From Gremlin to Sumo: Sheffield’s role as a UK videogame centre

Sheffield-based videogame developer Sumo Digital. Seb Liese with his original game Snake Pass.
Sheffield-based videogame developer Sumo Digital. Seb Liese with his original game Snake Pass.
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It was once seen as the pastime of reclusive teenagers who didn’t see much sunlight, but videogaming is now one of the world’s most popular forms of entertainment.

The gaming industry was worth $91.8 billion in 2015, with 18.8 million people playing that year, according to trade body UK Interactive Entertainment.

Most people have heard of big industry names such as Nintendo, Sony or Microsoft. But Sheffield has its own place in the rise of videogaming – and that influence looks likely to grow.

The city first burst onto the gaming scene in the 1980s through Gremlin Graphics, a company famous for titles such as Wanted: Monty Mole, Thing on a Spring and later Zool.

Gremlin, set up by Ian Stewart and Kevin Norburn, was initially based in an office above city centre gaming shop Just Micro, on Carver Street. A team of talented programmers worked on titles upstairs and often demonstrated them to eager customers in the shop below.

Mark Hardisty was one such customer. Now aged 42 and an IT teacher at Brinsworth Academy in Rotherham, he has written a book – A Gremlin in the Works – documenting the rise and fall of Gremlin through interviews with key figures.

Sheffield-based videogame developer Sumo Digital. Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing. Photo: Sega.

Sheffield-based videogame developer Sumo Digital. Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing. Photo: Sega.

He remembers Just Micro as a ‘hive of kids playing games’.

“They had everything,” he said. “There’s no real modern equivalent.

“It was a massive community thing. People went in to play the games. You could pick a game off the shelf and stay and play it. There would be five teenagers watching another person play.”

Mark remembers Gremlin staff coming down into the shop and chatting to customers.

Mark Hardisty, author of A Gremlin in the Works, a book about Sheffield-based Gremlin Graphics.

Mark Hardisty, author of A Gremlin in the Works, a book about Sheffield-based Gremlin Graphics.

He said: “You might have been lucky enough to see a programmer. Every now and then Gremlin people would be there.

“It was important to have that. You knew that Gremlin was there in Sheffield.”

Gremlin began making games for 8-bit computers such as the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64. Early hits included Monty Mole and Thing on a Spring, and despite a steady turnover of programmers, the company grew quickly, often developing games for bigger global names.

In the 1990s titles such as Zool, Premier Manager and Lotus brought even more success, before the company was eventually bought by French publisher Infogrames in 1999.

Zool, produced by Sheffield-based Gremlin Graphics.

Zool, produced by Sheffield-based Gremlin Graphics.

Mark said: “Gaming was really significant for Sheffield. It was the focal point for all the kids. It’s surprising how many kids who went into that shop are now players on the world market.

“Gremlin grew into a company that was worth £23 million at sale and was valued at twice that. It had a global reach through its PlayStation games. It led to the formation of other companies such as Evolution Print, which produced the art for Gremlin. It employed 300-odd people at its peak.”

The future looked bright until Infogrames closed in 2003, signalling the end of Gremlin Graphics. But for Mark, this does not tarnish the reputation of a well-known Sheffield company.

“Gremlin was bought because it was successful, not because it was failing,” he said. “It just struggled in this country to take things to the next level.

“Games for some people were classed as pornography. People didn’t want anything to do with them.”

Although Gremlin was gone, there were plenty of talented game developers still in Sheffield looking for work. One of those was Paul Porter, who also spent his youth browsing the shelves of Just Mirco. After teaching himself to programme games and finishing an electronics degree, he eventually got into games production, first through Revolution Software in York and then at Gremlin.

Thing on a Spring, produced by Sheffield-based Gremlin Graphics.

Thing on a Spring, produced by Sheffield-based Gremlin Graphics.

Paul was a studio head when Gremlin closed in 2003, but alongside colleagues Darren Mills and Carl Cavers, saw an opportunity to start a new project. They set up Sumo Digital, with a staff of 12.

“We did have a philosophy,” he said. “But one of the main things was that we wanted to stay in Sheffield making games.

“The games industry is a volatile place. Our philosophy was to build a stable games developer that understood publishing and would be the go-to studio for publishers to work with.

“We would focus on quality of service and stability. I didn’t want to be in the position of telling 200 people the company was going to close again.”

A timely call for help from Microsoft gave the studio the chance to show its reliability by solving a problem with someone else’s game. That built up a reputation, and Sumo was asked to produce Sega’s racing game Outrun 2.

“That was the thing that put Sumo on the map,” said Paul.

The company grew and took on more projects and staff. It was entrusted with gaming icons such as Sonic the Hedgehog, and asked to work on flagship titles including Sony’s LittleBigPlanet 3.

Talent was easy enough to find, and there were no thoughts of moving the company away from its base at Jessops Riverside in Brightside.

Paul said: “Gremlin was more than 300 people and the majority were in Sheffield. There were a lot of people that wanted to stay. So in the early days there were a lot of people waiting for that opportunity and who came on board quite quickly.

“For me it was important to carry on the legacy of Gremlin. I was proud of my childhood. We had all grown up a bit, I was 30 and I had a child. I didn’t want to move my family around the country or the world. It was important to keep that legacy going because there was so much talent in Sheffield.

“We have about 330 staff now. We started by saying we would never have more than 40, then 60, then 100, then we stopped saying. We have grown to match the opportunities that were available.”

Sumo’s success has allowed it to give staff the chance to design their own games. The result of a recent game jam is Snake Pass, a puzzle game where the player controls a snake using realistic snake movement.

The game was created by Seb Liese, and was this weekend put on show to great praise at industry show EGX at the NEC in Birmingham. It is likely to be released in 2017.

Paul called the game ‘mesmerising’, adding: “There were a lot of other great ideas but that had something that was unique that we thought could establish itself in a crowded market.”

Sumo now has sister studios in Nottingham and Pune, India. And it is likely to expand further after its recent acquisition by private investment firm Perwyn.

Paul said: “It’s great news for us. It enables us to further enhance our development capabilities with our publishing partners on triple A franchises such as Dead Island and Crackdown, whilst giving us the freedom to create our own intellectual property.

“Perwyn demonstrated a deep understanding of Sumo, our culture and the videogame development market, so they are a perfect fit.”

Wanted: Monty Mole, produced by Sheffield-based Gremlin Graphics.

Wanted: Monty Mole, produced by Sheffield-based Gremlin Graphics.

Sheffield-based videogame developer Sumo Digital. Snake Pass.

Sheffield-based videogame developer Sumo Digital. Snake Pass.

Staff at Sheffield-based videogame developer Gremlin Graphics in the 1980s.

Staff at Sheffield-based videogame developer Gremlin Graphics in the 1980s.

Sheffield-based videogame developer Sumo Digital. COO Paul Porter.

Sheffield-based videogame developer Sumo Digital. COO Paul Porter.