How Massive Entertainment tries to retain every employee for at least a decade
Managing director Polfeldt on giving junior staff a voice and protecting your workforce from the pressures of AAA development
Massive Entertainment is a studio that increasingly lives up to its name.
With over 400 staff and the blockbuster that is Tom Clancy's The Division under its belt, the Swedish developer has come a long way from its World In Conflict days and stints supporting other Ubisoft studios on the likes of Far Cry 3 and Just Dance Now.
Just over a year on from The Division's launch, managing director David Polfeldt tells us the studio has evolved dramatically and he is left with the unenviable task of maintaining the momentum. Having set out to "build one of the biggest games in the world", Massive finds itself facing that always daunting question: now what?
"It's quite easy to have that aspiration, but actually having done that transforms how you view yourself to some degree," Polfeldt tells GamesIndustry.biz. "You have these doubts, these questions - are we being crazy for believing this is possible? But when you've done it, it feels like winning the Champions League. You start thinking of yourself as actually on that level. And then the next question, the one I feel is changing the studio now, is what comes after that? If you've come to that level and still want to improve, what is the next level?
"A lot of people have been working at Massive for a long time. Now that we have the maturation, the friendships and the technology, we have a platform that allows us to ask ourselves, 'What do we want to do with it?' In the beginning, it was all about survival. Now survival seems like a fairly remote challenge compared to what we've facing today. That is changing the studio."
The nature of The Division has also changed the structure of the studio somewhat. While it is still primarily a development studio, already working on several future projects, there is also the constant need to support the live operations its latest release requires. It's a transition several AAA studios have been through in the past few years, and one that can put a tremendous strain on an unprepared staff.
"A live game with a fair degree of success is a very demanding beast. I have tremendous respect for other developers that manage to do it well"
"The reality is a live game with a fair degree of success is a very demanding beast," says Polfeldt. "I have tremendous respect for other developers that manage to do it well, because I know it's very difficult. It's like developing games with a live audience. It can be really hard.
"We've learned a lot from The Division. There are design choices that we could have made earlier and have had to catch up on. I think we underestimated the success and the size of The Division. That put us in a situation where we had to catch up a bit on the game. For future projects that we're working on, we're taking that much more into account."
But rather than becoming dedicated purely to The Division, Massive is actively working on a number of games - not the least of which is an upcoming title based on James Cameron's Avatar films. You would think that ongoing Division support, the Avatar game and continuing to assist Ubisoft's global empire of studios with various other projects would spread the Massive team too thin, but the MD believes having multiple titles on the go can be an advantage.
"Most people are very excited about what they're working on, although some people are very talented but not happy in those particular conditions," says Polfeldt. "By having a couple of different projects in the studio, it allows us to be more precise with what those people should be working on, how we can tailor their job through the passion that they have.
"When the studio only depends on one project, there's really no discussion - staff have to work on that project"
"When the studio only depends on one project, there's really no discussion - they have to work on that project. For me as a manager, I've always been thought about the value of having a couple of things going on at once, all revolving around the same technology core - because that means people will be super productive."
As mentioned, Massive currently employs 400 people, with Polfeldt adding that this is the type of workforce he needs to manage the studio's current workload - even with the support of Reflections, Ubisoft Annecy and original Tom Clancy developer Red Storm Entertainment on The Division. And the company is still hiring, looking for 100 to 200 people to join its Malmö studio "based entirely on the production needs we have today".
"But I'm not really worried about our capacity to handle several things at once," Polfeldt says. "Obviously it's a transition for us to go from being focused on one project to operating a live game and focusing on other things as well. That's probably the hardest thing we're working on right now: becoming capable of keeping several things afloat at once."
Perhaps it wouldn't be so challenging if these projects were of a smaller scale, but Massive happens to be owned by one of the world's biggest games publishers. The Division is the game that has arguably come closest to matching Bungie behemoth Destiny in terms of scope and, given the four movies planned before 2025, Avatar isn't an insignificant licence to be entrusted with. In the face of so many high-stakes projects, how can Polfeldt protect hundreds of staff from the pressures of AAA development?
