Sumo Digital: Explaining the studio’s internal game jams

This month, Sumo Digital COO, Paul Porter, talks about the studio’s internal game jams (a scheme that brought us Snake Pass) and how they help with game development and improving skills.

How do you approach organising an internal game jam?
Due to the number of projects we are working on at the same time, we look for a day where we essentially have the least deadlines. We understand not everyone can join due to commitments to their specific projects, but this is why we hold the game jams at least twice a year. Once we’ve met with the projects lead and directors to set the date, we’ll inform our staff a month in advance. Anyone in the company can join and we encourage teams to share their game jamming progress (it’s not required, though).

How do you come up with the theme for the jams?
There are no themes for our game jams. While many game jams follow that procedure and have produced really unique games out of the constraints, we feel the lack of themes helps our jammers breathe and implement whatever they feel necessary to their projects. We’ve enjoyed the uniqueness of the output so far, which is a testament to how creativity our staff.

How long are these jams?
They run over a two week period, but that entire time isn’t completely allocated to the game jam due to our projects’ requirements. On the first day of the game jam, which is usually a Friday, participants are given the entire day to work on their games and are allowed to use resources available at our studios. Any time afterwards, they must work on their games on their own time. We do open our studios on the weekends if they want to come in and continue working there as well. After the two week period, we have a showcase day where the participants show off their game jam games to all staff. We set up a little festival area for people to come by and check out the games in a fun and social environment.

How many people take part in the jams?
We tend to average around 30 staff each jam and this extends across our Sheffield and Nottingham studios. We also plan to hold game jams for our India studio located in Pune. We try to get all of our studios involved at the same time, if possible. People can form teams or go as individuals

Who judges the jams?
All our staff vote on the entries. We feel it’s important for everyone to get involved, even if they did not participate directly. Hopefully, this helps foster a drive to create something awesome for the next game jam!

Are these jams run ascompetitions with prizes?
There is always the possibility a standout game can be chosen to go into production, similar to how Snake Pass was developed from our first game jam. While all winners are not guaranteed production status, we will evaluate its viability by placing it through a concept phase to see if it can become a production-ready title. If it goes into production, the originators of the project will receive a share of any revenue generated by the game after costs have been deducted. We also give awards based on staff-voting and other bespoke achievements such as "most original" or "best team."

Snake Pass was a new IP that came out from an internal jam, how does a project get picked up for production via this route?
If we love an idea that comes from the game jam we have the opportunity to put that into a concept phase to give the individual or team the support needed to create a more polished version of the experience that we can then take to user testing. Depending upon the results of that testing, we may more the game into full production. With Snake Pass we spent three months turning the concept into a playable demo with a small team. This demo was taken to EGX Rezzed and was received very positively, which in turn led to a greenlight for full production.

How do these jams help the development of other studio projects?
It helps scratch that creative itch we’ve all come with into the industry. Being able to create your own projects outside of your normal work builds excitement and that translates to motivated staff. It also creates a culture of camaraderie between the staff of the many projects in our studio. Sumo has been around for over 14 years and we continue to grow every day. We have loads of industry veterans and are adding new hires on a consistent basis. Whether they are creating or playing, we want all our staff, both new and old, to come together and enjoy each other’s ideas. Ultimately, our game jams are meant to be a celebration of our team’s creativity and we hope it continues to be a source of inspiration for everyone here, regardless of their position.

Do people learn new skills via these jams and is this a way to encourage a sharing of best practice and tips for production?
Absolutely. We’ve had people create games in both Unity and UE4 without previous experience. It’s also an opportunity for our staff to stretch their skills as we’ve had programmers create rhythm games and designers and QA flex their artistic prowess in both 2D and 3D art, among other things. But we do see a congregation of sharing best practices among participants as we encourage staff across different projects to team up. And as mentioned before, this helps foster discussion between staff that do not see each other on a regular basis.

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