Max HP: David Polfeldt, Ubisoft
The author and former head of Ubisoft Massive details his unique approach to managing game teams.
Welcome back to Max HP, an occasional series of interviews with people you may not have heard of, but definitely should have.
In fact, I suspect many of you have heard of today’s guest, for he is not entirely without profile. Until last summer, David Polfeldt was the managing director of Ubisoft Massive, the Malmö, Sweden-based developer best known for Tom Clancy’s The Division and its sequel, and the recently announced Avatar and Star Wars projects. He stepped down last June, taking a six-month sabbatical to recharge after more than two decades making games; at the time, the plan was for him to return to Ubisoft in a vaguely termed “strategic role”. At the start of 2022, however, he handed in his resignation (I think this is a scoop? Maybe?) and is currently working his six-month notice period. After that, he tells me, he plans to go “wherever the wind takes me,” which sounds rather nice, I must say.
I first met David in 2012, on my debut overseas trip for Edge, to the Nordic Game conference in Malmö. The mag sent me to conduct a roundtable interview with some leading lights of the Scandinavian development scene. David was one of them; he kindly lent us his office for the occasion, and even helped arrange a photographer. We were off to a good start, and he was an interviewer’s dream — thoughtful, insightful, candid, and generous with his time.
We kept in touch over the years, catching up in person whenever circumstances and our schedules would allow. Towards the end of my time on Edge I would pester him for career advice, and he told me on at least three occasions that I should write a book about game development. He would lament the lack of considered, insightful, on-the-record writing on the subject. I would nod along, and then tell him the many reasons why I couldn’t do it.
Eventually I guess his patience ran out and he decided to do it himself. In 2020 David published The Dream Architects, a memoir of his time in the games business. It is quite brilliant, and I believe fully vindicates my decision not to try and write some lesser equivalent of it myself. It also necessitates a departure from the Max HP template, to the extent that one exists. We are not going to spend 3,000 words recounting David’s career here, fascinating though it is: he has already done that, in great detail and with considerable flair. You should just buy the book.
Instead we will focus on something a bit different. One thing I noticed during my conversations with David over the years was his fondness for sporting analogies. In that original roundtable interview, which sought to identify the ways in which Scandinavia’s game industry stood apart, he explained that successful studios in the region tended to have a flatter, less hierarchical structure than is common elsewhere. “You need to think of yourselves as parts of a football team — if you’re the manager, your role is to help the team succeed,” he told me. “It’s like Swedish football: we don’t have 11 superstars, but we have incredibly strong organisation and a really good understanding of the gameplan.”
During our meetings over the years, sport would come up again and again. Little references to Juventus, or the local Malmö football team, stuff like that. When I interviewed him for Edge in 2019, he was at it again: “Massive is 20 years old, and we don’t want the easiest challenge. We want to win the Champions League.” It had taken me seven years to get the hint, but I finally asked the question: why did he talk about sport so much? I expected, honestly, to be told that he just really liked football. Instead I got one of the most insightful interview responses I’d ever heard.
Blimey. So. Let’s talk about that a little more, shall we?