Do books have a MVP?

This was ultimately started by a thread on LitRPG Society, which is an excellent Facebook page if you want to learn about LitRPG novels.  The thread in particular is about “why do readers stop reading books partway through?”

This leads me to the concept of the MVP, and how violating the MVP can cause readers to stop midway through a book.  MVP stands for “Minimum Viable Product”.  There is some hatred towards this phrase as, out of context, many game developers have used it as a way to release beta quality software because customers will still pay for it.  Thanks pre-order hype culture!  But that’s not really what a MVP is.

In software development, a MVP is the lowest level product you can release to the general public where they would be willing to pay for it.  This is a key point, as an excellent piece of software like RethinkDB can flounder because they never had a way of making it into a payable piece of software.

Meanwhile, the billion dollar payment software Stripe was started by two brothers, and the original version ran some 7 lines of code.

For the concept of a minimum viable product in game design, it’s the core thing that drives the game.  Take my review of Mass Effect Andromeda.

The core idea of Mass Effect Andromeda is supposed to be exploration, with your name “Rhyder” being symbolic of that.  But what is the exploration like?

The planet scanning is dull.  The “Mako but we don’t call it that”, aka “Call a Rabbit A Smeerp” exploration is also dull, with a clunky vehicle the character rides around in.  What happens in the actual areas you explore?  You run into the same things over and over again.  You will find a group of vehicles with the same six enemies.  Or an artifact area with a different set of the same enemies.

The exploration is joyless because nothing of interest happens in any of the areas you explore.  Everything is so flat and uninspired that rather than being about the joy of open-World exploration, it’s a big empty sandbox.  Final Fantasy XV suffers the same problem.  It’s much better looking, but ultimately running around doesn’t yield any new missions or interesting areas.  Still pretty boring stuff.

What’s the opposite?  The game that really nailed this is Gothic 2, which unfortunately suffers from so many other issues that I wouldn’t blame you if you absolutely hated the game.  But what it nailed was exploration.  Every area had unique quests, rewards, and interesting dialogue if you could forgive the horrific combat system and mush visuals.

To get two games that nailed this exploration, think of Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas.  Fallout 3, if you just play the main story line with no side missions, is a boring and straightforward game.  The most interesting things happen in the outside exploration areas.

Fallout New Vegas is similar, although the main quest is far longer, but makes a fatal mistake.  Instead of focusing on the exploration elements, they put a huge emphasis on New Vegas itself.  This is a tragic decision as New Vegas is the least interesting thing in Fallout New Vegas.

Another game that nails the exploration aspect is Dragon’s Dogma.  That’s because Dragon’s Dogma puts a huge emphasis on fighting mythic creatures and really feeling like you deserve that win.  Exploration is about finding those creatures and having those mythic battles, but the trade-off is the non-epic battles can be anti-climatic.

What would be the equivalent in a book?  I’d say it’s the log line.  The log line is a one-sentence description of what the book is about.  I’ve found many Amazon books where there doesn’t seem to be any real description of what the book is about, rather it’s “A fascinating blend of sci-fi and RPG elements!” or some other generic phrase.

That isn’t a logline.  If you find you can’t write one, it probably means your book isn’t about anything.

Now let’s look at the books I’ve reviewed, and try to boil them down to their simplest elements/logline.  Awaken Online is about a young man learning to become an adult by learning to stand up for himself, then about becoming a leader by learning to inspire others.  Travis Bagwell nails the growth and development of the main character at each step into becoming a man.

Delvers LLC is about two friends learning to let go of their hang-ups and shattered self-images to become the person others believe they are.

Aleron Kong’s The Land series is about a young man who has to choose between making himself into a God or taking care of the village and community that has sprung up around him.

To the extent that the scenes in the story enhance their central premise, the story becomes stronger.  When a scene actively conflicts with or undermines the central premise, the story becomes weak.

In the case of stories like this, we have Desperate Times, which is supposed to be about a battle-hardened military members who are down to their last lives in a virtual game.  But the story undercuts this numerous times.

First, we need to know why we should care about these people.  Who are they?  We never get properly introduced to them or their personalities.  Then they have a basic training phase that makes no sense for a group that is composed of people who have been fighting and dying 49 times, some of whom are at 94 missions.  Then we have scenes where they act incongruous with being battle-hardened veterans and being at their last lives, as when one calls down an airstrike on themselves and barely survives, and laughs about it.

Much like unfun exploration in Mass Effect, what happens in the story conflicts with its log line.

Other examples are Nagrant Wars.  The book is supposed to be about a young man stepping up and deciding to fight for his country.  But the first part of the book sets up that he wants nothing to do with fighting for his country, and he only joins the military because his best friend does.  His best friend then screws him over.  He has the chance to leave the soldiering behind but stays because… he sees a hot chick?

