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History of Pie in the Sky Software Part 2 PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 14 March 2010 23:14

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History of Pie in the Sky Software Part 2


GCS - a Tech Support Nightmare

    With shareware products, the customers have paid nothing.  They try the free version.  If it doesn't work, they uninstall it and delete.    By the time people get the registered version, they know it works and how to use it.   Shareware did not generate much tech support.

    On the other hand, the commercial products didn't generate any tech support because that wasn't our responsibility.   I'm sure that people with complicated problems simply returned it, but again that wasn't our problem.

   No the GCS is a whole different animal.    These people paid $69.96 + shipping, and they expected everything to work flawlessly...

  After the holidays ended, on the first business day the phone started ringing.   It was a complicated product, and there were lots of people with technical troubles.   There were some bugs in the software itself, and the ability of the customers to comprehend the manual was  highly varied.     Since I was the only full time person, I was the one who had to man the telephone.  Unfortunatelgcs_box_back_420y, I was also the one who had to fix most of the bugs, since the game engine code was all my part of it.     Within a short while we realized a free upgrade had to be sent out.   In those days we couldn't just a put an update up on a website, since many of our customers didn't have internet access.     And we so we did send out the free upgrade at our expense.   Then things started to calm down a bit.

   Despite all my greatest fears, the customers for the most part seemed happy with the product.   Our return rate was very low, probably less a few percent.    As things settled down, I could finally get some sleep.   The phone in the den would be writing at all hours, but I only had to answer it during our stated business hours.

    Eventually most of the people who couldn't handle it either returned the product or simply gave up.   What remained were the customer who really were actually making games and therefore generating questions, and the others who weren't getting anywhere but did not want to give up.    We had no specific support policy stated.   And so there were people who called me every single day, and sometimes more than once a day.    Some people called so much I began to think they were just lonely.

  Over time I had to develop techniques to be able to spend less time on the phone, and more time fixing bugs and working on the next release.    These were:


Techniques for Keeping Tech Support Calls Productive and Short


Always be polite but sound very busy, overworked and harried.

    I found this helped alot, and it was easy to do because I was busy, overworked and harried.  Customers seemed to appreciate that I couldn't spend all day on the phone with them.

The Shortest Tech Support call is the one they didn't have to make

    Every time a customer has a problem, write it down an put it in the documentation.  The next customer to get a GCS can find the answer in the doc, or if they call, I can look up quickly myself.  Also, I had filled the game engine with error codes and checked conditions for sanity frequently.   When the game would reach a fatal problem it would spit out this Critical Error code before dying.   Many times when I couldn't quite understand what the customer was trying to do or what their problem was, if they could just tell me that error number I could figure out what is happening and over solutions.

Never get too friendly on the phone

   Sometimes I would enjoy chatting with the customers, but the danger is that the customer will then want to call you for every little thing and expect to chat more.   While I don't mind a little chat, I was busy, overworked and harried and really had no time for idle chat.  The key was to be polite and professional but never chat about anything about how to solve their problem.   If the same person keeps calling about things that they didn't need to call about, I would get steadily less friendly because it was the only way to limit the time use.

Leave the Phone off the Hook

   This was a technique of last resort, and I used it sparingly.    More often I would turn on the answering machine and let it record messages.   Returning those calls was no fun at all;    When the person who made the original call is not the person who answers the phone it could be hard to explain to people who suspect you of being a telemarketer.

   The YouTube video to the left is a game called "Pencil Whipped" created by a customer with the GCS by Lonnie Flickinger

Some Customers Feel that Tech Support is the Enemy

Many customers would have this strange idea that I was sitting a big pile of magical answers that could instantly fix their problems if I felt like it, and if I didn't instantly give them the solution, it must because I was unwilling to tell them my valuable secrets.   So they would call with with a big attitude that I was their adversary, and in order to get me to give up my secret they needed to 'win'.   The problem started when I needed to ask them questions to try and diagnose the problem.   Me asking a question about what they were doing was a scheme to blame them.   So they would have this mindset that they did nothing wrong, and so they need to keep me focused on fixing the problem rather than get bogged down in details like what they were trying to do.   The call would go something llike this.


"Hello, this is Pie in the Sky Software Tech Support.  Can I help you?"

