When you try to start a business selling indie games (or any software product, really), writing and releasing the game is only half the battle. You then have to market and support it. Marketing is difficult, but there are lots of good resources to advise you on how to do it. Providing tech support to confused users is a much more arcane task, and I know of few resources to teach the hapless young developer how to do it well.
As a small developer, you have to provide timely, personal tech support. The ability to do so is one of your best Magic Powers as a small developer. Large companies are horrible at providing support, and people are used to that. As a result, a single personal e-mail to someone having a problem with your product can make you a fan for life.
But at the same time, as a small developer, you have very little time to spare for support. Time spent getting the game working for one person is time not spent making a new game for everyone. You will need to develop a sense of when the time lost helping a person is not worth it, either because you won't be able to solve their problem or because they will not able to implement the fix you provide.
It's Not a Simple Job
Supporting a game is hard. You will get complaints from people with the most amazing jury-rigged computers: motley assemblies of shoddy parts, duct tape, components bought at the cheapest possible price, and video cards found at the bottom of boxes of cereal. Machines that should, if there was any justice in the world, evaporate into a cloud of flame and self-disgust the moment they are turned on.
And while dealing with the infinite configurations of computers in the world is challenging, dealing with their owners can be worse. No matter how perversely disobedient a machine can be, humans are more difficult. People will report problems to you in only the vaguest possible terms, have no idea how their computers work, or outright lie to you about what they have been doing.
If you want to stay in business, you have no choice but to support your game. So here, based on my experience, is some advice and observations from someone running a small company who needs to do tech support.
Tip 1 - Be Patient
Dealing with other humans is frustrating, but you have to do it. You want, whenever possible, for them to go away satisfied. Be prepared, especially when dealing with a customer on the phone, to take a deep breath, count to three, and be as friendly and professional as possible. I know. You want to get back to working on your game. Time is short, and this person doesn't even know whether he's using Windows or Mac. Do your best to talk him through it. Remember, you can make a fan for life.
Tip 2 - Don't Be a Pushover
Some people will want you to teach them on the phone every detail about how their computer works. Some people are desperately lonely and want someone to talk to. Some people will have a machine so old or messed up that your game will never work. Politely and firmly cut these people off.
Remember: It's only worth the time to do tech support if you have the chance to, in a reasonable amount of time, fix a problem and make a loyal customer. If you realize that, at the end of the road, you aren't going to end with a happy person and a working product, end the conversation as quickly and pleasantly as possible.
Tip 3 - Be Ready To Ask Questions
The people who use your product are not generally tech experts, nor should they have to be. They will have no idea what information they need to provide to help you troubleshoot their problem. If I had a dime for every time an eight-year old (or a sixty-year old) sent me a bug report saying only, "The game crashed. What should I do?" then I would have, well, a lot of dimes.
Prepare a list of information people need to provide to help you solve their problem. Windows, Mac, or Linux? What version of the operating system? What brand of computer? Exactly what went wrong? Was it the installer that went funny or the game itself? Did rebooting the machine help? When you get a tech support request that doesn't give you enough information to have a clue what's going on, one option is to send the list of questions.
Generally, when you do this, one of three things will happen. One: They'll answer the questions, and you'll have enough info to start to help them. Two: They will resolve the problem on their own. Yay! Three: They will be unable to answer them and you'll never hear from them again. This is unfortunate, but, honestly, if the user isn't technically apt enough to answer a handful of basic questions, they will likely be unable to enact any fixes you suggest.
Happily, the list of questions is not something I send out very often. I deal with most problems by sending out my list of generic things to do to solve any problem. This takes care of the vast majority of issues, and I will share my list with you in detail in an upcoming post.
Tip 4 - Computers Are Delicate Mechanical Devices
I'm going to go into this in much more detail in the next installment, but this point is so very important that I have to bring it up now. Computers are incredibly complicated and delicate machines. Sometimes they go wrong. Sometimes files get corrupted. Sometimes RAM gets corrupted. Even a flawlessly bug-free program running on a perfectly maintained computer can break.
A huge chunk of your support will just involve having people reboot their machines and reinstall their programs (and drivers). This will fix 90% of reported problems, if you can get the user to do it ...
Tip 5 - The Users Will Lie To You
I blame this one on the horrible state of tech support in the industry in general. Much of tech support involves giving bad or time-consuming advice in the hope that the user will just go away. When I am asked for help, the person asking is generally angry, frustrated, and full of mistrust. This leads, alas, to lots of e-mail conversations like this one:
User: "I have this problem." (That I know is fixed in the newest version of my game.)
Me: "OK. Uninstall your copy, download the newest version, and install it."
User: "I did that. The problem is still there."
Me: "I see. Now what you need to do is uninstall your copy, download the newest version, and install it."
User: "OK. Done. I still have the problem."
Me: "Unfortunate. Now, please, I beg of you, in the name of God and all that is holy, uninstall your copy, download the newest version, and install it."
User: "I did that. It fixed the problem."
Me: "I can taste colors."
To hear users tell it, their computers are flawlessly-maintained, their drivers are all up-to-date, and every program in the world works but yours. They aren't necessarily intentionally lying. They might just not know that, say, newer drivers have come out. Just don't take anything you are told as gospel, especially if you know they're wrong.
Tip 6 - Know When To Give Up
There are some problems that I just give up on. If the machine is too old or too underpowered. If the problem is with the mouse cursor not moving right. (I get this sometimes, and, beyond suggesting trying a different mouse, I really don't know what to say here.) If the keyboard starts to not be recognized. (This happens sometimes too, and it's an OS/Program Incompatibility problem that I can't really handle.) If the graphics aren't working and the drivers for their freaky, off-brand video card aren't being updated anymore.
It sucks, but sometimes all you can do is apologize and offer a refund. The point of tech support is to fix the problem. If you have no capability to fix the problem, all you can do is give their money back and hope for their business in a future life. If you treat people fairly, when they get a new computer, they may very well come back to try again.
Tip 7 - Have a Standard List of Troubleshooting Steps
Once you have helped people long enough, you will come up with a list of steps that fix the bulk of their problems. Once you have this list and someone says they have a weird problem that definitely isn't a bug, you can send this list and most of the time that's enough to close the ticket. The items on the list will vary depending on the game and the platform. In a future post, I'll share Spiderweb's list. You might find it helpful.
That's a rough guide and a good start. In the next post, I will go off on a philosophical treatise about the nature of computers as physical machines. Then I will reveal my standard tech support checklist. Say tuned!