On Game Industry Professionalism

I’m surprised how often this comes up, but there is often a sad lack of professionalism in the game industry. It’s not all one-way, and it’s not all intentional, and it’s not all unique to this industry… but some of it is, and that causes issues throughout the hobby. Especially as some big conventions are coming up, and those often mean new contacts and new work deals, I wanted to talk about it a bit.

I’m certainly not the gatekeeper of gaming professionalism, but there are some things that seem to be common among the industry folks I look up to who are better-known, smarter, and more graceful than I am, and I do my best to emulate the. This list isn’t comprehensive or absolute – there are important things I and missing and side cases that might be rare exceptions to these principals. But in general, this is a fair baseline for what I see as the start of game industry professionalism.

Oh, and I want it to be fun to read, so it’s broken into movie quote section.

Break a Deal, Face the Wheel

No, no one will actually put a fiberglass mask on your head and send you off to die in the desert… but if you get a reputation for not doing what you have contracted and agreed to, you may end up in an allegorical desert when all the available work dries up.

Look, the industry is often brutal. Pay is too low, deadlines too short, respect too uncommon (especially among some segments of fans). Some years not only would I have made more money spending the same amount of time doing minimum wage fast food jobs, but my main reward was to be called out and attacked by people with less experience and understanding of games than I have. It can suck.

But leaving people in a lurch makes it suck more.

If you agree to do a job, and the other side holds up their end, you need to do your best to hold up your end. I have had people I thought were promising freelancers, who I took a risk on, mentored, said nice things about and introduced to other publishers, take a contract, ask me to push back the deadline by months, then stop communicating at all, then tell me they can no longer do the project at all and give me some half-assed outline in way of recompense. All while continuing to do work for other companies.

If mental health issues has you down? Yes, that’s no different that backing out of a running job because you broke a leg. You need to be up-front and honest, and tell me as soon as possible, but I get it. But do it early, be frank, and don’t immediately prove it’s not about that by taking even more work from other people. If you need a break, take a break.

But if the job you are doing for me just got pushed back to the back of your queue so often because of better work coming along that you’ve decided it’s not fun anymore, or no longer a good use of your time? Tough. You agreed to do this project. We have a contract. Do it.

You’re not just making a publishers life more difficult when you just throw a project aside. You are boosting their missed opportunity cost, adding stress, and preventing them from paying everyone else who would be involved. It’s unprofessional, and it’s way too common among way too many freelancers.

The reverse of this is ALSO true. If you tell someone you’ll publish their work, and there’s no formal timeline, and five years alter you still haven’t? You are screwing with them. And, obviously, pay what you say you will pay, when you say you will or before. Giving feedback is optional, but smart to improve the whole industry. Bad-mouthing a freelancer to other publishers for some behavior you never told THEM was an issue/ Unprofessional. Cancelling a project and just never telling people working on turnovers? Unprofessional. Sitting on a manuscript for years? Unprofessional… and I’ve been guilty of that one.

Keep it Secret. Keep it Safe.

We rarely have information as crucial as the location of the One Ring, but there certainly are things you shouldn’t let the (various) Dark Lords know.

What information is exchanged between company and employee or freelancer as part of a work arrangement should be kept between those two, unless there’s a crime involved or an agreement that says otherwise or it’s become common knowledge. If you get to work on Ultimate Sentient Weapons, a major book that hasn’t been announced yet, you SHOULD NOT then use that information to write a book that does the same thing but better, and sell it before USW comes out. That’s screwing over your partner who got you that info, and it’s not cool. Similarly if a freelancer tells a publisher the freelancer is already working on something similar, the publisher should not take steps to trademark names involved, or change publishing dates, or badmouth them to damage their reputation, or change the project to cover the idea the freelance admitted to having.

Even without an NDA, don’t do this.

Once things are all out in the open, normal intellectual property rights can apply. And if the publisher is giving the info to lots of folks to do associated projects, there’s no reason not to ask if you can be included in that set of folks. But you can’t use info you were given to do a job for A Corp, then leverage it to sell a tie-in to B Corp before anyone even knows it has happened. Similarly, don’t leak files, even just to your friend Josh. Because you may trust Josh… but Josh may trust Wilhelm, and Wilhelm may trust Jerry, and Jerry may be an asshole. Don’t take the risk.

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

What you do and say as a representative of yourself is your business. But if you wrote for a company’s new book, and you go to that company’s forum, and you take sole credit for things that were developed, edited, and worked on by 7 folks? Not cool. And if you badmouth it as crap the developers ruined? Not professional. And if you attack and insult customers who are annoyed? Way unprofessional.

If you can at all help it, don’t escalate conversations people who work with you are going to have to deal with. It’s like leaving a dead fish on the counter. If it’s your counter that’s gross, but you have to deal with it. If you leave it on my counter, you are making my life harder as the reward for me working with you.

Also, you will build a reputation. It will get around. Consider what you want it to be.

Be Kind. Rewind.

This industry is a meat grinder all too often. People with great talent and love of games leave both for more money, and for less stress and grief from fans.

So, try to be nice.

Yes, this is a vague hand-wave at professionalism, but give it some thought. If it takes only a tiny bit more effort to be nice to folks, why not do that? Yes, sometimes people are attacking you, or actively damaging your company or your reputation, and “nice” may not be a reasonable reply.

But if we were all nice whenever we could be? That would fix a lot of issues too.

Give more credit that you take.

Tell people when they make a positive impact on your life. Thank them.

Consider if you are being needlessly cruel in feedback. Saying you hate a game mechanic is very different from saying it’s idiotic and you don’t understand how anyone could ever think it was a good idea, and even THAT is different from saying a game’s writers are idiots who clearly only have their jobs because they are friends with the developer and the boss is so checked out he doesn’t care what gets published.

We HAVE lost people from the industry from such behavior. We’ll never stop it all, but if I can have one rock thrown at me each day or twelve, I’ll pick just one.

Self-Promotion Done Right

You can build up yourself without tearing anyone down. For example, I have a Patreon, and I’d love if you backed it.

Clinton Boomer has a Patreon. It’s awesome. You should back it too.

Liz Courts has a couple of Patreons. All worthwhile.

So does Jacob Blackmon!

I’d rather talk about how awesome these all are, and let you decide where to spend your money.

This entire post was sponsored by the Open Gaming Store. It’s awesome, too.

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on July 20, 2017, in Business of Games, Con Season, Gen Con, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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