Interview by Keith Murray May 2009
British based developers Sumo Digital are garnering a mighty reputation for bringing classic titles to the PSN and XBLA, the most recent being GTi Club+ and last months version of Outrun Online Arcade. We got the opportunity to speak to Steve Lycett about developing for the downloadable sphere.
Sumo Digital has been around for a little while now, but tell us how it was formed?
Sumo was born out of the ashes of Gremlin Interactive/Infogrames Sheffield House. When Infogrames closed the studio, the management team decided to go it alone, recruiting back many of the ex-Gremlin staff. We’d got a couple of games in development based on things we were working before the Sheffield House studio was closed, and figured we’d make a go of it from there. I think back then the plan was to keep the firm small and we’d hopefully turn a profit.
Where it really kicked off is after working with Kuju and Codemasters helping on England International Football, basically adding the Xbox Live side of the game, and around that time Sega were looking for a developer to port OutRun2. Given our recent experience on EIF and contacts at Microsoft they suggested that Sega could maybe talk to us, we pitched for OutRun and got it! Everything has kind of snowballed from there.
You’re probably best known for the amazing Outrun Arcade ports. How did it feel to be given the chance to work on such a prodigious title not just for the original console releases, but now updated for the downloadable platforms?
To this day it’s a case of pinching yourself to believe it happened! I remember the day we were told we were going to be working on it and the sense of amazement that Sega were trusting such a big game to a relatively unknown firm. Of course that just made us want to do the very best we could to prove ourselves, and I think even to this day, we tend to have a real pride in our work. We’re pretty much all gamers here – and with that it brings a lot of enthusiasm to what we do. It helps of course that we’re doing the kind of games we like to play, almost like we’re making them for ourselves!
Of course, OutRun also lead to us being involved with other ‘crown jewels’, we got to work on Virtua Tennis – and then with Sega’s biggest characters for Sega Superstars Tennis. There’s a real sense of excitement whenever we lock down the next big project as you really don’t know what to expect next having had the opportunity to work with such well known and loved IP’s.
Sega are a household name and have been around for as long as most of us care to remember how are they to work with?
We’ve got a great relationship with Sega, and have been privileged to work with a great many of the people behind their classic IP’s. We’ve worked closely with AM2 on OutRun and AM3 on Virtua Tennis, not mention most of the game studios behind many classic Sega franchises. Sega have constantly pushed us to innovate, provide fan service and ensure the games are the best quality we can do.
They also have a great understanding of their fan base. It was them who suggested OutRun2 should include Daytona and Scud Race tracks for example. We’d been toying around with getting OutRun2 running on 360 as an internal test project, they saw it and went ‘That would be great for a download title’.
For SST, we visited Sega Japan and were sat in a room with the original directors of Sonic, NiGHTS, Space Channel 5, pretty much every Sonic Team title ever developed. It’s kind of difficult to not be a little star struck with that when you’ve played all those games in the past.
The fan reaction to the reveal of Outrun Online Arcade title was overwhelmingly positive. Would you say that added more pressure for the final release or gives great comfort that you’re going in the right direction?
It’s great to know we’re trusted with it, but it does place that bit of extra pressure to deliver the goods! Every time you work on something there are things you’d have liked to include or done, but couldn’t due to time or budget constraints.
You’ll always have that, but being able to revisit something also gives you chance to try and get some of the things in you wanted to before. So there’s the end animations in at the end of stages, things like the Volcano erupting or the Space Shuttle taking off. There’s some small scoring errors that the hardcore fans pointing out. Ok these may seem small to some people, but they’re things we wanted to get sorted out.
Another recent addition to the extensive game portfolio for Sumo was excellent conversion of GTi+. Exactly how much input did Konami have with the title and what kind of assistance was provided?
We’d finished Track and Field on DS and Konami actually suggested it to us. We’d be doing some in-house technology and had a racing game prototype running on it – so it was a case of starting with the core tech from that and building GTi Club around it.
Once we got started we took delivery of the original two seater sit down cab for reference. We also managed to extract the original level from the arcade machine roms, then it was a case of getting the handling right, making it all suitably next-gen and ensuring it was true to the original.
The Konami UK guys were really involved, and spent most of their time in our offices, testing, suggesting tweaks and pushing the game along all the time. It helped that we shared the same vision that the game should stay true to what made it great originally. It’s all about small cars with tight handling and the all important handbrake turns.
In general, has working on the XBLA/PSN presented any particular or unique issues?
The only real issue we’ve had is having to work within size limits. Everything else is the same as developing a disk game. With our early PSN titles, like Go! Sudoku or Super Rub a Dub, we were also developing them at the same time as Sony was developing the PSN side of the PS3. So back then we had a lot of co-operation between us as we figured out the best way of having things work. It was quite exciting to be in at the start of something and seeing it develop into a working system.
Has there been anything you’ve learnt from developing downloadable titles that you wish you’d known before you started?
I think we’re lucky in that we’ve been developing for a while, and the only real issue when it comes to downloadable titles is working within space limitations. It does force you to think about being careful with resources, ensuring you try and give the user a small download but without compromising on quality.
Is there anything that the team would love to develop for the XBLA/PSN? Scud Racer or Daytona USA perhaps?
I think there’s a big demand out there for Daytona so personally I’d love to have a go at that one. As a biker, I think it’s about time we saw an up to date version of Super Hang On too! I think if you asked the team at Sumo which game they’d like to try, you’d get a suggestion of pretty much the entire Sega Arcade catalog!
What’s the general feeling about Downloadable content? Is it an extra expense which alienates the consumer, or a valuable way to expand a title and keep engaging with the fan base?
I think it depends on the content. In the case of OutRun, we’d have liked to include all the OutRun2 tracks in with the game, but this wasn’t feasible due to size limitations. If we could make this available as a reasonably priced download, it’s then up to the player if they think the extra content warrants the purchase price. As a gamer I’m quite happy to buy new content if it extends the life of a game. Take Rock Band as an example, I must have bought nearly 60 extra songs. I don’t feel EA or Harmonix forced me to do this, or held it back so they could charge for it – and I think for the price, you’re gaining a lot of extra gameplay and fun.