The central premise of the book does not follow from the scenes.

Some books stick me in a weird place where they halfway follow through this.  My goto example is Otherlife Dreams. The central premise is that a man finds out that he has to choose between helping out people in the real world stuck in a virtual game or helping out the AI controlled NPCs.  The second premise about helping out the NPC AIs is done very well, but the conflict, that he has to make a choice, isn’t explored at all.

Outside from some hand-wringing and melodramatic moments when Arand remembers that’s what his central conflict is, the rest of the story is devoted to: Finding out that he hates everyone aboard his ship, that he was a complete loser in real life, that he cares so little about the people under his command that the NPCs contact them instead, that everyone he meets who is a PC is trying to rape or buy NPCs, etc.  He only follows through on half of his premise.

In other books like The Gold Farmer – Treasure Forest, the central premise does indeed follow through in the story.  An overpowered PC surrounded by yes men easily accomplishes everything.  Even though every action reinforces this central narrative, I can’t find a way to care less about this premise.  The technical name for this is an “I’m wonderful/Wish Fulfillment Story”.  Autoerotic stories are like other forms of autoeroticism, keep it out of the public.

Are there other factors besides detracting from the central premise?   Yes.  If a book has weak characters, bad pacing, bad dialogue, constant grammar mistakes, etc., then like running into bugs in a video game, it breaks the immersion.   If the game mechanics don’t hold up to the central premise of what the game is about, then it doesn’t matter how good the central premise is.  Likewise, no matter how interesting a logline is for a story, if the author can’t craft a good narrative, it doesn’t matter how interesting it is.

I am interested in the thread because it sort of shows a tipping point in LitRPG.  When I first entered the scene, I was damn near a heretic.  With the exception of a few standouts like Paul Bellow and Blaise Corvin, I’m not popular amongst LitRPG readers.

Most authors have been incredibly supportive, even ones I’ve criticized.  Honorable mentions go to J.A.Cipriano, James Hunter, Matthew Sylvester, Dawn Chapman, Cindy Koepp, Jayden Hunter, Harmon Cooper, and several others.  Thanks people.

But there seems to be a tipping point that has been reached recently, since, like any good Gartner Hype curve, we’re starting to reach the point of oversaturation.

1200px-gartner_hype_cycle-svg
I’d modify this a bit. We have new thing, then a rush to exploit the new thing, then people criticizing the new thing, then a slump, then it becomes a standard thing.

An example is auto-tuning.  When it first came out, it was overused.  When it hit peak saturation, people began to criticize it.  Now, it’s just a standard part of music, whether you agree with it or not.

Two years ago, any LitRPG novel getting released would immediately get 100+ reviews in the 4 to 5 star range.  Ergo, this website was created to review the books objectively.  You can read about it in a response article I did a while back.

Hidden beneath that, there’s another problem.  Critics tend to be people who consume a lot of media.  Thus critical responses can diverge widely from audiences, but eventually, most people go towards the critical response.  I.e. we’ve all known for a long-time that Transformers movies are awful, but until Transformers: Last Knight, we haven’t really seen it change financially.  While critics were fed up with it by the fourth movie, audiences still kept watching it, like the Zombie Simpsons episodes that still air.

Are we turning that corner?  I’d say we’re on the part where that slump is getting taken over.  There are still books getting more praise than they deserve, but there are also a lot of books that are sitting at only a handful of reviews, and a lot more critical/low reviews than we would have seen in the past.

There are still lots of messages on forums like, “Can anyone recommend me a LitRPG book where the main character starts as a janitor and then becomes a necromancer?”  Which reminds me of reading a custom fetish porn description. “I want a man tied up in black handcuffs, with a nun throwing red jello at him. Red, not green.”

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You really thought I was going to post an image of that, didn’t you?

Anyway, the fact that people are starting to admit that they will drop a LitRPG book shows that it’s turning a corner, which will hopefully stop the garbage flood after a while and let the best authors showcase their talent.

To turn back around, what’s the MVP of a book?  A good logline and a story that delivers on it.  The market will eventually get too saturated, and when it does, that’s what is going to keep readers coming back for more, instead of leaving feeling disappointed.  If you look at my list of sins, they deal with many issues that can cause a LitRPG book not to deliver on its premise.  The longer glossary list is a compendium of things that annoy me in general in books.

What’s an author to do?  First, write out your logline.  If you can’t do that, then you have a book with no purpose.  My technical phrase for this is Mechanics without Story.  If you don’t know what your story is about, then readers won’t either.

Then, comb through your scenes.  Do they serve the central purpose?  Are they enhancing it in some way, adding new depth and texture to it?  Or do they contradict the logline?  The more the book conflicts with the premise, the more likely readers are going to put that novel down.

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