Secret Mode origins: Behind the scenes of Sumo Group’s indie publishing arm

James Schall, Director of Publishing, Secret Mode

Born in the midst of a pandemic, Sumo Group’s indie publishing arm is celebrating its first birthday just as the world appears to be leaping from proverbial frying pan into literal fire. However, despite the troubles well beyond its control, it has been a successful twelve months for the fledgling outfit. Not just because it’s been bookended by the release of two bona fide cult classics (the “redimensioned” Amiga platformer Zool and the more recent and utterly barking Wobbledogs), but because the stated objective a year ago to reestablish the often cursory and fraught relationship between developer and publisher appears to have been achieved.

Much of the credit – for the realignment at least – belongs to director of publishing James Schall, who was destined to become a marine biologist before a Saturday retail job at Virgin altered the course of his career. Quickly promoted to buyer before leading an import/export house, Schall was eventually to become one of the first employees at Amazon UK where he began “understanding the connectivity between players and games companies”.

The insight continued during a long and fruitful stint at Sega, joining the one-time console manufacturer in the wake of its acquisition of Creative Assembly and Sports Interactive, when Sega began the transition to becoming a successful PC publisher. Over the course of the next decade, Schall was able to equip himself with all the tools and experience needed to establish a well-resourced publisher with the indie credentials that Secret Mode has successfully squirreled away.

A year ago you said that you wanted to break down the stereotypical publisher developer relationship? What did that mean and have you succeeded?

Yes, I’ll explain what it meant. So, my background in the games industry has been 20 years of talking to consumers and talking to people as customers. I wanted to approach our developers very much as customers.

What we’ve done is create a way of dealing with developers which is much more positive, even when it comes to saying ‘no’. We’ve seen well over 750 projects come through our doors and rather than being dismissive of a developer, we wanted to give them really good feedback on why we’re not working with them. It’s really hard. It’s been one of the hardest things to look someone in the eyes – especially on vidcom, as we have been over the last year – and tell them that we’re not going to proceed with a project that they have given blood, sweat and tears over. You can see the sadness in their eyes but after that moment comes this point of reflection. Almost all developers have said ‘you know what, your feedback is exactly what our gut feeling was, we just couldn’t quantify it, we just couldn’t put our fingers on what was missing for our project. And we’re gonna go off and do some things right.’ And in loads of cases, those devs have come back to us and said, ‘we’d love to show you what we’ve changed and what we’ve done’. And their projects have been improved and changed and sculpted a little bit into being more commercially viable products, because we’ve given them great feedback. And for me, that’s what Secret Mode is all about. It’s not just about working with great developers to create and publish great games, but to have a healthy ecosystem and deliver to people who are trying to figure out how their games will see the light of day.

Does that not create a rod for your own back though, since you’re acting as a consultancy, to a degree?

We’ve set the team up to support that. We have a proper process with the greenlight manager and assessment team and we have clear milestones. The assessment that we’re doing on these projects is work that we would do anyway. Me then picking up the phone or talking to someone about why their project hasn’t made it through is 15 minutes of my time in most cases. And that’s fine. It’s not like we’re producing a huge amount of paperwork or reporting that is going wasted. This is stuff that is actually utilised – we have a team of assessors in place who will create that reporting anyway for us to figure out if this is a game we should or shouldn’t be working on.

Do you have a flexible approach to the developers that you do end up signing with?

Yeah. And we embrace it and we’re passionate about it. Not only are nearly all of our terms different, but also what we take responsibility for is very different. Some indies want to retain talking to their communities. Some folks want their Christmas Days back, right, and they don’t want to be sat doing tweets on Christmas Day, so they want assistance there. Everything is malleable. What we have within Sumo is this wonderful wealth of history, right? People within Sumo have been developing games since the Commodore 64 and having that kind of opinion to call on has been magnificent. So we get some indie devs and they’ve got a great game, but there’s something not quite right. They’ve got some issues with something or they want to ask some questions, be it audio or multiplayer, and we can call out to people within Sumo. And this is where there’s a brilliant kind of passion and interest within all the studios. If someone wants to come and help us out with some audio, or someone wants to help us out with a bit of, you know, damage meshing or AI route planning, we know who to talk to. And if they have a spare half an hour to spend just chatting through with our indie, it becomes very valuable for people. It’s that kind of collaboration and being part of the team which Secret Mode’s devs will feel.

