Reaching kids via a virtual world

By David Nicklaus / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Zach Fay wasn’t into video games as a kid, but he certainly is now.

Fay, a 36-year-old former management consultant and youth pastor, has spent five years developing an online virtual world aimed at children ages 7 to 13. He has raised more than $3 million from investors and interviewed hundreds of kids to fine-tune the game’s features. He’s tested it in the United Kingdom and has recently launched Lightgliders in the U.S.

Players can do battle against robotlike machines, rescue creatures called Gliddles and design a treehouse. Fay and Julie McWilliams, his sister and business partner, will be watching to see how much time kids spend in the virtual world and how often they return.

They’ll also be watching for things that are harder to measure: Does the game influence kids’ values, and does it increase interaction with their parents?

Their company, Clayton-based Kingdom Scene Endeavors, has multiple goals for Lightgliders. One is to make money — if kids like the free version, they’re encouraged to pay $5.95 a month for an enhanced experience.

What got Fay into the game business, though, wasn’t money but the opportunity to influence young lives. When he was in graduate school, pursuing master’s degrees in both divinity and business, he did some research on gaming and was stunned to learn how much time kids spend online.

In 2009, with a small amount of seed money from friends and family, he hired a game studio in Pittsburgh to design a values-based virtual world. He ran out of money by 2011 and had to suspend the project.

“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Fay says, “but I saw enough to know there was something here.”

Fay began pitching investors. He raised $1.1 million in 2012 and hired Dubit, an English studio, to work on completing the game. After going through the Capital Innovators accelerator program in St. Louis, Kingdom Scene raised more than $2 million last year.

Fay’s advisers include Tom Holley, the St. Louis retailing legend who owned the old Grandpa Pidgeon’s chain, and Bud Albers, a former chief technology officer at Walt Disney.

Albers was Fay’s mentor at Capital Innovators, and he immediately saw the game’s potential. While he was at Disney, he worked with a virtual world called Club Penguin that the company had bought for $350 million.

“They are going after a very specific audience with a very targeted message,” Albers says. “I think their message is going to resonate. Wouldn’t you rather have your kids focused on something that’s giving them positive values rather than Minesweeper?”

Actually, Fay explains, Lightgliders doesn’t make the values component too overt. Parents can choose among three levels: one that’s just fun, one that incorporates values such as humility and love and one that’s faith-based.

The social aspects of the game, Fay believes, have the potential to be the most important. “The average kid today spends seven hours a day digitally connected but only 20 minutes of quality time with parents,” he says. “What I would like to do is make those 20 minutes as high-quality as possible.”

Holley, who once was Fay’s Sunday school teacher and is now a director of Kingdom Scene, likes the game’s design and its business plan. As a veteran retailer, though, he emphasizes that “you never really know until you open the door.”

The door to Lightgliders is now open.