Sumo at 15: By the fans, for the fans - MCV

Sumo at 15: By the fans, for the fans

Sumo Digital is now 15 years old, here its creative director takes us back to 2003 and charts its path through the years
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Sumo at 15

Sean Millard is creative director at Sumo Digital. Here he reminisces about his and the company's fifteenth birthday.

A wise man once sang: “How vaguely time remembers, how slowly we forget…” and now, with Sumo’s 15 birthday here, those words are ringing truer than ever.

As the years wind on and our experience grows, the past has indeed become more dim and distant. It takes a little more effort these days to brush back the fog of memory to recall the detail, but soon enough, it all comes tumbling back…

2003. IMHO, it was a particularly unmemorable year for music; the best-selling artists were people like R Kelly, 50 Cent, Jay Z and Beyoncé; the charts were awash with semi-soulful and nauseatingly bland RnB.

Concorde flew its last flight.

The Iraq war dominated headlines.

It was the year of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ and ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’.

Dolly the Sheep died.

Dirty Den returned to Eastenders.

*Sigh*.

Even the world of videogames seems a little uninspired when we look back with contemporary eyes; the vast majority of the top 50 games are exhausted licenses and tired iterations… Call of Duty and Manhunt stand out on the list that I’m reading as more-or-less the only games that weren’t sequels or movie tie-ins… and then there’s DOA Beach Volleyball.

How exactly did that happen?

Thankfully, we’ve moved on.

It was amidst these windless doldrums that Sumo rose; like a leviathan from the depths!

Like Poseidon upturning the Argo!!

Like…

Actually, we tip-toed in.

More like a tubby little dormouse than an Atlantean Titan.

We liked it like that, and we kept it like that for as long as we could, too; we wanted the games to speak for themselves; our egoless approach to development ensured we were happy to forego the spotlight in favour of turning it onto our publishing partners; we weren’t cut out to be Rock Stars.

We’re still not… comfortable in the spotlight, but there’s a lot of skill and talent across Sumo that needs to be recognised…

We created some great games in those early days; lots of them for SEGA; OutRun, SEGA Rally, Virtua Tennis… we worked hard to build on the reputation of already-classic franchises; to serve their audience and to wheedle out every last drop of gameplay potential by bringing something new to their worlds; to advance expectation – to make them much MORE than ‘just another’ sequel.

That was so much fun.

We felt underground; a best-kept secret. Quite quickly, our reputation grew, and we were soon working with an enviable list of partners; Sony, Microsoft, Konami, EA, BBC, Codemasters… and although we worked on everything from adventure games to puzzlers, it was the driving that people kept coming back for; TOCA, GTI Club, Split Second, Driver, F1, Dirt… loads of them.

It was SEGA, again, that gave us our first opportunity to do something a bit different.

We’d worked so well with their studios on the OutRun and Virtua Tennis games, by handling their IP sensitively and creatively, that we’d built up enough trust to bring them altogether in a single menagerie brand; the SEGA All-Stars - characters from across the SEGA universe coming together in one game - first Tennis and then in Racing.

The fans loved them, and the games were so successful that people finally started seeing us as more than ‘just’ a driving studio – with titles like Supa Rub-A-Dub, The Doctor Who Adventures, New International Track and Field and Broken Sword 4 going on at the same time, we suddenly had a reputation for versatility.

Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed, the sequel to Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, was a huge game for us and its success opened even more doors; we were suddenly working with Turn 10 and Playground on the Forza games, as well as Microsoft directly on the Fitness products; we won awards with Sony for LittleBigPlanet 3; we were having a whale of a time with Disney on Infinity… suddenly everything got amped up a notch.

I sometimes think that the last 15 years can be loosely broken into three phases: the first was the DRIVING years; we were principally defined by the racing franchises we worked on for our friends at SEGA and elsewhere.

The second section was where we found our feet in multiple genres; our wings spread wider… the VERSATILITY years.

Then, finally, the last five years have been covered by the PREMIUM titles and franchises we’ve had the luck (because that’s what it still feels like) to work on; Crackdown! LittleBigPlanet! Forza! Hitman!

Right now, we’re working on some of the biggest franchises in games. It’s our 16 year and we’ve announced Crackdown 3, Team Sonic Racing and Project Nova… three very different and equally eye-popping titles…

It’s super-exciting, but weirdly it still feels the same; OutRun 2 was our first game with SEGA and, to us, it was (and still is) an ultimate game franchise. LittleBigPlanet.. Crackdown… Hitman - take your pick – each one is just as exciting as that first gig!

How lucky are we???

The projects have become bigger; the pressure’s still there – it may have even grown - but the thrill remains the same; whether it’s OutRun or LittleBigPlanet, the privilege of working on and expanding universes we already know and love - that we’re first-and-foremost FANS of – never recedes.

So, I wonder what the next phase is; what the next five years might hold for us?

Maybe Phase Four is the ORIGINAL IP phase?

Perhaps it’s now time to build on the confidence we got from Snake Pass – start creating more of our own worlds for players to become immersed in?

Maybe.

Whatever the future brings, it feels like we’re in a brilliant place to embrace it; these last fifteen years have seen us grow from 12 earnest young things to over 500 talented professionals… our journey so far has been blessed with great games, firm friendships and more accolades than we’d ever have imagined we could receive back in 2003. As our studios all continue to grow, it seems that the opportunities only get more exciting.

We’ve learned so much; we’ve evolved with the demands of the industry, we’ve conquered new genres and mastered new technology, but there’s still so much to learn and do; life is far too short and there’s a lot of games to cram into it.

So where will we be in 2024, when we hit our 21 birthday?

Hopefully we’ll have few more great games under our belts, whether they’re existing franchises or our own. I reckon we’ll have a few more wrinkles, one or two more scars and hell of a lot more happy memories to recall.

All I really know right now is that I never want to stop being a FAN; it’s exciting.

I guess, in the end, only time will tell, and really – regardless of how vague the detail starts to become in our foggy old memories, the essence still remains – it’s been a hell of a ride and a shitload of fun.

And I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

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