The Dream Architects

Adventures in the Video Game Industry


By David Polfeldt

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The inside story of the booming video game industry from the late 1990s to the present, as told by the Managing Director of Ubisoft’s Massive Entertainment (The Division, Far Cry 3, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations).

At Massive Entertainment, a Ubisoft studio, a key division of one of the largest, most influential companies in gaming, Managing Director Polfeldt has had a hand in some of the biggest video game franchises of today, from Assassin’s Creed to Far Cry to Tom Clancy’s The Division, the fastest-selling new series this generation which revitalized the Clancy brand in gaming.

In The Dream Architects, Polfeldt charts his course through a charmed, idiosyncratic career which began at the dawn of the Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox era — from successfully pitching an Avatar game to James Cameron that will digitally create all of Pandora to enduring a week-long survivalist camp in the Scandinavian forest to better understand the post-apocalyptic future of The Division.

Along the way, Polfeldt ruminates on how the video game industry has grown and changed, how and when games became art, and the medium’s expanding artistic and storytelling potential. He shares what it’s like to manage a creative process that has ballooned from a low-six-figure expense with a team of a half dozen people to a transatlantic production of five hundred employees on a single project with a production budget of over a hundred million dollars.

A rare firsthand account of the golden age of game development told in vivid detail, The Dream Architects is a seminal work about the biggest entertainment medium of today.


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There seem to be two moons now,
the one I see in my back yard
and the one I remember from up close.

—Michael Collins, Carrying the Fire


Watcher of the Skies

My friend Jonas and I were having coffee in Stockholm. We sat in a poorly lit corner of the Ritorno café, as we had done many times before. The place hadn't been renovated or touched in ages. It looked like a backdrop to a silent movie, and we enjoyed the sensation of sitting in exactly the same chairs, eating cheap sandwiches from the same plates as several generations of artists must have done before us.

"Do you remember Paul K.?" Jonas asked.

Paul was a mutual friend of ours from art school, a guy I greatly admired. His artwork was astute and elegant, he dressed like an English shoegazer, and he was dating Linda, one of the coolest girls in school. They were two hipsters decades before the term was invented. The couple lived in a run-down apartment they'd transformed into a cozy, tasteful home, decorated with rare collector's items—a Lisa Larson ceramic figurine on a living room shelf, a casually placed original Joost Swarte sketch. Paul K. and Linda had always been the art school "it-couple." They'd set the hipness bar very high.

"Yes, yes, of course. How's he doing?"

"Well," said Jonas, "Paul has become completely obsessed with World of WarCraft. He can't stop playing. He's in love with it. Linda is too."

"Paul K. loves World of WarCraft?" I looked at him carefully. Was he joking?


When I first joined the video game industry, it was universally seen as a very suspicious business. I often felt as if those of us who worked on games were thought to be part of the porn industry or some ultraviolent, under-the-desk, VHS black market. This wasn't just my imagination; it was what people told me to my face.

At a dinner with friends from art school, confessing that I'd begun to dabble in computer games was akin to burping out loud at a castle dinner with the king. The crowd I hung out with was made up of musicians, filmmakers, writers, artists, and academics. All very respectable, sophisticated bohemians who prided themselves on having very good taste in art and culture. All of us were born in the mid- to late '60s. We were just a few years too old to come of age during the advent of the first gaming consoles, like the Magnavox or the early Ataris. In fact, we didn't grow up with computers at all, which meant that we were at risk of becoming a very outdated generation. But at the very last minute, most of us made the giant leap, landed right at the edge of the digital frontier, and managed to stay in tune with the future. Still, many of my friends never discovered the joys of computer games and remained suspicious of them even as their love for the digital realm grew.

Teachers and parents expressed concerns about my choice of profession too. As an adult, going to a meeting at my children's school and admitting I worked in game development was a bad idea. I'd immediately get bombarded with questions and openly challenged as if I were a satanic worshipper hell-bent on corrupting the youth.

