Monday, April 27, 2020

Interview with Dan Sugralinov (Level Up, Disgardium, World 99)

Dan Sugralinov, author of Disgardium, Level Up and World 99 series. Due to the upcoming release of Resistance (Disgardium 4 - April 29, 2020) we talked to Dan about the series, his writing methods and asked if there will be Level Up-4 anytime soon. Btw, audiobook Disgardium 3 is releasing April 28, 2020!

The world of Disgardium, isn’t it some sort of totalitarian dystopia? It's a rather harsh world, whatever it is. Do you think it's a logical consequence of humanity’s development?

That’s a good question, you know. Here’s what’s happening in the world right now: all of the countries have announced a stay-at-home order, a quarantine, state of emergency and whatnot. And as soon as it happened, everybody promptly forgot about such things as human rights. Because it’s in humanity’s interests to prevent the entire population from catching the virus, at least all at the same time, because that would mean the collapse of our entire medical system. If some of the forecasts do come true and the planet’s population reaches 20 billion – then even if we find enough food for us all (because there’re already certain advances made in the area of synthetic food production) and despite the fact that the growing and culling of a single cow does more harm to the environment than public transportation – we’ll still be killing our planet. And 20 billion people will be killing it not three times faster than we do now, but probably ten times faster. So it just begs for some people to develop those ideas, you know, that although all human beings are equal, some of them are bound to be more equal than others, if you know what I mean. Sooner or later, the proverbial movers and shakers are obliged to arrive at this idea – provided they haven’t done so already. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if I’m a conspiracy freak in a tinfoil hat, so I really don’t think that this is the case – but still I do believe that if one day humanity faces a overpopulation threat, that might call for some very unpopular measures, including the restriction of human rights for certain categories of population. In which case the assignment of such categories might become the biggest bone of contention in society. Which is exactly what happens in Disgardium. You’d think they did the right thing, creating a system where the life of an uneducated, lazy, alcoholic person is of a much lower value to society than, say, that of a Nobel laureate in physics. But on the other hand, we shouldn’t forget the human factor – naturally, the top-category citizens will make sure they get the right to assign the same status and privileges to their families regardless of their value.

In actual fact, I got this idea from my Level Up series. There, the futuristic world of the 22nd century is also broken into social categories depending on the citizens’ respective value to society. But there the task of assigning categories is entrusted to an impartial AI. In the world of Alex Sheppard, however, in his 2075, the job of deciding each person’s value is entrusted to human beings. In an ideal world, communism is a great system. Ideal being the operative word. And so is democracy. The thing is, neither seem to work as intended.

I’m just finishing Book 4 of Disgardium and keep waiting for it to start investigating this social side of things. Like, waiting for Alex to start fighting for the non-citizens’ rights after he gains some serious power and influence. Any chance of this happening?

May I digress a little first? I grew up in a small working town and most of my playmates were the children of factory workers. We had two large factories in town: a ferroalloy plant and a chemical compound factory. Alcoholism was rampant. That’s the kind of place I grew up in. So don’t worry, I do understand that what I’m writing about is a beautiful utopian dream. Marginalized people can be very embittered. There isn’t much chance of meeting the likes of Manny or Gyula among them. Although it goes without saying that you can meet good honest people at every rung of society.


That’s right. It’s just that when people can’t put food on the table, when they can’t afford to feed their own children and when they have to turn to the bottle in search of some semblance of happiness, then I’m sorry but they won’t be very inclined to be overly altruistic. And in my books all the lower-class characters stay loyal to my MC and do their best to help him. And even when they start toying with the idea of betraying him… never mind. No spoilers here. I might have this rosy-colored view of the world but I keep trying to see the best in people. Because if you really start digging, you might dig up plenty of shit in everyone. And I don’t want to do that. I want my writing to do a bit more than just entertain – I want it to give my readers a more positive outlook.

Back to your question, yes, Alex will be trying to change the lives of non-citizens for the better – not just his friends but all of them.

Let’s talk about Alex as an antihero. Although formally he plays an undead, he still remains correct, honest and fair. Not what you’d normally call an antihero, is he?

He wasn’t such a good person initially, if you remember. He forgot Eve’s birthday, and she was his best friend – his only friend, even. So yes, he does exhibit those egocentric traits of a young guy who’s focused on himself and his own interests, possibly spoiled by his parents plus going through this difficult stage as a teenager. I can’t argue with that. He starts off by being not exactly a pariah but just a miserable friendless nerd. A lot of the comments about my first book were about the MC being an unlikable jerk. What you’re saying about him now, like he’s honest and correct, it’s all due to the events of the following books. Because Alex changes in the process. He explores the world and meets new people; and when he sees their reactions to him he begins to understand how human relationships work, so he starts to respond in kind. Because the traditional idea of an antihero is a villain who tries to hinder the hero’s progress and stop him from achieving his goal, then that makes Alex the true hero of the story because, if you’ve noticed, the villains or the hindering circumstances are different in every book.


