August 16, 2022

I sat down remotely with Thomas Kildren of Fletcher Studios to discuss his popular upcoming VR project, his challenges as a developer and stay-at-home parent, shifting opinions in the community, and more.

I’ve said a few times that there should be a film about Thomas Kildren’s life.

In the last chapter of my book (Inside Video Game Creation), I attempted to capture a glimpse of Thomas’ early professional days as a trained artist and photographer covering news in the heart of New York City. His career–like so many others–was turned upside down by the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

Thomas joined the tireless efforts of his team at the New York Post to document the events and inform citizens about what was unfolding in their city (the first special edition newspapers about the collapsed World Trade Center towers had to be delivered by hand). The frenzied pace of news coverage only continued uninterrupted for about two weeks before the Post was one of several locations targeted in the unrelated anthrax mail attack. He continued with the Post for years before moving on to PR Newswire.

Thomas learned how to apply his unrelenting grit to a new set of challenges when he fell in love with a colleague and started a family. Over the coming years, he supported his wife’s career by taking care of the home and being the primary caretaker for two boys–one with an autism spectrum condition.

Thomas’ family life is full of love, laughter, and typical kid chaos as he describes on his dev blog with an honesty and sense of humor any parent (or developer) can appreciate. Both jobs are overwhelmingly complicated, and combining them with any degree of success can be a nightmare.

“Just about every day, I try to get up an hour or more to get some work done,” Thomas says in one blog post. “Other mornings, one or both of my progeny will throw a wrench into the works and wake abysmally early and wreck what I had planned on working on…Other days, it’s full-on Thunder Dome.”

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The project that brought the family together and started a movement wasn’t something Thomas had planned. While he describes himself as a formerly avid gamer, parenting required his relationship with the hobby to change.

“When the whole dad thing started, I began to realize there’s no way I could spend six hours playing games at night,” Thomas recalls. “I kind of shifted from quantity to quality. I kind of wanted more out of my gaming experience, and I kept hearing these rumors about this ‘VR thing’ that’s coming along.”

After selling a few paintings, Thomas picked up an Oculus DK2 headset and began teaching himself modern game development. The kids didn’t make this easy.

Thomas explains, “They see Daddy with the new toy, and they’re like, ‘Here! Let me try it! Let me try it!’ and I’m just getting frustrated, so I had just slapped one of my kids’ drawings on a character controller, put the headset on a kid, and kind of stormed off to go clean the bathroom or something…”

This gamble with his precious tech paid off.

“About ten minutes later I’m hearing this hysterical laughter,” Thomas says. “All these kids are doing is walking this character off the edge of the plane into the void, and they find it hilarious…I put on the headset, look around, see the character, and I’m like, this is super cute, oh my goodness!”

After tinkering a bit and better animating the character, Thomas had a project people encouraged him to run with.

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Now, Thomas’ sons contribute drawings and sound effects they want to see in the game, his wife helps with story concepts, and his brother has recorded some narration. People are even inquiring about how they can make games like this for their own kids.

After connecting with developers in his local game dev community, Thomas jumped at several opportunities to show off the work-in-progress at expos and other events. He was accepted in the the 2020 Oculus Launch Pad program and has won several awards for his work. He’s since started working on a mobile spin-off he hopes will demonstrate to investors that he can deliver a finished product and earn revenue. Ideally, he wants to finish the project with the help of a team.

“The idea is that–if this game takes off in any measurable way–I want part of the proceeds to go to autism awareness and acceptance,” Thomas says. “And if it really takes off, I want to develop a companion app for smartphones and tablets so a parent could take a picture of their own kid’s artwork and the app would cut it up, rig it, and animate it so a kid could play their own drawing in game.”

My full chat with Thomas Kildren is featured in this week’s episode of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Thomas posts game news and other updates at FletcherStudios.net. You can read more about Thomas’ story in the final chapter of my book, Inside Video Game Creation.

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