I leaned on a few provocative lines for use whenever people felt like attacking my job. Yes, I'd say, it's correct that games are like jazz: highly damaging to the youth! This was puzzling to my friends who associated jazz with nice, safe, wholesome values. Wasn't jazz something that our grandparents were into? Something that you'd hear at a retirement home? Yes, and that was my point. Once, even jazz was demonized by concerned parents who believed that the music was corrupting the young and turning them into a lost generation. Older generations always cry wolf as soon as their kids are into something different. It's inevitable. Sometimes it's precisely the reason a younger generation takes up certain hobbies: to alienate the elders. What on earth is this invention from the evil mind of Beelzebub? It's just jazz, my friend.

While my career began to take off, and my love for games intensified, so did my outsider status in the art crowd. Although my best friends were themselves outsiders, my unusual new hobby put my belonging at risk. I was hanging out more and more with programmers and computer-based artists (who would draw only in pixels—an unimaginable thing!). But I didn't get involved in making games because I wanted to impress anyone. My choices were based on passion and curiosity as much as luck and chance. It took years and many twists to get anywhere at all, because when my journey began, there wasn't much of a video game industry to explore.

I'd been working with games for more than a decade when the WoW phenomenon first happened. I, too, became fully immersed in my new alternate life as the Night Elf Titov, a hunter who strayed from the beaten path, taming legendary spirit beasts. The game that Blizzard created transcended the old boundaries that had kept the industry in a narrow niche for such a long time. With World of WarCraft, the developers showed the world what we had all suspected for decades, that the future of games could become much more than a diversion or just a hard-core entertainment product for computer nerds. Games carried the potential to offer entirely new worlds of possibilities—vast landscapes that were more than a playground. This was a world that offered an alternative life, one just as rich and complex as the physical one.


"Paul K. playing WoW?" I said. "That is unexpected. What kind of character does he play?"

"I honestly have no idea. But you know, we got to talking about the medium, about games, and Paul said, 'In fact, maybe David has the coolest job of all of us.'"

"The coolest job?"


Fast-forward to the present, and my life has become like an endless, chaotic, beautiful spiral of events that takes me across the globe. I've met world leaders, rigid and hard-nosed lawyers, seen drunkards and addicts try to keep up with the ever-increasing pressure of the entertainment industry, run into a fair share of plain liars wanting to sell some amazing new gizmos, been approached by Freemasons on a recruitment drive, worked with mad geniuses, struggled with a few psychopaths, had dinner with the King and Queen of Sweden, established a creative alliance with the world's most successful movie director, and worked with some of the most brilliant video game developers on the planet.

I've seen projects crash and burn, dreams lost, and witnessed the type of success that turns people into billionaires practically overnight. I've watched as hundreds of millions of dollars evaporated on barely playable projects, and I've seen basement enthusiasts create global hits on shoestring budgets.

As a part of the job, and perhaps as an illustration of the job itself, I once went through real survival training with an old paratrooper in the rainy Swedish forest of Nowhere. There, I spent days trying to stay warm, drinking swamp water filtered through moss, and eating ants. It was brutal, but part of my mind really enjoyed it—not in a masochistic way, but in the same way that I enjoy making games: It's really fucking hard. It really is difficult to make triple-A games. But if it's hard, that means only the best people will figure out a way to survive and succeed. And I want a worthy challenge. Hard is exciting.

These days, as the head of Massive Entertainment, I'm in charge of more than six hundred people spread out over three offices. We are in the middle of rebuilding an entire city block in Malmö where the teams will move once the new office is ready. Massive is home to two of the most exciting brands in the game industry, The Division franchise and the forthcoming Avatar game.

I started in a basement with nothing, and I matured alongside the video game industry. I was there to see the emergence of a new medium, and I experienced it as it grew. Today, the youngest generation plays more games than ever. By 1998, the global game industry had generated around 35 billion USD, a number that has grown every year for two decades in a row to reach its current status as the entertainment world's new superstar, generating over 150 billion USD yearly. Still, depending on the speed of technological innovations like cloud-gaming, analysts expect the industry to double that number yet again and reach 300 billion USD in 2025.

