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Meet Kendra Fairbairn McCarthy from Tantalus North in Brisbane

Date Published: 21/11/2022

Staff Spotlight - We caught up with Kendra Fairbairn McCarthy, Head of Studio at Tantalus North in Brisbane, Australia, to discuss the studio's recent expansions, plans for the future as well as diversity in the video games industry.

What inspired you to enter the video games industry? 

I initially worked in the film industry as a cinematographer and art director, but on taking a job at Griffith University’s Film School, I found myself drawn to motion capture technology. I was lucky enough to have access to their motion capture cameras that had been shoved away into a cupboard, so I spent my weekends in a velcro suit teaching myself and attempting to capturing data from anything that moved (including a pet bird I taught to do a T-pose lol). At the time no-one was doing mocap in Australia, so I decided to quit my day job and go all-in on setting up a mocap studio by hiring the Uni’s cameras and charging myself out to the local industry. When I started being approached to work on games, I was quickly hooked.

The technical and creative problem-solving in game dev is so fulfilling! My first job in games was with Sega, where I was hired to build and run the biggest mocap studio in the southern hemisphere which was exclusively dedicated to capturing animation for the 2012 London Olympic Games. So, while initially I didn’t join this industry because I was mad-passionate about games, I could never be happy anywhere else. Game dev is a never-ending journey of learning and sharing. I thrive on the collaborative nature of this work, being side-by-side with developers and clients as we climb impossible mountains, making beautiful things that delight and entertain - it doesn’t get better than this.

How has the gaming industry in Australia and Brisbane evolved during your career?

The 2007 GFC changed the landscape of the Australian video game industry.  Brisbane was a thriving hub of large international developers and publishers, as well as many world-renowned indie studios creating award-winning titles.  But the devastating impact on the Aussie dollar exchange rate saw most of the studios hit hard times, and staff layoffs became a regular part of working in this volatile industry.  By 2012, there were only a couple major players left in the state and game dev jobs were difficult to find or keep; these were some dark days in our local games industry.  Much of our local talent had to move overseas to find opportunities to continue working in their field. After some strong re-growth in our local sector the following decade, Covid delivered another blow with several large Brisbane studios closing in its aftermath.

This was a key factor when considering working for Tom Crago and his team.  Tantalus is an Australian industry legend with nearly 30 years of successful development experience. Their incredible reputation with international AAA publishers has seen them weather industry storms most others did not survive.  They continue to adapt, thrive, and bring exciting projects to Australia. To have a chance to learn and benefit from their decades of experience and client relations is phenomenal. To be able to set up a new studio and bring this opportunity to Brisbane is totally epic.

What do you like about living and working in Brisbane? 

The down-to-earth people, the climate, the wildlife!  I immigrated to Australia when I was 10 and moved nearly every year of my childhood. When I was 17 my parents immigrated to Hong Kong, and I decided to stay here, splitting my time between Brisbane and HK while I was at Uni. This was my very first chance to put some roots down and while I have travelled a lot (and love it), it felt like the right place to call home.

Brissie has a laid-back culture, yet still full of vibrant, creative, quirky people - totally my jam. I’m also an avid wildlife enthusiast and bordering on obsessed with big sharks. Since taking up diving 6 years ago, I find it incredibly soothing to be in their presence, observing and interacting with them on their terms, totally at the mercy of the ocean. As weird as it sounds, it’s my form of therapy and hope to translate this hobby into VR ocean experiences for education and conservation projects in the future. In less than 40 mins from Brisbane city you can be on Stradbroke Island diving with a plethora of sharks, whales, rays and turtles. I get to work in my chosen creative field, with awesome people I love, in a tropical paradise. It’s not lost on me how lucky I am to live and work here in Brisbane, Australia.

"Ensuring an emotionally safe place for people to work where they feel they are respected and are championed for being themselves is the most important factor in unlocking an individual’s passion and creativity, and a team’s sense of comradeship."

The video games industry worldwide is placing increased value on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging, what role can Keywords play in making progress in this area?

Through my 15 years in this industry, the positive change in this direction is certainly becoming more apparent, which is truly incredible to see. However, I feel this is such a complex issue and not as straightforward as targeted recruiting to increase diversity in our companies and teams.

