I can fix this PC, boss, but I’ll need to play games for hours to do it

Loyal Wingman has fond memories of memory register exceptions

On Call The working week is no game, which is why The Register eases readers into the weekend with a fresh instalment of On Call – our weekly reader-contribute tales recalling the lighter side of tech support.

This week, meet a reader we'll Regomize as "Dan" who told us of his first gig in tech: working in the repair department of a computer shop as he slogged his way through college.

"Much of the work was humdrum," he told On Call – stuff like replacing hard drives, installing new software, or telling the customer that her mouse did not have a "dust cover" – it was packaged in a plastic bag.

"Once in a while a peach of a job came up," Dan wrote. And the peach in this story was a customer whose PC would crash only when running the game Wing Commander III.

"Nothing else was crashing, there was no other way to replicate the issue but to play the game," Dan told On Call.

After a little fun he learned that the game didn't just crash randomly – it only fell over during combat missions. And those only became available after a fair bit of gameplay.

"Whoever was going to test it had to be at least reasonably good at that type of game," Dan mused.

And, as luck would have it, he was happy to spend the time becoming an ace.

"I was an impoverished university student, with a car that kept breaking down and a maxed-out credit card. I didn't have the money to buy an expensive game like that. Heck, I was barely eating, so it was serendipity that testing it fell to me."

The repair job was not, however, all fun and games.

Indeed, Dan rated it "one of the thorniest issues I had to tackle as a PC tech."

Swapping out hardware didn't help. Replicating the hard drive and installing it onto an identical PC didn't stop the crashes.

"My boss and I eventually came to the conclusion it was caused by a clash in extended memory, and started to look at EMM386" – which, for those of you who don't remember, was the memory manager that shipped with MS-DOS. This PC also ran HIMEM, a driver that allowed use of extended memory. Both were needed to cajole PCs of the time into using all available memory.

And both were a little … inelegant.

"Sometimes EMM386 used memory registers which were already taken, and black screens of death duly appeared," Dan told On Call. The developers of EMM386 had written an exception mechanism – but you had to know which register to make exempt.

And the only way to find those registers was – you guessed it – to play more Wing Commander III.

"My boss and I agreed on the most likely ranges, and I got to work. Play the game until it crashed, reboot, edit config.sys to change the exception range, save and reboot, play the game until it crashed, repeat."

Sometimes Dan would crash ten seconds into a mission, on other occasions he'd play for five minutes before things went south.

After each crash, he'd tweak those exception settings and play on.

Over time, the PC's performance improved. Dan was soon playing for ten minutes without error … then crashed after fifteen.

"My boss reckoned it was two blocks that were clashing, and I'd found one, so I should repeat the process with a second exception range until the problem disappeared."

"I ground away at it most of the day, progressing through the game despite the crashes and having the most fun I'd had in ages when the boss put his hand on my shoulder and told me I'd been playing an hour straight without a crash."

Dammit. That meant it was time to tell the customer the problem was solved and prep the machine for pickup.

As Dan prepared to do as he was told, his boss mentioned that he needed to stay back for a couple of hours. If Dan wanted to play a little more Wing Commander III, the store would be open.

"Although my boss denied it, I think he did it so I could stay late and finish the game on my own time," Dan told On Call, rating that boss "the best I ever had."

Have you had to play games as part of your tech support duties? And have you had a boss who showed you some solidarity amid the grind? Stories, people. We want your stories that answer these questions. And the way to share them is to click here to send On Call an email so we can consider your tale for a future Friday. ®

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