James Back, product director at Sumo Leamington talks about his start in games, the importance of passion and what makes a good product director
What is your job role and how would you describe your typical day at work?
I’m the product director at Sumo Leamington which involves mainly looking ahead at new projects to determine if they’re a good fit for our studio and how likely they are to be successful. But the role occasionally means being hands on with existing projects, in particular problem-solving issues around data which I’m happy to do all day long.
Brace yourself for a cliché, there isn’t a typical day in this role. Our studio is primarily focused on mobile games and we’re currently working on an unannounced title that is genuinely pushing the boundaries of what a mobile game can be. Every day there is a new challenge. It’s really exciting and I think the whole team is benefiting from our first project involving so much unexplored space.
In the long run I’d like to see us build a reputation for making people think differently about exactly what a mobile game experience can be.
I’m also involved in a lot of the recruitment to help grow the studio, which hasn’t really been slowed down by the current state of things. At the beginning of lockdown we were 24 people strong, and with those who have since joined, or are waiting to join us, we will grow to 37.
What qualifications and/or experience do you need to land this job?
My degree was in mathematics and I initially spent three years in a housing company interrogating various databases. It was actually quite interesting, but it wasn’t my passion. When I decided that I wanted to build a career in games, it took a lot of applications to even get an interview, but I was determined to find a role in a mobile games company. When I got to an interview my degree and work experience was useful – but it was undoubtedly my passion and knowledge of mobile games that sealed the deal. Back then I was all over DragonVale, Dungeon Raid, Angry Birds and Candy Crush and I think the people interviewing me realised I was playing more mobile games than most people in that studio.
If you were interviewing someone for your team, what would you look for?
I can’t over-emphasise how important it is for someone to be curious. If you’re not interested in data and stats and how they can help us learn about our games and our audience, then this really isn’t the job for you. Obviously, a numerical based education at degree level would help, but with the right curious mind it’s not essential. It might sound obvious, but you also should love playing games – the more gameplay experience you have to draw on, the more likely you are to have a relevant reference for something being proposed. I also think that a degree of confidence is a good thing. Numbers and data can sometimes provide a degree of certainty or clarity to the decision-making process for mobile games that isn’t so evident outside service game development.
We’re also keen to find people that will fit in with the culture of our studio. We pride ourselves in being a clique free, diverse and friendly team who genuinely enjoy each other’s company. There’s a lot of game playing taking place during lunch and after hours. Our vision statement is ‘We make you look forward to tomorrow’ and we think that is as relevant for the team as it is to our players.
What opportunities are there for career progression?
There are many facets to this branch of development, from managing live ops through to game analytics; there’s the ability to have a role in building a game or managing its life after launch. Ultimately, because of the exposure to many different elements of development, this role can lead to general management and ultimately leading a studio.