Better together: Sumo Digital's Indian studio comes of age
CEO Carl Cavers on India's progress as a talent hub, and the creative opportunities that arise from cross-cultural development
As the Xbox and PlayStation 2 were replaced by their technological betters, a great many console developers were faced with a sharp, disconcerting increase in the cost of production. Games could now be bigger, more detailed and more connected than ever before, creating a need for larger investments in both new and existing disciplines without any firm guarantee of a larger audience to address. For many companies that transition was difficult, but it was generally kinder to those willing to appraise and improve the efficiency with which they operated.
It was during that tumultuous period that Sumo Digital decided, as CEO Carl Cavers puts it, "to be a bit more aggressive about how we managed everything, to give us a bit more flexibility." Cavers doesn't explicitly draw a line between the pressures described above and Sumo's perceived need for flexibility through tighter control, but the fact that an "offshore art facility" became a focal point of the resulting strategy tells its own story.
"A lot of game companies overlook Bollywood. There's a huge need for animation, blue-screen, green-screen"
Sumo's management visited locations in Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Malaysia to explore the possibilities, but it was a trip to Pune in the Indian state of Maharashtra that finally tipped the balance. The language barrier was low relative to other countries Sumo had visited, the time-zone was kind to a business operating out of the UK, and there was a surprising abundance of skilled applicants.
Pune is, after all, home to the Film and Television Institute of India, one of the most prestigious schools feeding the hugely popular Bollywood film industry, based just a few hours away in Mumbai. "When [Sumo's management] did the interviews, they said, 'this is the place we need to be,'" Cavers recalls. "A lot of game companies overlook Bollywood. There's a huge need for animation, blue-screen, green-screen, everything else. The skill and talent was already here."
However, the availability of "skill and talent" didn't mask a significant issue; a diluted version of the same issue encountered by Rajesh Rao when he founded India's first ever game developer, Dhruva Interactive, in 1997. At that point, gaming had never been a part of India's entertainment culture, and so potential hires had to be approached on the assumption that they had never even seen a console, let alone played many games. Such things change given time, of course, but even a decade on Sumo was encountering a similar lack of understanding of core aspects of how games are made.
"Technically, they didn't understand games," Cavers says. "They had loads of creative talent, but we had to invest some money to get them up to speed on games."
That lack of understanding went beyond the products, too. Cavers can't help but smile while recalling a handful of interviews in which the applicant's parents insisted on attending. The prospect of their child working for an international entertainment business was appealing, but there was no confidence that the games industry could provide a stable career. "They wanted to check Sumo out. They wanted to know that we were a viable company," Cavers says, noting that the experience brought to mind the general attitude towards games during his own childhood, in Britain in the early Eighties.
Sumo India opened for business in 2007, and that year would prove to be crucial for the country's evolution as a market for and producer of games. It was the year that the iPhone launched, kickstarting an era in which both games and game development would become more accessible and democratic than ever before. The younger generations in India are now habitual mobile phone users, and smartphone users in greater and greater numbers. "They've grown up with games," Cavers says, and that has caused a "massive change" in the number of people eager to pursue a career in the industry, and their sense of the medium as a whole.
"I can see us being able to get to a position where we'll be doing full game development out here"
"Initially, all of the creative vision was led by the UK," Cavers continues. "We probably spent a good two years getting the Pune studio up to parity with the UK studio, in terms of efficiency and understanding. But since 2009 the culture has changed, as they've gone through the lifecycle of the products more and more, and as those products have become more sophisticated. Their creative awareness has become much greater.
"Where we had to put a lot more time and effort in originally to direct the creative talent - which could deliver exactly what you needed if you were very specific - that has now changed. Now, we're finding that India is providing more and more of a lead on some of the projects that we do."
Indeed, last year's management buyout, in which Sumo regained its independence from parent company Foundation 9, has given the company more freedom to make an even larger investment in the region. Sumo is in the midst of hiring engineering talent, which will give the Pune studio the kind of complete skill-set it need to become more creatively independent. Cavers is obviously delighted with how readily Sumo was able to find impressive applicants, beating internal expectations by a wide margin.
"We expected it would take us months and months to find the right people, and it would take us months, if not years, to get up to speed," he says. "Brilliantly, we got some great CVs in and we've managed to employ seven people in a really short space of time. The technical ability and the awareness is there, so, from that perspective, I can see us being able to get to a position where we'll be doing full game development out here, at least on small scale - maybe mobile to start with, or Steam."
Sumo has always seen its Pune office as a "satellite studio" rather than an outsourcing facility, but Cavers is all too aware of the negative stereotypes many game companies still carry when it comes to India. If outsourcing was once a logical place to start for a country with skilled workers in related fields like art and animation but no tradition or culture around games, India transcended that long ago. Nevertheless, Cavers believes such notions still exist within the international games business, even though they are increasingly out of step with reality.
"We're not here because it's cheap. There are a lot of cheap places. We came here for the skills and the expertise," Cavers says. "If cheap was what we wanted we would probably have gone to China, but that wouldn't have provided the long term opportunity that India does. We want a good, global business."
"You've got to be prepared to invest. If you're only here because it's cheap, I'd say forget it"
"It all depends on your motive for being here. You've got to be prepared to invest. If you're only here because it's cheap, I'd say forget it. It might be cheaper than the UK at the minute, but the way inflation goes in India? Who know where it will be in ten years time. It might be just as expensive. It might be more expensive."
From Sumo's perspective, Pune has evolved from an "art facility" to a near complete development studio in the space of a console generation. The company is still implementing ways of improving the internal culture between its UK and Indian studios, from game jams to an exchange programme where employees can trade places for a few months to gain new experiences. For Cavers, this unification is more than just a pleasing by-product of its presence in India. Over time, it has become the entire point.
"When you've got a common interest with someone from another culture, everything else just breaks down immediately," he says. "Then, together, by combining your experiences, you can come up with something new, and much better than what you could have done alone."
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