Sumo Digital's Paul Porter
On the challenges of creating episodic games for Doctor Who: The Adventure Games
The BBC announced last month that it was working with Sheffield studio Sumo Digital and Revolution's Charles Cecil on a series of games based on the TV series Doctor Who, with four episodes planned for release at the same time as the show airs this season.
Here, Sumo studio head Paul Porter discusses the challenges of working on overlapping episodic content, how it changes the production process and why Doctor Who can help the studio shift out of the misconception that's it's 'just' a team focused on sports and racing games.
Q: Can you give us a little history of the yourself and the studio?
Paul Porter: I joined Gremlin in 96/97 and Infogrames bought Gremlin at the end of 1999/2000. That went on under Infogrames for a couple of years as it acquired studios and then Infogrames closed our studio. We got great support from Infogrames at the time and they allowed us to keep the tools and technology that we'd built up over the years so we had a great grounding there for when we started Sumo. We're at about 120 staff internally. We started a studio in India in 2006 which has another 50 staff that services the rest of Foundation 9 as well, as we were acquired in 2008.
Q: How does the Foundation 9 relationship work on a daily basis?
Paul Porter: We're part of a family so we can share knowledge and experience across a group of individual developers that have their own skill sets and their own opportunities that they chase. We also get to share the back office functions and get advantages from our scale.
Q: Do you share work across studios and swap staff across different development teams?
Paul Porter: Absolutely. Obviously times have changed and there are a lot of people outsourcing and insourcing and one of the biggest challenges is that as an independent developer or a work for hire developer, one of your biggest challenges is to manage your down time. So first and foremost, if we're looking for external resources or contractors we'll ping one of the other studios first or vice-versa – we'll get asked if we've got people available to support other teams in the group.
Q: So it's a support community as well as a business community...
Paul Porter: Yes. We have a full Foundation 9 intranet which has obviously private and secure areas for those projects that need to be kept private and secure, but as far as sharing knowledge, tool and process, there's a great community there that we can all pull from and share experiences.
Q: How many different projects does Sumo Digital have on the go at the moment, and what's the ideal workload for the company?
Paul Porter: I think we have five at the moment, and we tend to have between five and seven projects on the go. They're all sorts of different scales, so last year we did A Christmas Carol for Disney which was DS only so it was only a small team, right through to Sonic & Sega All-Star Racing, which had over 80 people on it at its peak. So we don't have two or three specific teams that just go from one project to the next, we just adjust scale in respect of the different opportunities.
Q: You're working with the BBC for Doctor Who: The Adventure Games – how does that relationship work and how does it differ from working with a traditional publishing partner?
Paul Porter: It's definitely different. There was a learning curve there on both sides. Our expectation was that things might be a little more bureaucratic than they actually are. Now that we've met all the different stake holders in the BBC – because there are a lot with the Doctor Who team, BBC North, BBC Wales – there's a lot of interest because it's such a big project for the BBC, but now we've got those relationships and we know those people it's easy to just pick up the phone with them if there are any issues. There was a fear at first that their might be tiers of management to go through to get decisions made but that's not manifested, which is great.
And there was definitely a learning curve on their side as far as things like lead times that we've got in the games industry. When developers are creating a game you need to get your script done, your motion capture done, identify the story and get it fixed very early on. They have similar challenges when making an episode and building sets for the TV programme but I think it's probably been more iterative than we expected.
Q: Has Sumo had to learn new disciplines working alongside a TV company and across a game that's split over four different episodes throughout the year?
Paul Porter: That has some significant challenges because you can have two approaches. You can have the whole team working on every episode or you can try and have sub-teams that do a different episode each. The problem with sub-teams is that you're not necessarily going to get the consistency of the design and the development through each episode so it's a difficult balance trying to manage the delivery of four episodes over a period of time because you have key people you want to work across all those episodes but at the same time you've got a beta deadline on one, a final deadline on another, an alpha deadline on another and those dates coincide or are just a week apart so it's a different challenge creating episodic games.
Q: Are there more opportunities for developers to work so closely with TV production and maybe incorporate some of those disciplines into game development?
Paul Porter: The BBC has taken a big leap of faith here in trying to create a game alongside the TV series that integrates with it so closely, and is effectively broadcast while the series runs to compliment it. There's definite scope there. Obviously the proof will be in the pudding when the game is released. We'll see how many downloads that games get and if there's significant take-up then it'll be fantastic and I'm sure the BBC will want to do more in the space of interactive entertainment as well as on the TV side.
Q: With a majority of Sumo's output either racing or sports games, was it a conscious decision to pitch for the Doctor Who games to prove the company can also work on an alternative to those?
Paul Porter: We do look to attract those opportunities that are outside the expected field of something that Sumo might do because we never built ourselves as a racing studio or a tennis studio or a sports studio. It was simply was that our first significant opportunity was OutRun 2006: Coast to Coast. And because Codemasters saw that they talked to us about Race Driver and before you know it we're a racing studio, when we've got teams here that all came from Infogrames and Gremlin before that. We did racing games, we did sports games, but we also did platformers, adventure games and everything across the board. So when opportunities arrive that are outside of those fields we do, I guess, get a bit more excited that maybe we can break out of the mould of being the racing and sports studio that some people see us as.
Paul Porter is studio head at Sumo Digital. Interview by Matt Martin.