Why is the Nordic region so good at making games?
Massive CEO David Polfeldt explains all at the Nordic Game Festival
David Polfeldt, CEO of Massive Entertainment, has spoken at the Nordic Game Festival in Malmo, Sweden, about what he feels makes the Nordic region so successful as a games producing territory.
Prompted by a question from a journalist during the PR cycle of the studio's upcoming AAA game The Division, Polfeldt did some personal research into why the area has become so prolific.
In order to discover the territory's 'secret sauce', Polfeldt spoke to colleagues, other developers, journalists, historians, anthropologist publishers and even Sweden's ombudsman for discrimination. He was keen to avoid cultural stereotyping - the idea that Nordics are intrinsically 'better' - so looked at all the possible reasons for the profundity of the local developers.
To do so, he asked two questions. "What are the origins of the Nordic game industry? How come we're good at making games?" And, "is there a special method that's common to Nordic studios?"
His research began with a look at the very geography of the region. The Nordic countries tend to be typified by a reputation for a somewhat inhospitable and difficult to farm landscape. Rocky, snowy, harsh. For the earliest settlers there, preparation and a reliance on excellent tools and efficiency were key. An unforgiving environment means that a single mistake can cost you dearly and shortcuts tend to be punished with unexpected consequences.
"It's easy to say that this isn't a great place to be a farmer. It's a lot of work to anything relevant on this sort of land. Basically, this is the foundation of the Nordic gaming industry," Polfeldt explained. "We learned a couple of things from living under harsh conditions. Great tools are a good idea and thinking ahead is a good idea, and something that I think is extremely present in all the Nordic countries - that you should only trust someone's advice if it makes a practical difference. There's no point in listening to someone who's trying to sell you something, in this context. You need someone who's telling you something you need to know that's actually going to improve your situation. So there's an automatic filter when people try to give you advice. I'm proposing that this is really the foundation of the Nordic game industry: good tools, good planning and only trusting people with an eye for the practical."
Citing zippers, aseptic packaging, the ball bearing and the pacemaker as examples of this practicality, Polfeldt went on to illustrate the other side of the coin - the long Scandinavian tradition of storytelling.
"It has roots from the Vikings, the Celts," he told his audience. "We have a long history of great Swedish writers...To summarise, functional pragmatism plus storytelling equals videogames."
Polfeldt went on to highlight the influx of cultural influences following the second World War, when Sweden was keen to distance itself from its dalliance with Nazism and cement its membership amongst the allied states. "We were particularly interested in making sure that we didn't come across as friends of the Germans, so we really worked hard to associate ourselves with American and British culture. Because of that, since the '50s, we had a tremendous influx of US and British culture, much more so than France or Italy, so this has trained us in a blockbuster language: what is mass media, what is mass entertainment, how do you make a joke, a hero, a soundtrack."
The CEO also touched on the importance of Home PC, a program which gave rise to a fervent demoscene and a very code-literate population. He then related all of these influences to a phenomenon he calls the Battery effect, a point he illustrated with the example of 'selfies' - on one side are the planned, flattering pictures which are so ubiquitous in social media. On the other are those triple-chinned, badly lit and devastating unplanned pictures which get taken when we think the camera is facing the other way. Those equations of self-confidence, he believes, are what creates the creative drive.
"The battery effect is, to me, something that every creative person has. There are two poles, fighting with each other. One is extremely self confident, the other very self-critical. Between those two you get an inner tension, a dynamic. Between those two poles you get really interesting creativity."
For Polfeldt, the Viking traditions of self-confidence are in constant flux with the Lutheran guilt so personified by the region's need to distance itself from some of the activities of the second World War. That, he believes, is key to the region's creative nature.
For the second question, that of whether there are common practices which pervade developers in Scandinavia, Polfeldt identified a few key points.
"If you do something, do it well. In management this is often just called quality. I would propose that in the Nordic region, it's unacceptable to do things poorly; everybody feels that you have to do things well, if at all. It doesn't matter if it's archery or football, everyone assumes that you want to be number one."
That, he explained, was a key driver behind Massive's decision to create the Snowdrop Engine, which will power The Division. The desire for perfection in that task, he revealed, even percolated down to the point of having people with stop-watches timing early builds of the game to ensure that the player went from menu to gameplay within ten seconds every time the game was played.
Further to all that, Polfeldt identified accountability, organisation, team work and ambition as vital to a successful project. Finally, Polfeldt made clear how important he feels diversity is to Massive's ethos.
"In writing this speech I realised that I had probably forgotten something really important. At Massive today, over 30 per cent of our staff is non-Nordic. Over 30 different countries are represented every day. Sometimes we call this the Scandinavian gaming boom, but maybe it's not so Nordic. Maybe it's because we're open minded and we've embraced people. People from all over the world come here to work in Sweden - they grew up without any of those influences I've talked about.
"I think there's a very important tension in Nordic studios between being very international and very domestic - two very polarised perspectives."
Time will tell how those principles have translated to the impressive looking Division, but Polfeldt's attitude is hopefully an early indicator of the project's scope and ambition.
David Polfeldt is CEO of Massive Entertainment studios, a Ubisoft company. He was speaking at Nordic Game in Malmo. A full interview exploring the points made in his talk will be published very soon.