Author Archive

It’s been about a year since I have actively worked on the educational aspects of Textfyre. I have been spending most of my time putting the Windows 8 Store version of Shadow together and doing other things.

The Windows 8 Store app is in a holding pattern until I solve a save/restore issue within FyreVM. When I do a Quetzal restore, the engine goes into an infinite loop. I’m afraid this crossed the border of my programming capabilities, so I’m at the beck and call of others to solve this problem.

On Wednesday, the IES posted two educational technology grants (http://1.usa.gov/1hFd61j) worth $150,000 and $1,050,000. I wasn’t really prepared for these grants in many ways, but I’m trying to gauge if I can ramp back up to complete all the work required to submit the proposals.

We would probably need about $12,000 to complete the proposals and associated work, but that’s a lot of money to gamble when you’re a lean start-up. On the other hand, I do believe the idea of creating educational material through Interactive Fiction is a viable solution. The $150,000 grant would go a long way to either validating or invalidating my vision. Certainly the larger grant would go further.

I need to figure everything out as quickly as possible. Proposals are due in a month and the grant-writing process would require all of that time. I’m wondering if this is the sort of thing I could push out to Kickstarter or Indiegogo. I’ve already approached one private angel investor and may talk to a few others.

I’m looking for guidance on the proposal process and the cost of getting into the game, so to speak. If I did a Kickstarter, I’d have to set a quick deadline. I couldn’t do a 30 day project. It would have to be 10 days at the most. I’m not familiar enough with Indiegogo, but I assume it’s similar. There are other funding sources, but I am not familiar with all of them.

The new Windows 8.1 Store version of The Shadow in the Cathedral is now ready for testing and I could use some volunteers to run through it as much as possible and provide feedback.

You’ll need Windows 8.1 and a Microsoft Email  and Developer Account (apparently MS never thought non-technical people would need to test apps). The developer account is $19 USD, which I will reimburse in the form of your choosing (Amazon gift card, PayPal, etc), with a little extra to show my appreciation. (Remember, this is still mostly a labor of love.)

You can sign up for a dev account here: http://bit.ly/1bgFGR4. Click the “Next” button or if you already have a Live/Hotmail account, sign in. You’ll need a valid credit card to complete the process.

Once you have this setup, please drop me a line and I will provide a link to a zip file that you can unblock, unpack, and run the PowerShell script to side-install the application. I’ll also direct you to the bug-tracking website to provide feedback.

Thanks!

Just thought I’d drop another progress note out about Textfyre’s third soon-to-be-published Interactive Fiction game…

Brady has sifted through and rewritten about 20% of the code and should have the first round-trip with Paul and Chris in a few weeks. He thinks a full code review/rewrite will be completed by the end of the year. I can’t say for sure, but I think this should mean testing will follow in earnest. I’m no fool to be suggesting a release date, but this sort of progress is welcome news.

The Windows 8 Store version of Shadow is still being shrink-wrapped, so to speak. When that’s done, the new Zifmia will follow suit.

Since reestablishing the pipeline for traditional Textfyre games, things are going well. The changes to Shadow in the Cathedral for App Store touch-based deployment are nearing completion.

This has been made possible with the help of one Brady Garvin, known as emacsuser on intfiction.org and one of the I6 compiler helpers. Simply put, Brady is brilliant and although he doesn’t have the notoriety of a Zarf, he clearly has similar profound IF capabilities. Brady was instrumental in doing some very tedious work in Shadow’s code to make it touch UX friendly. He tagged every noun in the story text so the UI can turn those into clickable/touchable words. He also setup all of the other suggestions for touch words including verbs, articles, and prepositions.

The next endeavor, one long delayed, is Paul O’Brian and Christopher Huang’s Empath’s Gift. There was work done on the code back in 2010, but has since languished through the economic downturn and my personal distractions. No more! Brady has begun to assess the code and I have tasked him to own it. He has the original designs, writing, and test transcripts and we will see progress in the near future. This is no small undertaking and I can only afford a limited number of hours to pay Brady, but I’m hoping to see beta testing in 2014 sometime and a release in Glulx and Windows form soon after. Touch based implementations shouldn’t be too difficult since we’ll have ironed out most of those issues with Shadow.