The average American football fan is just under fifty, and the average baseball fan is fifty-three. Are these dying forms of entertainment? I don't know, but the trend suggests they're losing ground to the digital alternatives. And games deliver, in abundance: A movie is around ninety minutes long, while a great game easily provides entertainment for hundreds of hours. While old media is one-way, offering only passive participation, games are interactive and intensely social, allowing lifelong friendships to develop through the ether. For someone like me, who initially approached video games as nothing more than a basement hobby, this is hard to process, and it's even harder to keep up with. The demands are growing fast. Creative stagnation is a constant obstacle.

Beyond the excitement, still only barely visible, an even bigger future is coming. The games of today will be primitive compared to what we'll see in the decades to follow. We won't be able to predict this development accurately, because our understanding of the virtual world and artificial intelligence (AI) capacity is still quite shallow.

Already, machines are learning to simulate life, and code is able to perfectly emulate nature. Water, weather, light, physics, materials, and dancing particles like smoke and clouds have never been as beautiful as they are in games today. The mathematics is slowly conquering the vast richness of reality. Games are capable of building photo-realistic replicas of everything we can dream of, in higher fidelity than the human eye can perceive.

Elsewhere, experimental submarine data centers are being sunk into the oceans, and Elon Musk is launching his low-orbital horde of eleven thousand microsatellites to finally create a lightning-fast digital web that connects every single human in every remote spot on the planet in one shared virtual experience. If these projects don't succeed, others will. Soon, every person with a screen will have permanent access to the cloud, the digital spirit surrounding everything. All humans will become citizens of the same world, and in that process, every single one will become a potential gamer too.

I suspect future generations will look back upon us as naive and childlike, barely conscious of the world we've started to build.

Part I



A Painter Dies

Growing up, I spent most of my time drawing.

As soon as I could hold a crayon, I drew cars and portraits of my family and friends. I sketched animals I dreamed of having one day in magical lands of adventure that sprawled out into gigantic imagined maps on other planets. Countless hours of my childhood were spent in my room examining the visual details of album covers and graphic novels, then attempting to create my own. When we went to Italy in the summer, I visited the local museum in every city we traveled to and studied the old masters up close.

My friends were either the guys who played football like me, or the other geeks who liked to draw in class. But my real best friend was always my big brother. Ours was the only reliable relationship I had when I was growing up because we never stayed in one place for long. We lived a vagabond kind of lifestyle, moving every so often. This might sound more exotic than it was. Ours wasn't a hippie life on the road with surfing and psychedelic parents. It was the tidy young academics' version of life.

My mom was a straight-A student from Italy with very old-fashioned parents who'd lived through both World Wars. She fell in love with a quiet Swedish student when they both attended an international summer camp in Romania for highly talented adolescents. My parents married and had three kids—two boys, and my little sister.

We moved to California when I was two, back to Sweden when I was three, to Tanzania when I was five, and then back to Sweden again when I was seven. And somehow, we still managed to spend most of our summers in Sardinia, in a little town on the north coast called Santa Teresa di Gallura.

When I was nine, my parents divorced, and from then on we stayed in Sweden. By that time I'd already decided that the most important part of my life was the dream world I was creating in my drawings. It was a peaceful place, and, opposed to other parts of my life, it was consistent and safe, and I had control of it. I could spend hours just letting the pen travel across the paper, slowly shaping places where epic adventures played out in front of my eyes. I never knew where the stories were heading when I began; I just followed along, and it was as exciting to me as if someone else were reading me a fairy tale. Every time we moved, I left my drawings behind like a trail of fading memories and started a new collection.

As an increasingly quiet kid caught up in my dreamworlds, I became hard to reach. But inside, I understood well the difference between a beautiful fantasy and a real-life challenge. I was never as dreamy as people imagined me to be. Not then, not now.

The things I experienced might have seemed like distant fantasies to others, especially in gray, serene Sweden, but the green mamba in the climbing tree behind our house in Tanzania was real, not a fictional monster in a Dungeons & Dragons adventure. My brother and I almost got killed by the mamba. We carefully climbed down while the venomous snake leered at us. We ran for help, and the village elder summoned an albino man called the Snake Killer. I watched as he defeated the mamba in a chaotic process involving a brick tied to the end of a long stick.

