Drama Alert: SciFan Magazine™ Issue 10: Beyond Science

  • Disclosure:  I do not know Ramon Mejia personally, but have recommended his website to people on forums and on this website.  I wrote to Amazon on behalf of SciFan when it pulled the magazine, and wrote about that on this blog.  I think that makes me a fairly impartial adjudicator on this dispute.

Updated:  I asked the former manager of the magazine about the article and he is going to either pull it directly, or ask the current manager to do that, which is the right move for an article like this.  So this article will be going down as soon as that happens, as this article never should have had to be written.

Well we were bound to have some good old-fashioned drama again in the LitRPG community.  This one comes to us via Dayne Edmondson in a dramatically titled:

The LitRPG Regime: Exposing the Inner Workings of a Fascist Indie Dictatorship

Tl;dr:

Dayne brings up some legitimate points that are mired and lost in his ad hominem attacks, conflation of separate issues onto a single person without any proof of that person’s involvement, and factual inaccuracies.  I asked the editor to either pull the article or at least heavily edit it.

Long Review:

Wow, them some strong words.  Let’s look at what the evidence is.  The first part talks to an established author (Ian Woodhead) who has been asked to write LitRPG by his publisher.  His response is that he had no idea what it was and read Ready Player One as an introduction to the genre.

Dayne writes:

Ironically, bestselling novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline has been touted by the LitRPG community as the pinnacle of LitRPG… yet it doesn’t conform at all to the “Divine Commandments” (quite pretentious if you ask me) they have established.

Dayne is partially right here.  Ready Player One is a fantasy-wish fulfilment story where a protagonist in a trailer with fourteen other people is suddenly a billionaire and gets to meet the girl of his dream because he knows about 80s trivia.  The book is more a love letter to 80s and 90s geekdom, often at the expense of actual plot progression and character development, than it is a LitRPG novel.

** I define it as a proto-LitRPG book, although after I talked with Ramon for his response on this, he pointed out there were more LitRPG elements than I gave it credit for.

For example, his first quest is to beat a Lich from Dungeons and Dragons at a virtual reality game of Atari Joust.  What connection does D&D have to Joust?  None, except they’re both nerd-culture artifacts.  His next win is reenacting WarGames, after knowing the location of an area because he gets a riddle that refers to Dungeons of Daggorath.

Of course, there is more to it than just that, as a big part of it is a commentary on society at large.  The virtual reality World’s name is Oasis, (I’ll spare you the full meaning of that acronym), and people do things like spend money on virtual fuel in a game when they are facing real World fuel crises in the real World.  That’s meta-commentary for you, is Oasis actually a salvation or just a mirage, particularly as the main character says his dream is to escape into outer space and just play video games with his billions of dollars? It’s an escapist fantasy that points out the dangers of escapist fantasies.

But to his point, if we use the list of RPG commandments, (and yes, it is pretentious.  As Nietzsche said, “Whoever says thou shalt is my mortal enemy”), Ready Player One is an abysmal failure.

So why hold it up as LitRPG par excellence if it fails to meet the commandments? There’s a few reasons for this.  One, when explaining LitRPG to the normies, they need a nice, inoffensive, and well-written fantasy book to use.  Two, and more cynically, it dresses up the fact that several of the books in the genre are poorly written.

I don’t mean that in the sense that Ready Player One can have bad moments.  Ready Player One is an excellent novel with some literary sins:  Favoring geeking out and nerd trivia over story progression and character development, using extremely long exposition chapters in order to front-load necessary details, a bland protagonist (although his age helps shield him from heavier criticism if he were an adult character), and relying upon more plot coupons than all of Tolkien’s books combined.

There’s also lots of awkward sentences in it, long exposition blocks that read like a wikipedia article, and other literary sins.  Calling it Twilight for nerds is not an inaccurate depiction.

Rather, I mean several of the books in the genre that are so ineptly written as to be barely readable.

As an example, here’s a normie reviewing LitRPG for the Verge.  The Way of the Shamaseries is extremely popular in LitRPG circles, and passes the LitRPG commandments test.  If we were being honest in our recommendations to people outside the genre, this would be the sort of book that should come up first.