When the new touch based Shadow is published, Textfyre will make a concerted effort to publicize all of its works, including the older Silverlight version of Secret Letter. I still believe that Secret Letter is a very strong IF game, despite some of the reviews claiming it’s too cliche. I would argue there are moments in Secret Letter that rival some of the best IF ever written. Every time I go back and play through it I am moved by the one major revelation in the middle of the story. Michael Gentry deserves to be recognized for his writing and the clever way he took a simple story and made it something more. If you haven’t played it, you should.

I’m still involved with another education start-up; Fantasy Learning, which is marrying the concepts of fantasy sports leagues with teaching social studies. The founder, Eric Nelson, is currently working in an incubator in New Orleans as I assemble the MVP. It may be that Textfyre and Fantasy Learning come together, or at least become working partners.

I’d like to know if people are interested in sequels to Secret Letter and Shadow in the Cathedral.

If you haven’t seen it, The Shadow in the Cathedral received another 4-star review yesterday. I had a few sales come through and wondered if something was up. Searched for news and found it.

In other news, the Windows 8 Store version of Shadow is moving forward slowly. We’re a bit more than half done updating the game file for touch usability. I’m currently implementing a new compass rose control and then I need to add an about and help view. Then I need to do a little design tweaking to make it look seamless. Once all of those tasks are completed, it goes into testing and then published.

Once I knock that out, I’ll start porting the new UX to HTML 5 and a cloud based version of Shadow.

In turn, that will feed into a new MVP for the classroom version known as T.A.L.E.S.

I went to another Startup Weekend last weekend, this one dedicated to educational start-ups. It was a ton of fun and if you’re a programmer, designer, or business person, I highly recommend attending one. My pitch didn’t get votes so I joined another team to build a Fantasy Sports take on teaching Geo Politics. Each student drafts a country and each country is award points on a weekly basis. Students win more points by doing various writing assignments. I’m going to stick with the idea to see it through MVP status and potentially partner with the guy that came up with the idea.

I’m feeling very relaxed these days and my urge to write is returning. I didn’t get a chance to do a comp game like I wished, but a game is coming soon. I may even get one of my kids to write a game. Should be fun.

I’m looking forward to the next version of Inform 7 when it comes out and playing the comp games in a few days.

So yes. Textfyre could be seen as trying to push a particular solution onto a non-existent or poorly defined problem. I can admit that I may have missed an important part of this process, especially if I plan to approach schools for money. The part that I believe has been missed is the education side and the business development side.

So I’m going back to square one and starting with:

What is the problem I am trying to solve? Well I do know this and it’s more or less that overall, K-12 schools are performing poorly, we have poor graduation rates, poor literacy rates, and highly complex classroom learning variances.

The primary problem that I believe Textfyre and technology in general can solve is the lesson-plan variance problem. There is research, especially in urban school districts, that show any given classroom requires varied lesson plans for the makeup of the students. There is also research that the very best teachers can handle at most three different lesson plans. Some classrooms require five or more. Clearly there is no way to make teachers more effective if the best they can do is lower than the average requirement. Technology can solve this problem by offering blended learning or ILP’s (Individual Learning Plans). In fact, there is a very strong effort by school districts around the country to procure technical solutions that promote ILP’s.

Within the ILP structure there is a need for immediate feedback to the student, to the teacher, and to the parents. There’s a need for tracking progress towards college access and a need to measure and challenge students to meet and exceed their grade-level requirements. There’s also a need to develop cognitive skills, problem-solving, collaboration, and more.

Many of these requirements, along with the new Common Core Standards, are the root dynamics in pushing a service through the IF medium.

But we need to go back to the beginning and cite all of the existing research for the basis of the IF medium in classrooms and founding a new ILP service.

We also need to build relationships with a number of schools, teachers, administrators, and learning specialists. We have the technology. We need the educators to support and hone the technology properly.

So that’s where I’m going. No more coding or writing. No more meetings. I’m setting all of that aside so I can go back and build personal relationships with people.

If you’re interested in our discussion, let me know. I’m interested in people that can speak strongly about interactivity, gaming, education, lesson plans, assessment, blended learning, and individual learning plans. We have a Yammer account where we’re having these discussions.

Textfyre now has the beginning works of an MVP (minimal viable product) and our primary goal this year is to complete the MVP and look for funding.

One of the places we’re looking to for cash our federal and private education grants. We just missed a couple of federal grants in February. There just wasn’t enough time to prepare the type of proposal that’s expected. An RFP from the Gates Foundation was recently publicized and we’re making a concerted effort to complete a proposal for this grant.

