Ian Livingstone tells Sumo Digital’s great British success story

Ian Livingstone is a man with many titles. He’s co-creator of Fighting Fantasy, co-founder of Games Workshop, GamesAid trustee, life president of Eidos, vice chair of Ukie, and many more, lots more than we have space to list here at least. 

But as we meet, he’s here as the chairman of Sumo Digital, two days after the release of the company’s first original IP, Snake Pass. The title has now topped the first ever European Switch eShop charts, beating Nintendo’s behemoth The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to the number one spot.

For Livingstone, this is finally the recognition Sumo Digital has always deserved.

“Sumo is kind of a secret success story, no one really knows about the work they do and how brilliant the work they do is,” he enthuses. 

“Here’s a studio with nearly 400 people now in Sheffield, the major studio, Nottingham, and in Pune in India, and they’re developing games for both Microsoft and Sony and I don’t think there’s any other studio doing that right now. They also work for Koch Media, for Disney, for Sega, and they’re working on major franchises, and yet it’s almost a secret because they’re not allowed to talk about it.

“It’s a great British success story. I don’t know any other studio, particularly in Europe, that has that number of employees and a studio that is developing for both Microsoft and Sony. It’s usually either or. But Sumo are that good that everyone wants to use them. It’s just that they’ve not been good at telling their story,” Livingstone laughs.

“I think that’s my job to try and tell the story because they deserve it, they are fantastic. Ultimately the world will find out.”

With the release of Snake Pass, the world has already started to find out about Sumo, as the title has been well received both commercially and critically. 

“Sumo has no history of self-publishing so the expectations were, I wouldn’t say a wet finger in the air, but you know…” Livingstone smiles. “But there were obviously numbers in the budget and that’s definitely in line with that, possibly a little bit better. They’ve done a great job in creating Snake Pass and then suddenly we had a new platform in Switch to be able to launch on, which hadn’t been considered when we started development, and it’s doing really well on Switch.”

Livingstone was a key figure in making Snake Pass happen, too, as he’s the one who suggested the game jam that led to the creation of the title.

“I think it’s my job, from all the years I’ve been working in games to try and move up the value chain of IP ownership,” he explains. “At the moment, there’s this phrase that I don’t like called ‘work-for-hire’. But Sumo is not work-for-hire, they are fully investing in the projects that they do themselves, they receive royalties on the games they develop. 

“When [they invited me to become chairman] and I saw the talent that they have and the quality of the game they produce, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be a great idea to empower some of the people at Sumo so they wouldn’t have to leave to do their own thing?’ 

“You see so many people leaving for larger developers or to set up their own studio. I thought it would be great if we could just have them working here. 

“So we implemented a game jam. And out of that first game jam, Snake Pass was considered the best. It wasn’t on us, the management, to vote which one. Again, [we wanted to] empower the developers themselves and let them vote on which one should be the one so there could be no argument.”

"I don’t know any other studio that’s developing for both Microsoft and Sony. It’s usually either or."

Ian Livingstone, Sumo Digital

Naturally, we ask about the future of the other titles developed during the game jam and if we should expect more new IPs to be announced later this year. 

“They’re lined up, [but] it’s a question of resource,” Livingstone answers. “This is not Sumo changing their business model, it’s additive. They’re never, ever, going to put at risk the fantastic business that they have at delivering quality triple-A products for the world’s premier publishers and platform holders. That’s never going to change at all. But it’s nice to be able to allow them to have some ownership of their own content, by which they’ll create great new IP. 

“My whole life I’ve been involved with original IP. The value of your company goes up as a result of the IP ownership, because it’s not just the revenue you derived from publishing it’s all the incremental revenue, it’s from licensing and merchandise.”

Sumo may not be changing its business model, then, but we should definitely expect new IPs from the studio.

“There will be more,” Livingstone confirms. “But it’s not going to suddenly become an own-IP self-published company. That is not the message we’re sending out there. [It’s about] empowerment of some of the fantastic talent that exists, and allow them to feel ownership and control, as well as sharing in the rewards, too.”

Livingstone’s plea for empowerment through IP ownership is also in line with his work with Rick Gibson in the creation of a British Games Institute to handle games funding. Ultimately, what he has in mind for the BGI could help studios like Sumo Digital to find support to develop their own IPs.

“We’ve got Ukie and TIGA on board and 350 companies signed up and so we’re going through the process of trying to convince the government this is a good thing,” Livingstone says. 

“We need to have our own agency – currently we’re under the wing of the BFI and this is great, but I think that, to be taken seriously, we need our own agency, to be connected to the government and be able to fund games. This is not in any way going to replace TIGA or Ukie, this is a purely independent agency that’s going to fund developers and drive the cultural recognition of games.”

The creation of a BGI may still be some way off yet, but with Livingstone primed and ready to give Sumo Digital the credit it deserves, the studio will no doubt be at the forefront of its plans to enhance the public perception of games going forward, whether it’s with a new IP or with Sony and Microsoft’s next big title.

Fighting Fantasy rolls on

You can’t possibly meet Ian Livingstone without talking about Fighting Fantasy. The series, which he co-created with Steve Jackson, celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. “And it kind of shows my age a bit,” Livingstone laughs. “I’ve written a new book to celebrate that. It’s called The Port of Peril and it’s going to be published by Scholastic.”

The publisher acquired the world rights to the series at the end of March, and the books will be ‘republished, repackaged and reignited for a new generation’, the company announced.

“They’ve seen a kind of rekindling in the genre, which is fascinating because the series sold nearly 20m copies, in the 80s primarily,” Livingstone says. 

“And now [the original readers] have got children and they’re saying, ‘Hey, I used to read this, what do you think?’ Normally, children reject everything that their parents say, but I’m delighted to say that in this instance they’re liking them, because Fighting Fantasy empowers the reader. So I’m looking forward to the re-launch of the books in August.”

Alongside these new versions of the books, there’s also a new card-based game coming, Livingstone continues: “We’ve just licensed the right of Fighting Fantasy to Nomad Games to do a single-player exploration game, where you explore the world of some of the books, like City of Thieves, and you have combat, you pick up cards, collect them, which will be used to upgrade your dice. So it’s effectively a board game, and [Nomad Games] is hoping to coincide with the re-launch of the books. So it’s a really exciting time to see Fighting Fantasy back.”

Lead picture by Oliver McNeil

About Marie Dealessandri

Marie Dealessandri is MCV’s former senior staff writer. After testing the waters of the film industry in France and being a radio host and reporter in Canada, she settled for the games industry in London in 2015. She can be found (very) occasionally tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate, Hollow Knight and the Dead Cells soundtrack.

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