As a woman in leadership in this field, I can’t help but cringe any time I hear industry discussions about quota targets for X number of women in recruitment, or this being used as a marketing tool to show how ‘diverse and inclusive’ a company is. While I agree that targeted recruiting to support diversity is valuable, I never want any woman who works for me to feel like they were hired due to a gender imbalance. I want them to know I hired them because they are clever, passionate, talented and bring something extraordinary to the team because of who they are, not what they are.

It’s a fine line to tread, because the initiatives are well intended and have the right sentiment, but feeling like you are advocated for because of your gender, race, sexuality, etc feels, well, icky. Instead, I think diversity is borne through a focus on equality, inclusiveness and providing your people with a sense of belonging. Ensuring an emotionally safe place for people to work where they feel they are respected and are championed for being themselves is the most important factor in unlocking an individual’s passion and creativity, and a team’s sense of comradeship.

Out of all the companies I’ve worked for, Keywords in Australia is the most progressive, actioning numerous initiatives internally with exuberance. Our leadership team’s focus is on ensuring equality, inclusion and providing a sense of belonging through respect as our most core pillar. We place importance on demonstrating that we’re not only listening to the majority’s voice, but through actions to constantly reinforce that EVERYONE’s voice matters. When recruiting we don’t focus on if a candidate is a ‘culture-fit’ for our studios, instead we prioritize what an individual will add to our culture, to keep it evolving. I believe this is the strongest foundation for fostering diversity, and I am really proud to be a part of the Keywords team making positive changes in this industry.

Tell us a bit about the Brisbane studio you are setting up. How does Tantalus North studio operate and how would you describe the culture?

Kicking off on April Fool’s Day 2022, we had a foundation of 5 leaders who were all very different, but united by our shared vision: we were going to put our relationships first. Communication, collaboration, and integrity in our interactions with our clients and with each other would be at the forefront of everything we do. We would remain true to ourselves, celebrate our individuality, and be strengthened by our collective differences. 6 months on we have doubled in size and are rocking two big projects.

With each new addition to the team, we’ve continued to foster this ethos to create an environment where we all feel accepted for who we are - the most critical element for us to remain passionate, playful and ambitious, as a team and as individuals. I think above all else, we respect each other; our differences, each other’s voices and we respect each other’s time. There is a genuine comradery that we are proud of and this shines through in everything we do.

What does Tantalus North specialize in and what do you enjoy about the work?

Whilst we’re not solely a porting studio, Tantalus North does specialize in working with the world’s leading publishers to port AAA games to new platforms. It’s the first time I’ve worked on this side of the industry, and it has blown me away how fascinating and challenging the work is. I think there’s a misconception that porting is one-dimensional and not very creative, but this is so far from the truth. It requires a lot of RnD, design and creativity to solve the challenges required to reimagine a game, ensuring it is still beautiful and fun to play in a whole new way, on totally new platforms.

We were fortunate enough to acquire the best indie porting team in Australia as a part of our foundation for Tantalus North, bringing Screwtape Studios’ 15 years of experience in this field to our business. Working with and learning from the co-founders Meg Summers and Ant Wood, and falling in love with a whole new area of game development, has definitely been a major highlight for me.  Right now, we are working on two VERY famous game ports, but can’t yet say what they are… watch this space!

What do you value most about working at Keywords?

The company vision, the studio autonomy, the collaborative spirit, and the great people. With over 70 studios across the world, Keywords Studios is so diverse, yet the over-arching vision feels one. In my experience this is incredibly rare, to manage this special blend of big company opportunities with individual studio identity and autonomy.

At the studio level we are free to focus on our own strengths, our own culture, our own direction, yet also have the capacity to collaborate across a vast array of service-lines and specialist studios around the world. It’s an incredibly empowering position to be able to stay true to our own identity and expertise, yet also be able to leverage the strengths of other studios to deliver the best possible product.

I feel the wider company values and that of our own are united by the shared belief that our relationships are key to our success; the partnerships we foster with our clients, and the strength of our alliance with the studios across the entire portfolio, and how we support and care for each other as a team- this is what I value most about being a part of the Keywords family. 

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in the gaming industry?

It’s a tough industry, but don’t give up, there is a place here for you. The beauty of working in games is, there is something for everyone. Be humble, be willing to learn new things, but even more importantly, be willing to share everything you know. Collaboration and communication are key to your success in this industry.

And finally, if you feel like you can’t be yourself in your role and at your company, you’re not in the right place. Trust in and be true to yourself, you will find the people who champion you for all the amazing quirks you bring. 

If you are interested in a role at Keywords in Australia, you can find open positions on our Careers page.