How much is Secret Mode is Sumo’s publishing arm?

With our output we aim to be 50 per cent from within Sumo and 50 per cent indie. We have signed many games which we haven’t yet announced which are independently developed. Penko Park, for instance, which came out before Secret Mode even existed, we revisited with the developer and added things like Chinese localization, some additional additional content, and we’ve increased that product visibility and sales by doing that. Wobbledogs was in development way before Secret Mode was a speck in anybody’s mind and we’ve been able to bring that through. So there’s a number of games as well as the Sumo developed ones.

What you’re seeing from our catalogue that’s active today are kind of the things that we have been working on and picked up. What you’re not seeing is the unannounced titles, the strategic titles, the pillars that we’re busily creating and working on. We’ve got titles planned right the way through to 2025 that we’re very, very passionate about that we just can’t wait to announce

But what is Secret Mode’s level of independence or integration within the group?

We are a sister organisation to Sumo Digital and we can publish games that are independent. Sumo Digital and its studios may come to us, but there’s no hard or fast requirement for us to do any games that come through Sumo. Just the same as Sumo needs to publish its own titles. It’s very much an independent organisation that sits under the Sumo Group umbrella.

Have you had any awkward moments where you’ve had to turn down a Sumo Group project?

We have had conversations where we’ve not progressed with games that have come through from internal ideas. But, you know, one thing Sumo isn’t is a desert of no ideas. There are a lot of super cool things that come through. What I will say on the whole ideas front, is out of all of the things we’ve seen both external and internal, 99 per cent of the games that we’ve seen are incredible ideas. It’s the percentage of them that are viable; from a dev-funding point of view, from a market analysis point of view, and from a quality point of view. That’s where there’s the big filtration.

Obviously it wouldn’t really be classed as an indie publisher, but do you treat Secret Mode as an indie publisher?

Yeah, definitely. It’s treated as a startup. We’re just evolving through that initial year of the startup phase. We’ve learned an incredible amount in that period of time and we’re now transitioning into this new phase of becoming a bit of a grown-up publisher, but we’re still operating very much like an indie outfit.

Why does having an independent state of mind matter?

I adore this industry. There are wonderful, creative, artistic games. Yes, there are games that are made for children. But there are also games which are really important and tell a message and we love those games too. If we can get an emotion from our players (as long as it’s not boredom); a melancholy or a delight, or a happiness or shock or surprise, that’s really important for us to have. And that’s kind of what the Secret Mode secret source is for when we’re looking at games. It’s ‘how is this going to make us feel?’. It can be a dark narrative mature journey, it can also be a wonderful, delightful, silly game about wobbly dogs. The two are compatible, because we don’t just watch sad movies. We don’t just watch sci fi movies. And we don’t just watch superhero movies. If you love movies, you love movies, right? And it’s the same thing that we have within Secret Mode is this diverse group of people. And we’ve really, really broken through some of the challenges within the games industry to characterise this diverse group of people. Because that diverse opinion and viewpoint is so important. You know, having games signed and delivered by all of the people from the same kind of backgrounds, you’re going to be left with certain types of games all the time. By doing what we’re doing, we’re challenging ourselves and we’re working on some amazingly creative games that we just can’t wait to talk about.

It sounds almost as if it was a blank slate that attracted you to Secret Mode. Was it a case of Sumo wanting to get into publishing without necessarily having a plan?