So, what does our normie reviewer think of it?

Survival Quest is a terrible novel. Unlikable characters, casual sexism, and a plot completely bent to the main character’s progression — far beyond the usual flex I allow in any Frodo-inspired fantasy novel.

This is only redeemed by the stat porn and RPG progression elements that the author so dearly craves that he says he couldn’t put it down.

But for people not craving that, there’s not much else to read the novel for.  Grabbing a random book with “LitRPG” in the title or description can net you anything from some pretty good books to some godawful ones.  Caveat Emptor.  Some of the authors don’t put LitRPG in the title because they’re scared there’s a stigma attached to it.  Delvers LLC and William Arand’s books for example, are best-sellers but not don’t list LitRPG on them.

If it had ended there, and said that by accepting Ready Player One as LitRPG, the community should be more inclusive towards other novels that may not fit the commandments perfectly, (an ongoing debate in the community known as “crunchy” vs. “soft” LitRPG), the article would have been perfectly fine.

However, it continues.  Dayne then gives a background to SciFan getting hit by Amazon in an automated fashion, which after fighting, they managed to get their account restored.  This sort of problem is sadly, far too frequent with Amazon.  Another book was also caught in the crossfires, Richard Mulder’s Conquest book.  After being cleared, instead of putting the book back up under its original title, Richard:

opted to keep the story under wraps while he went undercover inside the LitRPG Community and rewrote his story with a gaming theme that didn’t conform to the ‘Divine Commandments’.

Advance copies were sent out, and some praises were given to the book.  I have a problem with the description here as he says it was an “Amazon #1 Bestseller for nearly a full day” with the accompanying screenshot.

Screen Shot 2017-09-29 at 12.00.54 PM

I don’t know what he means here.  I’ve seen Amazon best-sellers, and a book with 5 reviews in the 4 star range is not best-seller material.  Now, Amazon has some obscure sub-genre rankings that you can very easily appear number 1 in.

Aleron Kong’s books have been featured as number one in a sub-genre like LGBT Sci-Fi Adventure Fantasy, leading to a bunch of confused readers who were suddenly being sent LGBT literature recommendations by Amazon, a variant on a Wall-Street Journal writer who suddenly found that his TiVo thought he was gay.

So, does he mean this was an actual best-seller or that it was number one in a sub-genre?  In any case, the article goes on:

On day one however, LitRPG Podcast posted a scathing review, using it as a soapbox platform to preach about adhering to the orthodox “Divine Commandments”:

Except that really isn’t what Ramon’s review actually says:

Even though the novel is titled, Conquest: A LitRPG Story (The SciFan™ Universe Book 1), it is not LitRPG! By the 50% mark there’s one tiny bland undetailed VR game scene but that’s it. Instead, it’s better described as spy thriller/end of the world/portal fiction story with religious undertones and magic.

This feels like a recycled story that had a portal fiction aspect that was modified for the LitRPG genre. Only it wasn’t even done well. Besides a few small VR game chapters inserted awkwardly into the story, it has no relationship to LitRPG.

After a bare minimum of research, it turns out it is recycled. The story was originally published in July 2016 under the title, Conquest: Rise of the Fifth Horseman: A Cohesive SciFan™ Adventure. You can find the story listed on Goodreads.

Whether it’s intentional or not, I feel deceived that the story uses LitRPG in the title. Especially considering that the novel comes from SciFan magazine, who’s put out several LitRPG issues.

His main issue is that the story is a recycling of an already existing story that attempts to use the term LitRPG in the title, even though it reads and feels like a rebranded title poorly constructed.  Now, I can’t find LitRPG in the title currently, and it’s not in the screenshot.  However, it has been rebranded as #GameLit, so I don’t think Ramon’s initial observation is incorrect.

To use the legal jargon here, there is no difference in substantive truth between Ramon’s review and what Dayne says. The only difference is whether or not this was done with the intent of running a social experiment or if it was done to garner additional sales.

The only fault is that Ramon didn’t review the story on its own merits, but when he was asked about that on one of the forums, he stated that he thought the story was mediocre.

