Thursday, October 16, 2003

Computer Blues

I take a break today from my PROBING POLITICAL ANALYSIS and UNCANNY ABILITY TO DISCERN PATTERN FROM POLITICAL CHAOS to treat of a smaller, yet persistant annoyance.

I have a computer. This much is plain from the fact that this article is written on a BLOG. I have, I'd say, an intermediate level of computer knowledge. I can replace and add computer hardware unassisted, and I can generally find my way around the desktop and tweak my computer in a variety of ways. This puts me in the upper tier of computer users I know. I'm not being arrogant here. Most people who buy computers still couldn't tell a hard drive from a hard boiled egg. These are the folks who file everything on their desktops and think that AOL is the only way to get on the internet or receive email.
My own grandmother, bless her heart (as we say in the South before insulting someone), cancelled her Mindspring account which I suggested she move to from AOL, because the windows "looked different." She couldn't find the "little x" in the corner anymore. Or something.

This is common, and I don't think her age is the issue. I think we ALL have limits on our knowledge which brings up the REAL QUESTION of this essay: How do computer game companies stay in business?

Before you continue, see if you know the answer to the following questions: What video card is in your computer? What driver version is it? Ditto on sound card and driver. Is Open GL supported? What size is your page file and how do you increase it? How do you remove a sound card that is integrated into your motherboard?

Are you getting the idea? These sound like OBSCURE TECHNICAL ISSUES, but if you've tried to play computer games, the tech support folks throw these things around like you were Bill Gates' love child.

I'm going to give an example that is most recent, but not the most egregious, and I'm just curious if this example is similar to that of any of the 6 of you who stop into this site from time to time (seriously, people, I have received not one email from anyone reading this material, which means it is obviously only being monitored by the government and they do it all electronically, so they won't even bother sending me a message).

My stepdaughter found my old Everquest CD. For the 3 of you in the computer-using population who've not heard of it, Everquest is a fantasy/role playing game that is played online with people all over the globe. The designers create the world and you pick a character and roam around finding gold and killing things. Sort of like the U.S. government, only the things you kill are only VIRTUAL REPRESENTATIONS OF LIVING CREATURES CREATED BY VARIOUS COLORED PIXELS. An important distinction.

I won't go into how they wouldn't let me have my old account back because I couldn't remember the credit card number or password I'd used. They were content to let an account that had not been used since the previous millenium continue its virtual decay.

So, my step-daughter and I, off we went to buy a new copy of the game. I installed it on her computer, which is fairly old, and even though the game worked on that same computer three years ago, it did not work now. I was disappointed, but not too surprised, because of how quickly games take advantage of newer technology. HOWEVER, I do think that many average computer users would NOT be as aware of this. So when your computer meets all the minimum requirements listed on the box, you may foolishly expect that it will work, or at the very least, run into a problem that is NOT related to the requirements. No such luck, however. The program consumed so much of the CPU that it couldn't operate, even though we were 50mhz over the minimum required an had turned off such luxuries as SOUND. (If this is already getting too technical for you, it only demonstrates my point further.)

However, as I proudly told you, I have an INTERMEDIATE knowledge of computers. So, even though the whole point was to find a game that she could play on her computer so she's not always on mine downloading who knows what kind of viruses and so we could hold the 13 dollar-a-month fee over her head to inspire her, at last praise God, to keep her room in at least good enough order that the fire marshall will not evict us from our humble dwelling, on my machine it went.

But what ho? Soft, what light through yonder monitor does not break. The damn thing froze on my computer just like it did on hers. My computer is 3 months old.

So, already having had an unpleasant round of fisticuffs with their "chat live with a tech support person" named Chris R. , and knowing that, website to the contrary, it is, in fact, not possible to connect with a human by phone (I don't mean you have to wait; I mean that it is never given as an option. Even the old "push 0 every chance you get till a human answers" didn't work.) I decided to post a message in their tech forum.

Already I have many advantages over the average user. I knew there WOULD be a tech forum, though this is not advertised well.

Now, on this forum, if you want to post your problem, you are told to post specific information about your computer. The directions concerning what information to post are...and I kid you not, three pages long. In turn, the information you post, were you to print it out, would be of equal length. However, the directions for doing so were fairly clear, although at one point, there was a step that was just plain wrong. Nevertheless, I posted all of the information as directed.

The first response was very helpful, from another player of the game. However, look what it was! I had to download a utility called Tweak UI (which I already had, but most folks don't) and uncheck the box that tells the computer whether or not to let the current window you are in "steal application focus." Yeah...I would have thought of that, just needed a little more time. Happy to say it worked, though. The first freezing problem went away. However, I only got two more screens deep before it froze again, still not having set foot in the troubled and dangerous world of Norrath!

