‘The Dream Architects’: Inside the making of gaming’s biggest franchises

At Ubisoft's Massive Entertainment, David Polfeldt has had a hand in some of the biggest video game franchises of today, from 'Assassin's Creed' to Tom Clancy's 'The Division.'
September 1, 2020, 4:00 AM UTC
The Dream Architects-Excerpt
Courtesy of Grand Central Publishing

I always liked hanging out with weirdos.

When I was a teenager, my friends were either skaters, art-rockers, painters or wannabe writers, and together we spent way too much time smoking in parking garages, rehearsing dark music in dingy basements or pretentiously discussing philosophy in cafés where the coffee was cheap and no one complained when you overstayed your welcome drinking free re-fills until midnight. I was fully convinced that we were all doomed to be outsiders for our entire lives, and secretly, I was kind of proud of that.

Little did I know that my rebellious attitude would eventually lead to a position right at the heart of the birth of the most powerful entertainment medium of today: video games. In the beginning, making games was just another exciting arena for experimentation, play and self-expression, but when I made a small game that was essentially no more than a blow in a petty street-fight with an established investigative journalist, everything changed. The bright spotlight switched on mercilessly, and there I was, on stage, seen by others as someone with a vision and a voice.

Courtesy of Oscar Näsström

I became instantly aware of the immense potential and seductive powers that comes with interactive entertainment, and I decided to grab the unexpected opportunity and embark on a career that turned out to evolve in parallel with advancements in hardware, software and an ever-growing market. For every small step I made, the industry took a bigger one. Learning the hard way, I eventually caught up with the competition, and then, I learnt how to get a step ahead of them. Once I had arrived at that point, the doors to movie industry magically opened, and I was invited right to the epicenter of Hollywood to meet the legendary writer/director James Cameron.

This is the story of the birth and rapid growth of the video game business—an industry that has become the largest and most significant entertainment medium on the planet. The amazing evolution is described through the lens of an un-assuming dreamer who has seen it all, from two-man basement projects to 100-million-dollar disasters.

Below is an excerpt from my book The Dream Architects, available September 1.


I don’t believe much in luck. Sure, there are those moments in elite sports when the ball bounces off the post and off a defender’s foot into the goal, but still, luck is not supernatural. Luck starts many, many years before scoring a goal that ricochet’s off a defender’s foot. Luck started when that player was seven or eight years old and began playing football several times a week, and it accumulated over a decade of practice and intense dedication before the person had a chance to play with the best. My opinion is that it takes a large part of your lifetime and a fantastically long string of personal choices to even be in a position where you can experience a few seconds of good luck. 

Sadly, and for the record, I don’t believe that bad luck works in the same way. Bad luck seems terrifyingly unreasonable, arbitrarily striking anywhere, out of the blue. 

At E3 in 2012, we showed the Far Cry 3 co-op mode at the Sony press conference. It went reasonably well, but it was a close call, and we knew it. Tuesday passed, and just as I was beginning to accept that the meeting wouldn’t happen, I got a text from Yves Guillemot, Ubisoft’s CEO and one of the founding brothers of the company, telling me when and where to meet him tomorrow.  

The next day, we traveled in a shiny black car with darkened windows toward Manhattan Beach. 

“Well,” said Yves, “you know we made a couple of games with Hollywood, right?” 

“Yes, of course,” I replied, and thought of the elegant King Kong game Ubisoft had developed with Peter Jackson a few years earlier. 

“We don’t normally like to invest in IP that we don’t own, but if the opportunity is very good, we sometimes engage in collaborations like this,” he continued. 

“Makes sense. And this is one of those opportunities?” 

“Yes, correct,” Yves said with a discreet smile, as if he was about to give me a gift that he was particularly proud of picking out for me. “Do you know who the most successful movie director of all time is?” 

“Yes, I do,” I said, but as the words came out of my mouth, I realized I’d mistakenly thought of George Lucas and the Star Wars movies. I stopped myself before I said anything else. The most successful movie director of all time? Hang on, it’d have to be James Cameron, writer/director of both Titanic and Avatar

“So, then you can figure it out: We’ll be meeting James Cameron soon,” Yves said casually as he turned to something important happening on his cell phone. 

Those words were the sweetest ones I’d heard in quite some time. We still had a bit of a drive through the never-ending highways of Los Angeles, so I quickly began reading up on Cameron and speed-watching YouTube interviews with him. Cameron talked about processes and work ethics. I needed to understand his thought process—fast. 

We parked the car in a three-story garage right next to the Lightstorm office. A tough-looking guard let us in after some scrutiny and suspicious eyeballing. Once the elevator bell announced our arrival, we were led to a conference room, passing some of Cameron’s private memorabilia along the way. Original props from AliensTerminatorAvatarThe Abyss…I saw the original sword from Conan the Barbarian that Arnold Schwarzenegger had once given Cameron as a gift. It was impossible not to feel excited, and I allowed it all to sink into my memory. This might be the closest I’ll ever be to Hollywood, I thought. As a fan, it was priceless, but of course we weren’t there to be fans. 

