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Blasts From the Past - March 1997

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Our premier issue, Vol 1 No. 1, issued in March of 1997, contained the following editorial. Thought folks would be interested in seeing this bit of AVSIM history:----------------------------------------------------------------------The Customer's Voice It is a funny thing about being heard by manufacturers. When does a customer's voice get heard? Let us count the ways (in ascending importance): When there is enough negative user feedback via their support system? When the negative feedback starts to accumulate like a Michigan snow in the REC.AVIATION.SIMULATION newsgroup? (do they even read REC.AV.SIM???) When users, through whatever medium available, start to compare their software to yellow, tangy fruit? When users, collectively, take out a full page advertisement in the New York Times and state, very publically what a pile of malorderous dung this software is? When sales plummet like a Cessna without wings? Unfortunately for consumers, only the last of these really gets the attention of most desk bound managers. Don't get us wrong... All of these will get the attention of managers to one degree or another, but it is only this last one that will upset the inertia and get management to mobilize. Or so it seems anyway. That's too bad. "Good management" is defined by the maxim, "anticipate, and don't let surprises happen". Its a wonder to us then that management in the modern day software industry seems to be continually surprised. If they are not listening to their customer support lines, not reading our complaints in the newsgroups, don't take comparisons to lemons very seriously, and don't read the New York Times, then what does it take to shake them out of their slumber and alert them to a significant problem with their product? More importantly, at what point does the cresendo move them off top-dead-center and start them down the path of problem rectification? The staff of AVSIM Magazine have "real" jobs in the manufacturing business in one form or another and have all personally experienced reticent management, costly changes to software baselines, unheeded customer complaints, ad nauseam. We certainly understand the motivation to get a product launched and the revenue flow (and the investment payback) occuring as quickly as possible. Having been there ourselves, it is very easy for us to put on the shoes of all manufacturers, especially software producers. We've been there and done that, in spades. Having the benefit of that perspective however, leads us to this editorial. In an ideal world, the Sales and Marketing organizations within a company are the voice and singular representative of the customer. If one group has the responsibility for customer advocacy it is one or both of these. It is their responsibility to read the "tea leaves" of customer satisfaction (or ire as the case may be), and convey those findings to management. They represent your views and provide the strategies that companies grow with - strategies that should meet your needs as a consumer of thier product. No other organization within a company has the charter to represent the customer as do these two. When one or both of these organizations abdicate or divorce themselves from their responsibilities, loose the vision, or get the strategies muddled, the result is too often a customer advocacy structure that is hide bound and driven by forecast or quota rather than customer satisfaction and product improvement. In short, we as consumers loose the benefit of having an "internal voice" within that company that we rely upon. When this state of affairs takes place, there are usually movements within the organization to fill the void. There are numerous groups within companies that want the role of customer's voice. Too frequently, engineering becomes the main customer interface. Why? Engineering, next to sales and marketing, carries the banner of customer needs and satisfaction. The result is an organization that is driven by engineering, not by the market. Notice that we didn't say Marketing... We said market, as in Market Forces. As in "satisfy the market forces or die on the vine". Engineers, and especially software engineers, have an inherent flaw in vision when it comes to customers (in our humble opinion as former engineers ourselves); life would be perfect if it weren't for customers. This view of customers too often leads to development programs that contain flawed assumptions - assumptions that you and I "should" understand (and by implication, agree with). Not too far down the development path, these assumptions get locked into place, and viola, what had been an assumption is now a core piece of the developed product. Can you guess what happens next? The product hits the street and you and I scratch our heads wondering where the assumption came from that drove that bit or piece of our software in the first place and worse, wonder how it could be so wrong. A simple example; a hardcoded installation program that assumes that you have installed your flight simulator in C:FLTSIM. Because it is hardcoded, it won't allow you to install it anywhere else. We don't see too many of those types of software bloopers anymore, but there are numerous other examples of equally dumb fundamental assumptions that you and we live with everyday. All of these result, in their most basic form, from lack of understanding, non-existent or apathetic dialog with the customer, lack of follow-up and follow-through, and possibly even arrogance... as in; "we know what is best for the customer". Unfortunately for engineers and fortunately for us, at some point even the most unenlightened management steps in and says "Yes, true, but if it weren't for those customers, you wouldn't have a job.". Unfortunately for the unelightened, customers often react a lot sooner than they. We always have the right to vote with our wallet. And vote we do. Pushing the User Envelope We all know what will happen when you get too close to your aircraft's performance envelope. Unpredictable and sometimes fatal things can happen. Exceed that envelope, and sure as you are reading this, what was a possibility becomes a certainty. You will die (in simulation of course). Once, not too many years ago, purchasing software was rather an easy undertaking. You went to your nearest software retail outlet and purchased the title of interest. You were reasonably assured that it had been stringently tested and that what you were purchasing was sure to work on your old and trusty DOS machine - in short, you were reasonably assured that it would stay well within the performance envelope of your