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'Why are Nordic game developers so good?'
'Why are Nordic game developers so good?'
May 21, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

May 21, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Indie, Serious, Design

Massive Entertainment's David Polfeldt has been on a quest to answer an interesting question posed to him by a journalist at E3 2013, right after the well-received announcement of his studio's Tom Clancy's The Division: "Why are Swedish developers so good?"

He's been asking other developers, journalists, and cultural anthropologists about the origin of the Nordic industry, and whether they have a special method in common. The region is undoubtedly in the midst of a boom, both in terms of successful studios and well-reputed and varied games -- where did it begin?

The number of successful games studios in the region speaks for itself -- from DICE to Mojang, and Starbreeze Studios to Frictional Games. But while he hates cultural stereotyping, Polfeldt wanted to get to the heart of what makes the region's game development strong.

"We learned from living under harsh conditions that good tools are a great idea," he says as part of his Nordic Game Conference keynote today. "We learned to think ahead because winter is coming, and we learned only to trust a person if their advice actually makes a cultural difference. Only trust people with an eye for the practical."

The tough climate fostered a nation interested in innovations that are practical and functional, Polfeldt believes -- that's why the region birthed inventions like the zipper, the ball bearing, and the first working pacemaker. And all the Nordic countries also have a strong and long-standing tradition of storytelling, he says, translated today through films, art, and design. This combination of functional pragmatism married with storytelling lends itself especially well to video games.

After the second World War, all the world reached eagerly for attachment to Anglo popular culture. Especially for Sweden -- after flirting with Nazism ahead of the conflict, the nation was especially eager to learn to understand mass entertainment, with all its jokes, heroes and epic soundtracks. This meant a people that learned to translate their values through popular culture without remaining too insulated.

"We learned from living under harsh conditions that good tools are a great idea."
The Swedish government's Home PC program played an important role in the birthing of a passionate, experiemntal computer-literate generation; the government decided to provide subsidies for people who purchased used computers for their work, believing that computers in the home would create a stronger workforce.

"But what happened was the kids instantly hijacked the PCs as soon as they entered the house, and that instantly created a whole generation of demoists, 3D modellers, and people who dreamed interesting dreams about what computers can be," Polfeldt explains.

The Nordic countries are also known for having a strong work-life balance. Labor laws tend to prevent loss of vacation days and excessive overtime, and provide generously for parental leave. "This is particularly good for game development, because it enforces a long term perspective and it creates consistency," he says. "Making games is a marathon, not a sprint. By pacing ourselves correctly from the start, we keep our core teams healthy and are able to capitalize on the things we learn in the next project we do."

There is also only a small market locally, which forces teams to think internationally as a going concern. And the Nordic culture has a fairly rigid idea of what constitutes quality: "If you do it, do it well," Polfeldt says. "In the Nordic region, it's unacceptable to do things poorly. When you say, 'I think I'm going to get into gardening,' the assumption is you're going to get really into it, and do it really well."

Massive's own obsessively-built Snowdrop Engine is an ideal example of the value the local industry places in tools.Everyone at Massive gets a silver ring when they've been there 15 years: "We're having to produce a lot of these, because people stay at the company," he says. "I'm working with people who have 15 years experience every day... when you have a consistent group in a games studio, you have many, many advantages that you won't have otherwise, instead of 'oh, let's make a new core team.'"

People here also believe that the "Scandinavian consensus model" plays a cultural role, but Polfeldt says mere agreement doesn't create excellence. It's the fact that team play here tends to supersede the individual, and self-sacrifice and organization for the good of the team can allow a consistent, unified group to produce better work than individuals that may be thought of as more talented.

"In the Nordic region, it's unacceptable to do things poorly. When you say, 'I think I'm going to get into gardening,' the assumption is you're going to get really into it, and do it really well."
Another rule locally is there tend to be lateral management structures, inherited from the importance the culture places on pragmatism. "Anybody can have an opinion about our game, and if it's useful, we will use it," he says. "The project is your only real boss." Relatedly, companies tend to be meritocratic, and experience leads to the ability to invest in future ideas -- people trust team members who earn and cultivate their influence carefully and choose when to share their best ideas.

"Anything you do must be playable at all times," Polfeldt adds, highlighting the Nordic primacy of efficiency. If something can be repeated and supported by an infrastructure, then it can speak for itself and can evolve. Some people think Nordic developers have an "underdog mentality," but he thinks that isn't necessarily true: the region's developers don't compare themselves to one another, but to Western film giants and famous Japanese game developers. It creates a polar tension he calls the "battery effect" -- the humility to recognize someone better than you, and the arrogance to believe you can one day take them on.

At E3 2013, Hideo Kojima came to the show floor just as soon as it opened and asked to see The Division. He wasn't interested in any of Ubisoft's other games. After Kojima saw the game, he had only one thing to say: "You guys are so good, I should quit my job," relates Polfeldt.

"We still have the incredible arrogance to think we can be better than the best," adds Polfeldt.

30 percent of Massive's staff is not from the area, however. "Maybe it's because we're open-minded and have embraced people," he reflects. "The best people in the world come to live and work here."

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Michael Joseph
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"Anything you do must be playable at all times"

great advice. it probably helps if this type of mentality is ingrained early on in one's training. Culture +1. But here they just keep telling me that Scandinavians are tax and spend, redistributing, socialists...

In America, our fathers walked three miles to get to school, in the snow and uphill (both ways) and they liked it. In Scandinavia it must be 15 miles and barefoot over bridges guarded by trolls.

"You guys are so good, I should quit my job"

Best compliment ever?

Stephen Corwin
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Don't forget the potatoes that you heated up and stuck in your pockets so that you wouldnt freeze. Then you would eat said potatoes for lunch after picking off the lint that gathered from being in your pockets.

Julian Gollop
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High labor costs tend to promote innovation - hence the investment in tools rather than manpower. The rather interesting book 'The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better' may also show why complex social and technical projects, such as games development, do better in more equal societies.

Karl E
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Swedes are a serious bunch and we are specialists in approaching trivial things with extreme seriousness.
Fast fashion, cheap furniture, pop music, video games, cooking, you name it - if there is anything that is considered trivial by others but benefits from approaching it seriously, we're on it.

However, if what you are working on is pretty serious to begin with, the seriousness can be stultifying. For example, the productivity of the construction industry here is among the lowest of all European countries, and the percentage of the crimes solved by the police is also among the lowest, even though they take themselves very, very seriously.

Lars Doucet
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As much as I love to pat myself on the back, I'd love to see some actual stats/research supporting the premise that this phenomenon is as strong as is claimed before we go around looking for causes of this supposed Scandinavian superiority. :)

Karl E
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Yup, you get the feeling that what goes up must come down. Every next game might serve up the humble pie (BF4 etc). And for some prominent figures, it seems their intention is to avoid any reckoning by simply never releasing another game...

sean lindskog
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If you need to know why Swedes are superior, it's easy. Just ask a Swede. :P
My grandparents were both Swedish, and they assured me of this many times.

William Ravaine
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It's simple: it's the god damn awful winter. When you have 6 months to spend indoors and have a computer nearby, you're bound to spend some quality time with it :)