Professionalism and Communication

In my recent interview with Jason Marker, he said something that really resonated with me: “Everyone, from the boss at Fantasy Flight or Paizo to the greenest freelancer, are industry professionals, and we should all endeavor to comport ourselves appropriately.”

Jason’s not wrong. One thing that’s been key to my career in the gaming industry has been a focus on professionalism. I can thank my father for instilling in me a great desire to be seen first and foremost as a professional in my field. I credit many of my colleagues—including Ed Stark, Steve Horvath, Jason Marker, John Dunn, and Sam Stewart just to name a few—with giving me a deeper understanding of what “acting like a professional” really means.
The gaming industry—both tabletop and video game—has a strong trend toward casual behavior. Very few people wear suits in these businesses, and fewer have any kind of dress code at all. Plus, making games for a living often puts gaming professionals into a role where their customers see them as talented amateurs rather than serious, value-driven experts. This often bleeds over into how the fans and gaming professionals interact.
I’m pleased to say that many—I’d even go so far as to say most of the professionals that I know personally do not fall prey to these misconceptions. For instance, when I walk around the dealer’s hall at Gen Con, I see a lot of great examples of laudable professional behavior in our industry.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. I’d like to take the opportunity and use this blog post to talk about what professionalism means to me and why it is important to the gaming industry.
I’ll start with my definition of professionalism: A professional is an expert who takes his work seriously and acts with integrity, courtesy, and respect.
Editor’s Note: Again, just for emphasis, the definitions and opinions presented here are strictly my own interpretations.

Integrity

Integrity is critical in all aspects of life, and it is certainly true about being a professional. A professional keeps his agreements and sticks to the signed contract. A professional obeys the NDA, regardless of the temptation to “spill the beans.” A professional does what he says he would do, when he said he would do it.
As an example, a personal achievement that I’m very proud of is that during my tenure at Fantasy Flight Games, I moved Heaven and Earth to make sure our freelancers were paid on time. This isn’t to say that there weren’t a few hiccups along the way, but I built a solid bond of trust with the people with whom I contracted that they would receive a fair wage for their effort. That’s definitely a mark in my “win” column.

Courtesy

Professionals are courteous. Trash-talking, cursing, and belittling others are strictly amateur hour behaviors.
For myself, whenever I meet a fan of my work, I try to make sure to shake their hand and say “thanks.” Nothing stings more than being completely ignored or unappreciated when you approach someone and tell them how much you like the things that they create.

Respect

A professional respects his own work and the work of others. A professional takes ownership of his work, both the good and the bad. A professional has no need to brag or strut—his work speaks for itself.
There is a type of self-aggrandizement known as “shilling,” where a game designer or writer goes to sites like Amazon.com or BoardGameGeek and gives his own product a top rating. I understand the temptation to let other people know how you feel about your work, but there are far better—and more professional—ways to go about that.

Engaging with Fans

This is how we, as professionals, communicate in public. Whenever a game designer posts something on the company website, he’s engaging with fans. Meeting people at a convention, talking on a panel, even just standing around in the hallway wearing your company t-shirt—you are representing yourself as a professional and as an agent of the company (or companies) with whom you do business.
Let me give you a maxim that I learned early on in my career:
The gaming industry is a small one. Everyone knows everyone else.
This means that acting unprofessionally can turn out to be the Mark of Cain. It doesn’t take much for particularly egregious examples of unprofessional behavior to circulate amongst your peers. This is a lesson we all should learn early in our lives; how you act in public influences how people react to you.
As I said earlier, many (if not most) people in the gaming industry get it. However, there are always some who just don’t.
Some things that I personally have witnessed (and mentioned here purely as informative examples) include calling out a forum handle of a particularly critical fan in a public blog post, publically assigning blame for an underperforming product, and skirting an NDA by broadly hinting at which company just got a juicy license. These are all unprofessional behaviors and should be avoided at all costs.

Direct vs. Indirect

Direct engagement is meeting fans face to face, Q & A, and posting in discussion forums. Basically, direct engagement means that you’re replying to or expecting a direct reply to something you’ve said.
Direct engagement can be a lot of fun. I particularly enjoy meeting fans face-to-face; it is one of the highlights of the job. However, it is very important in these situations to always be respectful and maintain courtesy. If someone comes up to me at Gen Con and wants to tell me about his character, I’m game! If I have to go somewhere else and I need to cut him short, I’ll do in the politest way possible at the time.
One of my favorite examples of direct communication happened at Gen Con 2011. A young man came up to me and declared that he represented “/tg/’s combined rage,” and wanted to list a number of demands for the Deathwatch RPG. It was actually a very fun discussion about all things 4Chan, and I was able to help guide him to speak with the right person to hear his concerns.

