While the phrase game jam still brings to mind fledgling developers and pizza boxes, the technique is now firmly established as part of many company’s creative toolset. With a wide variety of benefits for staff, helping them meet people, test ideas and break out of the routine of their own roles.
Game jams were added to Sumo’s working practices by the group’s non-exec chairman, Ian Livingstone – a games industry veteran who understands the financial value of a good idea, as well as the value of play and creativity for their own sake.
Sumo Digital MD Gary Dunn tells us: “At Sumo their primary purpose is actually as an outlet for a bunch of really creative people. Teams work on three or four year projects here, on multi-million pound games, and it’s nice to sometimes let them freewheel for a few days, to let off some steam, have an outlet for their own ideas, and have fun.”
And the value of play has now turned into value for the company. With these days of R&R finding their way onto the P&L, delivering two commercially released products, with another due before Christmas.
Dunn says: “The first game that made it to market from the game jams was Snake Pass, which went to number one on Nintendo Switch. Earlier this year we released Spyder on Apple Arcade, and in the next couple of months we’ll launch a 2D beat-em-up, Pass The Punch, on iOS and Android.
“Pass The Punch is an interesting one. It was actually developed by a non-development member of staff, one of our guys in biz dev came up with the idea. And it was a great opportunity for our India studio to make it, and actually take the charge in making an original game.”
Creative outlet and commercial pipeline, game jams bring dual benefits to Sumo as a whole and, to those staffers who ‘win’, they can also deliver some pretty serious money individually.
“The primary function is for a bunch of really creative people to have an outlet – and have fun – but, yes, there are sometimes great dividends for us as a company and our staff.”
Dunn explains: “The team that comes up with it gets a 10% royalty. So we’ve written staff five and six figure cheques for royalties simply off the back of them taking part in a game jam. Like I say, the primary function is for a bunch of really creative people to have an outlet – and have fun – but, yes, there are sometimes great dividends for us as a company and our staff. I think it’s a fantastically rewarding process.”
The group’s aim is for each of its nine studios (with locations now in Sheffield, Nottingham, Newcastle, Leamington Spa, Warrington, Brighton, Leeds, and India) to run two game jams per year. They take place over a long weekend, with all teams having the option to continue work in their own time on anything they think is really promising.
Then there’s a date where all the games are played or demoed, followed by judgement day, with the winning titles decided on via a company-wide vote.
Dunn continues: “The ones that really stand out we ask to be brought to the IPCC (Intellectual Property Creative Committee). If it’s something we really like, we’ll green-light it and make a prototype. From there, hopefully, it goes all the way to market.”
Strategically, the game jam culture is part of a wider picture sees Sumo move beyond its reputation as one the best-regarded ‘work-for-hire’ studios, by building its own portfolio of original IP and taking its first steps in self-publishing, as we reported on earlier in the year.
“Sumo has got a great tradition and track record of working on other people’s IP,” says Dunn, “but, as I say, we were keen to start creating original content, and game jams were a way of reaching that goal. Our intention is not to publish games with budgets measured in tens of millions of pounds. So, if a great concept comes out of a game jam that requires that sort of funding, we’ll work with a publishing partner, possibly co-fund it, or just take the development role. But, something smaller, with a smaller budget, absolutely, we’d be keen to publish it ourselves.”
He concludes: “There’s a deliberate strategy here to move up the value chain by creating more of our own IP. We’re doing that in lots of different ways, one of which is certainly game jams – the difference is, they’re probably the only part of that strategy that has inherent worth, to the staff and culture of this company, even if they never make a penny. It’s just a huge bonus that, so far, they’re making the odd penny and a bit more!”