“There are 250 people here who are absolutely passionate about games”
BY Jennifer Lee O'Brien
Across the carpark from Sumo Digital’s headquarters on Brightside Lane stands Sheffield Forgemasters, where steel castings, forgings, rolls, ingots and bars are made and sent around the world. Every day, Sumo’s employees peer through the square windows of their offices and across the tarmac, and see a noisy reminder of Sheffield’s four-hundred year old manufacturing heritage. Sometimes, it sounds like a challenge from ghost echoes long past.
‘Work harder, be better. Be bolder, be better,’ it clangs. In Sheffield, there’s a reputation to uphold.
“The building shakes every time the sledge hammer hits, so we still feel it every day,” says Darren Mills, co-founder and studio director at Sumo. “But Sheffield is changing.”
Darren is right: Sheffield is changing. But that change is predicated on four-hundred years of redefining what Sheffield is good at making, which is always steel, but also music, green spaces, graduates, art, relish, coffee; and for the past thirty-something years, games.
Once upon a time in the eighties, in a Victorian building on Carver Street, there was a computer shop called Just Micro. Just Micro shared street space with a nightclub called Sinatra’s, where you could spend an evening dancing to disco, funk and soul. Sitting in the window of Just Micro was a sign that read ‘Computers For Fun’, that nowadays sounds more like a political endorsement than a shopfront slogan. Nowadays, VR is just so exciting and the iPhone just keeps getting thinner, but remember that fun feeling you used to get when the startup screen finally appeared, and the cursor flashed, waiting for a command? Remember when computers really were for fun?
The release of the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum in 1982 signalled a shift in gaming, from consoles and video arcades to home computers. This was the era of magazines like CRASH, ACE and Page 6, that revolutionised the games industry through type-in programs. A new issue in the postbox meant a new game to play; all you had to do was enter in lines of code, like you were a special ops member of a spaceforce from the future. And just how thrilling was that?
The idea for Just Micro was conjured up by two young entrepreneurs named Kevin Norburn and Ian Stewart. Ian had been managing Laskys, where Kevin worked, in Sheffield; back in 1981 it was one of the first high street stores in the area to start selling computers. But what it didn’t really sell was software, and Laskys’ customers kept coming in asking for it. In 1983, Ian and Kevin opened the shop on Carver Street. Everything, in Sheffield at least, was about to change.
Visit Just Micro on a weekend and you’d be in a swarm of teenagers playing games, buying games and showing off small-scale programs they’d developed in their bedrooms. It was a magical kind of place; the kind of place you’d be day-dreaming about during maths class, or when mum had the neighbours around for dinner.
Just Micro was a haven for the kind of kids who didn’t recognise the adult world as their own; they didn’t need it, when they could just program a better, faster version for themselves. Just Micro wasn’t just a games shop — it was where the effing future was being made, and in this future, teenagers would be running the planet.
In an interview published in CRASH magazine in 1985, Ian says: “When Kevin and myself had opened Just Micro, we always said as soon as the shop got rolling and we found the time and the necessary programmer, that we would like to have our own software house.”
It was some of the excited, bright teenagers hanging out at the shop on weekends who would be invited to become Gremlin Graphics’ first programmers. In 1984, Ian and Kevin rented an office space above Just Micro and hired then eighteen-year old Tony Crowther and nineteen-year old Peter Harrup. One of its first games, Wanted: Monty Mole, created for the ZX Spectrum, won CRASH magazine’s readers award for best platform game that year.
For the people that loved them, Just Micro and Gremlin live on with the hallowed kind of nostalgia saved for things that can never again be as they once were. There are forums, websites, YouTube videos and even a book devoted to the shop and studio on Carver Street. Just Micro has been described as a kind of “mecca”; mostly it’s remembered as a good place to hang out and play new games. But for all the hype around the shop, it was what was going on upstairs that was really extraordinary.
“Gremlin was great,” says Darren. “It had a huge family atmosphere to it.”
Darren is a homegrown Sheffielder; his father worked at the steel-working sites where Meadowhall shopping centre now shares the neighbourhood with Sheffield Forgemasters and Sumo Digital.
Darren studied graphic design at college and did a work placement with a television company making graphics, captions and credits for shows. When his placement ended, around the same time he was supposed to apply for university, they offered him a job.
“The advice at the time was get the experience, take the job. Which I did,” says Darren. “They bought a computer so I could do 3D animation, which is what I was doing at college. While I was there I picked up a camera.”
