Commonalities Between Books And MMOs

It's been quiet on here because I was on holiday for a week, largely unplugged from the gaming world - though for the first time not entirely unplugged from the internet, as I recently surrendered to various internal and external pressures and bought a smartphone (yes, I'm quite late to the party). This meant that I could at least read blog posts on the train and check my email.

I spent a lot more time reading good old-fashioned books during those days though. I clearly have MMOs on the brain at all times however, as I suddenly found myself contemplating similarities between long-running book series and massively multiplayer online roleplaying games.

I'm currently reading the Foreigner series by C. J. Cherryh - incidentally I found out about the first book in the series due to being friends with Wilhelm on Goodreads. Hurrah for blogosphere connections. Anyway, when Foreigner first came to my attention I noted that it was the first part of a series and this immediately made me cautious - knowing that something is part of a series is a sign that greater commitment may be required to get full enjoyment out of the thing, not dissimilar to how you can't expect to get a good idea of what an MMO is like without being willing to invest more than a couple of hours of play time.

The cover of the first book as pictured on Wikipedia.

Luckily for me, in this particular case general consensus in reviews and comments seemed to be that you didn't need to read the whole lot to have a satisfying experience, and that the first trilogy was quite self-contained, which was enough to convince me to take the plunge. And I enjoyed myself enough that it didn't take long at all until I was sure that I wanted to read more.

I'm up to book six at the time of writing this, and even though I enjoyed the series from the start, I think that books four and six (so far) feel like considerable improvements on the first trilogy, while having been read by fewer people, at least based on the number of reviews they've received on places like Goodreads. Which is somewhat sad but also makes sense: Lots of people are willing to give the first one in a series a go, but not everyone's going to like it, and those people aren't going to bother with buying any sequels. Again I couldn't help but be reminded of an MMO's launch hype and how most players drop off after the first few months because for one reason or another the game just couldn't hold their attention.

If a game can't draw you in to begin with, you're unlikely to care about the next expansion pack... but MMO players are probably more likely to give a game that didn't grab them another try than readers are likely to re-engage with a book they didn't like. After all a game's low-level experience can change, but a book will always remain the same. (Your perception of a book can change over time too, but I think it's fair to say that it generally takes longer for that kind of shift of perspective to occur - years or even decades.)

But just like an MMO can live off a relatively small but dedicated fan base for a long time, a book series can keep going for quite a while too as long as people keep buying those sequels. The first Foreigner novel came out in 1994, when I was a mere eleven years old, but Cherryh is still churning them out today. Apparently book #20 in the series is supposed to come out next year. And as long as there are enough long-time readers to keep buying them, with the occasional late-stage drop-outs being replaced by newcomers like myself who came to the series late, this can keep going for a long time.

Like an ageing MMO, such a book series isn't really interested in attracting new audiences with its latest releases... though that doesn't preclude the occasional awkward attempt to try anyway. I found it strikingly strange when book three for example started with a hundred-odd pages that basically did nothing but re-cap the first two books I'd just read, presumably for the benefit of readers jumping straight into volume three? Like a level boost in an aging MMO, it doesn't make for the smoothest of experiences.

Finally, like an MMO, a long-running book series quickly acquires degrees of complexity that are hard to keep track of even for the well-initiated. I'm only six books into a series consisting of nineteen novels so far and can't help but notice how many named characters of importance there are already, and I expect that number to only increase over time. It's not a problem with me reading these back-to-back right now, but I expect that after a couple of years away while waiting for the next release, it could be hard to remember who's who and just what is going on - not unlike the way you struggle to remember what all those buttons do when you return to an MMO you haven't played in a while.

Re-reading this a day after I wrote the initial draft, it all seems slightly inane or at least like stating the obvious, but I'm going to hit post anyway. It's vaguely on topic! And I can't help but wonder now how much overlap there is between MMORPG players and people who follow book series that go on and on for years...


  1. I think that's an intersting and valid comparison. I've never read C.J. Cherryh although I've been aware of here work for a long time. For me she sits in that huge pile of fantasy epic writers, almost none of whom I have any time for, who serve a very specific niche audience with exactly what it wants. While it's a niche it's a potentially huge one, with the tempting possibility of breakout to a mass audience. George RR Martin's Game of Thrones, for example, might be the eqivalent of WoW, while Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time might be Lineage.

    I can attest from twenty years of bookselling that there's about as little crossover between waht I'd call "regular" SF and fantasy readers with those endless, multi-book franchises as there is between regular video gamers and MMO fans. They're in the same ballpark but they're playing different games.

    Your observations on the quality of the books increasing in the later volumes is a key factor in how I recommend where to start a series when I'm talking to a customer. It's often a bad idea to begin at the beginning. If a series has proved commercially successful enough to run for a dozen or twenty volumes it's exceedingly unlikely that it will have started at its peak and declined. Like tv shows, the best episodes are usualy in the midle seasons. Assuming I've read the series, I recommend people begin with one of the better (not the best) books in the early part of the period when the series hits its stride. Almost all series writers will have a little bit at the start to get new readers up to speed (not 200 pages!) and the reader will get a much better inmpression of the series strengths than if they began at Vol. 1, when the author probably hadn't got the grasp of the characters or even the narrative.

    If the reader enjoys the good example they'll be both motivated to flip back and start at the beginning and more willing to forgive that book's flaws in the certain knowledge things are only going to get better.

    1. While that's true in general, I don't think it applies to the Foreigner series in specific. C. J. Cherryh won two Hugos (Downbelow Station and Cyteen), and wrote many other novels, before she started on this series.

      Cherryh is perhaps unusual in this for long running authors. Most other authors with series seem to have started with their major series, and have trouble breaking away from it.

    2. Thanks for providing a bookseller's perspective, Bhag! I guess personally I just really prefer to start at the beginning when in doubt, and take people's word for it getting better later.

  2. I don't have much to add to your post, but C. J. Cherryh is one of my favourite authors, and I look forward to each Foreigner book that comes out.

    Pretty much everything she writes is enjoyable. Her *Fortress* series is excellent fantasy.

    1. It certainly occurred to me that I might want to read more by her once I've made it through the rest of the Foreigner series. And thanks for providing another data point towards MMO players also liking huge, sprawling book series. ;)


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