XMAS FRUSTRATIONS – ANECDOTE 1

Products are appearing on the market faster than we can understand them – and manufacturers are moving so quickly that the products are too often half-baked, or not documented well, or not supported well. Technology is bringing us wonderful things, but too much of it comes with a full measure of frustration.

Here’s a couple of anecdotes. The details are different but the theme is the same for many, many other products on the market this holiday season.

Half-Life 2 is an incredible game. It lives up to its hype. It combines a compelling story with glorious and varied visuals and a breadth of game play that is unparalleled.

The publishers of Half-Life 2 decided to build gameplay on an online service named Steam, designed to prevent piracy and facilitate updates.

The game can’t be started the first time without an Internet connection. Okay, not a huge barrier for almost anyone. After the game has been activated, it can be played without going online with Steam although the procedure for doing that is not clear.

The first time the game is started, the files must be “unlocked” over the Steam network. It goes excruciatingly slowly at the best of times, and it meant the game couldn’t be played at all for many people during its first few days of release when the Steam servers crashed under the heavy load of people who had pre-ordered the game. This caused some (cough) unhappiness.

As released, the game had some bugs. That’s routine. The Steam system successfully delivered an automatic update after the game had been out for a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, the update made the problem worse for most people – at worst making the game unplayable for people who had been doing just fine before the update, thank you very much. This also caused a wee bit of annoyance. It took another couple of weeks before a better patch was released.

But those are all solvable problems. Then the program died and the real headaches started.

After happily playing the game for three weeks, one morning my kids couldn’t start the Steam program – it had a “problem connecting to the Steam servers.” And Half-Life 2 wouldn’t start in its “offline” mode – there were no “cached Steam credentials” on the computer.

I will spare you the sordid details. Suffice it to say I bring a fair amount of technical knowledge to software and configuration problems. After the first few hours of routine troubleshooting failed, I brought out heavy weapons. Many hours have passed. I can’t explain why but I’ve become convinced that Half-Life 2 will never be played again on that computer.

By now the Steam and Half-Life 2 programs have been thoroughly scrubbed from that computer three different times, including registry entries and manual file deletion. The firewall has been overhauled, and turned off, and changed. Other programs have been disabled and uninstalled and installed. Patches have been downloaded. Online tips have been researched and followed. Other people are having the same problem but not very many. There are people who reformatted their hard drives to get Steam to work again.

Steam starts and connects to the same account on my computer sitting three feet away on the same network. Steam refuses to connect on the kids’ computer. (It’s designed to run on two computers as long as only one is logged onto the Steam account at a time.)

If that were the only computer in the house, I’d be returning the game to the store and shouting at store clerks. If I were a normal consumer, I’d be insane with fury.

And that’s not all. More anecdotes to come.