Massive’s managing director on computer games, business and leadership

Published: 2020-10-13

We met David Polfeldt, the managing director of Massive Entertainment, to talk about everything from why so many Swedish computer game companies are owned by foreign investors to how you become really good at the craft of creating games.

From the left: moderator Louise Larsson from LUSEM, managing director David Polfeldt from Massive Entertainment and, informatics lecturer Markus Lahtinen from LUSEM.

“There’s a difference between observing and participating. It’s not enough to ‘just’ play a lot of computer games to get a job in the games industry – in the same way as watching films non-stop all day won’t make you a good film director. You need to immerse yourself in the craft and understand the craftsmanship involved in films or computer games. Then you might have a direct career path ahead of you,” says David Polfeldt and adds:

“The world’s rarest resource is expert programmers. They can get a job anywhere.”

“This industry currently has a turnover of about USD 160 billion. Perhaps that sounds abstract, but it can be translated into around 53–54 Öresund Bridges, or about 40 per cent of Sweden’s GDP. It is definitely a heavyweight these days”, comments Markus Lahtinen, lecturer in informatics at Lund University School of Economics and Management (LUSEM).

“The most important discoveries in the games industry have yet to be made. The industry and what it produces will become even bigger than it is now. We are still only getting started,” says David Polfeldt.

David Polfeldt on…

Leadership as a team game

“When I became a manager, I tried to read a lot of management handbooks. Most were quite bad, but then I started to read about elite sports psychology. Their management involves recognising that the player intends to be the best in the world. How then am I as a coach to utilise that power and at the same time make someone into a team player?

There is a strong egocentric trait in people at the top level, but they perform better by understanding the team’s needs. This is based on believing that people are brilliant and that they have the will to be amazing. And so you begin to look into that instead of believing the opposite, that people need to be controlled. I don’t think that at all.”

Authorities and decisions

“I have been consistent in that no one decides over me. This has meant that I am called a diva and prima donna, but I have not acted like a diva. I have said to the CEO of Ubisoft that ‘I hear what you want, but I need to understand why this is good for my craftsmen’. It’s not that I say no, but that I have a wish to be educated in why someone wants someone else to be a certain way.”

Computer games as an investment and business

“We have actually had a shortage of skilled businessmen and businesswomen in the games industry. Those of us who have been involved for a while have of course been suspect outsiders. There was nothing to indicate that this would become a big business one day and in Sweden we have suffered a little because of it.

The Swedish business sector has found it difficult to understand the industry and has been scared to invest. If you look at most of the major Swedish games studios they are currently owned by foreign companies. We have lost a lot there and instead it was Microsoft and others who invested. There is a niche to fill that can be filled if you have the desire and daring”.

“The games industry is a sector that requires a lot of risk capital. You need to spend SEK 1 billion to produce a game. This scares most people. What is needed in today’s games industry are people who defend that front. I am the kind of person who doesn’t care about the money, I only care about the craftsmanship and quality. That worked when the industry was young, but I would really have benefited from a colleague who understands things like: how do we protect the value? How do we capitalise on this?” 

“The stock market needs to learn that the games industry cannot be run on a quarterly basis. It is actually counterproductive. The development cycles are so long. The type of game I make takes three to five years, so there is an equally long period of increased risk. If someone tries to put together a good quarterly report in all this, you damage the project. Here, Ubisoft has succeeded quite well in not being too concerned about the stock market. Others try to produce using a short-term approach and the only way to do that is to reduce staff. There is a lot of work to do in this area.”

Dreams and driving forces

“I dream all the time about things I am going to do and projects I am going to start. However, the most important thing in this regard is that it took me quite a long time to be comfortable about dreaming. When you dream big, you also take a risk, a risk of making a fool of yourself. What often stops people from doing amazing things is the fear of shame, the shame that comes from failing to do something you have said you would be able to do.”

“If there is something that I would have liked to have learned when I was younger, it’s that the coolest thing is to dare to dream, then it doesn’t matter if you succeed or not. It is easy to say that ‘it’s going to go badly’. Anyone can say that. However, it’s extremely brave to dare to say that ‘this is going to turn out well’”.

“It’s the people who create such things that are important for humankind. Someone said:
‘I think we should build a cathedral’ and the response was ‘that seems impossible’. But, it was done.
Someone said: ‘We are going to make the world’s best game’ and the response was ‘you will make a fool of yourself’. And so we did it and succeeded.”

“My book is a tribute to that, to dare to dream, to dare to take the risk of making a fool of yourself. It’s the only way forward. Think of yourself as brilliant and dare to believe that you have the solution.”'

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About Morning talks

David Polfeldt, managing director of the gaming company Massive and author, spoke with moderator Louise Larsson and, informatics researcher Markus Lahtinen from LUSEM on 29 September 2020 during an online breakfast seminar.

The topic was From underdog to billion-dollar industry and addressed issues such as leadership, creativity and investment in the gaming industry.

Morning talks is a seminar series that is broadcast via the web, where knowledgeable researchers and entrepreneurs look at and talk about current topics – together with the audience who can send in questions remotely.

Read more about Morning talks (in Swedish)

Massive Entertainment

Gaming company Massive was started in Ronneby, Blekinge, in the late 90s and moved to Malmö when the 2000s were new. Owned since 2008 by Ubisoft. The company has gone from about 40 employees in 2004 to more than 650 today. Massive has created titles such as World in Conflict, Tom Clancy's The Division and is currently working on turning the upcoming Avatar films into games.

Read more about Massive

More information

You can watch the entire broadcast on Youtube.

Watch the entire broadcast on Youtube (in Swedish)

David Polfeldt has written the book The Dream Architects. It takes us from the IT-boom 20 years ago, to today's fast-growing gaming industry.

Read more about The Dream Architects