Another time, when I fell asleep on the deck of a fisherman's boat in the waters between Corsica and Sardinia, I was vaguely cognizant that it looked like a scene from a Tintin book, but it wasn't. It was my reality. I remember the warmth of the Mediterranean sun in a summer that never seemed to end, and I can still hear the heavy tuk-tuk-tuk from the diesel engine. During the day at the beach, my brother and I built magnificent sand velodromes that rivaled castles.

The stories my grandfather never told me or anyone about the hell he'd lived through in World War I were not part of some abstract homework assignment. I'd watch his eyes from a meter away, shifting as he avoided his memories from the trenches; the fear he never acknowledged, the sorrow he felt for his lost friends, the pride of his accomplishments in the face of death. A fading diploma from the last Italian king hung on a wall in his sunlit apartment in Torino. This was no imaginary king from a Tolkien book. The proof was there, right in front of me, and I could almost touch the paper with the king's elaborate autograph behind the glass frame. After my grandfather's death, my Italian relatives found a diary that confirmed what we'd always guessed; World War I was truly hell. The old man had been there and come back with scars that stayed with him for life.

Neither was it a dream when I visited my dad's university and operated an unforgiving moon-landing simulator on a giant IBM computer that took up an entire room. Nor when I discovered that my Swedish grandparents' cellar was filled to the brim with original paintings and prints from my great-grandfather, who'd been a conservative painter. He'd lived during the most artistically liberating times but was reluctant to participate in them. He kept painting incredibly skillful photo-realistic landscapes, while all of Europe's art scene was on fire with modernism, futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism. He was certainly aware of these revolutions, and I couldn't help but wonder what made him choose to ignore them. Maybe he thought the major art movements were just temporary, overhyped gimmicks, like Nintendo Wiis?

I've lived my life with a mirage of California etched into my brain. A pale image of a place far, far away that quietly calls my name, trying to lure me to come home. The dry hills with pine trees, the Case Study Houses, and the skateboarders in Palo Alto. The smell of American asphalt after rainfall. I know them so well. Except…it's not really a mirage, it's a memory. It's where I learned to speak. I didn't dream any of this.

In Sweden, it rains a lot, and it's not warm. The streets don't ever dry up, they just remain damp and cold, and the air is filled with an earthy aroma of wet leaves, stone, grass, and mud. In California, though, the rains are short and the streets are wide. The sun will quickly boil the patches of water into steam, and there's a crisp feeling in the air.

I've never stopped knowing that the world is bigger and more exciting than what we see in front of us. I've always felt that dreams are not a product of the unreal, but more like suggestions of alternate realities that can become real if we want them to. In fact, I knew as I was growing up that the world really is out there, waiting for us to show up one day. Those faraway mythical lands exist.

Once my parents divorced, I tried to adjust to my new reality, but I was too young to properly digest the collapsing family structure, and the emotions I felt were merely distant clouds moving across the sky on a cold winter day. If I was aching for a stable home before, the longing got worse, and I retreated inward to safe places of fantasy.

The new friends I was drawn to were always the outliers, the odd and the different. One was the heir of a little-known Swedish noble family who had turned communist and smoked a whole lot of dope. To the frustration of our teachers at school, he'd never remove his tam-o'-shanter, a Scottish bonnet, and he'd fiercely lecture people about the name and spelling of it. He was extremely intelligent but more angry than clever, and consequently his youth was wasted picking all the wrong fights. Nonetheless, he had a big impact on me; he was the first one who suggested I become a professional artist. It was a revolutionary thought, but once the words had been spoken out loud, I never forgot them.

Another friend came from Scotland, where he'd grown up in the Outer Hebrides with four siblings and parents who wanted to escape modern society. He came to Sweden alone with his mother when his parents split up. He used to talk to ghosts in my wardrobe, and once he threatened to kill me with an ax and bury me under the ice of a small pond in a frozen field. He was and still is one of the people I trust most in the world. We formed an incredibly strong alliance around our melancholy, our lost connection to remote places, the guilt we felt for our lonely mothers, our mutual interest in drawing, and our longing for our fathers, who lived far away.