In the area of product development, we’ve brought in a new team member that has a learning science and assessment science background. We’re working to redesign existing processes to ones based on IF constructs. This process has just begun.

This has led me to think about our business model. We’ve been discussing the possibility of offering all of our content for free and charging for the assessment and reporting features. These are the features that teachers and administrators would use to evaluate their students progress in areas that can be measured against the new Common Core State Standards. What do we gain by offering our stories for free? What do we lose? These are the questions we’re asking ourselves.

In other news, I am going to add maps and hints to the existing online version of The Shadow in the Cathedral and make it permanently apart of the Textfyre learning structure. It will remain free. I also plan to promote it towards classroom supplemental reading use.

One of our other team members is actively working relationships with teachers to test our service. This is an ongoing struggle since teachers have very little time. If you know a teacher that would be interested in helping us work through piloting, please send them my way. We’re focused on 4th through 8th grade.

So the software I’m developing for the classroom is a hybrid of FyreVM and Zifmia technologies. There is a great deal of usability testing we need to do with students and teachers, but there is also a level of beating that I won’t be able to achieve through that process.

So I branched the code, ripped out all of the classroom features, and implemented a revised version of The Shadow in the Cathedral. If I can figure it out, I plan to do Secret Letter too, but that code is a mess.

You can play, for free, the online version of The Shadow in the Cathedral right now.

It’s a bit sluggish at times, although not terribly bad. It’s certainly usable. I’m considering a few tweaks to speed things up, but the performance is in large part a factor of the game’s size. It was not designed for a client-server platform…it was designed for a PC interpreter.

I have to thank Jimmy Maher for the Kindle port for a great deal of the bottlenecks being removed. Jimmy has a knack for finding bad Inform 7 code and rewriting it so that things perform well. This version of Shadow is a descendant of those changes.

The caveats I offer in playing it online includes the following:

  1. this does not change the price or availability of the Kindle, Android, or Hobbyist versions.
  2. if you have suggestions, please use the Feedback button on the lower right. This leads to a User Voice feedback dialogue where you can offer your feedback.
  3. at any time, I may make changes to the game file, which will reset all sessions to the beginning of the game. One feature I’m contemplating is the ability to have the system upload the new game, then fire off a script to rerun all historical turns in the new engine. I can think of a number of ways to enable this, but I’m undecided.
  4. if anyone has any art or music they’d like to share in the online version, feel free. I view this version as a sort of artistic endeavor combined with usability research. This goes for CSS changes as well. I can easily provide alternate CSS implementations.
  5. the underlying client-side code is copyrighted. look, but don’t copy.

I can’t say that this will remain online forever, but that’s my intention.

Enjoy!

In the last two months we’ve narrowed our focus and have a short list of priorities. The funding pipeline is coming together well. These things take time and we still have several hoops to jump through, but there’s very little uncertainty on what we have in front of us.

First of all, we had our second conference call with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This went well and we’re looking forward to another conversation in January to work on a specific grant proposal.

We’ve also talked to Knewton, a company that specializes in adaptive recommendation systems that specifically target how students learn. We both felt our two companies had a high potential for integrating services and research data. we’ll be following up with them soon.

We’ve also been talking to New Schools Venture Fund and once we get through the pilot phase, they may become a valuable partner.

Our next steps include usability testing in a few Chicago area schools and then the pilot in spring.

We do have one critical need as far as personnel is concerned. We’re looking for a seasoned academic research partner that studies how students learn and can guide is on the bigger picture. This person would probably work with our story development team and Knewton to determine the taxonomy of any given subject matter. That taxonomy would lead directly to the types of stories and story content we develop.

This has become a very interesting pivot to date. We’re looking forward to the results of our testing and pilot to see where Textfyre fits in the classroom.

One last thing. If you want to do a little usability testing for us, just send is an email and we’ll connect you with the current online application (as bare as it is).

So we’re making a lot of headway on our product, both the student game playing side as well as the teacher dashboard. Take a look…

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We’re about to start working in schools with teachers and students to further refine the system and we’re talking to Gates Foundation and New Schools Venture Fund to see how we align with their programs.

I’d like to extend an invitation to anyone that wants to join the evaluation and refinement process. I can give you access to the system and you can offer your thoughts on the user interface and system overall.