Sometimes you just want to scream. Or find an M-16 and start shooting. Or write a really scathing column.
Since the first two behaviors aren't acceptable, I'll pick the third. It's about a present for a sick kid that turned into a four-day ordeal by software.
It started when my son Ben came down with a nasty case of the flu that kept him home for six days. On the third day of his confinement, he began to go stir crazy. When I asked what I could do, he suggested that I alleviate his suffering by purchasing a copy of "Jedi Knight."
For the uninitiated, this is a "Doom"-like game from LucasArts in which you run through a maze and decapitate other life forms with a light saber or nuclear blaster.
If you're hooked up to the Internet, you can blow away enemies sitting in front of computers anywhere in the world -- if they don't get you first.
Seeing that Ben still had some enforced idleness ahead of him, I agreed. The demonstration version of "Jedi" was already working on his computer, but at the store, I still checked the box to make sure the real thing would run on the machine. It's a 133-mhz Pentium with 32 megabytes of memory -- not exactly a barn burner, but still a serviceable PC. In two years, the box had never refused to run anything we'd thrown at it.
The first time I tried to install "Jedi," it wouldn't finish transferring files to the hard disk -- an error reading the CD. After seven or eight tries, we gave up. So I drove back to the computer store and exchanged the package for a new one.
The second CD had no errors. When the installation program examined my computer to make sure the game would run, it passed muster.
But when the program finished installing and we tried to run it, we got an error message that said, "Cannot load level."
So I returned to the installation program and brought up the "troubleshooting guide." I should have known I was in trouble when I saw that it was 21 pages long. It was filled with descriptions of video cards that wouldn't work with the program and a variety of other potential hardware and software conflicts.
There were suggestions involving changes to arcane Windows 95 settings, each of which involved uninstalling the program, making the change, rebooting the computer and reinstalling the program. Each one of these changes takes about 15 minutes. After another hour and a half with no success, I gave up and called the LucasArts help line.
Unfortunately, this was on a Saturday afternoon. The LucasArts help line -- a toll call -- isn't open weekends or evenings. I was astounded. How can you write leisure-time games and close up shop when your customers are most likely to be having trouble with your software?
OK, I said, I'll check the LucasArts Web site. Sure enough, there was a cute "Ask Yoda" tech support page. So I asked the ugly little creep about the "Cannot load level" error. Yoda teleported me to a page full of more suggestions -- each one of which was more bizarre than the next.
First, it said the program might work if I used low resolution sound. Just uninstall the program, reboot the computer, and install it again. No luck. Well, maybe it would work if I installed the entire program on the hard drive instead of leaving most of it on the CD. That meant giving up -- can you believe -- 200 megabytes of disk space. Uninstall, reboot, reinstall. No joy. Well, maybe it will work if you install the program in a higher-level subdirectory. I thought this was absolutely insane but I tried it. Uninstall. Reboot. Reinstall.
Still no luck.
I checked my Microsoft DirectX drivers; I checked my video card drivers. Nothing worked.
After four more hours of frustration, I gave up and said to my ailing son, "Sorry pal, you'll have to wait till Monday."
Monday I reached the help line, where a knowledgeable human walked me through the same checklist. He said that even though it looked like I was using the right CD-ROM drivers, there might still be some old DOS drivers lingering around. So I went home that night, uninstalled the program, made a couple of changes to my AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files, rebooted and reinstalled again. No joy in Mudville.
Enraged, I was back on the phone Tuesday. The technician finally asked if I had enough room for the swap file -- a hard disk storage area that Windows uses for stuff that won't fit into real memory. This rang a bell -- I remembered setting the size of the swap file to 96 megabytes -- plenty large enough for every other program in creation.
But not for "Jedi Knight," as it turned out. When I enlarged the swap file, the reinstallation worked.
It took eight hours of tinkering over four days to get a stupid game working.
This is an outrage.
The programmers who wrote this piece of garbage were pushing so close to the edge of the average computer's horsepower that it will barely run -- and then only if you have a Ph.D in Windows 95.
If they're going to behave that way, they should put a Surgeon General's warning on the box.
CAUTION: INSTALLING THIS PROGRAM ON ANYTHING LESS THAN $3,000 WORTH OF HIGH-TECH HARDWARE MAY ENDANGER YOUR MENTAL HEALTH.
The next day I described my experience to a colleague. His response: "People who write that kind of software should be hunted down and beaten with iron bars."
I thought he was being charitable.