Exclusive: Sumo Digital’s Stewart Neal Reveals the Company is Working on Around 15 Different Titles
British developers Sumo Digital has been at the forefront of video game development for a long time, and over the last 15 years, the company has tapped into the growing talent pool available India with two studios in Pune and Bangalore.
With India’s AVGC sector growing at a rapid pace in recent years, Sumo Pune and Bangalore have been vital in the development of games like Hood: Outlaws and Legends, Forza Horizon 4, Crackdown 3 and many more.
To know more about the future of both Sumo Digital and gaming in India, we had a char with Stewart Neal, Director of Sumo India Studios, and here’s what he had to say about developing one button games and more.
It’s been around 15 years since you began Sumo Pune, and since then you have opened new facilities around the world, and even began a second studio in Bangalore. How was the journey been for you these past few years, during which the company has grown from a few hundred creators to now thousands?
Wow, what a journey it has been! It’s been amazing. So, let’s go from the start. Sumo Digital Studios are a part of the Sumo group, with around 1200+ people, and continuing to grow. Here at Sumo Pune, we’ve around 160+ now, and still growing. We’re actually just putting the finishing touches to our additional studio space in this current building as well, which obviously reflects the continuing growth. And hopefully I’ll be able to share images of that soon. For Bangalore, we’re excited to move into our office, once we feel it’s safe to do so, given Coronavirus. I guess restrictions have been lifted, but still, we just want to make sure that we do it at the right pace.
We originally opened Pune studio as an arts team. Now that we have grown in our journey, we have a multi-disciplined team across art, engineering, design, QA and production. And with that journey, we’re now fully integrated, and we could develop and collaborate with all the studios across Sumo Digital and Sumo Group, which currently has around 11 studios working with on all kinds of console and PC development. And to facilitate this growth across multiple offices, we’ve got to make sure that we recruit the best talent and continue making these world class games while also balancing our working culture across cities. So yeah, again, it’s been a great journey so far, and I’m looking forward to the years ahead.
As a British gaming studio, it makes sense for Sumo Digital to open up shop in Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield. Nowadays, we see the big developers gaining access to the talent here in India, but back in 2007, it was unheard for a company to take their business to a different continent and set up their second studio in India. What was the thought process behind such a decision?
First of all, I think the credit goes to the original founders of Sumo Digital for having the foresight. The reason to start back in 2007 was to take advantage of the talent pool in India. Gaming was and is a growing industry, and looking at the skills and talent India has in other areas like film, visual effects, and animation, it just became a natural and progressive decision for us. So now, we’re looking forward to continuing the expansion as we have in Bangalore, across India in key disciplines such as programming, art, design, QA, production and more.
Sumo has had a hand in some of the biggest AAA titles over the years. You got the Forzas, Crackdown, Hitman, Sackboy, which are both critical and commercial successes. However, at the same time, the studio has been instrumental in having smaller projects with the internal game jams, which gave us Snake Pass. This is something we rarely see. So how did this idea come about?
In Sumo, we have annual internal game jams across all the studios, and it gives everybody a chance in the company to be creative without limits. It’s a great way for everyone to express their individual creativity, and harness the skills and experience they have gained while working on some of the amazing AAA titles you’ve mentioned. It’s a great social and team building event too.
Moreover, these game jam titles also have the potential to become published games. We had Snake Pass come through one of the game jams. We’ve also got Spyder, which is available on Apple Arcade, and the Pune studio is directly responsible for ongoing support for that title, which is amazing.
Last year, you did the one button game jam, which I personally thought was a really cool concept, because I got pretty bad hand-eye co-ordination, and me having to use a single button to play is life-changing. So, how was that particular game jam experience?
I feel your pain. My hand eye-coordination has also got a lot to be desired. Life changing? Yeah, that’s exactly what it’s meant to be. Sumo Digital is the proud sponsor of a charity called SpecialEffect in the UK, and their overall mission is to make gaming more accessible for those with disabilities. So, as part of our ongoing commitment to make games enjoyable for all, we focused on accessibility, and that’s when we launched the One Button Game Jam last year, in partnership with SpecialEffect for their One Special Day event, and the experience was great, as it highlighted the challenges in designing games solely with one input.