In high school, my life was warped again when my childhood friends and I all went to different schools. It was a horrible time. I just wanted school to end and to live my own life. I hated my classmates and I hated my teachers. My few friends were musicians and weirdos, and we wrote very sad, angsty songs, and we always dressed in black. We were serious, pretentious smokers and liked talking about suicide. We never got invited to any parties.

Eventually I befriended many aspiring artists, writers, and musicians, but not a single gamer. The circles I moved in seemed to consist of people from academic families, where culture was more important than technology. There was no one in my sphere who considered games a hobby, let alone a potential profession. However, even though we didn't think of ourselves as gamers, mostly because the term hadn't been properly coined, my brother and I designed board games together. We created several elaborate, complex, and slow-to-play pen-and-paper games. The biggest pleasure, apart from all the illustration tasks that fell upon me, was diving into the algorithmic structure behind the games. There is an almost musical beauty in creating hidden mathematical rules that give way to a long adventure.

My brother grew up and became a cool rock-and-roll guitarist, and I remained the mysterious, quiet, artsy guy in the shadows. Drawing was my thing during my entire childhood. As high school came to a close, it seemed only right that I apply to art school and just keep going. After all, what were the alternatives? I couldn't think of any at all.

I got accepted to Konstfack in Stockholm, where I studied graphic design and illustration. Wonderful Konstfack! A school in the Bauhaus tradition. Hidden in a giant concrete building, looking so serious and pretentious, the school was filled with the most fantastic circus of young aspiring artists and craftspeople. The place smelled like paint and melting silver.

I loved it for so many reasons, including that it was the first time I'd felt at home anywhere, and it was the first time I'd fully enjoyed the company of my classmates.

After taking my master's degree, I started up a tiny one-man company and made a living as an illustrator working on comic books, graphic novels, and advertisements.

It seems so incredibly obvious now, but what I didn't understand even remotely back then was that my art was never meant to be for sale. Without exception, all my drawing and painting had its origin in the highly private; they had been created as parallel realities through which I could escape. Painting was perhaps the only thing that had unfailingly been my own. I couldn't sell that, and I was beginning to discover that I didn't want to.

For a while I plowed on with my company. I worked for no money making comics, and I worked for good money selling illustrations to weekly and monthly magazines. Occasionally, I'd get a gig for a tech start-up, which was even better money, but at the same time very confusing, since I hadn't initially paid much attention to the digital world.

The longer I kept going, the more I hated myself. It was as if another person had taken the liberty of selling my most personal assets, and not even for a good price. I felt cheap and dirty, and I stopped pitching for new work entirely. I didn't want illustration assignments anymore; business was killing the most precious thing I had. Of course, the heroic act of not going to sales meetings slowly put me in a financial bind, and eventually I had to take other jobs.

Originally, none of those other jobs mattered to me. They were my rebound relationships. I was just buying time until I could figure out what to do with my painting. My real mission in life was to repair my relationship with art, but I didn't know how. I still painted in my spare time, but without direction. The magic was gone, and I knew just who had destroyed it. I tried to apologize to my younger self for my incredible clumsiness, but of course the space-time continuum doesn't work that way.

I quit painting entirely. The next time I picked up a brush was on a computer screen.


The Magic Door

Oskar had been working on something in his spare time.

He was a programmer who, like me, was employed at a small web agency called Out There Communications. He looked like a skinny cousin of Apple's genius Steve Wozniak. Oskar always seemed to be hunching over something, turning his back to the rest of the world. He had thin, long hair like dark curtains that partially hid his pale face. His eyes were intelligent and peered at you from behind expensive glasses (because of course he loved good engineering). Oskar hid his true personality behind a wall of tech-speak, and if you weren't fluent in it, he'd remain distant and unapproachable.