You’ve absolutely summed up the conversation that happened with the folks at Sumo:  ‘We’d love to get into publishing. What does it take?’ And a couple of scribbles on the back of a napkin, and a few spreadsheets later we kind of came up with a plan. And, you know, we’ve not deviated too much from the plan. Production was a little bit more resource heavy than we’d anticipated, but in terms of the freedom of projects we’ve been fully supported by Sumo. They have been phenomenal in the backing and support of Secret Mode. They’re hard on us and they’re pushing us to be better and to be more successful, but Sumo is an incredibly supportive team.

I would say the hardest thing about the role is it being so addictive. It’s very important for me to switch off, because I need to show the team that they also don’t need to work until 10, 11 o’clock at night, right? That’s really difficult. I’m having so much fun but I’ve got to bear in mind that having the boss around all the time is going to put pressure on people, so having the ability to turn the laptops off is important for creativity and well-being on the team.

When Sumo announced the acquisition of Bristol’s Auroch Digital it was reported to become some sort of support organisation for Secret Mode. Has that been the case?

We’re looking at projects that are ideas from Auroch that they want to look at, but also we are taking work to Auroch. As an example we could have a number of fantastic indie opportunities, single person devs or small devs, that just don’t have resources for maybe some console porting. That’s something Auroch has immense experience and quality in doing, so you will see some Secret Mode games which will come through to console and they will have been ported by Auroch.

Has the acquisition by Tencent changed the nature or the outlook of Secret Mode?

No, not at all. Our relationship is with Sumo Group and we haven’t seen any change in any kind of structure or modus operandi in that time.

Do you think Secret Mode has found itself within its first year, or is it still looking to find an identity?

Yes, Secret Mode has found itself and that’s been thanks to a wonderful team of diverse new starters to the industry, young people, veterans, all walks of life getting involved in Secret Mode. We’ve created an amazing team where everybody’s opinion is listened to. What that has done is given us a number of pillars. And those pillars will become more obvious as our games get announced and you see the kind of stepping stone of content down those pillars. At the moment, we’ve got a fantastic wholesome pillar in which Penko Park and Wobbledogs sit. And then there’s a wonderful game that we’ve signed, A Little to the Left, which we’ll be shipping this year, that gives you this kind of reason-of-being pillar. There are other pillars within Secret Mode that will become more obvious. These all come in from the passion of people within the publisher, finding great devs that we are confident in and want to help deliver their games as they want.

What’s been the biggest challenge during the first year?

Bizarrely, I thought the biggest challenge would be just getting our name out there but coming up with a strong brand and a strong logo and the company values early on, really helped us with that. The two things I would say I got wrong in estimating resources were production and QA. Hiring up in those now is giving us that understanding that we really did need producers and we really did need to use a bit more QA resource on games, because developers just work in such different ways. Some of them have a lot of material. For some of them everything’s in their head. You need a producer to help each one to figure out what it is that they need. And that’s been the takeaway for me – not estimating our production resources enough.

And what’s been the biggest highlight for you?

While it didn’t change the world from a sales perspective, bringing Zool back as part of the Sumo Digital Academy project with Jacob Habgood [Sumo Group’s director of education partnerships] was wonderful, because it was a game that was created by apprentices. They looked at the code, they completely solved a number of problems that Zool had, namely, changing the screen resolution and bringing it out. They just did it in such a wonderful way.

That joy that our players had in the Steam reviews was something that we were really over the moon about. And when you look at the games that Secret Mode has published, and you look at the user rating, that for us is the thing that brings us a huge amount of joy, because we know investing in player confidence is going to be really important for the long run.

We spend a lot of time looking at data. It’s very important to have data to guide you rather than tell you what to do, because if you’re questioning it in the wrong way, it’ll give you the wrong answer and take you on a very weird path.

What would you expect to be celebrating on Secret Mode’s second birthday?

There’s just some wonderful game announcements that will have been spoken about by next year. They’re going to be games that our players are going to be really excited about getting hold of and that for me is the really exciting thing. I’m sitting in meetings with games that are shipping in 2024 and I know the marketing teams are like ‘yeah, we just can’t announce them yet.’ So for me, it will be more of that, more announcements of what we’re doing, so that more people understand the Secret Mode secrets, if you will.

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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