Conor Kostick on Ready Player One, Epic and LitRPG

Conor Kostick, author of the brilliant sci-fi series The Avatar Chronicles, chats about imagination, online gaming and the growing popularity of LitRPG.

In 2003, I had an idea for a novel, which was inspired by a newspaper article claiming that the value of trades of virtual goods was sufficiently large (several billion dollars) that if it were a country it would rank greater than Bulgaria. What, I wondered, if this trend were to grow until your activity in virtual environments really mattered? What if the celebrities of the world were not sports stars and music stars, but gamers…?

I wrote Epic extremely quickly. In all the years and books since, I’ve never experienced anything like the same immersion in the world of my imagination. It was the summer between finishing my degree and starting a PhD and I knew this free time was precious. So every evening I would write until the early hours of the morning and during the day I would edit. So intense was my involvement with the book that my dreams were filled with it and I learned the value of keeping a notebook and pen beside me.

I’d wake up with an insight, jot it down, and fall back to sleep.

In just two months the book was finished. And I hadn’t even begun to think about agents or publishers when I sold it. Michael O’Brien and I were marching side by side on the huge 2003 anti-war march. We’d just collaborated in publishing Irish Writers Against the War, a fund-raising anthology which effectively paid for the costs of the Irish Anti-War Movement’s publicity for the march. Michael asked me was I working on anything else.

‘Oh, you wouldn’t be interested,’ I replied. ‘It’s Science Fiction, about a world where everyone plays an online fantasy game. And you don’t publish that sort of thing.’

‘Send it to me. Because we’ve just made the decision to start looking for Sci-Fi.’

And within the year, Epic was published and on its way around the planet. It caught the zeitgeist of the time and sold into twelve languages, picking up lots of nominations and awards too.

One thing we didn’t do was produce an English language audio book. Back then, audio books were not so important as they are today. In Germany, Oetinger produced a beautiful 5 CD boxed set, with over twenty voice actors playing the various characters (Pic Credit: Andrew Sherman). But the English version has had to wait until today. It is just out and I love it. With a wonderful, husky, narrative voice, Samuel Hoke casts an immersive spell on the listener.

And it is timely, too. Because in the intervening years, there has been a massive growth of online gaming. Young people especially are familiar with avatar creation and having adventures with thousands of other people in environments such as those created by World of Warcraft and Minecraft. And the real world consequences of this gaming have become more evident. There are YouTube channels exploring such games with millions of views. The virtual goods economy is now at $15bn and set to grow to over $40bn by 2025.

In the wake of this gaming activity have come more and more books exploring plots where characters have to be successful within a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) to solve a crisis outside of the game. There is even a name for this type of book: LitRPG. Literature – Role Playing Game. If you are wondering why the term doesn’t take the form of the more natural RPGLit, it is because it comes to us from Russia. The giant publishing house, EKSMO began running competitions in this genre and publishing the winners from 2014, under the label LitRPG.

And this whole genre is likely to get a boost from the release of Ready Player One on 30 March 2018. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, this film is an adaptation of an excellent 2011 book by Ernest Cline. One of the great opportunities of a story in which real world and virtual world collide is that of being able to contrast your identity in both. In Cline’s case, our hero, Wade Watts, is from a poverty-stricken district in reality, but inside the virtual world of OASIS becomes a major star (and potential millionaire) on leaping up the ‘Scoreboard’.

Wade makes some very cool (well, nerdy) friends on his way up. But also some powerful enemies. I’m confident the film is going to be worth seeing, so I won’t say anything more on the subject, other than I’m very much looking forward to it.

Some Science Fiction ideas have a short life-span. Technology can run ahead or in unanticipated directions that spoil the premise of the book. Sooner or later, that will happen for Epic. But because I was thinking about how hierarchies reproduce themselves, even in virtual spaces that have the potential to deliver an anarchist utopia, it will probably always have some value. And right now, with virtual reality and online gaming blossoming, I’m glad that the release of the audiobook brings Epic a new lease of life.

Conor Kostick, March 2018

Epic is available here and in all good bookshops!

The audiobook for Epic is available on iTunes, Audible and Amazon.