"With the way that games are being created and the way they stay live, there's actually no time where you can step back and relax... The pressure increases towards launch, and then stays just as high. That's pretty tough on our people"
"That's the most important question you can ask in games development today, because with the way that games are being created and the way they stay live, there's actually no time where you can step back and relax," he says. "Back in the old days, once you released a title you would have three to six months where you could actually take a break and catch up. Now we don't have that. The pressure increases towards launch, and then stays just as high. That's pretty tough on our people.
"So what we do is we work a lot on understanding that and making sure that production plans take that into account in a better way than we used to. And we're in Scandinavia; work-life balance here is really key to the culture as a whole. We really encourage people to pace yourself for a marathon. Don't try to sprint your way through this, because that way you will only break yourself.
"Our hope is that every employee stays for at least a decade, because it takes a while to become a good game developer and once you're world-class, we want you to stay. We as managers have to start thinking, 'What does that really mean? What does it mean when someone is overworked, or applying for parental leave, or wants time off to do education or perhaps do something on their own?' If you apply the decade perspective, all of those things make sense; they're all part of that person's journey over those ten years.
"The games industry doesn't automatically encourage that because there's always a deadline coming up, always a launch coming up, an E3 - there's always something that looks so incredibly important that we have to throw all sense overboard. But you have to be smart about that, think about the milestones that follow the next big one. If we treated all of them as do or die, ultimately we will only break ourselves. You have to have a sober view on milestones. We're working a lot with this, and I think we're doing a pretty good job."
The key to retaining staff for ten years or more, says Polfeldt, is making them feel valued from the beginning. He describes Massive as a "meritocratic studio", although recognises that this term can sometimes be misinterpreted in terms of how this actually plays out. In this case, an employee's worth is primarily based on the effort they put into to a project.
"[Job] titles have no meaning if you start looking at the quality of work. Someone who has been at the studio for 14 years has no particular right over a junior who has been with us for only a week"
"[Job] titles have no meaning if you start looking at the quality of work," Polfeldt posits. "If someone has been at the studio for 14 years, that doesn't give them any particular right over a junior who has been with us for only a week. The only thing we're interested in is your contribution to the game.
"It keeps people sharp, especially those of us who have been here for a long time, because... if what you're saying isn't valuable, your credibility points are going to go down a lot. And vice versa - if your contribution is great, your credibility points go up. It's a little bit like an RPG.
"In organisations where you don't work with meritocracy, you create a long, long journey for people where they need to work themselves up to a position from which they can contribute. In essence, you're making it impossible for you as an organisation to get the value of the people you hire."
It's vital, he continues, that newly hired and junior staff feel safe putting forward ideas and opinions. By encouraging them to contribute, you encourage them to stay because if those contributions make them feel valued, the desire to look for work elsewhere dissipates.
"If you're new at the job and I ask what you think about the character design, I'm asking you to take a personal risk because you've only been in the job for a week," Polfedt says. "In most companies, you probably wouldn't be asked to have an opinion about something as significant as that, but we're genuinely interested. So in order for you to dare them to participate and answer that question honestly, they need to feel safe about it, not that they'll be punished if they say something stupid.
"It all boils down to how you work with mistakes. If you want a person to give 100% of their capacity, their talent and their passion, you're also asking them to take a big personal risk. If you don't have a system where that is permitted, where you embrace and learn from mistakes, people will have to discount their own contribution and stop at 80% to 85% because they don't want to take a personal risk. If you take that idea and extrapolate that to 400 people - what if I have 400 people only working at 80% of their capacity, when in theory they could be working at 98%? That's a giant loss for any company.
"I think of mistakes and the social dynamics as the key to getting your people from 80% to 100%, because the reality is everyone who works in the games industry today is already doing 80% - driven by their own passion, interest, and will to participate in something they love. You can be 80% without doing anything. You can sit and twiddle your thumbs behind your desk, hope that people will do great work, and they will. But what if you want 100%? That's where the real management challenge is for games - or any creative industry."