How Sumo Digital will help The Chinese Room ‘take the jump up to the next level’

Work-for-hire giant Sumo has acquired indie darling The Chinese Room, Seth Barton talks to them both about what appears an unlikely pairing
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Sumo and TCR

For 15 years Sumo Digital has worked on some of the biggest mainstream console franchises around, in the very top tier of work-for-hire studios, but it’s never been known for creating and managing its own IP. So it came as something of a surprise last month to find that the company has acquired indie-darling developer The Chinese Room.

The Brighton-based studio came to prominence with Dear Esther and solidified its reputation with the critically-acclaimed Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Dan Pinchbeck, co-founder of The Chinese Room alongside Jessica Curry, remains as creative director.

“The Chinese Room has built a fantastic reputation in creating innovative, original IP which will complement our core business, adding another string to our bow,” Paul Porter, managing director of Sumo Digital tells MCV. “That, combined with our existing infrastructure and experience of building studios means we’re in a strong position to support Dan’s vision.”

Porter is keen to point out the focus of Sumo’s business remains the same: “It’s more of an expansion and extension of what we do. Third-party development will remain our primary focus but now is the right time, and The Chinese Room is the right team for us to grow our presence in the south of England.”

From a UK perspective, the new studio radically shifts the company’s centre of gravity south, adding Brighton to its current roster of northerly locations in Sheffield, Nottingham and Newcastle.

Carl Cavers, CEO of Sumo Group comments that “being in Brighton and the south of England allows us to tap into a new pool of talent in an area with a growing tech hub, offering opportunities to people who have put down roots in this part of the country.” And this isn’t a one-off either, adding that “making good quality acquisitions” is a key part of the company’s ongoing strategy.

We ask Pinchbeck why the time was right, but he tells us that wasn’t the main factor: “It was probably less about the right time than the right partner. Sumo is a perfect fit for us, for what I want to do next, and to join such a great company was the perfect opportunity. We’ve been talking to Sumo since the end of last year – we knew it was time for a real change to the studio, a chance to evolve and push forwards in terms of what we wanted to achieve.“

Of course there were other options to grow the company, Pinchbeck says: “To be honest we’d talked about potential investment, different ways of going forwards, but nothing had really landed or felt right.”

In the end, Sumo’s leadership team was a big part of why Pinchbeck chose to work with the company.

“When we first met Carl and Paul from Sumo, it just felt like this was the one, this was the right direction,” he tells us. “It’s their reputation – both as game makers, but also as a studio. I know people that have worked for them, or with them, and they are really highly thought of. That makes a big difference, because you want to be working alongside people you trust and respect. Meeting the team, going out to E3 with them a couple of months ago, it just cemented that. It’s a great company with a really great attitude to development. And it was clear right away that we shared a vision of what we could achieve with The Chinese Room working together.”

Pinchbeck tells us more about that vision, saying he had “definitely been looking to grow the studio, take on more ambitious projects, take the jump up to the next level.” Though he adds: “You have to be smart about that, respect the challenges and the experience needed to take on bigger games. That’s a huge part of what this gives us, it brings us into a family with a huge amount of experience and means we can make that move in a way that’s properly structured and supported.

“There’s no question for me that we couldn’t have done it on our own,” he states emphatically. “But now we’re in a place where growing and evolving the studio is not only possible, but opens up really exciting new opportunities. I’ve got big ambitions for the studio and it’s something we share.”

And Pinchbeck reveals that bigger, better things are now in the pipeline: “We’re carrying forwards concepts we already had in development, as well as working on some new, larger scale, more ambitious games.”

We ask Porter about the publishing strategy for upcoming The Chinese Room titles, but there’s no announcement yet on whether the company will make a strategic shift to self-publishing its games. “We can’t wait to start talking about the projects coming out of The Chinese Room when the time is right,” he replies.

To date, Sumo has only self-published once, testing the waters successfully with Snake Pass, though in a post-mortem earlier this year the company told MCV that it was “bloody hard work” and it had no immediate plans to publish more games.

Of course that’s likely to have changed now, but will the traditionally PS4-bound The Chinese Room be branching out to other platforms? “Platform decisions will be decided on a title by title basis,” says Porter. “Some may lend themselves, or even be developed, specifically for a platform. Our relationships and experience across all platforms is a
big part of what we can bring to The Chinese Room.”

As to the back catalogue that will remain untouched, Pinchbeck says: “Our current titles will remain available of course. We’re so proud of the games we’ve made up to this point, they’re an important part of the studio’s history and reputation. So existing fans will of course still be able to play those games they love. But we’re also going to be getting to work on some new, amazing games.”

The studio will also provide input on games across the group. “One of the things I love about Sumo is the relationship between all of the studios, and working with them is something I’m really excited about,” he tells us. And Cavers agrees, saying: “We believe Dan’s renowned creative abilities will add real value to Sumo Group.”

Pinchbeck concludes: “Those conversations are really important and I hope I’ll be able to offer something to other projects. Having said that, we’re joining a family where amazing things are already happening, so it’s more about the opportunity to work alongside developers I have a huge amount of time and respect for. On a personal level, that’s incredibly exciting.”

With Sumo’s development expertise and resources, and The Chinese Rooms creative capabilities, it certainly looks like a great deal, as long as both sides can successfully leverage the talents of the other.

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