Sumo Digital heads tell Craig Chapple the route to success in work-for-hire and where the path has taken them

Sumo Digital: A licence for creativity

During the last 11 years, Sumo Digital has become one of the UK’s biggest studios, and it’s all come through its focus on work-for-hire.

Growing from a team of 12 to 250, with a main office in Sheffield and a dedicated art studio in India, the developer has worked on Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, LittleBigPlanet 2 and Moshi Monsters: Katsuma Unleashed.

Most recently, Sumo was chosen to develop the Xbox 360 version of Forza Horizon 2 and has taken the reigns from Media Molecule on LittleBigPlanet 3, one of Sony’s key franchises. 

Challenging perceptions

CEO Carl Cavers says the key to building a successful work-for-hire business – a term the team believes is a “cruel expression” for the work they do – is to be creative, even with another company’s property.

“We may work on existing IP’s, but there isn’t anything we’ve released that hasn’t been innovative in one way or another,” he says.

“It’s still incredibly challenging to be creative given the constraints of a licensed franchise, and we’re thankful to have awesome people working in the studio who are motivated and able to respond positively to these challenges.”

Juggling the demands of a licensed IP is as challenging as kicking off with a blank sheet.

Sean Millard, Sumo Digital

It’s the creativity Sumo aims for that Cavers says plays against the perception that studios working on existing IP can’t be as innovative as those working on their own.

“Juggling the many different demands for creative delivery on a licensed product – and doing that with an integrity that expands the franchise universe without making the product feel watered-down or weakened – is as creatively challenging as kicking off with a blank sheet of paper,” explains creative director Sean Millard, . 

“It’s a very practical and commercial level of creativity that is demanded of us; that’s sometimes misconstrued as some kind of ‘lesser’ muse. This is an incorrect assumption. We’re just not at liberty to please ourselves – there are many more parties to consider. 

“I challenge any creative to do that without falling back to a committee. The challenge is not the idea itself; its the realisation.” 

Big ambitions

Sumo studio director Paul Porter says another challenge facing work-for-hire companies is putting yourself in a position to pick and choose opportunities that best match the studio’s skillset and experience.

Ensuring a quality experience within the constraints of work-for-hire is not always easy, he says, but it has led to the studio working on more high-profile IP such as LittleBigPlanet.

Millard says the studio had already forged a relationship with Sony XDev from work on titles such as Go! Sudoku and Super Rub-a-Dub, and when the possibility of developing an LBP title came up, the studio snapped it up.

“We thought it was a great fit given our track record with existing IP,” says Millard. “We started small, growing a team to support LittleBigPlanet Vita and DLC for LBP2 to earn our stripes. After hitting the required bar for the franchise, XDev had the comfort to move forward with LittleBigPlanet 3 wholeheartedly.”

We may work on existing IP’s, but there isn’t anything we’ve released that hasn’t been innovative in one way or another.

Carl Cavers, Sumo Digital

Despite working on such major franchises, Sumo also released its own original IP in July: action combat racing game Scorched for iPhone, with an Android version on the way.

 Business development manager Craig Albeck says the experience was invaluable as it gave the company first-hand experience on how the free-to-play marketplace works and how to develop a title based on small play sessions. It also helped prepare the studio to manage the lifecycle of a mobile title that requires a ‘games-as-a-service’ approach.

“In our hearts we really want to be spending our days developing great games, be it original titles like Scorched, or infusing new life into an existing franchise, as we are with LBP 3, and have achieved previously with the Sonic & Sega All-Stars franchise,” he says.

“We follow the opportunities and respond accordingly based on our experience, mitigating the risk as much as possible for our clients, whilst delivering the best game that we can in collaboration with the customer. And it’s with that approach we shall move forward with a fantastic team into whatever opportunities lie ahead.” ′

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