"Hello, I have the Game Maker and it doesn't work."

"OK, I can help you with that.   What seems to be the problem?"

"I was following the instructions and it doesn't work right."

"You got it installed ok, and then you were going through the tutorial?"


"At which step in the tutorial did it not work correctly?"

"I don't know.   What do I need to do to make it work?"

"Hmm.  Did you try the example game?"


"Did it work ok?"


"What went wrong?"

"It didn't work."

... And so it went.   Eventually I figured that some people were simply following a simple script in their minds:


if( tech_support_guy_asks( "Did you do XXX?")   then reply( "Yes" );
if( tech_support_guy_asks( "Did YYY work ok?" )  then reply ("No.  How do I fix it?");
if( tech_support_guy_asks( "any other question") then reply ("I don't know.  How do I fix it?");


These sort of callers seemed to feel like it was a waste of time for them to explain to me what they were doing.  All they wanted was the Answer.



A Certain (small) Percentage of Customers tell Tech Support Lies


   Sometimes there would be very common problems and I would need to ask a few questions to figure out which one they were having.   I found that some customers would lie to me when I asked them questions.   It was the strangest thing.    At first I found that some tech support issues would just go around in circles, and I couldn't understand what was going on.   For example, a customer getting a critical error #1032.   I look it up, and it turns out that if you place an ammo pack in a doorway, this sometimes happens.  I look at the code, and this error code is in the ammo pack module.   So I ask,

"did you place any ammo packs in your level?"

Now I expect them to say 'yes' because that's the only way that code will ever execute.  I'm all ready to say, "ok, well just move them away from the doors, and the problem will go away".  But instead, they say.


So when I first startred doing tech support, I would then start trying to figure out wild improbable ways the error code might occur without any ammo packs being placed.  But eventually I wised up and realized that some people will feel like asking them if they placed ammo packs is some kind accusation.   I eventually caught on and would try to diplomatically help them by saying something like.

"OK, well the most common cause for error 1032 is when there is a ammo pack too close for a doorway.  I tell people when they get that error to delete the ammo pack or move it away and it usually solves the problem.   So far that seems to fix it for everybody."


"If you check that and still get that error, call me right back and we'll try to figure it out."

And that worked;  They never called back unless I was wrong and they really were telling the truth.


Scary Customers

 Dealing with customers directly could occasionally get interesting or even creepy.    I remember once a woman called me with a tech support issue her husband was having with the GCS.    She wasn't really clear on what the issue was, and I would ask her a question and she would put down the phone and ask the husband, and the repeat his answer to me.   I could hear him telling her in the background.    Finally I suggested that I just speak to him, and then she started getting nervous and told me he didn't want to talk to me directly.    As we worked on it she began to get more and more upset and I began to get the feeling he was going to beat her if we didn't get the support issue resolved.    I never worked so hard to figure what the problem was for anybody.   When it got it working she must have thanked me five times.    Perhaps it was their ploy to get awesome tech support;   I hope so.


The German GCS

 german_gcs_box_back_480 Punkt.de was very unhappy that we did not have any progress on the German 3D shooter we had promised to make.   And since we had taken the advance money we were obligated to either give the money back or produce a game.   At this time I thought it would be much better for them to have the GCS than a out-dated 3D shooter, so I offered to make a German language GCS for them instead.   This was accepted and so we made it happen.




Another Team Member Comes Aboard

      In order to appeal to the game developers who wanted more flexibility, we had been selling a more advanced version of the GCS called the GCSP, which was the GCS engine with the source code, and some extras.

    John Worsham had purchased it and wrote me a note explaining that he had found a bug in the code which draws polygons and fixed it.   This was an annoying problem which had bothered me for years.    Polygons could at certain angles suddenly disappear and then reappear seemly at random.

    This impressed me quite a bit.    I don't recall much about how it came about, but soon John W. was making all kinds of improvements to the game engine.    He also created an add-on package for the GCS called gcsNext-AI which was a wonderful system for improving the artificial intellegence of the enemies.    The original AI was based on FORTH scripts.     gcsNEXT-AI instead gave the customers a graphical interface for many settings and a scripting language which was about 1000 times easier to learn than the FORTH system.

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Last Updated on Monday, 15 March 2010 04:25