system. You could be assured that the program you purchased would at least load on your machine, and work in some fashion, if not exactly as the manufacturer said it would. That has changed considerably in the last 18 months or so. Since the advent of Windows 95, and the proliferation of add-ons and "tweaks" to improve its performance, your successful installation and use of a program can be a hit or miss afair which gets very close to the edge or exceeds it with stunning and fatal results. With the unleashing of Windows 95 (and some would argue much sooner than that) the demands that gaming software houses are putting on our hardware, underpinning operating systems and our periphreals are in a lot of ways, exceeding the ability of the user to install, much less, use the software. Fatal encounters with the edge. Take as an example the recent release of U.S. Naval Fighters 97 by Electronic Arts under the label of Jane's Combat Simulations. We purchased a copy of this program not too many weeks ago and found out how true the above really is. What may in fact be a great product, for us, was never realized. Requiring the installation of DirectX 3.0 components, USNF97 takes the three most sensitive underlying components in a system (video, sound and interface drivers) and rehashes them to meet the requirements for DirectX 3.0 certification - certification which must be attained BEFORE USNF97 will work. We wondered why EA would choose to use version 3.0 when Microsoft doesn't even do so in its FSFW95? Is this approaching the edge? Following EA's instructions to the letter, we installed USNF97 and with excited anticipation rebooted the machine. Ran the game and NADA, Zip, nothing. Hung the system more securely than any other game of this type that we had encountered. Checked the certifications and all were set to the required 3.0. Repeated the process two or three times (again following EA's instructions on Un-installing before Re-installing to the letter). Never did get beyond the opening screen. We decided to take a break and go flying with Microsoft's FSFW95. FSFW95 had worked reliably and without too many hiccups. Now that wouldn't work. Seems whatever EA's USNF97 did to the DirectX drivers did FSFW97 a great disservice in the process. To make a long story short, we ended up reinstalling all of our latest Stealth 64 drivers and the Diamond Media control panel (why in the good lord's name did we have to do that?) and finally got FSFW95 to work again. We ended up writing EA's online support folks explaining the problem and two weeks later (TWO WEEKS!!!) got back a response. Paraphrasing, the response went something like this: "Sorry for the delay in getting back to you... Please remove your Diamond Stealth control panel and reduce your screen resolution to 640X480. Oh, and make sure all of your Stealth 64 drivers are the most recent releases and that your Creative CD's are as well." Say what? You just sold us a program that pushes the envelope and now you want us to tweak it back to the origins of time to get it to work? Hmm... Okay, so we will play along. Did exactly as they suggested, and guess what. Nothing. No change. Still Hangs. Have not ever been able to get it to work. We now have a great drink coaster and a manual that is added to our library of "Would have loved it, but... " software. Conclusion: This is not a slam at Electronic Arts by any means. We have had our share of problems with virtually every software manufacturer out there. Not too many issues hit the street in a flawless state (come to think of it, we can't remember one title that got it totally right the first time). What it is.... This is a scream for rationality in the gaming development and publishing world. Manufacturers, like EA, will argue that we want it both ways. We want the latest, greatest, most up to date, whiz bang simulation that we can get our hands on. They will argue that in order to compete they have to push the edge. They will argue, convincingly, that in order to meet our demands, they must challenge the technology. Yeah, we suppose that we do want our cake and be able to eat it too. But.... We need some rationality. Here are our suggestions to industry: Aim for the lowest common denominator (LCD) of user configurations that will also meet your design demands for performance and enhancements, but then test and test again to insure that the title works flawlessly within lowest common denominator range Beta Test across as wide a range of user demographics as you can find that meet those lowest common denominators and then beta test again. Use proven components in public releases (publishers must beta test when pushing the edge - but why in the good lord's name use a component that the author of the DLL is not even using - and to make matters worse, is rumored to be jumping one revision or more up to get away from flaws already present?) Cover the bases on interfaces - aim for interoperabiliity in at least the 70 percentile range of user configurations and 100 percent within your LCD goals Push the envelope using a community of users who are prepared to test and test again, and who recognize that Beta Software can and will blow up, often taking other components with them. If you are going to push the edge in final releases, at least get your user support system right! And for goodness sake, don't brag about being a FREE support system. Your's is not free. We paid good money for your product. The least you can do is make it right without charging us for the privelage. Electronics Arts is not a shlock house. Its a great company that aims to please and do it right. They have historically published excellent products and have provided their customers millions of hours of enjoyment and pleasure through their produced titles. EA just happened to be the most recent of our software evaluation experiences and one that really got us fired up about the situation today with gaming technology and the pathetic state of support mechanism available to consumers. We know that there are probably many of you that have purchased USNF97 and don't have a clue as to what we are talking about - your installation went just fine, thank you very much, and have never ever suffered a problem or had to deal with the EA support system. A roll of the dice? Absolutely. But that is exactly the point of this diatribe. When it is a roll of the dice as to who will or will not suffer from exceeding the performance evnvelope, then the fundamental principle of software design should be to attain the most reasonable of common denominators - not the lowest, but at least those that your packaging side panel says that you do attain. ----------------------------------------------------------------------

