Featured Interview- Sumo Digital

Featured Interview- Sumo Digital

Sumo Digital is a game development company that has grown from a small team 15 years ago to a staff of over 500 housed in 4 studios across the UK and India. They've worked with top gaming companies in the industry to develop groundbreaking AAA experiences. 

Here we hear from Darren Mills, Co-Founder and Studio Director

Sumo Digital was founded 15 years ago- in that time you’ve accumulated many awards for your work and have partnered with some of the top companies in the industry (i.e. Sega, PlayStation, Sony, EA). What do you think is at the core of your success?

Our Staff.  We pride ourselves on our world class, passionate development teams who continue to deliver creative and innovative, entertaining and engaging expansions of licensed IP, while remaining a trusted studio to our partners.

We’re approaching our 15th anniversary and over the years we have built up a wealth of experience and knowledge across a variety of platforms and genres, and we’re always looking to push ourselves further. As Nintendo proved with the Switch – the industry can throw up some great surprises – we aim to be as ready as we can for new platforms.

Can you give us a brief history of the studio - how it started and how it came to be what it is today?

Sumo Digital was founded in 2003 by myself, Paul Porter (MD), Carl Cavers (CEO) and James North-Hearn, following the closure of Infogrames Studios/Gremlin Interactive in Sheffield.

We started out as a small, passionate group of 12 people who began initially developing games in collaboration with partners such as Codemasters and SEGA. Our core principals, which remain today, are to build great games and a great company, that supports and empowers its people.

Since then Sumo has grown from 12 people to around 500 across its four studios in Sheffield, Nottingham, Newcastle in the UK and Pune in India, maintaining strong relationships with our early partners and forging relationships with new partners year on year. We are now working on some of the industry’s most renowned games IP. Our most recent studio, in Newcastle, also now gives us a team with fantastic experience in VR –  increasing our capabilities in that area.

What would you say are Sumo Digital's core values?

With regards to our internal culture, first and foremost, our staff come first. It’s incredibly important to us that we ensure our workforce are happy, by listening to their needs and making sure that they know that every member of the team is valued.

From a development point of view; quality, creativity, versatility and reliability are the four pillars that remain at the heart of everything we do. These values are demonstrated in our track record which covers genres from racing to platformers, open-world to augmented reality fitness.

What are your ambitions for the next 5 years? Any exciting projects you can share details about?

Over the next five years, we aim to continue to grow, evolve and develop along with the industry.  

Although we can’t share much, we are working on some incredibly exciting projects, some announced and some that are still under wraps.  We’re looking forward to sharing details on those when we can!

We will also continue to foster our internal creativity with game jams, and develop some of the prototypes as our own, original IP. Our ambition is to remain a world-class, AAA game development studio, working with external partners on great licensed IP.

You launched Student Placements 5 years ago, could you explain to our readers what that entails?

Our undergraduate placement scheme is a fantastic opportunity for university students on sandwich courses in programming, art and game design. The placements give students valuable experience of working in a fast paced, professional environment on real AAA projects, better preparing them for a career in the games industry.

The initiative is important to us as it strengthens our ties with universities across the UK, and gives us the opportunity to help shape the next generation of game development talent - it is vital that we, as an industry, continue to engage more with schools and young people.  

Our placements usually run from September to September and students can apply for the vacancy via our careers site. The placements are paid positions and currently available at our Sheffield and Nottingham studios. The closing date for this year’s applications is Friday 23rd February 2018.

What are expectations for students that complete the program?

We hope that the placement scheme helps them complete their degree to a higher standard and gives them a much better understanding of real-world game development. And of course, we hope they come back to work at Sumo.

Now we hear from Dave Blewett, Art Manager

When new artists apply to work for you what tends to catch your eye the most?

Quality clearly counts first and foremost, and that will always catch the eye of the person reviewing the submission. Once we start digging a bit deeper into an application, it’s great to see artists who are versatile in their work and demonstrate flexibility in their approach to a team role, being able to work across various projects. As an art team lead, knowing that you have that flexibility within your team’s ranks is a very welcome thing indeed.

