Legal and the Importance of Paper

I was going to do a post on a design topic for a change, however Gamasutra’s newsletter posted a very interesting article that was on my list of topics (and was very relevant to a few events that had happened to my projects recently), so I will bump that priority up for this week. As someone new to the indie game scene, I hope my experiences can help other future indies starting out, although like others, I didn’t realize the importance of it until I learned it the hard way. This also goes for any other topics I also discuss, but of course I’m open to discussion and you don’t have to agree 100% unless it’s the obvious stuff (common sense/courtesy, etc.).

The article in question is Jonathan Sparks’ final part of his discussion, “When “We’ll be Together Forever” Goes Sour; How to Protect Yourself When Partners Part Ways (Part 3)“. While Parts 1 and 2 are also insightful, they involve heftier legal messes such as company stock. I won’t be referring to those parts, but please read them anyway because it’s always good to know. You have no idea how tempted I was to add a G.I. Joe quote to that sentence. (Applause, applause.)

Part 3 has a lot of great advice everyone should follow in ANY business partnership, regardless if it’s within the gaming industry or not, or if you’re working as a contractor/freelancer for someone, even a friend or colleague (which I do on the side as well for graphic design). If you’re new to working on a collaboration with anyone, the words “legal”, “contracts”, and “documents” are going to sound really frightening. Hopefully this post, as well as the article I linked, will help ease those fears.

The basic point you should take away from this is that “legal”, “contracts”, and “documents” are only scary because of the problems that arise from them if they aren’t planned or protected carefully. Meaning that as long as the piece of paper you are signing is concise, to the point, and can be agreed upon fairly by both parties, and that neither party tries to pull the wool over the other’s eyes, that piece of paper is a security blanket and proof of trust between both collaborators. In best case scenario, it protects both parties from any problems in the long run, even after the project’s completion, and during its development, both parties stick to their Scout’s honor and don’t cause a ruckus.

While my colleagues and other team members were taught early on to create and sign paperwork for our thesis projects during our graduate program for Game Design, even then a part of us didn’t truly understand how important this is! Most of the time our projects were educational, and although we share the IP based on what we contributed, these games were never released commercially, so we didn’t have to worry about fighting over dollars and cents. But once you leave that environment and work on commercially released projects (whether with friends, colleagues, or clients), having solid paperwork is as important as building a proper foundation for your house. If your foundation is lazily put-together, it will collapse even before the house has been finished.

If you’re fortunate enough to be working with well-trusted individuals and still find yourself in a bind where some terms are loosely (and dangerously) defined in the paperwork, even after signing, it doesn’t hurt to ask about it and bring it to everyone’s attention! If the project has just barely started development, it’s still early on for your project lead to agree to go back and rework the contract, and communicate with the team to make sure everyone is on the same page. If you can’t place that amount of trust to your leader to discuss problems, you should not be collaborating with them in the first place, and if your leader still does not want to iron over the problems, even if more than one person agrees to address it (but was afraid to ask until you brought it up), you have every right to follow your gut and walk out of the project. Working with a person like that will only be a disaster in the making. Disasters cost money, most often money the company you’re fighting with, for, or against does not have. Save yourself the stress at that point; there will be other projects.

This is NOT to say that you should carry a huge ego and start finding problems purposely; in every workplace that is heavily looked down upon and you’ll be fired very quickly. Trust in your team, do your best (hell, do better than your best!), but do not be afraid if a problem comes up that needs to be discussed! Be diplomatic and professional. You can still be friendly when you work with other people, but make sure you have proper paperwork accounted for that has been signed and agreed for, to prevent nasty problems from turning up.

Most of all, have fun! You’re working on what that you love to do, and not many people can say that anymore! As Sparks said, your paperwork doesn’t have to be hundreds of pages long (mine are only 2-3 at most), but it must be concise and as clear as possible for everyone to understand. I wouldn’t recommend doing a one-page document though, because there’s too many things that have to be addressed (don’t even think about pulling the 9pt font and 8pt leading trick, you weasel!). If you’d like a template for what to put down, there are good MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) templates online, or you can ask for mine for reference; it was one I received from my professor and we both find it most effective.

With that said, I leave this open for discussion, because I’m also curious about anyone else’s thoughts and experiences on the matter, especially if I happened to have left anything out. Once again, thank you for reading, and I hope this was insightful for you!