From 12 to 500: How Sumo grew to be the £145m quiet giant of UK development - MCV
With an IPO and a high-profile acquisition, the often reticent Sumo Digital stepped into the limelight, Seth Barton talks to managing director Paul Porter

Despite its name, Sumo Digital isn’t a company that throws its weight around in public, largely due to the secrecy of its work-for-hire projects. Yet it kept us busy in December with a double-whammy of news. Soon after its parent company Sumo Group was floated on the stock market, the company expanded its operations with the takeover of CCP Newcastle, renamed to Sumo Newcastle.

The acquisition takes the company up to around 500 employees – growing from just 12 initially back in 2003. So the name is starting to feel very appropriate, as one of the largest studios in the UK.

From an initial single building the company now sprawls out across seven on its Sheffield site. Paul Porter, managing director of Sumo Digital, tells us that the company’s growth has been steady and considered over nearly 15 years now.

“I don’t think we’ve accelerated particularly. It’s been year-on-year growth and at no point has there been any drive to say ‘we must get to be this big’. It’s always been a case of what work have we got on? What quality output can we produce? And how can we hire and fill the studio to meet those requirements?

“It was never a case of hiring lots of people and then seeing what work we can get. We’ve grown to match the opportunities that have been available within the skillsets that we’ve got.”

CCP Newcastle was best known for its work on EVE: Valkyrie, so we ask Porter if it was specifically attracted to its VR experience.

“They have a lot of experience. The most recent thing that they’ve done is VR,” he counters. “And this is something we always faced at Sumo, the first game we did that people really knew about was Outrun 2 so then everyone thought we were a racing studio, when we were a team of people who had worked together at Gremlin and Infrogrames for ten years doing all sorts… For me, the skills around developing games are transferable.”

Porter also points out that with 500 staff, Sumo has picked up experience in practically every key genre along the way, so it’s “not just the case of pivoting a whole team doing one thing to another.” Size then certainly has its benefits.

YOU WILL NOT BE ASSIMILATED

CCP Newcastle wasn’t an unknown quantity to Sumo Digital, as Porter tells us. “We’ve been working with CCP for some time,” most publicly on CCP’s Project Nova shooter, “and when the opportunity arose to acquire the team we were really, really keen.

“Some of the people we know there are a very experienced close-knit team that has been together for a long time and wants to stay together. Part of our job is to facilitate teams to make great stuff, and if they’re a great team, then they can make great stuff for Sumo.”

Work-for-hire studios such as Sumo Digital thrive based on their ability to deliver quality work on time. So we ask how much the new studio will have to fit in with Sumo’s way of doing things.

Sumo Digital has a long-standing relationship with CCP, most publicly on Project Nova

Sumo Digital has a long-standing relationship with CCP, most publicly on Project Nova

“I am a great believer in enabling people to succeed and the last thing I would do is say ‘stop working the way you’ve been working and now work this way because that’s how we do it in Sheffield’. At the same time, you learn from each other. I’m sure Sheffield and Nottingham will learn from Newcastle and vice-versa. We’re now a sum that’s greater than the individual parts – but that’s not by implementing a regime that says everyone must do it this way.”

The studio is already a good fit on many levels. Sumo currently has “three, maybe four” projects in development using Unreal, the same engine the Newcastle team has been using.

“Given the way the industry is going, the way Unreal is used so much, it’s just a positive for me. Though these days it’s less about the engine and more about the experience being produced,” Porter adds to clarify.

SPINNING PLATES

Having 500 staff is great, but they then need a lot of work to keep them all productive. “We’re absolutely not short of work,” says Porter, smiling.

Still, the main trick of running such a business is making sure that projects dovetail neatly enough to keep everyone busy, but not too busy.

Porter seems pretty cool on managing all that: “We usually have seven or eight projects on the go at any one time. Projects end and new projects start. Projects peak at certain times and then shrink down at other times... As long as you haven’t signed them all on the same day and don’t all finish on the same day, you know you’ve got a good balance of when you’ll need the resources.”

The company has also expanded beyond the UK: “In 2007 we set up a studio in India,” Porter says. “Which at the time was mainly artists but there are quite a few engineers out there now. Having some staff in a low-cost geography really helps us if we do have some gaps, or some downtime, then clearly it costs less.”

But you don’t have to leave the UK to gain flexibility: “We do use a lot of contractors as well when there’s real peaks and we may use third-party companies such as [developers] Red Kite or Flix, who provide an excellent service.”

Crackdown 3 is among the company's highest profile co-development projects to date 

Crackdown 3 is among the company's highest profile co-development projects to date 

So it sounds like there’s more than enough work to go around. “There are now more opportunities,” Porter replies. “I think it’s a combination of factors, but there’s a lot of people that want help with projects. Co-development is a much bigger thing than it used to be.”

With those, the company has ridden out any supposed slowdown in the number of titles getting published: “A few years ago people thought that console development would really slow down and a lot of studios faced a lot of trouble and fell by the wayside. And at the same time we found that the opportunities have still been there, so from our point of view there are still a plethora of opportunities in high-end console development.

“The mid-tier is supposed to be shrinking, but making a part of a game is still good business. As long as we’ve got something that we can contribute to, that the team can engage with, and feel proud that they’ve produced, then we’re really happy.”

THE LONG HAUL

Barring a couple of patches, a work-for-hire studio would once walk away from a project after the gold master – but games-as-a-service has changed all that.

“That’s what happened with LittleBigPlanet 3. We had a team working on it for well over two years after the game released, creating DLC, doing patches, support, even the community management. A whole range of things.

Sackboy-as-service: Sumo suppoted LittleBigPlanet 3 post release

Sackboy-as-service: Sumo suppoted LittleBigPlanet 3 post release

“Games-as-a-service has definitely changed the way that people experience a lot of games. We’ve seen a lot fewer traditional single player story start-to-finish games than we used to,” states Porter.

“You’re effectively releasing a Minimum Viable Product and then adding more content as that community grows and as the success of that game grows. It’s a lot more risk averse because you can get feedback from consumers quicker, you don’t necessarily have to build the whole eighteen-hour campaign... And then see if anyone liked it.”

BIG DADDY

So while some are bemoaning games-as-a-service ascendance over single-player fare, change isn’t something that phases Porter.

“One thing I love about the games industry is that it’s always changing, there’s always new technology, there’s always new ways of playing games. But the bottom line is people love playing games.

“I don’t worry that people have stopped playing console just because they play mobile games. I think people who play console games also play mobile games, it’s just that other people play mobile games as well. And some people who play mobile games might then play a console game. It’s just more ways to interact with creative content.”

There’s no temptation to try mobile development though? “We’ll continue to specialise in high-end interactive entertainment,” Porter answers. “And that is absolutely our focus here. Growth is still definitely part of of the plan.”

And it’s got the money for it. Sumo Group’s recent IPO was set for a valuation of £145m. “It’s great for us because it gives us a real base of stability for further growth. It gives us the opportunity to invest in things that we’d like to invest in – that we may not have been able to in the past.” Such as Sumo Newcastle? “Absolutely. It really strengthens us as an organisation.”

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