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Bioware forgot the first two rules of Write Club

Writing | Wednesday, February 28th, 2007 | 10 years, 9 months ago

The first rule of technical writing is to know your audience.

The second rule of technical writing is to know your audience.

I’ve been playing and rather enjoying Jade Empire by Bioware which I preordered on Steam for $35.99 USD (now $39.99). The PC edition has been upgraded with high resolution textures, added visual effects, and additional quests and plotline elements. Between the interesting dialogue, passable voice acting, gorgeous graphics, and somewhat engaging combat and mini-games I’m having a good time with the game.

While the gameplay is a sober mix of familiar, tired, and safe standards (ancient Chinese shmup?!), my regular readers will know that I’m a real gourmand of immersive virtual experiences. With rare exceptions this is a really believable game with a tangible world and sufficiently round characters that I honestly care about. I dedicated my entire evening to Jade Empire and found it easy to open up and drink in the atmosphere.

Thus, it’s all the more heart-wrenching to be jarred from this fantasy when faced with some ugly technical writing.

For context, Jade Empire, like most RPGs, encourages the player to open every box and smash every crate to get his grubby hands on every last scrap of loot (not to be confused with the MMORPG equivalent, “lewt”, typically an insignificantly incremental improvement over what you already have). One such widget is a scroll of learning; three of which are required to learn a new fighting style. This is all well and good, but upon finding one of these scrolls the way the player is notified leaves much to be desired. I’ve highlighted the elements that immediately and repeatedly turn my smile upsidedown:

jadeempire.JPG

I’m really surprised at Bioware for being so sloppy. This is a veteran studio dedicated to role playing games – games where the player is unequivocally encouraged to take on the role of a character in the world. The zen of roleplaying is to leave your real-worldly role behind, which entails not being reminded that you are “the player”. Similarly, my magical seductress has been tasked with collecting medicinal herbs and banishing ghosts; she has no awareness of an “attack button” and certainly does not need two simultaneous reminders of such.

I’m doubly frustrated at Bioware – first for letting such an amateurish mistake escape not only this “Special Edition” of the game but also the prior version released 2 years ago, and second for passing up my application for a technical writing position they advertised a few months back.

Bioware has taught me a harsh lesson in effective technical writing. It’s clear that the UI and writing teams should have been working closely together, but weren’t. As essential as it is to convey usability information to the user of a software product, video games are not just any software product. They have a specific audience with very different goals than users of Microsoft Word or Macromedia Dreamweaver. Over years of experience gamers are conditioned to suspend their suspension of disbelief during mechanics tutorials and help screens. It’s really not necessary to remind us in painfully lucid English how to dismiss every single dialog box.

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Is it time to vote again yet?

Politics | Friday, February 16th, 2007 | 10 years, 10 months ago

I’m getting awfully tired of seeing Liberal-bashing ads on prime time television. The end of each ad proclaims them to be “brought to you by the Conservative Party of Canada.” But the Conservative Party was brought to Canada by Canada. Elected by Canada. Paid for by Canada.

I accept the fact that Canada desired new government in the House of Commons, and I accept that this government may reallocate my tax dollars to more closely suit their own agenda. That’s why we vote.

But why am I paying for political ads? There’s no election going on now. There’s seemingly no reason for the Conservative party to attempt to curry favour from the populace at the moment. Regardless of which party I voted for I shouldn’t be forced to pay for slanderous, self-serving tripe. It’s inappropriate, irresponsible, and unethical of any government to do so.

I find this practise particularly slimy because, if the ads were showed during election time, they would be out of accordance with CRTC political advertising rules.

For example, “all candidates and parties are entitled to some coverage that will give them the opportunity to expose their ideas to the public.” I’ve thankfully been exempt from paying for Liberal rebuttal ads, though, according to the CRTC, such an opportunity is due:

“…if paid advertising time is sold to any party or candidate, advertising time must be made available on an equitable basis to rival parties and candidates. “

Furthermore, during elections, one-sided inflammatory advertisements have been all but unheard-of as far as I’ve observed. There’s a reason for this – the CRTC holds itself and television and radio stations responsible for the equitable presentation of issues by political parties.