Darren learned how to work a camera and do vision mixing, editing programmes on live television. He began directing live broadcasts; some of his work was shown on BBC, ITV, Sky Sports and Sky News. Darren left the TV industry for Gremlin Interactive (by that time, they’d changed the name); he tells us that his work as a sports cameraman helped him get the job. This was in 1995, the same year that Gremlin released Actua Soccer, one of the first 3D football games for home consoles.
Around the same time, Gremlin was developing Realms of the Haunting, a first-person adventure horror game that had been pitched to the company by superstar programmer Tony Crowther. Tony had been one of Gremlin’s original teenage programmers, but had left several months in to form his own company, Wizard Development. Wizard didn’t last long, but Tony — who, in an early interview with games magazine Zzap!64, admitted to getting fan mail – continued to program games. Realms of the Haunting was the first game Darren worked on, and he was hooked.
“That was a game Tony Crowther was leading; he was one of the famous guys at the time, so it was great to be on that project,” says Darren.
“The team was spread all over the building so I spent a lot of time working from room to room around all the team members. I worked my way through Gremlin as an artist through to art director.”
In 1997, Gremlin Interactive acquired DMA Design, a Scottish publisher who had released Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings. Two years later, Gremlin was bought by French company Infogrames. The name was changed to Infogrames Sheffield House, where they employed more than 300 people, including Carl Carvers, Paul Porter and James North-Hearn — who, alongside Darren, would become the founding members of Sumo Digital.
We visited Sumo Digital’s headquarters one day to chat to Darren. Once inside, we were asked to sign confidentiality waivers and offered drinks from one of several office refrigerators devoted to complementary pop and bottles of water. We were reminded that whatever we may — or may not — see on computer screens or desks can’t be shared with the outside world.
The room where we meet Darren is in a building further down along the car park. There’s a brand new 70 inch television on the wall, and a long desk with chairs. Darren mentions he’s not been in the room since it’s been redone; we try to imagine running a company that’s so big and busy there are spaces in your own office you’ve not seen.
It’s difficult to envision Sumo being anything other than it is today, which is a company regularly visited by representatives from Sony and Microsoft, who fly in from Seattle; a company responsible for AAA games like LittleBigPlanet 2 & 3, Forza Horizon 2 and Dead Island 2. But back in 2003, when Infogrames shut down its Sheffield studio, Sumo was just four guys with a lot of experience and redundancy cheques.
“When Infogrames closed we thought: there are some great people around, we know a lot of people in the industry,” says Darren. “Let’s give it a go and see what we can come up with.”
They began by hiring four artists and four programmers; all alumni from Gremlin and Infogrames. It felt like a risk but they had Gremlin’s reputation and their own talent on their side. But when they began approaching clients for work, they couldn’t seem to get a job.
Darren was surprised; they weren’t expecting it.
“When we went to look for that first work, we kind of knew everybody and everybody knew us as Infogrames and Gremlin people. And they said, ‘Well, what have you done as Sumo?’ We knew we could do the work that we were pitching for, but as Sumo we’d never done anything.”
Sumo’s first job wasn’t a game at all; it was an exercise bike with a monitor. Sumo developed a mountain bike theme to play on the monitor’s screen while the user biked; it was much closer to an exercise app than a video game.
Darren tells us it was a big project at the time. “A really small project now,” he says. “At the time it was our whole world.”
Those first eighteen months Sumo was out to prove it could establish its own reputation, one that didn’t rely on Gremlin and Infogrames. They took any work they could get their hands on, and treated each project like it might be their last.
“A lot of that work was porting work,” says Darren. “We always wanted to do porting work but add something of ourselves to it, so we never took a straight porting job. We used to call them port-plusses.”
Sumo got their first break with OutRun 2, the official sequel of Sega’s 1986 Out Run. Working with Sega AM2, Sumo ported the game to Xbox and PlayStation 2, released in Europe and the US in 2004. Its success put Sumo on the map, and in the years that followed they developed racing games like TOCA Race Driver 2, OutRun 2SP, OutRun 2006: Coast2Coast, Go! Sudoku and Race Driver 2006 with publishers like Sega, Sony and Codemasters.
“OutRun is a fifteen minute arcade game, and we added ten hours of game play to that on Xbox,” says Darren. “We always wanted to expand our portfolio; we didn’t want to get tagged by being a porting house or a racing studio. For a while, we struggled with that.