A more honest approach here would be to ask Ramon to review the book without the offending LitRPG inclusion in it, and if he refused, then to write this sort of blast post.

While I personally don’t put much stock into whether or not something is LitRPG or not, I can understand Ramon’s thinking.  Using the term “LitRPG” in the title is akin to the Jake Paul Effect on YouTube.  For those not familiar, Jake Paul is a popular Viner who switched to YouTube after Vine imploded.  Several YouTubers made reaction videos to him or even devoted their entire channel to covering him, often catapulting unknown YouTubers into massive viewership or increasing views on already established channels.

Likewise, putting LitRPG on a novel can escalate sales and readership of books that frankly aren’t worth reading for any other reason, and write-to-market writers can flood the genre with books that aren’t really LitRPG, but attempting to make a quick cash grab.  So Ramon’s desire to protect the genre from becoming flooded by eager writers looking to capitalize on the success of a genre isn’t unwarranted.

Now, I asked Ramon for his definition of a LitRPG novel, and he says this is what he sends out to any authors that ask him this question:

For Authors:

If you’re an author interested in writing a LitRPG story, we welcome you. Some of the best authors in the genre are first time writers and the community on the whole is very welcoming of new writers. Here is a bit more detail about how LitRPG differs from from other genres.

These are the guidelines I use when I review LitRPG stories. Point 1 & 2 are things most people agree on. 3 & 4 are things I specifically add for myself because I’ve read too many novels that have like a page of game stuff in a 400 fantasy page novel but still try to call it LitRPG.

These guidelines are based on, in part, what the LitRPG groups on Facebook agreed on as the minimum requirement of LitRPG. However, just like any popular genre of fiction, you’ll find lots of opinions about what is good LitRPG or what in particular they like about LitRPG. These guidelines provide enough structure to differentiate LitRPG from Video Game fiction or VR fiction, but still allow for a maximum amount of room for story telling.

1) The story exists in an RPG game world or world with expressly stated RPG game mechanics. This can mean that the story is set in an MMO, a VR game, an RPG game, a parallel or alien world, or anywhere else as long as there are expressly stated game mechanics.

Game mechanic examples (not specific requirements): Level up Notifications, Experience Points given for completing quests or killing monsters, learning game skills, item descriptions, and health/mana bars.

What type of game mechanics are in the story are of less importance than the fact that they’re not hidden away in the background from either the reader or main character. How much of the game mechanics that have to be shown to the main character is up to the author. A good rule of thumb: if the reader has been given enough information that they could roll their own character in your story’s game world, then you’ve included enough information about the game mechanics.

2) The main character progresses in an expressly stated way according to those game mechanics. For example: Leveling up, Increasing skills or abilities, increasing ranks, or increasing reputation. Also by expressly stated, I mean that it says it in the text of the book and isn’t something that’s inferred or something only the author would be aware of.

3) A significant portion of your story should be set in the RPG world. Even if the story has a section in which the characters go on a LitRPG adventure in a game, if it’s only a few pages long out of the hundreds that the novel is, it probably isn’t LitRPG. I usually look for at least 50% of the story being in the LitRPG game world.

4) Additionally, the LitRPG sections of the story have to have meaning. It can’t just be something that characters do for few pages but doesn’t have any impact on the story. As a general rule of thumb, if you can take out all the VR/LitRPG stuff out of a story and the novel is almost exactly the same, it probably isn’t a LitRPG story.

Now to be clear, these are just some agreed upon guidelines from the community. There’s a lot of other stuff related to good storytelling that still applies but these are just a couple things writers should be aware of if they’re interesting in writing a LitRPG story.

That’s a fairly detailed and fleshed out idea of what is and is not LitRPG by his standards.  Concerning Ready Player One, he has a formal review of it on his website.

It honestly never occurred to me to think of the novel as LitRPG until some friends online pointed out it met all the criteria. Levels, skill gain, magic, and rpg mechanics. Just one more reason to love this book.

He thinks of it as retroactive LitRPG, I consider it proto-LitRPG, but there’s no substantial disagreement between us on that.

Dayne continues:

As it turns out, the owner is an indie author (whom will remain unnamed here to protect privacy) with a few titles out on Amazon as well. This author receives monetary compensation for reviews from Patreon supporters, which goes against the terms and conditions of Amazon’s review policy.

