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Q&A: Textfyre's Cornelson On An IF Resurgence

Q&A: Textfyre's Cornelson On An IF Resurgence

September 17, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis

September 17, 2007 | By Alistair Wallis
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Long-term genre fan David Cornelson has been working with Interactive Fiction titles for some time now, with his first game, The Town Dragon, released in 1997. Cornelson also started the SpeedIF competition in 1998, organized the XComp in 1999, the 2000 DragonComp, the IFLibrary Comp 2002, and numerous others since then, and was responsible for founding the IFWiki in late 2004.

Around that time, he authored a piece for issue 38 of the SPAG webzine entitled “Build A Business For Interactive Fiction”, a lengthy discussion on the possibility of setting up a profitable IF developer and publisher and, toward the end of last year, announced his intention to do just that, under the name Textfyre. The company intends to target a young audience with regular episodic titles featuring reoccurring characters, with the first game expected near the end of the year. Titles will be available from the website at first, though Cornelson notes that he intends to pursue a number of other distribution avenues.

Gamasutra recently spoke to the Textfyre CEO and asked about the market for IF, the many challenges involved in setting up the company as a profitable business, and the licenses he would like to see the company pick up.

Why did the interactive fiction market die down?

I think the customer base up until video computer games arrived and even when they were still contained in arcades, were interested in puzzle-based entertainment. I grew up playing cards, doing logic puzzles, math puzzles, crosswords, word searches. I think anyone looking for a non-active distraction tended to look at those same types of things.

When Interactive Fiction appeared, this “fit” the same mold as those previous types of distractions. It wasn’t a huge leap to read from a paper terminal or screen, determine the appropriate course of action, and experiment with solutions.

But then the PC market exploded and graphics processors started to become ubiquitous. The early graphics based games were close to IF and so the IF customer base easily migrated to those types of games.

Another thing that happened was the explosion of role play gaming like Dungeons and Dragons. That whole market really latched onto a sizable portion of the customer base that also purchased Interactive Fiction. Most of the hobbyist IF people I know are still quite attached to these types of games.

From a revenue perspective, graphical and RPG gaming seemed to be more lucrative and IF was, and still is, more tied to an older way of entertainment distraction.

I think it’s simply a matter of publishing to revenue streams as opposed to publishing quality on a lower scale. This is why the IF market dried up and has since never really been taken “seriously”.

Why do you think it has received so little in the way of media attention since then?

The media follows money and hype. I can’t say it anymore succinctly than that. We’re not interested in hype for hype sake. We’re interested in creating genuine interest in our products.

You've talked previously about Activision's mishandling of the Zork series, and how you're not surprised, simply because it comes down to a choice of whether to "make a video game that sells 500,000 copies or make a text game that sells 50,000". Do you believe that Activision could sell 50,000 copies of a new Zork text adventure? Would that be on the back of the license, or is the prospective audience really that large?

Yes absolutely. A good design and writing team could produce a very high quality and entertaining piece of Zork mythology. That’s the easy part. The hard part is what I’m working on, which is developing an entirely new interface to IF. I have a vision of using the latest technologies for screen interactivity to create a highly polished and intuitive UI. I also want to add a lot of value to the interface that wasn’t really ever placed there before. You’ll have to wait for our first game to see it though!

What would your own plans for the Zork license be, incidentally - since you have looked into obtaining the license for a number of Infocom games in the past?

I would gather game designers and writers interested in the Zork mythology and have them generate ideas. I would cherry pick those ideas and hire the best designers and writers to implement them. I would then adapt my new user interface to the Zork mythos and publish these games as widely and as loudly as possible.

Any game I published would be vetted for accuracy so that there were no large quibbles. I would maintain the humor and wackiness that Zork is so famous for. Oh yeah…I’d be minting Zorkmids too.

Additionally, you've also talked about your desire to secure the Harry Potter license for Textfyre. What would you have to do in order to convince the license holders that this is a good idea?

I would have to prove that my vision works and that I can be trusted to do a good job with game design, prose, and testing. I would have to have a solid and stable business plan with partnerships to handle the requirements of publishing anything related to Harry Potter.

I just finished reading the seventh and final book. I pulled an all-nighter to do it because I didn’t want to get spoiled. I also enforced a media blackout on myself to ensure no spoilers. I was terrified that CNN would have some accidental spoiler or that someone would throw an Internet ad up that said something. I think the book was fabulous.

I would be incredibly honored to produce Harry Potter Interactive Fiction and despite what people might think, it’s not for the money. I love Interactive Fiction and I love Harry Potter. I think they would come together well and I think they would be enormously successful together.

I think J.K. Rowling’s writing style lends itself directly to Interactive Fiction. She develops things in such a way that the reader can usually guess at what’s happening, but she often pulls those strings together in surprising and dramatic ways. This is the essence of Interactive Fiction.

You've also commented that "People would still buy IF games, but not if you put them next to the video games. Now, put them next to a book or in a Starbuck's or Panera Bread shop then see what happens". Is presenting the games in a different fashion like this - as literature, rather than simply as video games - something you're looking at with Textfyre?

