David Cornelson


Posted by David Tanguay, Philip Jong.
First posted on 15 September 2010. Last updated on 06 April 2012.
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David Cornelson
David Cornelson is an interactive fiction author and the founder of Textfyre.
David Cornelson
David Cornelson
David Cornelson
David Cornelson

For more information, visit Textfyre Publishing.

David Cornelson has been an active participant in the amateur interactive fiction (IF) scene for over a decade. First known as an author of several short IF works, he has organized and managed IF competitions, created and hosted IF websites (notably IFWiki.org), and even worked on a manual and guide for IF authors.

Obviously, Cornelson is immensely passionate about IF. He also believes that there are many fiction lovers, both new and old to IF, who are willing to lighten their wallets to play quality IF, if only they know that it exists and what it is about. It is from this conviction and enthusiasm that his game company Textfyre is born, in which he aims to bring IF back to a profitable life.

Unlike other entrepreneurs in the (rather short) line of attempts to resurrect the 1980s style of text adventure, Cornelson is hoping to bring the modern style of IF to the current commercial game market. By placing more emphasis on the literary facets of the medium, he is attempting to attract segments of the mainstream audience with story, character, and immersion, not just puzzles. Textfyre has already published 2 commercial IF games: Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter (2009) and The Shadow in the Cathedral (2009).

We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview David Cornelson, founder of Textfyre. In the interview, Cornelson speaks about the inspirations behind his games, the (somewhat atypical) audience whom he is trying to target, the challenges of establishing an IF market nowadays, his opinion of the current state of commercial IF, and what holds in the future for him and his company.

Check out our gallery of previously unpublished concept art from Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter!

Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter does not have much in the way of puzzles. To what extent is this to be the style of other games from Textfyre or just the Miradania series?

This was a conscience decision by Mike Gentry and myself. We wanted to start with an easy game that had a relatively easy story for the target age group, which at that time was roughly 10 years old. We've since decided to focus on good stories, shorter games, and not so directly target an age group. We'll still shy away from overly mature themes, but if there is murder and mayhem within the context of the story, we plan to allow our game designers to follow their instincts. We also plan to make sure that there's a good balance between story and puzzle. We're unlikely to make another game that is as "on rails" as Secret Letter.

The line art illustrations in Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter give the atmosphere of an old story book and fit well with the book frame presentation of a game that is set in an old-time world. How will this book frame presentation change for more contemporary or futuristic interactive fiction from Textfyre?

The book metaphor is something we're moving away from. Our original plan targeted younger readers, but that plan has been scrapped and we're now focusing on all ages. We're also targeting mobile devices where the book metaphor wouldn’t work. I would like to get back to this design at some point, but that would depend on our overall success as an IF publisher.

Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter appears to be targeted primarily towards a middle school audience. Why are you targeting this market? How do you plan to create a new generation of interactive fiction converts by exposing this audience to your game?

Well that was the major focus of the original business plan, but plans change. We're now going to develop content for a wider audience and across all devices, including the forthcoming Windows Phone 7, iPad, iPhone, eReaders like the Kindle, Nook, and Sony, as well as slates and tablets that become available. We still want to work into the middle-school market, but it’s likely going to be from the outside. If our products become popular on mobile devices, they may find their way into schools. The remainder of this year is going to be dedicated to developing deployments for as many devices and platforms as possible. We're going to become an interactive content portal of sorts, with a primary focus on Interactive Fiction as entertainment, but we also plan to do PR work for external brands as a second line of revenue.

Miradania is a fictional, mediaeval land. Usually, this means some bits of magic, but the story so far in the series seems completely non-magical. Furthermore, non-magical mediaeval stories are usually set in real world locations or small fictional subdivisions of historical settings. Why is the decision made to stray from the usual narrative path and not include magic in the story?

There's magic. We just haven't introduced it yet. I didn't want the story to be completely stereotyped fantasy. The second game will have religion-based magic within its storylines. The third game is likely to expand that. The religion of Miradania is feminine, having a number of Goddesses that people have an affinity for (not worship). Each Goddess is associated with some morality construct and within those guidelines; some people will have some "magical" ability. But we're not going to have wizards pointing staffs at dragons and turning them into toads. I was much more interested in developing characters than devolving into magical puzzles. But it's early and Mike is now in charge of the storylines. If he decides to add overt magical abilities, that's entirely his call.

