Welcome to Sumo Digital, the Pinewood Studios of games development

Disney Infinity 3.0. Crackdown 3. LittleBigPlanet 3. Forza Horizon 2. F1 2011.

Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Dead Island 2. Xbox Fitness. Dead Space Ignition.

And that’s not even the half of it.

That’s as diverse a line-up as you’re ever likely to see, and it all comes from one studio: Sheffield-based Sumo Digital.

Since its beginnings in 2003, Sumo has grown to over 300 staff split across its HQ, its new Nottingham studio and its Indian office. At any one time it has between four and eight projects on the go, ranging from small titles plucked from its in-house game-jams to triple-A smashes such as Microsoft’s Crackdown 3 and Koch Media’s Dead Island 2.

All of which makes Sumo probably the No.1 ‘studio for hire’ in the world. Mention Sumo to anyone, and that’s perhaps the first observation they’ll make, too. Would you not expect a studio of Sumo’s size and calibre to be focusing more on its own ideas and own IP?

There’s no shame in being a studio for hire, of course, especially when you’re so good at it. Co-founder Carl Cavers agrees when MCV makes this point. At the same time, he’s aware of the stigma that can be associated with the term.

It can be misconstrued sometimes as just providing capacity,” he says. When Ian Livingstone joined us [as non-executive chairman] last year, he had a similar view – we were a work for hire business. When he came in and looked at what we are doing, he was really surprised. And that surprised us, that people didn’t actually get what we did.

Most of the time we take something from the original idea right the way through to delivery. That sometimes gets confused with just providing capacity, but we’re not doing that. We’re working on the delivery of a whole game including the original idea. Ian’s analogy was we are the Pinewood Studios of the game space and that resonated well internally.”

That’s not to say that Sumo isn’t looking at developing its own ideas. Recently it has started running game-jams to harvest the creativity of its very flexible staff. The first fruits of this, Snake Pass, has already been demoed at expos. That’s a game that Sumo intends to release in 2017, and one that it could self-publish. This should not be misconstrued as a bold foray into a larger self-publishing strategy, however.

We’re looking at the opportunity of self-publishing but the challenge for us is when we started Sumo, we consciously started as a developer and said we weren’t going to do publishing,” Cavers explains. Publishing was different then, but we realised the challenges and risks faced by publishers. And they do add a lot of value, despite what a lot of indie developers will say.

I don’t think it’s an easy solution to just decide to self-publish. To realise the maximum sales potential of a product, you really need to have proper marketing and distribution access. That’s what publishers provide. If we can achieve that ourselves, we will self publish. But we won’t just self-publish for the sake of saying ‘Sumo has published’.”

"I don’t think it’s an easy solution to just decide to self-publish. You need to have proper marketing and distribution access."

Carl Cavers, Sumo Digital

A more radical future for any studio as successful as Sumo, however, comes in the form of possible acquisition. What platform holder or big publisher would not look at Sumo’s track record of success and relish the idea of bringing that in house? Not that onlookers should get too excited – it sounds like potential suitors are completely out of luck.

We’re not interested,” comes the stark reply. As a co-founding team here, we have our own goals. Our goals are to ensure that Sumo is still around in 20 years. We don’t want to get acquired by somebody and swallowed up. We want to leave a real legacy that is a valuable contribution to the video games space in the UK and the world.

In five years time, we want to still be partnering with the best partners in the video games space. We want to be the go-to studio for triple-A content. But we also want to access through our own talents and expertise, a direct business-to-consumer engagement. We want to release our own titles, and we want to be listening to the ones who are playing those games and try to ensure we produce the best content that people want to experience.”

A name that particularly sticks out among Sumo’s extensive back catalogue of work right now is Disney Infinity. Having worked on the third iteration of the title, the recent scrapping of the series – and the closure of main developer Avalanche – was a cause of particular sadness for Sumo, albeit one which is in part understood.

Obviously it’s disappointing for the guys involved over at Avalanche who have done a tremendous job,” Cavers tells MCV. But inevitably things change and Disney obviously feels that they’ve got a better commercial opportunity in another avenue. Avalanche created a great franchise and they have to proud of that achievement.”

Cavers is also not convinced that Avalanche’s closure, coming on the back of the high-profile demise of Lionhead, is a sign of a larger issue. I think closures get more publicity now than they ever got,” he argues. Often, it’s not down to the developer’s performance, but to commercial factors that you can’t control.

When you become internal or first-party, you tend to specialise on one thing. And if that one thing does not become a key pillar franchise within that publisher, it’s always going to be a struggle to keep that going. But each time there’s a closure you always see new start-ups, new energy. Out of all that there will be some embers that’ll grow into big things again.”

E3 is just around the corner and it seems almost entirely certain that Sony will use the event to launch an upgraded version of the PS4. The internet would have you believe that the PS4 Neo will divide the user base and create unrest among gamers. Cavers is not convinced, however.

It’s a naturally expected part of the lifecycle. There have always been changes in hardware. There have always been updates. There have always been iterations,” he tells MCV. So people want the latest thing, as has born out by mobile devices. People are prepared to invest in the latest thing if it gives them a real reason to invest. If there’s a significant reason for having an upgrade or a change, then people want to have the latest cutting edge technology.

And games have always been cutting edge. It needs to remain there, you can’t afford to have consoles that have become outdated.”

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