We had a cool industrial-style office in central Stockholm, Sweden, with around thirty-five to forty employees. This was in 1998, the advent of the Swedish so-called "IT Miracle." We were just making web pages, but we were considered part of the "New Economy"—made up of people who kept talking about hocus-pocus internet tricks that would transform everything. It was a crazy time. Every idiot got a job, and a lot of them became millionaires simply because they happened to drink Coke and play flipper in one newly refurbished office and not the identical one across the street. Ours, for instance, looked like a suave steel-and-glass office, with a complete set of large secondhand desks bought from a bankrupt architectural firm. The desks, when paired with the gigantic computers we had back then, created an office of minifortresses. Behind the walls of humming machines, we dove down into our own small worlds of pixels and lines of code. Our managers liked expensive furniture, so the place was filled with uncomfortable designer classics such as a Barcelona sofa and an egg chair by Arne Jacobsen.

We sat right in the middle of town, with huge windows that faced the busy street below and had a small balcony toward the backyard where the smokers hung out.


Sweden has always been a country infatuated with the modern



    "An entertaining and nuanced look at the human side of digital media."
    Publishers Weekly
  • "Readers expecting a history of gaming will be pleased to discover this entertaining autobiography....A great storyteller, Polfeldt comes across as truthful and self-effacing...[He] is a dreamer indeed, and gamers are lucky to be invited into his creative worlds."—Booklist
  • "Detailed and witty autobiography."—Library Journal
  • "He saved Massive, he created The Division, and he became a Ubisoft hero. This book is indeed, a documentary of Massive dream architects in the tumultuous history of the game industry."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 11.0px Helvetica}span.s1 {font-kerning: none}Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear Solid series and Death Stranding
  • "A compelling, insider's story of the video game industry and its journey from a suspicious activity for some and a dubious career choice for others in the late 1990s to the multi-billion-dollar celebrated artform and lifestyle we know today. Like a brilliant game that pulls you in and propels you forward, Polfeldt interweaves his personal story of setbacks and triumphs with a backdrop of legendary people and the games they created to define an industry."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}Dr. Lisa Su, President and CEO of AMD
  • "Triple A quality and artistry -- the backbones of the video game industry. David Polfeldt and Massive Entertainment are among the very few who have managed to balance the two, and if either the video games or the artistry were lacking, neither Polfeldt nor Massive Entertainment would have achieved their great successes. Polfeldt's memoir is a guidepost for the industry on how to create both games and art in equal measure."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}Fumito Ueda, award-winning creator of The Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian, and ICO
  • "THE DREAM ARCHITECTS is a fascinating look at Swedish game development and a peek behind the curtain of one of the most interesting video game publishers in the world. Full of colorful characters and political machinations, this memoir is a charming collection of anecdotes that highlight the struggles of balancing artistic endeavors with financial realities -- and what it's like to spend a week eating bugs in the woods."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}Jason Schreier, nationally bestselling author of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels
  • "In the film industry we would call David Polfeldt an auteur. Someone who possesses a as unique vision and also has multi-disciple skills to pull it off. This book showcases clearly David's uncanny ability to do just this. THE DREAM ARCHITECTS is a phenomenal, behind-the-scenes look into the making of today's video games. It both entertains and enlightens in equal measure."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}Jon Landau, COO of Lightstorm Entertainment (Titanic, Avatar)
  • "THE DREAM ARCHITECTS is an amazing, first-hand account of the incredible highs and terrible lows found in the production trenches of the games industry. David's insights on creative leadership and the magic-making of game development are second to none."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; font: 12.0px 'Times New Roman'}Martin Walfisz, entrepreneur & investor, founder of Massive Entertainment

    "[The Division] has a powerful sense of drama [and] a remarkable sense of pacing and mood. Dynamic."—Wired

On Sale
Sep 1, 2020
Page Count
320 pages

David Polfeldt

About the Author

David Polfeldt is the Managing Director of Massive Entertainment, a world-leading video game studio and part of the Ubisoft family. At Massive, David has worked industry-defining, AAA games such as Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Far Cry 3, and Tom Clancy’s The Division, which together have generated billions in revenue worldwide. Massive is currently developing a series of Avatar video games in collaboration with James Cameron and Lightstorm which will be released in conjunction with the forthcoming Avatar movies.

Learn more about this author