I don’t know why Dayne thinks that he needs to protect Ramon’s privacy here, as Ramon has always been upfront in introducing himself as the podcaster behind LitRPG Podcast. It’s literally in the headline when you type “LitRPG Podcast” into Google and the first thing he usually says when he introduces himself as the host of the podcast.

This smacks of passive aggression to me, as insinuating that Ramon is doing this for monetary gain is far more weasley than saying that Ramon Mejia runs LitRPG Podcast.  Also, saying that he’s being paid for his Amazon reviews is incorrect. Patreon supporters are supporting his podcast, not his Amazon reviews.

There is something to be said about his role as both author and reviewer, as there is a potential conflict of interest.  However, this is not a huge genre with a lot of attention (yet) and I think Ramon straddles the line well, I haven’t heard him say anything like, “This book sucks, go get mine instead”.

There is a lot of these “conflict of interest” problems, with authors running facebook pages, subreddits, podcasts, etc., because they are the ones most interested in promoting the genre.  As far as I know, I’m one of the only independent players in this market with no financial stakes in it one way or the other.

Pointing out the conflict of interests is a perfectly valid point, but by focusing on one person, it marrs the point.

Dayne then goes on to say that Ramon has a history of giving low scores to books that do not fit his definition of LitRPG.  As far as it goes, this is the only point I really agree with him.

I personally wish Ramon would state in his reviews his opinion on a book that advertises itself as LitRPG on the LitRPG portion, and then a separate piece for what he thought of the book as not-LitRPG, so people who are specifically looking for a LitRPG novel vs. those who are just looking for a novel will know what to look for.

However, Ramon has called himself a “LitRPG Superfan”.  He pretty much just reads LitRPG books, talks about it constantly, writes it, and posts about it.  It’s not surprising based on this, that’s how he rates books.

The next piece says:

These reviews cripple stories, especially when posted on or near release dates, regardless of how well the story is written. It’s an extremely biased view that sets an unfair standard. Book reviewers are supposed to be impartial, reviewing the story based upon actual merits rather than whether or not a story conforms to a restrictive definition.

Well, one, neither Ramon, I, nor anyone else owes a good review just because the book won’t sell as well based upon our reviews.  Two, there’s nothing unusual about fans of a genre reviewing a book based upon how well it fits the conventions of that genre.  If I sold a military sci-fi book as a romance novel, I wouldn’t be surprised that people who read romance novels take offense to that.

He continues with a statement that boggles my mind to read:

The worst part is that these reviews are mostly unsolicited.

giphy

I’m pretty sure all reviews except to those given an advanced copy are unsolicited.  When you sell a product on the market, you can expect the market to react by telling you what you think of your product.  While I’m sure that authors, restaurant owners, video game developers, and product vendors would love to only get reviews from people that they hand-select to give them those reviews, that’s literally not how this works.

Continuing:

Moreover, once these unfair reviews got posted by LitRPG Podcast, we discovered that authors are then excommunicated from the main LitRPG Community at https:// http://www.facebook.com/ groups/ LitRPGGroup/. Their names are tarnished, their stories become a hiss and a byword, and they get banned from the group.

I am completely unaware of Ramon ever asking for an author to be banned from the group.  Aleron Kong runs the LitRPGGroup.

It is true that some people have an issue with how Aleron Kong runs the LitRPG Group, but those are Aleron Kong’s choices on his facebook Page, and the choices of the people he made admins/mods of his facebook page based on his rules.  They have nothing to do with Ramon Mejia.

Ramon is also not a mod or an admin of the page.  So barring any proof that Ramon deliberately asked to have someone removed or invited scorn/ridicule to a particular author, this is both factually wrong and character assassination.

Dayne goes on to point out that there are alternative groups to go to if you don’t like Aleron Kong’s group.  Hey, free market.  Amongst my favorites are LitRPG Society, LitRPG Forum, and LitRPG Books.  Go check them out.

He continues:

We’re not complaining about poor reviews – they’re how consumers know what books they might like or dislike.