In the first book it was Crag, the ganker who later becomes Alex’s friend.

That’s right.

Alex had problems with his parents at the time, caused by the potential repercussions of their upcoming divorce. In book two, there was Big Po. In book three, the Preventers Alliance. In book four... when you finish reading it, you’ll know that-

No spoilers, please!

...okay, let’s just say that things will have changed again.

Here’s another question that really bugs me as a reader: where does Alex get all that money from? Why is the world trying to force its entire population into a computer game which, let’s face it, doesn’t produce anything? How is it possible? Do you have some kind of explanation, for yourself at least, how it can even exist?

Disgardium is to a large extent a social project. When the UN bought the majority interest from Snowstorm Inc. -  I’m saying ‘bought’ although it’s pretty clear there must have been some serious string-pulling involved – it turned Dis into a social project, very much like soccer is in Russia now. And make no mistake, Dis brings in some very healthy profits indeed. I explain this mechanism in book four as well. You do remember, don’t you, that Snowstorm receives a commission on every deal closed in the game?

This I understand.

They also charge a commission for converting the in-game currency to real money. Let me give you an example. Let’s say, you found a piece of legendary armor. You could auction it and get paid in real money. But that’s not Snowstorm’s money. It belongs to the player who bought the armor. All Snowstorm does, it gets its cut. And that’s how its economy works, by using players’ money. Don’t forget that the majority of them are casual players who only want to have fun in the game. They’d rather pay their own money because they have neither the time nor desire to farm coins. There’s this little town in the book, called Perfetto, a seaside resort with lots of casinos, expensive restaurants and all imaginable kinds of entertainment. Spending time there is so costly it can actually be more expensive than a real vacation at a real seaside resort. In Disgardium, you have to pay for everything – so those who don’t pay with their hard-farmed coins, they have to bring in real money. And the reason they pay is because virtual fun is safer and more vivid than in real life. You could get drunk without getting any health problems. All things 18+ are safer, livelier and much more easily available in Dis.

I see, thanks. Now let’s talk about OP. It’s one of the series’ main plot devices right from the start. The MC is virtually immortal, isn’t he? Aren’t you afraid that at some point, you might have to up the ante so much that the reader might stop enjoying the MC’s achievements altogether? Everything just comes too easy to him. Things just keep falling into his lap.

In my opinion, everything in a book should work on the plot. I have virtually no unnecessary log entries in mine and I don’t introduce any achievements that I don’t plan to employ at a later date. I just don’t put such things in a book, period. In my opinion, it’s pretty stupid to pad a book with log entries and system messages if I’m going to have it translated anyway, because that will also increase translation costs. Some of my fellow writers do have this weakness, probably in an attempt to flatter their readers’ egos as they identify themselves with the MC. My fellow author Valery Starsky loves this sort of thing, packing his books with crazy amounts of various achievements. I think most of the time he just can’t remember them all as he keeps writing. (Sorry Valery, no offense meant.) That’s it, basically. I make sure they all work. They’re all an integral part of the book.

That’s true.

So I’m not really worried that my MC might reach a certain ceiling after which receiving new achievements might become too boring both for him and the reader. The series has entered the home stretch so the main focus now will be on the final showdown and on tying up all the conflicts, not on receiving new achievements.

The book is listed on Amazon as YA. But let’s face it, LitRPG isn’t the most highbrow of book genres. Most LitRPG books I’ve read are just as easy on the head as Disgardium. Apart from the fact that  your MC is a teenager, what other YA tropes do your books have?

Just teenager stuff. Problems at school, trouble with classmates. The unavoidable love triangle which by the beginning of book 5 will very nearly become a pentagon. I wouldn’t call it harem because it’s anything but. It’s just that a number of females show a certain interest in Alex. I’m probably trying to please a certain part of my readership who’d like to see my MC loved and appreciated, and above all, popular. On the other hand, this might alienate some other readers who can’t stand all this lovey dovey stuff and want to see more gameplay. Some ask me for more gore and others prefer hardcore grinding. I held a couple of surveys in my group, asking people what they liked in Disgardium and what they wanted to see more of. The difference of opinion was mind-boggling as people voiced lots of dramatically opposing propositions. Naturally, I try to appease both camps, so yes, there are some relationships and a hint of romance but none of it diverts the story toward adult stuff. So in this respect yes, it’s YA. Honestly, I’m already regretting my choice of a 16-year-old MC. Had I made him at least 20 years old, things would have been much easier. I received a comment in Australia about the Audible version, saying that I write about 16-year-old children making love and that’s horrendous, disgraceful, that’s pedophilia and that such things just don’t happen in real life. Oh well. I would think that by that age, a lot of teenagers of today are tried and tested veterans of the love front.

