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Sumo's Millard: Constraints 'Tax Creativity More Than A Blank Canvas'
Sumo's Millard: Constraints 'Tax Creativity More Than A Blank Canvas'
October 5, 2010 | By Kris Graft

October 5, 2010 | By Kris Graft
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"Game designers are kind of a funny lot. It's not really quantifiable what a game designer does, in the same way it's hard to quantify an artist's work."

That's according to Sean Millard of Sheffield, UK developer Sumo Digital, the studio behind games including Outrun Online Arcade, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and Dr. Who: The Adventure Games. He's been with the Foundation 9-owned studio since 2003.

Millard told Gamasutra in a phone interview that he recently moved up from his position as creative evangelist at Sumo to a creative director he'll now manage designers, act as a liaison to publishing partners and, most notably, become a formal member of the studio's management team.

Because it can be difficult for more business-minded management to quantify or judge a game designer's work or ideas, Sumo and Millard found that it would be beneficial to have someone within the studio act as sort of a translator for the company's creative types, a group that he still closely aligns with, Millard said.

"I understand the psychology of designers, and how to be able to interact around a board table with upper management," he explained. Designers need to have a proponent that knows how to "sell" ideas to management, Millard said. "Otherwise, ideas don't get due consideration. They get washed over as 'creative fluff.'"

"In order to sell an idea, you have to be really passionate about your idea. It's a funny kind of position where you have to appear to be an egomaniac but actually you can't afford to have any sort of ego whatsoever," said Millard. "It's a weird position."

The idea of having a creative voice within upper management isn't necessarily new at Sumo, Millard said, but the formal establishment of such a position means that designers can also be held answerable for games' successes -- and shortfalls.

Injecting A Creative Voice Into Management

"My role is to evangelize the design point of view, but also [gives] little bit more responsibility to the studios," he explained. "It's about being accountable for those [design] decisions rather than just waxing on in the corner about the creative point of view."

"I think I've reached a level of maturity in my career where I can look at it from a practical point of view" rather than a purely "fantastical" point of view, Millard said. The new job involves him being "fantastical with my feet on the ground, if you like."

As a creative director at Sumo, Millard is overseeing a portfolio made up of games largely based on licensed properties. He's passionate about what he called the "underestimated" work and creativity that goes into developing licensed games.

"I think that it's really easy for people to assume that the biggest creative opportunities come from a blank canvas," he argued. "I really don't agree with that at all. I think it's a great opportunity to work on your own IP, but actually working within properties that really mean something to people offers way more of a creative challenge and tests the mettle of designers because you have to make it creative, surprising and anything else that goes into design, but you also have a set of rules."

"Embrace Restraints"

One of the studio's current projects is a series of adventure games based on the BBC's Dr. Who television series. Sumo and the BBC are working together to make the recently-commissioned second series of the game tie in closely with the television adaptation. The first three publicly-funded Doctor Who: The Adventure Games episodes attracted 1.6 million downloads from the BBC website.

The Dr. Who franchise has been around since 1963, said Millard. "There's a hell of a lot of history to consider, and that taxes the creativity more than a blank canvas. My mission in life creatively is to make people realize that there is a lot more creativity that goes on in licensed properties than people say. What we do is sometimes underestimated creatively, I think."

"You have to embrace restraints," he said, adding that companies working on licensed properties must find out why people are attached to a certain property, and focus on that attachment when designing a game. It's a challenging process, he said.

Asked if the development teams share his enthusiasm for working on licensed properties, he laughed. "Yeah, sometimes they need to be reminded [of the advantages]." Millard said that Sumo entertains ideas based on new IP, but "the grass is always greener," he said.

Launching a new original property, from a publishing and marketing standpoint, is a huge undertaking, the creative director explained. "With an established franchise, people get what it is immediately, and we can get behind it. Something that's established has much more chance at success than trying to establish it yourself."


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Comments


Bart Stewart
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This is something that I've had trouble with regarding many games based on licensed properties.



The business case for licensing some presumably popular bit of IP to make a game out of it is simple: you get a built-in audience for your game. The extent to which people who like the book/TV show/movie/sport will buy your game is debatable, but there'll be more (the theory goes) than if you created your own original IP. Licensing a world is thus thought to guarantee some minimum number of sales.



The problem I see is that as soon as they get the IP, developers start discarding parts of it. On the one hand this is just a requirement; there's no way to capture and communicate absolutely every bit of the lore of a Doctor Who or one of the Big Three IPs (Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Star Trek). You have to pare the game down to the most iconic bits, and there are technical limitations as well. That's understood.



What's not comprehensible is that so many developers insist on substituting their judgment of what's "iconic" over that of the actual fans of the IP -- you know, the people who are supposed to be the built-in audience for a game that lets them play in the world they love. Worse yet, many developers seem to think they can take an engine from some other game, which addresses with specific mechanics the gameplay requirements of some other IP, and just "re-skin" it with the pictures and sound effects shown in or described by the new IP.



Why would any developer think that could work? Why would any producer or executive, who presumably understands marketing, think that this could possibly work to attract the audience who would play a game because they cared about the IP?



Why does this happen so often?



A rhetorical question, I suppose.


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