So, looking across the games that we produced, a lot of them had a retro feel, because of the simple one button input, unlike today’s games, which have dozens of buttons and combinations. In the end, it feels good to get back to that retro simplistic feel while making sure they are engaging as well. And by the way, if you take a look at Twitter with the #OneButtonGameJam21, there’s some snapshots of the shared experiences we had.
It’s been around 15 years since operations began at Sumo Pune, and over the years, more studios have popped up in both India and the UK. How has the culture been in the studios at these countries, and do you think there’s any major difference, when it comes to working with India compared to the UK?
There certainly was a culture difference 10-15 years ago. Absolutely. But, we’ve all learnt how to work together with each other respectfully and culturally by recognizing those cultural differences. Previously, the working culture in India was more of an in-sourcing and outsourcing working culture between the Sheffield and Pune studios. But, fast forward to now, thanks to our ongoing long-term strategy, the culture has shifted more towards core development and collaboration, where everything’s kind of discussed openly, and everybody’s input is valued. Along with that, the advancement of technology, education, training and social media has brought the UK and India studios much closer together culturally and socially.
Unlike most European and North American nations, India has never been at the forefront when it comes to console gaming. What do you think has been the biggest problem in the nation so far for PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo to leave an imprint similar to the ones they leave on other countries?
I feel the major barrier to console gaming in India has been accessibility. Mobile gaming is extremely popular due to its low barriers of entry. Nearly everyone has a smartphone these days, and free to play mobile games are extremely accessible and cost effective to download and play with in app purchases.. Console games have multiple barriers of entry. And consoles are an extra cost you have too look into, compared to the mobile phone, which is readily available with you at all times.
There’s also refrain from parents to buy video games and consoles, as it’s considered a major disruption, and it’s also an expensive hobby in India to partake in, compared to Europe and North American nations. Hopefully subscription services like Xbox Game Pass and PS Plus, will help spread those costs and lower the barriers to enable a more affordable console gaming hobby.
Mobile Gaming has been the big hook for India, as it’s cheap, easily accessible and with over a billion potential customers, has there ever been a discussion for Sumo to try their hand in this particular market?
Yeah, of course, we have discussed it. Currently, however, the mobile games we’re working on are for our publishing partners, and it’s their decision on where the game is available, and which markets they choose to deliver these mobile games.
Now I want to shift my focus towards Hood: Outlaws and Legends, which released in 2021. It’s been around a year since its release. How has the journey been post-release for the game, and your studios?
Hood was a great game to work on. Sumo Pune collaborated with the Newcastle studio on this title across art, design and engineering throughout the full development cycle and post release. The Newcastle studio throughout development cut time each year to play the game collectively, as it enables a constant player feedback between the two studios. With that feedback, the in-game experiences were constantly evolving. Plus, it also made for positive relationship building between the studios, both socially and work oriented. Everyone’s familiar with each other now, and not only did everyone have fun in the process, but the team building was natural too.
Sumo Digital has been busy supporting the game through a series of updates with new content. Recently, we released Season 3: Ostara, which included over 100 cosmetic items. The game also features cross platform with PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. So, there’s plenty of opportunities for you to grab your friends to get online and play.
Unreal Engine 5 launched few days ago, and you have already developed multiple titles using Unreal Engine 4. So, do you have plans to adopt Unreal Engine 5 for any of the titles you’re developing in the near future?
Yeah, absolutely. You’ve got to move with the technology advances, right? Our publishing partners want the best out of the products that we develop and deliver. So yeah, absolutely.
It’s a new year, and we all want to know what the future holds. What can you tell us about some of the exciting projects that fans might see from Sumo Digital and specifically Sumo India in the near future?
I’m sorry, but you know I don’t have the answers for that right now. I mean, some of the titles that we’re working on are big budget AAA titles. So, it’s certainly exciting times ahead. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal anything more than that.
But, what I can confirm is that we’re working on around 15 different titles right now. We need as much help and people to join us, as we’re growing exponentially. So, to all the readers, head over to the websites of Sumo Pune and Bangalore to see what roles you can apply for. You can join us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn to be up to date on all the positions and roles available.