“Section 3 of the Act requires that ‘the programming originated by broadcast undertakings should be of high standard’ and ‘the programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be exposed to the expression of differing views on matters of public concern'”

These cheap-shot ads are the least of my worries, disgusting though they may be.

It’s generally agreed that the Conservatives stole the Liberal’s minority government by bombarding the public with ads bringing to light an embarassing and illegal Liberal sponsorship scandal. Fair game. However, it’s perplexingly infuriating that the Conservatives have yet failed to punish their own Minister of Heritage for doing the same thing very shortly after the election, and later took measures to justify its illegal sponsorship funds by means of a loophole in their own Accountability Act.

The Liberals’ term ended with former Right Honourable Prime Minister Paul Martin denying America’s request to set up a defensive missile shield on Canadian soil. The simply Right current Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s term began by sending Canadians to combat in Afghanistan.

The Liberals, interpreting Canada’s Charter of Rights, deemed same-sex marriage legal and in the spirit of the country. The Conservatives, ignoring the Canadian majority’s votes and morals, vowed to re-open the issue. This ended in embarassment for Harper when his discriminatory motion was defeated by a large majority.

Since taking power the Conservatives have inexplicably lowered the GST while ballooning military spending, eliminated government-sponsored child care and ended women’s support services in a double-whammy assault on women’s rights, stepped up efforts to deport even well accepted and loved illegal immigrants, and preceded children’s movies with army recruitment ads.

I urge all Canadians, whether in support or in contempt of our Conservative government, to voice their concerns to the Prime Minister. Do so by way of your local MP, your provincial premier, or email Harper himself at pm@pm.gc.ca.

I’ve never before been so motivated to vote.