Conversation in Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter is handled via a mouse driven selectable menu, similar to the interface used by many graphic adventures but dissimilar to the keyboard only input in traditional interactive fiction. How will the game's interface evolve as the series continues (for example, a menu or toolbar for meta commands (save, undo, etc.), a compass rose, or an inventory)?

We've learned the phrase "lawn mower" conversations since publishing Secret Letter and we're unlikely to repeat its use. It was a cool idea, but gamers are often very thorough and methodical and that conversation system is like rice paper doors to them. It's my fault. I developed the topic lists and it evolved into what you saw. I think we're going to push for the standard ASK/TELL or TALK TO constructs and state-sensitive responses. We're also going to introduce a lot of touch-based interfaces that are non-traditional to IF. We won't go the route of a complete menu based input system, but we’re going to offer command menus that make it much easier for new readers to get started. We’re developing some of the interfaces for the Windows Phone 7 right now and we think they’re effective without taking away from the IF experience.

Many of the minor characters in Jack Toresal and the Secret Letter have strong, distinct personalities, such as Teisha, Germaise, and the widows of the Maiden House. To what extent will the roles of these characters be made more prominent as the series evolves?

Only Mike knows, but we're very glad you liked the characters. That was very important to me.

Michael Gentry has the main writing credit, but you also have a story credit. How do you and Michael split the game development responsibilities?

I wrote the outline and Mike agreed to write it. I flew him out to Chicago for a couple of days and we hammered through the outline and gave it more detail. He then went back home and, over a fairly long period of time, developed the design. The design included actions and prose, so Mike really did a lot of work. I was just the idea-man.

Why do you choose Microsoft Silverlight as the development platform for your games?

That was pure convenience. Thomas Lynge, an IF fan, saw that Textfyre was looking for help on the UI side. He offered his free-time to develop the UI with the stipulation that it be in Silverlight, since that was what he was learning. I happily accepted his partnership and that decision turned out very well. We’ve since been able to use the original Silverlight code for Windows Phone 7 as well as using the C# source code as a basis for porting our game engine to other platforms like the iPhone and Android mobile devices.

The Shadow in the Cathedral is Textfyre's second game and the first game in the Klockwerk series. What is the inspiration behind this new series?

You'd have to ask Ian Finley what inspired it, but knowing where the story is going and the metaphorical implications to today's world tells a lot. I can't say more without giving important storylines away, but if you play the game through to the end, you can infer quite a bit.

What audience is Textfyre targeting with the Klockwerk series?

We were targeting the same middle school age group, but it turns out that the game has been received extremely well by all of the adults that have purchased it and played it. This played a large part in moving us away from the education market and towards a broader one.

Why do you offer 4 different editions of your games: Standard, Hobbyist, Online, and Deluxe?

Plans change. The Deluxe version will get moth-balled for anything beyond Shadow. The IF community insisted they be able to play with a raw game file and I relented. So you have a colorful book version, a standard IF version for Windows, an online version where you can play on a Mac or Windows (or Linux now with Moonlight), and then the raw game file. It all balances out. Mobile and purely web based editions are coming soon. I’m working on the web platform right now and that will have a tremendous impact. The game engine will be on a server and the user interface will be an AJAX enabled Web 2.0 website.

How will you describe the current state of commercial interactive fiction? Why do you think you will succeed where others have failed in this niche market?

Well, the biggest thing we have going for us is the group of people involved and their passion and dedication. Without Mike, Ian, Jon, Paul, Chris, Graeme, Sarah, Ron, and the fantastic beta-testers, we'd be nowhere. As long as we keep working at it, we will eventually reach critical mass in the gaming and mobile worlds to be profitable. We all work virtually, part-time, and as a team. The model suits a long view of the company. I believe that once the first two games of Miradania, Klockwerk, and Empath are out on all devices, we're going to generate that same excitement people had for Infocom games when they first came out. When the third episode of each of these games comes out, they will be widely reviewed and appreciated.

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