Forums

It is important to set aside a small section to discuss forums. In the gaming industry, forums are nearly ubiquitous. There are official websites for nearly every gaming company and many popular general gaming forums as well.
Forums are one of the trickier aspects of fan interaction. Generally speaking, the purpose of forums is to create a place where fans can interact with each other. Note that I said “with each other” rather than with the designers.
There are a number of companies out there that require full-time employees to actively avoid posting in any forums about their own products. This is actually a very smart idea for the following reasons:
  • Posting in discussion forums takes time away from real work, i.e., making new product or improving existing ones.
  • Some fan discussions can simply be toxic. They can cause emotional reactions completely out of proportion with the issue or issues being raised.
    • If the issue requires something to be done about it, I strongly recommend waiting at least 24 hours before taking action. Remember that anything you say on the internet is there forever.
  • Getting the word out about your products or crafting any message about the company’s intentions is the responsibility of the marketing department, not the designer. That’s what they’re trained for, that’s what they do. Designers make games instead, so stick to that.
I’ve actually had to rescue fellow designers from getting involved in forum discussions—and I’ve had people rescue me in turn—because in the long run, it accomplishes nothing. There are far better and more meaningful ways to interact with the fanbase.
This is true even if the posters are talking about your game. Even if they are getting things completely wrong or turned around. The smart thing is to just stay out of it!

Indirect Engagement

Indirect engagement includes things like blog posts, news updates, designer diaries, and so forth. 
You’re looking at an example of indirect engagement right now!
Indirect engagement is a useful and desirable tool for game designers. It’s a great way to address concerns, get the word out, explain your thinking behind your work, and talk about why you do things the way that you do.

Bottom Line

If you act like a professional, people will treat you like one.
I hope this blog post helps explain my view of professionalism and illustrates why it is so important in our industry.

7 responses to “Professionalism and Communication

  1. This is not something I’d really put much thought into, but freelance writing is something I’ve only recently become involved with and I love it.

    Thanks for writing this, it’s been both interesting and informative – now to go be SUPER PROFESSIONAL (and track down that tie in the pic so I can burn it).

  2. I wonder if Jason Marker cited the boss of Fantasy Flight as an example for professionalism for some reason. I know I definitely would NOT based on several interactions with him back when the company was making games like Battle Mist and the original Twilight Imperium and a card game called MagBlast. Unless things are much different since then I’d cite him as a prime example of a class A jerk.

    At that time there were only two other employee of Fantasy Flight who made up for our boss. One of them was very kind with his heart and courtesy. Not up on why he left them but has since done work for Sony Online Entertainment. I’ll always be grateful to him for how he treated me, the lowly volunteer at the conventions. The other guy is still there and I suspect is the lynch-pin that keeps the place alive.

    This post was quite unprofessional of me. Sorry for that.

  3. I agree with everything you’ve said, Ross. And, at least I like to think, I’ve done a good job following the rules you stated. Where it becomes a problem for me (the lowly freelancer), is when I am acting professionally and those who’ve hired me are not. Not that I would act unprofessional, but there’s a fine line between badmouthing company X on a public forum, and stating the facts of the case.

    Case in point, my “company X” has stated on a number of forums that they, A) behave professionally, and B) as of a certain date have paid all the freelancers they failed to do so initially.

    In my case, while they have sent me checks, my contracts stipulate when I was to be paid, and that in addition to payment, I am to receive 1 copy of the book my writing appeared in (or 3 copies if I notified them I wanted such*).

    So, when I see my “company X” stating they act professionally, I can simply point to my contracts and say, “see here, where I was to be paid this much on this date? You didn’t do that. Nor did you do it here, and here, and here, etc. In fact, as long as I freelanced for you, there was not one instance of you actually following through with the terms of the contract. So, no you don’t behave professionally.” And when they say they’ve paid all their freelancers, I can again point to the contract and the letters, and say, “Nope, I still haven’t been paid the product the contract stipulates. So currently you still have not paid all your freelancers.”

    Now I keep this up whenever I see them making these false statements, and occasionally, someone from “company X” emails me to tell me they’ll ‘look into it.’ But that’s as far as it ever gets.

    This, of course, continues because they don’t complete the contract and I won’t let them lie. So what happens instead is their rabid fanboys question my integrity, and do so publicly, and soon enough word gets out. Mark is unprofessional…

    Now I know, I could always just give it up. Say, this isn’t worth the hassle. But I think, in addition to acting professionally, you must stand up for yourself (and this is regardless of what you do in life). Just because the company is bigger than me, does not mean they (or their fanboys) can bully me or treat me unprofessionally.

    Anyway, just food for thought.

    Mark Edwards

    *which I dutifully did, on many occasions, and to half a dozen different people (I know because I kept copies of everything).

  4. Being a loud-mouth on the Internet is how you found me Ross, so forums can’t be all bad. 😛

Leave a Reply