I got a second response from someone who seemed very knowledgeable, but did not say if he actually worked for the Everquest folks. He could have been an amateur trying to be helpful, or worse yet, just seeing if he could get me to do horrible things to my machine.
I quote him here:

"Some suggestions:

Update your video driver, the version you are running is unsupported.

Remove your sound card, that built-in device is not supported.

Increase the size of your paging file, need approx 700mb free"

Let's take each one of these from the perspective of your average computer user.

First, video driver. To do as he suggests, you must know

  • What video card you have

  • What a driver is

  • How to find updated drivers for your card (God forbid you have a card from a company that went out of business like my last Voodo brand card)

  • How to install the thing (I'd like to recommend the nVidia cards, by the way, at least in this regard. Most companies make many different cards, with VERY similar names, each with its own driver for EACH possible operating system. nVidia? One driver fits all)

  • How to turn off your computer virus software while installing

If these things are no big deal to you, please keep in mind that I'm talking about the average user.

All right. Next suggestion: Remove your sound card. Let's see. I need enough knowledge to open the box and remove the right card as well as enough knowledge to know how to find and install a suitable replacement. I, evidently, have the sound card integrated into my motherboard. It can't be removed. Oh well.

Moving on: "Increase the size of your page file." This one kills me. I, actually, do NOT know how to do this, though I have a vague idea of what a page file is. I will be finding out, but even knowing how to find things out is not always easy. I do know that an error message telling me I am low on virtual memory keeps popping up, and I needed to fix this anyway. However, the level of assumed knowledge here is staggering.

Well, like good Americans, you want a happy ending, and there is one. Unlike other games that I have ended up using for coffee-table coasters, this one finally works. I expect the unexpected freezes, but I am able to roam with my barbarian around the frozen wastes of Halas.

The point of my story is that this is not a UNIQUE occurrence for me. Multiply me by millions (frightening thought, that) and I think you have the population of people who would simply have to give up on this and many other games. And I haven't even gotten into tech support from hardware manufacturers. (My favorite is "upgrade the BIOS." First off, when you buy a machine, the motherboard manufacturer can be VERY difficult to identify. If you do identify it and go to their website to upgrade the BIOS, you always get a message saying "Don't try to upgrade your BIOS unless you know what you are doing, or risk a chain reaction computer meltdown that could destroy the entire planet." And be honest YOU even know what the BIOS is?)

What I'm saying is there has GOT to be some kind of industry sit-down where they can work out some standards for various pieces of hardware. There simply MUST be a way that an average computer user can quickly and easily determine if a game is playable on his or her system. The minimum requirements tell you very little. Who know my soundcard wouldn't be compatible, for example?

I realize that Bill Gates is probably a big part of the problem. I'm not tech savvie enough to know the details, but I get enough "SECURITY FLAW" updates to know these guys aren't real thorough. And anytime you've gotten an error message that simply has a number on it, you know that ease of use by the average PC owner was not high on their list of priorities.

But we can't hold Bill responsible for all the hardware out there and the fact that one could, without knowing it, buy a computer hoping to play a particular game, only to find out that many of its components are "not supported." (By the way, in English "this driver(or hardware) is not supported" means "fuck you". Sorry for the PG-13 language.)
And, despite the poor customer service so many game companies provide, we can't entirely blame them, either. They are trying to deliver the highest end quality, and to do that, they need to take advantage of features offered by the most popular new computer components. Maybe it's just not possible to assure compatibility with every product out there.

But they have got to be losing money with situations like this. How many people simply give up? How many try with one game, give up, and buy an XBOX (admittedly, Microsoft wouldn't mind that.) They need to get together and figure out a way to make this stuff easier. At the very least, hardware manufacturers should put together jointly run websites that explain, in English, all about drivers, with links to updates and utilities for determining what equipment you've currently got under the hood. And the game companies could do the same.

Secondly, all companies need to recognize the myriad confusing issues involved in buying and installing hardware and software. They should not be so quick to look for reasons that it is YOUR problem and not theirs. "Sir, are you wearing blue today, because we can't support this product when people are wearing blue." They MUST know that this stuff is confusing, and the investment in extra service will pay off. (Okay, that will never happen, but if felt good to say it.)

Finally, let's have better documentation from our computer manufacturers. Let's have ONE book that has ALL of your components listed...the brand names, the websites, the drivers that come loaded with them. It doesn't even have to be printed out...just include it on a disk with the computer. Make this stuff EASY. I for one, am going to stick with Yahoo chess from now on.


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