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Sega gets me Steamed

Customer Support | Friday, February 2nd, 2007 | 10 years, 10 months ago

Sorry in advance for a pretty lazy account of an otherwise interesting series of correspondences between Steam, Sega, and I. Crazy busy workweek.

~~~

What’s a Torontonian to do in the throes of snow storms? Walk for 10 minutes to the 2 game stores around the corner? Hell no! The tropical screenshots tickled my vacation bone so I purchased Sega‘s Outrun 2006 Coast 2 Coast from Steam for $19.99 US. Oops.

The purchase procedure was as easy as ever, and the game began downloading immediately at full speed (about 600KB/s on my connection). I downloaded the 1.5GB game in less than an hour and eagerly double-clicked the icon. I cranked the quality settings, picked a car, chose a song (Magical Sound Shower, of course) and let ‘er rip.

I got about 3 minutes into my first race (which looked like a PS1 game with antialiasing, by the way) when the video froze and the speakers let out a high-pitched whine. The computer froze real good – no alt-tabbing, no alt-F4ing, no Num Lock LED response, nada.

I suspected the buzzing sound might be indicative that it was finally time to replace my onboard AC97 sound chip with my problematic but beloved Audigy 2 so I opened up my machine, slapped in the card, installed the latest drivers, and was good to go. A few media players and games worked great (and much louder) with the new card so I gave Outrun another attempt. Buzzzz. Reboot.

Frustrated, I checked for help on Steam’s forums which, surprisingly, considering its inconceivably active userbase, served no useful information about my predicament, nor could I find anything useful elsewhere on Steam’s page. (nuff commas, Brian!) The only useful tidbit was a page stating that third-party software issues should be addressed directly to the developer. Steam kindly provided a direct link to Sega Support.

I concisely described my situation to Sega as follows:

I recently purchased Outrun 2006 Coast To Coast for PC from Steam (www.steampowered.com). I try to play the game but after several seconds I hear a high-pitched whine (from the speakers) and my computer crashes and cannot be recovered without rebooting.

I play many games on my PC without trouble. I have a fairly modern and powerful computer in good working order. Can you please assist me in fixing this problem?

Thanks

A week after contacting Sega I’d received no response. I wrote a quick letter to Steam asking for some kind of intervention, solution, or a refund. 4 days went by and I received no reply from either company, so I emailed Steam once more requesting some human contact. Less than an hour later Steam replied, stating that my credit card would be credited with a refund within the week and that the game had been disabled in my account. Great! Except for the last line in Steam’s email:

Please note in the future that Steam purchases, per the Steam Subscriber Agreement, are not refundable – this refund was issued as a one-time customer service gesture.

This really didn’t sit well with me. Being the self-righteous sort I replied, stating, in part:

I’m disappointed to hear your claim that this is a one-time courtesy. I feel that, as a retailer, Steam is obligated to stand behind the products it sells. I’d have hoped that this would entail requiring a set of standards regarding technical support for third-party publishers like Sega (who still hasn’t replied to my support request) since I’m disappointed that I won’t get to play Outrun. However, since the game did not work for me and there was no one available to offer support, I expect Steam to ensure my satisfaction one way or another.

To which Steam replied shortly thereafter:

That’s really a “Standard Response” issue. Our subscriber agreement specifically notes that there are no refunds through Steam, but in such events as a complete inability to play the game and a response within days of purchase, it is evaluated by a support person such as myself. If a similar problem arises in the future, you may feel comfortable that such a request will certainly be viewed by human eyes and the circumstances evaluated before rendering a judgement on whether we should offer a refund.

The “No refunds” policy is there simply to protect us from abuse by gamers who can finish a game quickly and then attempt to get a refund. It’s a peril of electronic payment and distribution.

Thank you for detailing your concerns.

In the end Steam had provided me a refund, a quick reply to my comment, and even an explanation about why the customer is right even though this ever-waning adage is risky for electronic retailers. Except for the 4 day lapse between my initial support submission and their response I am completely satisfied with the way Steam handled this situation. Except for when I challenged Sierra to make good on a satisfaction-guaranteed promise for King’s Quest 7 this was the only time I’d ever been issued a refund for a piece of software in my 20+ years of computing. Highly impressive.

As for Sega, I doubt I’ll be buying their products again. A full 2 weeks after submitting my support request I received the following automated response: (this is an excerpt)

Thank you for your interest in Sega. In our attempt to assist you as quickly as possible, we have sent this automatic reply to you based on the most common sets of questions we receive from our customers.

If the following text (or links) does not answer your question(s) or address your concern(s), please reply and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

Thank you,
Sega Customer Support
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
How do I setup my Dreamcast?
http://www.sega.com/support/supportsys.php?item=support_systems_dreamcast#setup

How do I clean/care for my Dreamcast (i.e. lens, batteries)?
http://www.sega.com/support/supportsys.php?item=support_systems_dreamcast#care

Please use lens cleaner made for “plastic” lenses, which will generally be fluid based.

Where do I send my Dreamcast for repair?
http://www.sega.com/support/supportsys.php?item=support_systems_dreamcast#repairs

Where can I find information on older Sega products?
http://www.sega.com/support/supportsys.php?item=support_systems

Thanks, Sega. Right on target. I leave you today, fair readers, with my response to Sega. I doubt I’ll hear back.

Thank you for sending me numerous links on how to repair my Dreamcast. Unfortunately, this does not assist me in repairing the PC game for which I contacted your technical support department. I appreciate this 2-week-old response from Sega’s top engineering minds.

I’ve already been issued a refund from Steam, quoting Sega’s absence of responsibility along with my displeasure of your product. Steam was very prompt and empathetic in their response and did not delay in ensuring my satisfaction. Rest assured I will happily continue purchasing products via Steam, but will smartly avoid Sega products to avoid a second demonstration of ineptitude from your super team of rocket scientists.

Thank you for your utterly useless reply to my half-month-old plea for product support. I look forward to your response, random though it will surely be. Perhaps you’ll send me travel brochures to Bermuda or mail me a banana? I can’t wait to find out!

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