Jon Landau, the producer of both Titanic and Avatar, greeted us as we entered the typical American conference room, with the air-conditioning turned to “Arctic” and thick blue carpet that muted our footsteps. As I’ve since learned is typical in Hollywood, there were a few unnamed hang-arounds present too. It seems that famous people in the US attract a posse wherever they go. Is it because they want to? Or is it needed? I don’t know, and I haven’t attracted a posse myself, so I’m not able to tell. 

Landau seemed incredibly nice, but I found the mood strangely tense. The famous director was late, and the small talk stuttered and spat like an old truck on a bumpy road. 

“You guys having a good E3?” 

“Yes.” 

[PAUSE] 

“Yes, it’s good.” 

“Okay. Fine. Okay.” 

[PAUSE] 

[PAUSE] 

[PAUSE] 

“How’s Avatar 2 going?” 

[AWKWARD SILENCE] 

[PAUSE] 

“Let’s wait until Jim is here, okay?” 

[PAUSE] 

[AWKWARD SILENCE] 

[CLOCK TICKING] 

Normally, I’d have helped to warm the social climate in the room, but I was the new kid on this particular block, and I was convinced that it was my role to remain quiet until I’d tuned in to everything. As a Swede, I have very limited interest in etiquette, but shutting up seemed like the polite thing to do even to me. 

A baritone broke the uneasy silence. 

“Hey, I’m sorry I’m late. You guys got coffee?” 

Cameron had arrived and immediately took charge of the proceedings. 

In 2009, when the Avatar movie premiered, Ubisoft had released a game based on Cameron’s space saga. With the luxury of hindsight and reading a few postmortems, it’s easy to understand why the first Avatar game was a complicated project that left a mixed bag of possible interpretations on the table. Lightstorm had drawn their own conclusions, while Ubisoft had come to others. But no matter how anyone viewed Avatar: The Game, the contract between the companies contained a clause that gave Ubisoft the rights to make a second game based on a movie sequel, assuming one was forthcoming. In Yves’s mind, it was a good moment to introduce a new Ubisoft studio (Massive!) to Lightstorm, hoping that this would lead to a fresh start on a collaboration that had a slightly frayed history but simultaneously a lot of untapped potential. 

The contract clause had an end date that was slowly approaching, so the question of when Avatar 2 was expected to release was critical. If the Avatar sequel was very, very delayed, it would mean that Ubisoft’s contract would not cover the interactive rights. But a straight answer was not offered, and it seemed to me that Lightstorm was just meeting with us to be polite. It felt as if they were nowhere near knowing any dates for the next movie, and if so, they already knew that the contract would expire and release them of any obligations to make another game with Ubisoft. Or, I realized after some further thought, they might be planning to shop around for new partners as soon as they were liberated from the existing contract, exploring all the available options regarding studio, technology, publisher, and cash. If I was right about this guess, it would put us in direct competition with basically every good developer in the world. This might not be looking too good. 

Yves did a great job of pitching Massive to Cameron, highlighting the many benefits of our engineering skills, which was the only part that made Lightstorm a little excited. But the famous director and the producer were guarded and opaque. Very difficult to read. The director powerfully in charge, driving the meeting to where he wanted it to be, almost directing us all as if we were actors. The producer jovial and warm, taking the role of the easygoing partner, but fully in control of every single beat. I could see how they made such great movies together. 

I watched it all, feeling like a voiceless bride being offered to a skeptical prince. 

Just as we were about to leave, Cameron suddenly looked me straight in the eye and asked me the first question that wasn’t related to technology. 

You. What do you think Avatar is about?” he asked. 

Hooray, I thought. I’d been thinking a lot about this during my preparations for the meeting: James Cameron is a person who really cares about quality, ethics, and the creative process itself—not money or business. The question he directed at me was my cue, and in the back of the limousine I’d spent some time thinking about clever and unexpected answers to a million different questions about Avatar, although perhaps not this particular one. Nevertheless, with great self-confidence and pride, I answered him. I was waiting for the words to come out of my mouth, elegantly framing something philosophical and profound. All that was needed was for the internal copywriter to come up with the right words, but he seemed to be on a break… 

Avatar…,” I said and paused dramatically to gain time, and also to make sure I had everyone’s attention. “Avatar is about peace.” 

Cameron held my gaze for a second and then (as I began to panic) shrugged disappointedly. He was not impressed. 

“No,” he said. “No, it’s not. Avatar is about fighting for what you believe in.” 

Shit, shit, shit, I thought. I’m such an idiot. And immediately I started the long emotional descent from the stratosphere of my imagined Hollywood career to the floor in the editing room, cut away like a piece of bad footage. 

Before I knew it, we were back in the garage in the rear seat of the limo. I beat myself up for failing the most important audition I had ever been to. To my surprise, Yves didn’t seem worried or disappointed at all. He was busy looking at his emails on his phone, already moving on to the next thing, whatever it was. Almost absentmindedly he said, “Looks like you will have to win the confidence of those people, huh?” 

I couldn’t possibly have agreed more. 

Excerpted from the book The Dream Architects: Adventures in the Video Game Industry by David Polfeldt. Copyright © 2020 by Li’l Factory AB. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.