“Over the years we managed to break away from that and broaden what we do. We’ve hired people with certain skill sets to allow the company to expand, and now we work in a number of different genres.”
In 2007, James and Darren stepped off a plane in Pune, India; a commercial city in Maharashtra with a population of almost 5.9 million. They had sent management out to Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa and Argentina looking for a location for a new art studio.
James and Darren interviewed twenty applicants in two days; many of them had worked for the Indian film industry, or were graduates from the Film and Television Institute of India, based in Pune. In those days, the games industry wasn’t a strong player in India’s entertainment culture, but Sumo saw the opportunity to work with new, talented individuals, expand the company and maintain the quality of their work.
Darren says they were beginning to “Fall foul of the pitch-and-switch”; using their A-team to get jobs and then outsourcing it to others.
“India came about because we were doing a lot of outsourcing at the time,” says Darren. “We felt like we had very little control of the work we were getting through. In the old days, it was something that happened quite often, and we just needed that control. It would actually make us unique, there weren’t that many companies doing it at the time.”
The Pune studio is predominantly an art studio, building assets for some of Sumo’s AAA titles like Dr Who, Forza Horizon 2 and Virtua Tennis 3. The team consists of about sixty people, who are about to move to a new studio with room for one-hundred and ten employees.
“We’re finding that opportunities out in India are just growing all the time,” says Darren. “The games market is evolving, people are buying consoles out in India now, and we’re finding some really good people there.”
Sumo has sent most of their production staff and lead artists to visit Pune and meet the team, and brought several of the employees in Pune back to Sheffield, for training and finishing up big projects.
“We don’t use the typical outsourcing mentality and run everything through one person and have a point of contact at each side,” says Darren. “We basically deal artist-to-artist, programmer-to-programmer. So everybody at some point gets a chance to put a face to the name that they’ve been working with.”
In March 2016, Sumo opened a third studio in Nottingham. Darren tells us that the site is close enough to manage and will “extend the net wider” to attract new talent.
“There is a Sumo-type person,” says Darren. “Part of our interview process is about sitting down and having a conversation with somebody and talking about the games industry, talking about the work we do and the work they’ve done and just seeing whether there’s that team fit.
“One of the early conversations we had when we started Sumo was it needed to feel like Gremlin did; Gremlin just had this big family atmosphere. And that is next to impossible to keep going when you get to a studio of our size. It’s hard for everybody to know everybody else. But we try and maintain it as much as we can.”
If you met Darren somewhere casual and a bit confined, like a dinner party or an aeroplane, you might not think he was the studio director of a gaming company that gets bi-monthly visits from Microsoft. It might be a cliche, but if you’ve worked hard enough to build a multi-million pound company, you’re entitled to a little bit of arrogance, if not some good ol’ self-promotion. But Darren is polite and self-effacing. He says he’s not usually the one to get interviewed; “All of us hate doing interviews and things like that,” he says.
For a long time, Sumo didn’t really talk about what it did or who they worked with. They just got on with it, working on each project as if it might be their last.
“One thing that we hear a lot is, ‘Oh, you did that? We didn’t realise you did that,’” says Darren. “We’ve never been a company to stand up and shout from the rooftops. We’ve kept our heads down and tried to live off our reputation, get word around by word-of-mouth and talk to the right people in the industry.”
Sumo are beginning to talk to the press about the work they do, if only in the hopes it’ll attract more talent to the studio.
“It is good working in the games industry. It’s really strange because everybody you talk to says ‘Oh, yeah, I’d love to play games all day as well,’” he laughs. “I can’t remember the last time I played games all day. In fact, it’s very rare I actually do play games when I’m in the office.
“It’s nice to look at a build and see how things are coming on; it’s nice to get your hands on something for ten minutes. But most of the time, it’s a lot of hard work — you’ve got to love it, you’ve got to be passionate about it. That’s why the studio is as strong as it is; because there are 250 people here who are absolutely passionate about games.”
It’s the kind of passion that comes from learning code in your bedroom, hanging out at the game shop on weekends, feeling like you’re working on the edge of a future built by teenage dreams.
Darren is right: Sheffield is changing. But it’s bringing along with it the ghost echoes of a four-hundred year old manufacturing heritage, memories of a Victorian building on Carver Street and the shiny future of Sumo Digital. And just how thrilling is that?
Originally published in The City Talking: Sheffield — issue 06