Kim Belair, part oneComplications Ensue
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Thursday, September 03, 2020

Kim Belair

I met Kim Belair, when she was a panelist on an intro game writing panel my wife, Lisa Hunter, set up. But I would surely have met her one way or the other, at MIGS, or GDC, say; she is the sort of person you might run into at a café in Malmö or Ulan Bator and not be the least surprised she is there to work on the project.

Kim is a writer, narrative designer and co-founder of Sweet Baby Inc, a narrative development company based here in Montreal. In the industry since 2013, she's worked with companies including Ubisoft, Rocksteady, Square Enix, KO_OP, Valve, and JuVee Productions to bring games and stories to life. Beyond narrative work, Kim is an advocate for representation and inclusion, and is currently leading an initiative aimed at supporting, training and empowering marginalized devs.

Alex: You started your own narrative services company. Why?

Kim: I’d worked for five years at Ubisoft, and at the time that I left, I had just rolled off a two year project, and I’d put a lot of time and effort into it, and it ended up getting canceled.

And I started to feel, as you might imagine from everything that's been revealed lately about Ubisoft, I had a tremendous amount of discomfort with the environment. I didn't feel there was a place for me move up the ranks. I just kind of didn't see a lot of people like myself in leadership, either in personality and demographic.

And so I left to go freelance. And within a couple of months, I got a callback from a company to help with this Afro-Futurist project. And I said, yeah, I'm happy to help. And I asked about the writing team, and it was an entirely white male writing team.

Alex: I am shocked. Shocked, I tell you!

Kim: And I was like, hold on: this is an Afro-Futurist project. Most of the characters in it are going to be people of color. And you don't have any on your team.

And they said, Well, you know, we tried, but everyone we found was too junior, and didn't have the experience. They basically described systemic racism.

And I was like -- OK, well, maybe what I can do is, if you trust me as a writer, as an experienced designer, maybe I can hire some junior folks, and I’ll train them. I'll get them to the point where you need them to be. And we can, you know, get a team of people that is diverse and also gets a bunch of people that first videogame credit.

The project ended up falling through for unrelated reasons, just like budget and marketing stuff. But what I took from that was, OK, if I have a company, I can create a sort of farm team for the games industry. We can find, you know, young, aspiring, marginalized or junior talent, and I can help them.

And so, Ari MacGillivray and I ended up creating Sweet Baby, just the two of us. And on one of my contract projects, we worked with David Bédard, who is also former Ubisoft. And he and I like really, really vibe. We have a very similar approach to a lot of things.

And it took a couple months for us to kind of figure out what the roles were going to be. And the next step was just taking on stuff.

And within the first year, we went from two people working on other games, industry jobs and doing a little bit of Sweet Baby stuff on the side, to all three of us now being full time, plus a contract project manager and a team of, I think, between twelve and fifteen contract writers, and designers and consultants, a programmer, artists.

And I think what we've been able to do is, one, increase our capacity, but also two, create a space where I feel like every day that I go into the office, I work with good people, no matter who the client is.

And at the same time, our moderate success right now has allowed us to do outreach programs. Like we do free Twine courses for marginalized and aspiring developers. We try to do portfolio reviews. We try to do placement. We try to do scouting. We try to do everything that uplifts people who deserve a chance in the industry. So we have a balance of, you know, practical work that is going to pay our bills, and we also have the ways that we give back, which are to me an equal portion of the company.

Alex: So tell me about teaching people to use Twine.

I wrote a game in Twine called Stories: the Path of Destinies for Spearhead Games. We had 31 endings. And kind of my take away from that was, oh, that's why we don't make branching stories.

We had to figure out how not to end up with a lot of unused content. So we figured out a way where you'd have to play through the game five or six or eight times before you can win.

At my current company, Compulsion Games, we really don't do narrative branching. We didn’t for Contrast or We Happy Few, except for two choices at the beginning and end. For production reasons, because it eats resources like nobody's business; but also because it’s hard to tell a good story when you don’t know the ending.

So, why teach Twine?

Kim: What I learned from Twine was, what's daunting for a lot of aspiring developers is, they look at these finished products and they have no idea how it got to get how it got there. They look at what a video game is and they see, you know, Gears of War. They see a Red Dead, an Assassin's Creed. It’s so very big and it seems so nebulous and challenging. And so a lot of people just kind of get discouraged.

And I think the struggle for a lot of aspiring developers is that, if they're artists, if they're programmers, or writers, whatever it is, a lot of the time they can only make a small part of something. And so Twine allows them to create something that's finished. Something that, when they put it out there, is complete.

And they can put that on Twitter and someone can see them. Like just before I spoke to you, I was speaking to this 21 year old woman and she tried Twine, she made something and she ended up putting it on the forums for Blaseball.

And my colleague David [Bédard] read it, brought it to me and was like, this person's really great. So I had a meeting with her because I'm absolutely going to hire her for one of our projects.

And that came from being able to see, not only is her writing good, but she has a sense of design. She has a sense of how to tell a story, how to engage a player. And now I want her to do that for us.

Because if you put out just a short story, you might say, yeah, you're really good at writing, but do you have the fundamentals of design? And it's just a boost to your portfolio to be able to take me on a little adventure.

We actually hired this wonderful lead writer from Eidos Montreal to teach us the foundations of Twine. Basically to teach us, here’s the quick way to do what you’ve been doing the long way around.

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