Was that a comment for book 2? Because I can’t remember any such scenes in book 2.

It just shows you that all people are different, each with their own principles and moral values.

Makes sense.

I don’t think it’s even possible to write something that would please everyone.

It’s probably more of a question of how it affects the author. You get a comment like this and you think, ah dammit, I’ve had enough of it, the whole damn book is just not worth it, life isn’t worth living, etc. etc.

If some comments describe a book in four-letter terms – and it’s not even the first book in a series – well, then it just gets funny. But on the other hand, I find constructive criticism very helpful. I can sometimes overlook a certain point simply because I have too many things to keep in my head: all the characters, their stats and achievements, the details of both worlds and whatnot... My “series Bible” in Google Docs is the size of a fully-fledged novel so to find anything there, I sometimes need to use the Search function. So I’m very grateful to all the readers who point out any discrepancies, even if they don’t mince words, because their comments are very helpful and I really appreciate them.

Your stat system in Disgardium is a real brain bender. Why would you even need something like that?

Well, firstly it’s done for the sake of believability. There’s a reason why a company like Blizzard which employs hundreds if not thousands of people releases new patches every month. They do it in search of the evasive balance which they still struggle to achieve years after a game’s initial release. If you take World of Warcraft, for instance, they must have released hundreds of patches by now, constantly tweaking ability numbers, parameters and such. And here I am all on my own, trying to keep all these numbers in my head while juggling the story, writing a particular scene and double-checking if it works in the context of the overall game mechanics. Some LitRPG authors use special calculators to do that. I know there’re a few of them online: you enter whatever parameters you have and it tells you how much damage you get and how much XP you need till next level. Me, I have no problem using Excel so I have all this stuff already preprogramed, formulas and all. Each LitRPG author probably has at least a couple of number-grinding readers who double-check their characters’ progress with a calculator. People like these are a real boon for a LitRPG author. In my opinion, you just can’t write a LitRPG novel without posting it piecemeal online first. After every chapter, you receive plenty of feedback pointing out your blunders. If you just write the whole thing and publish it, you might have a real job on your hands reworking it afterward.

Then again, 99% readers might never notice.

Some readers don’t give a damn about numbers. They care about the story. But to a certain part, stats do matter. Like, today I posted 7500 new words, it had taken me from midday till six the next morning to write it. So I posted it. It got a certain number of comments regarding the story itself, but one comment said, the MC should have received such-and-such achievement or such-and-such level, and the author seemed to have forgotten all about it. And I really felt like saying: listen dude, you’ve just read through seventy-flippin’-five hundred words, there were so many things happening, there was that really cool plot twist that had changed everything the book was about – and all you noticed was that I’d forgotten to mention one achievement? Thanks anyway, but, you know...

I never looked at it that way. And still you insist it’s important?

Of course.

For you as well?

That was one hell of a useful comment. I’m gonna finish talking with you now and I’ll sit down and rewrite the chapter’s ending. Because let’s face it, I did forget it.

I can’t finish this interview without asking you about Level Up Book 4. Are you still planning to continue with the series, seeing as it’s been quite a while and you keep saying you want to pursue new ideas?

Well, one of those new ideas is the second trilogy of Level Up. I feel like I’m ready – I just can’t wait to get back to it. Firstly, because I’m a bit tired of Alex, if you know what I mean. He’s only sixteen years old, after all. I feel much more comfortable with Phil, my MC in Level Up. Plus, it’s set in the future: there’s humanity’s expansion into space, our colonization of the Solar System, there’re aliens – all this is just calling my name. I’ve got the story all plotted out, so I really feel like dropping everything and working on it, but I can’t! Because I don’t want to earn myself a name as an author who started several series and didn’t finish any of them. So I want to finish telling Alex’s story first and be done with both Scyth and Disgardium. Besides, Disgardium makes part of the Level Up universe, so the way it resolves will decide the kind of future Phil will end up in.

So you have to finish Disgardium first, regardless of how many books it still has in it?

Well, if it ends up having more than seven books, I’ll most definitely take a break and start writing Level Up. Plus I still have Book 2 of World 99 to work on: it’s fully plotted, all I have to do is sit down and write the whole thing. In the last six months, I’ve managed to train myself to follow a strict daily writing routine which allows me to work on two books at the same time. Which is a good thing, by the way, because switching between two projects I won’t get bored.

Interviewer: Simon Vale

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