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Newbie's Dilemma: How to get into an online game

Online gaming is more popular than it has ever been. But Don Reisinger wants you to remember some pitfalls.

Madden NFL 09
More people are playing online games. Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts announced Wednesday that more than 500 million online matches have been played on its lineup of 2009 sports games. According to the company, all those matches took place between June 2008 and now. They include Madden NFL 09, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09, and others.

It's an important feat. But is the online gaming space really the best environment for the gamer? I'm sure that the hard-core gamer who spends hours online each day would say that it's an ideal way to enhance the gaming experience, but there are some of us who disagree--myself included.

I don't like online gaming, for the most part. I find it overrun with people who spend more time screaming obscenities than actually playing the game. And unless you have the luxury of spending hours each day playing one title (something I don't), you'll be rolled over by someone who has honed their skills and tactics down to an art. If you ask me, it doesn't live up to the hype.

But if you're intent on playing, here are some pitfalls to watch out for:

1. Watch out for the predators. Though most online games attempt to find you a fair match by either asking you what your skill level is, or assigning it to you one based on playing experience, don't expect it to work perfectly. On numerous occasions, I've entered a game where I thought the competition would be fair, only to find out that there were players who had lied about their skill level, changed their username, or played a few other tricks to prey on those who weren't as good. It ruined the experience.

2. Ignore the fools. My biggest complaint with online gaming is the bad apples that spoil the whole bunch. These folks will scream obscenities, call you names, and use racial epithets. It's pathetic. The only way to handle them is to mute them (if the game allows) and leave feedback if there is such a mechanism to do so. I find no reason to talk to these people, or try to change their world view. You shouldn't either.

3. Beware of teams. Though playing as part of a good team can be fun, being on the receiving end of an elite squad can give you little chance of survival. When I play Call of Duty 4 online, I'm usually alive for 10 seconds before someone takes me out. Part of that is due to the fact that the other players are better than I am. But it's also due to competing teams who know exactly where to be at all times to maximize kills. It ruins the fun.

Before delving in, you might want to check if the developer has taken steps to avoid this "spawn killing" syndrome. Developers like Epic (makers of the Gears of War series) have specifically developed online matchmaking where players who are friends with one another cannot enter the same match if it's ranked. Whereas others, like Bungie, allow it in Halo 2 and 3.

4. Don't expect to be the best. You might perform really well in a game offline, but don't expect to be the best when you hop into online matchmaking. You'll be up against people that spend a work day (or five) gaming on their Xbox 360 and know every nook and cranny of the map, where every weapon is located, and the fastest and most devastating ways to take you out. If you have a life, you can't match them. So, if you're playing online to be the best, you'll likely be disappointed. Play for the fun of it.

5. Remember that the best experiences are with friends. Playing with strangers online can be a really rewarding experience, but for the most part it's the luck of the draw. When you play with friends online, the experience can be fun--even if you're losing. For one, you don't need to worry about getting matched up the people you don't want anything to do with (see item two), and chances are you'll have a pretty even match. It can also fill in those awkward silences you might have with strangers with real conversation. My best online experiences have come from playing with friends, and I think you'll find the same will be true for you.

Online gaming is, quite simply, a weird endeavor. It can be fun and it can be awful. It can be clean and it can be dirty. But if you find the right way to play (hopefully with friends), you'll have a great experience. Just watch out for the people who want to act like fools. They're everywhere and they do their best to ruin your experience.

Check out Don's Digital Home podcast, Twitter stream, and FriendFeed.