Doing work for a client seems on its face a straightforward transaction. The client says what they want, and the professional they’ve hired performs the work. In some fields, this holds true. Specifications are put forth and followed. Job done, Cold Ones opened, feet up on the couch. If there’s a snag in the plans, most people will grumble at a plumber, carpenter, or architect — but ultimately it’s hard to argue with “your 6′ bathtub will not fit in a 5′ area” or “do you really want a 6′ square living room?”.
Hopefully, these problems have been identified while still on paper. It’s a lot costlier to go back, undo things, and then figure out some way to salvage things in a mostly-correct (read: passable) way. Experienced craftsmen have seen a lot of these types of things, and can plan to avoid them. They know a lot of ways to do their job well that the layperson doesn’t. Rooms are designed to be comfortable and space-efficient. Walls and floors are designed to be sturdy and flexible. Plumbing is designed to last a long time. (Admittedly, I really wish this hypothetical plumber was around with my home was constructed.)
The Plight Of The Creative
Doing client work in a creative field is much the same way, except many clients tend to view it differently. If you know any web developers or graphic designers, you’ve no doubt heard their particular repertoire of “Clients From Hell” stories. These people are no different from any other, except they tend to be some combination of clueless, under pressure, and/or completely morally bankrupt.
The first two, cluelessness and pressurization, are understandable. I’ve been in many a situation when I’ve been handed an impossible situation and flatly told to get it done, and I bear the shame of many hasty and boneheaded decisions. If I’d been hiring people to do the things I couldn’t, those may have qualified me for Client From Hell status. Cluelessness is even easier to understand. Techies, designers, and artists have a tendency to do things those outside their field don’t understand. (That’s why they’re being hired.) That also means it’s hard for the average Joe to wrap their head around a web developer’s priorities, or to place value on the things a designer does. Worse, sometimes these skills are trivialized and the client thinks anybody with a copy of Frontpage or Photoshop can get by. Concerns from creatives are frequently misunderstood, ignored, or met with hostility. It is not much fun.
Communication: Minmaxing For Social People
When people hire other people, it’s frequently because they have some sort of need or pain they want to address. One of the most important skills for anybody who does client work is communication. You need to be able to hear what your client is saying and apply your knowledge and skills to provide a solution for them. Sometimes, you realize what they’re asking for isn’t what they need. That’s when it really gets interesting. I mean that in several senses of the word. They might think you’re awesome and let you save the day. They might also throw a fit if you need more time and money to do it, or just fire you because you’re going off their original plan. This is not much fun either.
I’m not exactly sure when I realized this in my career, but one of the keys to succeeding in getting the client what they need instead of what they want is salesmanship. I worked at a Radio Shack for a year when I was a teenager, and I hated it. I didn’t like selling, I didn’t like feeling like I was tricking people, I didn’t like any of it. This is not what I am talking about. It’s about being confident about your ideas and infecting other people with that same passion so they believe in it too. I suck at this, and I wish I’d worked on it a lot more when I was younger. Accursed social skills!
The Herculean Path Of D&D Next
Some of you may be wondering at this point if this is some sort of extended April Fool’s Day joke where I write about how to sell yourself to freelance clients. I assure you, we are all done with our April’s Foolery for the year. I am, finally, working my way around to my thoroughly game-and-nerd-related point.
This is the job WotC faces right now with D&D Next.
The specifications on the project are loose. The game has to work well, yet “feel like D&D”. And yet, with many editions and 40 years behind it, D&D is a lot of different things to a very disparate group of people.
WotC’s client right now is a thousand-headed hydra. It’s us. We’re like thunder-mecha-hyper-double-octuple-mirror-image-garlic Tiamat.
And unfortunately some of us are Clients From Hell. Don’t believe me? Some among us get really angry and make wild assumptions about things we don’t know much about (like D&D Next). Enough of us even made a game company change an ending we didn’t like.
Their job right now is twofold. First, to make a game that works. Just going with one way or one edition’s methodology won’t do, so they’re trying to make a system that can accommodate being whatever we want it to be. This seems unattainable to me unless they accomplish the second goal: that of getting people to believe in it as much as they do.
It’s here I worry a little bit. WotC’s being absolutely fantastic about asking us what we want. But, once again, that’s like asking multiple-adjectives Tiamat what it wants. I hope somewhere along the way with all these surveys and the upcoming playtesting that they will correctly determine what we need (whatever that may be) — and that we’re open to seeing it.
Our job for D&D Next, as I see it, is to make sure we express our wants and needs to WotC in a way they can process. For the moment, that means being spoon-fed bits of info and providing little bits of input as requested. Angry manifestos on forums are the realm of Clients From Hell. They are no fun.
Let’s not be that.