He brought Wakandacon to Chicago; now David Barthwell is creating his own world

Barthwell and his business partner raised $24 million to create an elaborate computer game that’s slated for release next year.

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David Barthwell sits in his office next to computer screens with assets from his game Twilight Shift including concept art and code, Friday, Oct. 28, 2022.

Former graphic design company owner David Barthwell is designing a futuristic computer game called Twilight Shift.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

David Barthwell isn’t afraid to try his hand at big things.

He dreamed up Wakandacon, a convention dedicated to all things “Black Panther” that was held at McCormick Place in 2018 and 2019.

He’s looking to resurrect the costumed spectacle next year at the Sheraton Grand Chicago Riverwalk.

But the experience of bringing Wakanda to Chicago left him wanting to create a new world of his own.

So the Oak Park and River Forest High School grad teamed up with a classmate from Yale University to form a gaming company and create a vivid science fiction tale he hopes will capture the imaginations of gamers when it’s released in 2023.

His college friend is Kevin Lin, a co-founder of the streaming platform Twitch and a good guy to know in order to raise an initial round of $24 million from tech investors.

“I learned a lot from Wakandacon, meeting people and seeing how people came together to celebrate a Black superhero and all the energy that surrounded that. And I started thinking about telling stories that don’t get told much and how, hopefully, I could someday create a story world that stands alongside that and give back the way ‘Black Panther’ did,” Barthwell said.

Their company is Metatheory, and the game they’re forging is called Twilight Shift.

The intricate characters are navigating a futuristic resource-depleted Earth and a mysterious alien spaceship that’s appeared above a city in central Africa.

It’s not an accident the city will look and feel a bit like Chicago.

Barthwell enjoys a view of the city every morning from his Streeterville home while sipping a cup of coffee before beginning his 13-hour workday with calls to employees in the Philippines, Taiwan, Sweden, Pakistan, China, the United States and Brazil.

A scene from the animated world created by David Barthwell and his team for the computer game Twilight Shift.

A scene from the animated world created by David Barthwell and his team for the computer game Twilight Shift.

David Barthwell

The company has 60 employees around the globe who collaborate in a mostly work-from-home model. But they have office space, too.

“The hope is to make really immersive, vivid worlds that fans can occupy, they can learn the lore, play and really deeply feel and see themselves reflected in that world,” said Barthwell, 40.

“A major priority for us in starting this company was a focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at every level. About 40% of our employees are women, which is very good for this industry, but certainly something we can improve on,” he said.

A character created by David Barthwell and his team of animators and storytellers for the computer game Twilight Shift.

A character created by David Barthwell and his team of animators and storytellers for the computer game Twilight Shift.

David Barthwell

Barthwell is the son of two physicians. His dad, David, is retired. His mom, Andrea, still works.

“She’s a workaholic. I get my work ethic from her,” he said. “One of my litmus tests is if my mom can figure it out, then I know it’s a good game to release.”

Barthwell ended a career as a graphic designer running his own firm for 20 years to take a shot at gaming.

“I’m fortunate to have the support of an awesome family and have been successful throughout my career,” he said.

His sister, Ali, 33, is a writer for the hit HBO show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” and his brother, Matt, 31, runs several web businesses.

“They help me sanity-test all of my ideas,” Barthwell said with a laugh.

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