Founded back in 1997 in Ronneby, Sweden, Massive Entertainment has been at the forefront of video game development for the last 20 years. They created a number of acclaimed titles including Ground Control and World in Conflict, before joining Ubisoft in 2008. They then went on to contribute to AAA games including Assassin’s Creed Revelations and Far Cry 3, before taking the lead on Tom Clancy’s The Division. We sat down with David Polfeldt, Managing Director of Massive, a Ubisoft studio, to take a look back at the past 20 years, the values and vision that have led to their success and to discuss what’s next for Ubisoft Stockholm.
Can you please tell us a bit about yourself? How long have you been working at Massive?
I joined Massive in April 2004 and I became the Managing Director in March 2009 when we were acquired by Ubisoft.
What does Massive Entertainment mean to you?
I guess this might sound weird to some, but on my list of the top-three most important things in my life, there are my two children and Massive. I care deeply about the studio, and I spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about how to improve and make better games. Massive has been my professional home for a long time, and I plan to stay a lot longer!
What do you love about Massive and why do you think people should consider working here?
I am very proud of our creative integrity and our obsessive focus on quality. I can see how this may come across as being a bit ‘primadonna’ sometimes, but we pride ourselves on consistently delivering high quality content that brings value to the group.
Furthermore, I am very pleased to see that we have created a very positive and friendly atmosphere. Apart from the fact that it makes work more fun, being nice is not a Soft Value in my mind, it is Hard Strategy. If you want your team to perform to create the best work of their lives, they will have to step out of their comfort zone and constantly push themselves to the limit. That is asking them to take a personal risk. The only conditions in which people will take that kind of risk is an environment that is safe. If there is blame and fear in an organization, people will hold back and stay within areas where they feel confident they won’t fail. That might sound good to some, but that to me is stagnation, and we can’t afford to stop evolving in this industry.
How do you think Massive has grown over the last 20 years?
First thing I would say is that the nostalgic types are wrong! It wasn’t better “back in the old days,” because in reality everything is better now. Technology is better today, and so are the developers, the organization, the back-end, the community management and the entire infrastructure of the studio. We have a better and bigger canvas to express ourselves.
The second thing is quite clear; a group of eight is very different from a group of 40, which is very different from the 455 which we are today. It is not even comparable. Being a part of that journey has been the wildest adventure of my life!
Lastly, we feel that we are not done yet. As amazing as The Division was, we still aim to do even better and there are many dreams we’ve yet to fulfill. We have always been restless and ambitious, this hasn’t changed.
What do you think Massive Entertainment’s biggest achievement has been over the past 20 years?
You can put many lenses on that question, so it depends. The easy answer is to list the games we have shipped, where you can easily build a case that everything we’ve ever shipped has been pretty awesome. But I think a better answer is looking at the many long-lasting friendships we have built over the years, in a highly elitist and competitive industry. Succeeding on a human level is important and difficult, but we have managed to establish a great deal of strong alliances within the studio, within Ubisoft as a whole, and with important partners in the rest of the industry, like Lightstorm. To me, that is a huge achievement.
How has Massive Entertainment grown from Ground Control and World in Conflict to where you are today: what has been the recipe for success?
I think we have always been pretty clear in our vision, and we have been ready to manage the consequences of that vision. In my experience, the vision needs to be big, bold and worth fighting for, but at the same time it is not a feasibility study. You need to be honest with yourself and identify where you are. Between point A reality and point B ambitious vision is where you need to put your effort and make sure that A always moves towards B, and not the other way around. If they are too close, it means that you are not ambitious enough.
In all honesty, we try hard to be super-nice and polite, but we also know who we are, and we simply do not accept compromise easily. The way I look at it is this: compromises are clever. They will always find a way to sneak into your project and your life. So, my attitude is “never accept compromise.” And why should we? Compromises create frustration. However, once a compromise finds you: accept it. Because it is only the clever compromises that will find you if you ignore them initially. So, in the most polite and quiet Swedish way, we are only interested in working on high quality projects, high-quality tech with high-quality people. We are not here to do the B-league games. This style requires a lot of maturity, and it only works when you have the right agenda, i.e. what’s genuinely best for the games. And ultimately the gamers.
What is the culture at Massive? Do you believe being based in Sweden is important? Has Scandinavia had an impact on Massive’s corporate culture?
We have a great culture in Massive, based on curiosity, friendliness and conscious risk-taking. I am not able to tell if it has a lot to do with being based in Sweden, but many of our expats – 35% of the studio – often tell me that it is. What is Scandinavian? Probably a willingness to challenge hierarchy, a deeply rooted meritocratic perspective on decision-making, a love for functionality, respect for your peers, and a quiet life outside of work. All of these things are good for games development.
With the new Avatar deal and working with James Cameron’s team, Massive needs to recruit, how do you handle this kind of rapid growth?
We have grown every year over the last decade, so it’s not new to us. It is true that we are now growing faster than before, but since the launch of The Division and the announcement of Avatar, we have plenty of excellent applications to choose from! I like new arrivals, they bring knowledge, inspiration and a fresh take on who we are. They are very important in the creation process.
If there are potential candidates reading this, what would you recommend for them to do if they want to apply?
Simple: just be very good at your craft, no matter what it is! We understand people with an obsessive mind-set. We really don’t care about anything else, which also means that a new employee is fully integrated from day one, more or less. If you’re good at what you do and friendly, you are one of us!
We know about Avatar and The Division. But Massive is more than that, can you give us some more information about the Snowdrop Engine and the role it played in Massive’s success?
I think it is an extremely important part of our recipe. You can build game-engines in many different ways, with a focus on different things – e.g. stability, framerate, security, linear,open – but the choice ultimately reflects your underlying priorities. Snowdrop, for instance, is built to empower each developer as much as possible, and to be fast, very fast. We want an engine that encourages everyone to express and test their ideas in a playable format. Imagine you have an idea on your way to work. Snowdrop allows you to build a playable prototype of it before lunch, to share and test it with your colleagues right away, and to improve it a few times before the day is over.
Massive is moving… tell us about the new office!
It is very exciting, and everyone is involved in the plans. We are finalizing the planning phases at the moment, but we are now very close to starting the real construction work. The building is a beautiful old factory from the early 1900s with tall, big red brick walls and huge windows. It looks like we will even be able to build a small park over what is now a parking lot, and it would be really wonderful to give back some land to Mother Nature. The building covers an entire city block, aptly named “Eden.” If we realize the architect’s full vision it will be pretty damn amazing. Please come and visit us in 2019!
What are the challenges of building a new home from scratch?
It is much better to adapt the building from scratch than trying to make changes slowly when we are already there! The challenge is that we are not experts in large-scale construction and this kind of extensive refurbishment, so we are going through a steep learning curve. But we have a good team on top of it, so I feel confident that we will wrap it all up nicely.
Earlier this year Ubisoft Stockholm was announced, can you tell us a little more about how you’ll be collaborating with the new team?
Sure! We have hired Patrick Bach, who is an industry legend – a former Studio Manager at DICE where he spent 14 years creating Battlefield, Battlefront, Mirror’s Edge, and the Frostbyte engine. We are able to mix the best experience from Ubisoft, Massive, and Patrick himself to build a foundation for the new studio. For now, we are integrating them in the Avatar project. This way, the Stockholm studio will have time to grow, to learn Snowdrop, to get acquainted with Ubisoft, and to build a role for themselves in the larger eco-system.
For more on Massive, check out our previous coverage on The Division.