I could figure out why people liked the books that were doing well (the reverse would also be helpful data, but unfortunately there is basically no such thing as a heavily-reviewed book that nobody likes – a book that nobody likes generally fails to find an audience and accumulates few reviews).

So now that I’ve read the books and also a decent spread of positive and negative reviews for them, what have I learned?

  1. The most consistent reason people read LitRPG is for a game that they wish was real. Even Threadbare, which has no (apparent) connection to the real world at all, has several reviews in which people talk about how the book spoke to their childhood fantasy of having a living toy to be their best friend. Additionally, it’s worth noting that Threadbare (and Everyone Loves Large Chests, a similarly vaguely Pratchett-esque LitRPG series starring a mimic) hasn’t done nearly as well as Awaken Online or even Dungeon Born (which features a recognizably human protagonist, though not one from our world). Having a protagonist who’s from the real world is important.
  2. Protagonists are always male, no exceptions.
  3. Nobody cares about craft. Although negative reviews frequently point out that the line-by-line writing of basically everything but Threadbare and Way of the Shaman is incredibly amateurish, this hasn’t stopped any of the books being successful.
  4. Properly integrating video game concepts is well regarded. Several of the negative reviews for the Skeleton in Space series (which I did not review for this blog, but did examine as part of my research) complain that the LitRPG elements seem tacked on, and Dungeon Born’s positive reviews frequently bring up its rune/incantation system. So, well-incorporated game elements is a plus, and also the bar is very low. Although reviews don’t mention it as often, it’s worth noting that every LitRPG I’ve reviewed has prominently featured build strategy (with varying degrees of competence).
  5. Length varies from Threadbare’s 240 pages to Awaken Online’s over 500, but somewhere in the 400s seems to be most common. Since word processor pages are significantly larger than printed pages, we really want word count. Novel pages have 250-300 words on them, so the 400-500 page range is 100,000 to 150,000. Series that pump out new books very rapidly are also common.
  6. The only book that isn’t priced at $4.99 is Survival Quest, priced $3.99, but whose sequels are $6.99, so that’s most likely a scheme to get people to look at a slightly more expensive series of books by offering the first one under the market average price.

A handful of ideas I’ve had have been chucked based on the research. I considered a book about the NPCs of a LitRPG world, where some other guy is the Chosen One from another world, but it fails on #1. I took a stab at writing a female protagonist based on some chatter on forums, but market research firmly indicates the people behind that chatter aren’t actually enough to sustain a book (and some number of them may be self-deluded about their willingness to read female protagonists).

Oddly enough, my biggest stumbling block has been something I’m ordinarily very good at: Worldbuilding. A lot of LitRPG worlds seem really underbuilt, and that seems like something the market would respond well to. Part of the appeal of an MMORPG is popping open the world map, seeing the level ranges on all the regions, finding the dark Mordorian wasteland labeled with the level cap, and thinking someday, I’ll wreck that place. Having such a map in the front of the book would help set me apart in a good way. But then I have to build the entire setting from the ground up, in at least enough of an outline to put labels on a map. Normally, this part isn’t even hard, but right now, most of my worldbuilding focus is dumped into Petals and Thorns, and I’m feeling weirdly drained trying to build a new setting while that one’s unfinished. I’m behind on the playable draft of Petals and Thorns II, plus the Fantasy Grounds version of the original (although that one never had a firm deadline) and that’s infecting my ability to work on other projects – blog included.

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