Initially we’re going to sell our games on our own website. I believe there’s enough of a base to get started that way and generate what I would call “start-up revenue” and to solidify our internal processes. Once established, we’ll publish our games through online retailers, but of course that comes with a sizable sacrifice in revenue, upwards of 50%. The goal though is to package our games, DVD style, and have them on bookshelves in Borders and Barnes and Noble.

I have other marketing strategies for bulk sales, but those are still being researched and developed.

Do you still believe that bookshops offer a good opportunity to bring IF back to a wider market?

Yes. If you look at the Young Readers section, you’ll see numerous series-based fiction. These books are enormously popular and some of them have dozens of books. I think the market that is attracted to these books is my target market.

Does the fact that the mainstream games audience is generally unfamiliar with the pacing and intellectual requirements of text adventures mean that it's unlikely the market will expand very far?

I will address this in the user interface that I’m developing. I plan to make the introduction to and the time spent on an IF game the same as playing any other type of education-oriented game. I view this as one of the primary challenges to creating a new market, but I also believe that my vision will meet this challenge.

No matter how well video games sell, kids still like to read and think. I believe very strongly in this, otherwise I wouldn’t be developing Textfyre.

Who is your primary target audience?

Reading aged kids, but the games won’t be Dick and Jane - they’ll be more like Harry Potter.

Will this expand over time? How worried are you about your creators feeling suffocated by designing games aimed at reading age children?

I think my game designers are delighted to be writing IF to this market. One of the things the hobbyist community has done is made the bar for what they consider “good IF” very high. We’re not trying to develop incredibly complex conversation systems or complex object-oriented world models. We’re telling stories that you can interact with and be entertained by. That’s the primary goal.

That said, I can see us developing different kinds of series for different markets in the future.

How will the creators involved with the company effectively target this audience?

The main characters will be our target market age and the stories and plots will be vetted by market testing. We’ll adapt wherever we need to.

When did you decide that it was realistically viable to set up Textfyre, and how risky is it to do so? Why will Textfyre succeed as a business?

I always thought it was marginally viable, but when Graham [Nelson] introduced Inform 7, I thought the final piece of the puzzle had been completed. Producing IF in the OO based languages is cumbersome at best. Inform 7 allows us to focus on the design and writing and take those forms and hand them to an Inform 7 programmer without a great gap in communication.

Of course I also have had a personal interest in creating a viable IF publishing business. This goes back 25 years to when I played Adventure and Dungeon - Zork - on paper-terminals in high school.

How did you start working with DePaul University's Coleman Entrepreneurship Center, and what are they bringing to the table?

My attorney, Jack Cummins in Chicago, is a great resource and advisor. His background in intellectual property was the main reason I picked him, despite the fact that I could have found a more startup-friendly business attorney. But I also have known Jack for ten years and I trust him. He told me about DePaul when I asked if he knew anyone that could help me do market research and build my formal business plan.

From there I met with April Lane, the assistant director of the center. We had a senior under-graduate class do a ton of the leg work, and then April helped polish it all up and I now have a very solid business plan.

As we grow, I will leverage these relationships to keep our company stable and strong.

Why have you decided to separate world design, writing and programming?

One of the reasons IF is so fascinating is that you have this junction of programming, game design, and writing. It’s great to toy around with all three of those aspects and try to merge them into something beautiful.

The reality is that most of us have one, possibly two of those capabilities at a reasonably high level, but statistically very few people have all three of them at a high level (Andrew Plotkin, Emily Short, Graham Nelson, Michael Gentry, Paul O’Brian, Eric Eve, Adam Cadre, and more). I would even argue that some of these people have been able to overcome a lesser ability with sheer determination and free time.

I don’t think you can build a business from this dichotomy. I do believe that if you offer someone a task that they’re good at and give them a template to work towards, they will succeed. From there it was a matter of developing that template, which we’ve already done. The process is being duplicated for a second design and writing team and there seems to be a consensus that we’ve developed the right processes.

How often will you be releasing titles?

The goal is one or more per month from different series, but it will take a year to get there. We’re going to start with one every three months or so and ramp up. It’s a moving target, but the first game looks to be coming out in November or December.

What kind of packaging and other media are you looking at for the titles?

We’re going to use simple DVD cases with a full color cover, a 10 page full color comic book, instructions, and a full color labeled installation CD. We will also offer downloadable versions and possibly versions to play online. We’re also going to seriously look at adapting our games to the mobile PDA market, but that’s a long term strategy. There are other packages I like better, but they’re more expensive. We plan to do “feelies” when it’s obvious.

What do you believe is "commercial IF", and will you also be releasing more non-commercial material?

Commercial IF are games developed specifically to a market. Non-commercial material, in my mind, would be the more hobbyist and artistic endeavors you see in the hobbyist community. I actually would love to repackage many of the better games and am going to figure out how to do that when the timing is right.

Where do you think the IF genre and market will go over the next five years?

I think we’re going to succeed. I think I will be able to sell hundreds of thousands of games in a year and we’re going to expand into educational, subject-matter, library, and other markets and we will be the market leader in high quality text-based interactive educational entertainment.


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