We also look for a diverse range of work styles, from photo realistic through to stylized cartoon work. As Sumo works on a wide range of projects and styles, an artist that can cover many bases will grab our attention.

What are some common interview deal-breakers/red flags applicants should be careful about?

An applicant must do their homework on Sumo and our titles.  We consider ourselves a close-knit family here at Sumo, growing to where we are now with certain core values. We look for people who want to be a member of our family, embrace our collective values, and stay with us on our journey.

There are so many successful artists without a formal education out there, what is the real importance of a degree or certificate when it comes to hiring at a studio like Sumo Digital? Is there any or is a good portfolio all you need?

I would suggest that anyone without a formal art qualification, but with a good, high quality portfolio, should not be put off from contacting us. A formal qualification isn’t the first thing we look for with art applicants. It’s always the work quality first, followed closely by relevant experience and interview performance. Anyone without professional experience, but some great portfolio work, may have a chance to join us as an Intern, or even as a Junior Artist. 

Have a look at the work of other artists on websites like Artstation, and see if you think you compare favourably with the work of others trying to get into the industry. Be honest and critique your own work, or have others take a look too. Take feedback positively and address any weaknesses. We have seen some amazing applications from people who are completely self-taught! We take a look at all applications that come to us, so if in any doubt, please contact us.

Could you take us through an average day in the life of an artist working at Sumo Digital?

The team will normally start arriving between 9.30 to 10am, as we have a really cool flexi-time policy. You can start earlier if you wish. Most people grab a coffee and have a catch up with friends. Once the art team are all together we will have our morning scrum with producers and leads to discuss the day’s events and priorities. Then it’s onto the day’s tasks for the project you are assigned to, and we have lots here at Sumo! You could be working on amazing character models, or stunning environment work. Maybe even more specialist categories like animation, visual effects, lighting or technical art. You might be working in conjunction with artists in one of our other studios too. Whatever discipline you work within, you can always rely on feedback from the project’s Art Director, who will ensure that the style is always correct, and that the quality is there too. We usually break for lunch at 1pm for an hour, and then back on it for the afternoon. If you have saved up some of your flexi-time hours, you could go home as early as 4pm. Otherwise its around 5.30pm when most people finish and head off home after a good day’s work.

Do you have any advice for ambitious artists out there looking to make it in the game industry?

Learn one of the free engines out there like Unreal or Unity. There are plenty of tutorials to guide you. As many studios use these engines, including Sumo, it allows you to become familiar with some of the tech and tools that are used on a daily basis.   

Get yourself noticed by the person reviewing the submissions. Stand out. Get that killer portfolio ready, that’s the thing that will get you past that first hurdle. It’s going to take time to get it right, so start now! Focus on your subject matter. If you want to be an environment artist, don’t fill your portfolio with character art which isn’t your specialism. 

Do what you do best. Constantly evaluate the work in your portfolio, and be your harshest critic. A piece of work that is your best now, may not be your best in six months’ time. Resist the urge to put every piece of work you have ever done in there - the person viewing your work has a limited amount of time to look so, allow them to focus on the amazing stuff, and save the rest for later. Maybe show it when you get the interview!

Come along to an interview fully prepared. Do your homework and have some questions to ask. Don’t be shy about bringing along printed material and sketchbooks if you have them. These are all useful props that aid the interview flow, and it’s great to have something to leaf through, rather than just images on a screen. We look at screens all day! A sketchbook can be an excellent insight into someone’s creative thought processes. Some of them can be stunning to look at, and can often start interesting conversations. Also during interview, relax and be yourself. We are a friendly bunch here at Sumo, and our art interviews are quite informal. We want to know that you will be happy with us, and will be comfortable joining our team.

If you are lucky enough to be selected for a job in the industry, well done, now enjoy it! It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding, and you get to work with a pretty cool bunch of likeminded, talented, highly experienced people who all do this because they love it.

We look forward to seeing you all soon!