I’m almost certain that’s exactly what he is complaining about.  As a thought experiment, if Ramon had given the book five stars and said that it was the best LitRPG book he had ever read, would Dayne still be upset that it was rated as a LitRPG book instead of on its own merits?  Would we still have this same article?

Continuing:

What we want to expose are the fascist ways some factions in the LitRPG community use the label “Not LitRPG” to destroy books before they’ve even had a chance based on the SOLE criteria that they are NOT LitRPG. They don’t talk about the merits of the story except in passing.

The solution there doesn’t seem too difficult, don’t call the book LitRPG if you want it evaluated on its own merits outside of being a LitRPG novel. Calling it GameLit is probably not going to incite any wrath from LitRPG fans.

This is very important because:

This would be like me playing Skyrim (a first/ third-person RPG) and complaining it’s not an FPS like Overwatch. Me saying “Not a FPS” does not make Skyrim a crappy game.

I went through the reviews Ramon posted and can’t find any where he called a romance novel a bad LitRPG novel, he only seems to focus on books that call themselves LitRPG when he doesn’t feel they are.

Continuing:

A GameSpot reviewer would lose their hide if they said “Not a Science Fiction game” and scored such a game at a 2.

You do mean the GameSpot that fired Jeff Gerstmann because he posted a low review (a six out of ten of all things) for the abominable Kane & Lynch 2: Deadmen.  This is the same GameSpot that has an average ranking of 8 out of 10 for video games that other websites rank as 5 out of 10?

While I get the point that tries to get made here, using GameStop as an example is not exactly the pinnacle of reviewer integrity, and makes it seem like he’s picking a website that is known for rank inflation amongst gamers as an example of how reviewers should behave.

Regardless, since Ramon is complaining about books that call themselves LitRPG, but that don’t meet his standard for that definition, I don’t find this very convincing.  If examples were posted of books that do not call themselves LitRPG that Ramon attacked on that basis, then I would have some sympathy that he was bullying/browbeating authors.

If we want to use a game analogy, let’s use the analogy of Fallout 4.  Fallout 4 is the successor to the greatest RPG ever made, Fallout 2.  (I will also accept Planescape Torment as an answer).  Fallout 4 stills bills itself as if it’s an RPG.  However, literally anyone will tell you that it is a shell of a RPG game.  Every aspect of a RPG has been watered and dumbed down.

Some people are perfectly fine with that and enjoy the crafting and combat elements outside of the roleplaying aspects.  Others are furious about it and don’t like Fallout 4 as a result.  I don’t think either is wrong.

From there, he goes on to catalogue the struggle of an independent writer.  Yes, it sucks being an independent anything (artist, musician, narrator, writer, editor, etc.), but if you want people’s money and time, then you are going to have to deal with that.

He then goes on to say that a new genre is being defined called GameLit that will allow looser definitions of what a game-based RPG novel should be.  This is all fine and well, as if something promotes the expansion of new ideas into the marketplace, that should be encouraged.  As a reader, I find that there’s some stalling of the genre with too many authors using the same tropes and setups as other authors.

Removing the ad hominems and factual inaccuracies would get rid of the sour grapes feel of this article and make it seem like it was trying to get people stoked for reading new novels, rather than a bitter attempt to blame other people for a book’s failure.

Wrap it up

Summarizing:

  1. It is perfectly fair to point out that LitRPG readers point to proto-LitRPG novels like Daemon, Halting State, Ready Player One, and Reamde as examples of LitRPG even though those novels would fail as LitRPG by some of the codified definitions.
  2. It is perfectly fine to build your own brand and genre based on a difference from how a different genre’s expectations have developed.
  3. It’s perfectly fine to take issue with how some people run their Facebook/Reddit pages or to point out conflicts of interest.
  4. It is perfectly fine to ask for a review that covers the material as well as how well it fits the sub-genre definition.
  5. It is not okay to go after a reviewer because they believe you marketed a product incorrectly, when you admit that the charges made are mostly accurate.
  6. It is not okay to make a series of accusations without any evidence to back them up.
  7. There is a series of conflations of separate issues not related at all to Ramon and should have been brought up in a separate context.

 

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