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While off topic from the content of your post, the subject line you provided made me remember back... In every other area of my life, thinking back to 1997 is like remembering yesterday: it was simply a few moments ago. A "blast from the past" in this area of my rememberance means the 70's @-@.But when it comes to my rememberance of internet life - and the computer field in general - thinking back to 1997 is indeed "a blast from the past". Everything seems much, much longer ago in this "mode" of my mind than everything else in my life. Heck, the early 90's seem like a stone age ago... Weird! :-rollJust thought that was interesting. Sorry for the intrusion.Elrond

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A very interesting read Tom and it seems that we have come some way down the path to Utopia we are still not there - 6 years on.Reading most of the article made me think of one very well known and profitable s/w producer, and in my view, they still operate in the 'we know best' mode and none of the feedback modes you mention seem to have any impact.I also wonder just how big an impact the 'it isn't our fault whatever happens' EULAs have in stopping s/w houses really improving their product in response to customer feedback?When I first started using PCs I was amazed at this lack of comeback on s/w producers having read numerous complaints from business about bad s/w costing large sums of money and being thrown in the trash bin.I had hoped that once s/w was delivered to consumers, as opposed to business, there would be an outcry about get-out clauses for 'fit for use' so enshrined in consumer law both here in the UK and in the US. Alas this was not to happen and it seems that major s/w producers can now do anything without any come-back - a sorry state of affairs IMHO.Rant over :-)

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Very interesting post (wow, that was hard to type. Got my fingers positioned wrong there :-lol).I wonder how it would have read had EA decided to go with DX2 for USNF'97 instead of DX3.Would you have written instead that EA had let a chance to push the envelope and work with the latest technology and what a shame that was when they had a chance to up the ante and really produce a product that set new benchmarks?

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