SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA -- Playing an online game with strangers can be exasperating, especially with an arrogant jerk who thinks you lack the "mad skillz"--but it's not always easy to find a friend for an opponent and get onto the same server. An instant messaging application unveiled here at Demo tackles both problems, making it simple to check whether your pals are online and, even better, get all of you onto the same server without fuss.
Launched barely a month ago for beta testing, Xfire has already attracted 60,000 users. The product, which is free, was formally launched at the Demo 2004 technology showcase event here.
A Smarter IM
The interface is much like a typical instant messaging client. You invite friends (who are also running Xfire) to be on your Xfire friends list. The list shows when your friends are online, and indicates when they are playing a PC game by the game's icon. You can ask to join them through the messaging client, which sends an audible tone to them without disrupting their play. Or, you can invite them to jump into a new game with you.
If you agree to play, the client launches the game and, voila, you're both in the same server.
Mike Cassidy, CEO of developer Ultimate Arena, says gamers already rely heavily on IM to find friends to play online, but other clients have serious drawbacks for gamers.
First, most gamers turn off IMs when in the middle of competition because clients pop up and minimize the game during play. And it's always a challenge to get everyone into the same public game server.
"People will send messages to each other trying to explain that they should go to the fifth server they see on the list, which is always changing, and by the time everyone figures out where to go, it's filled up," Cassidy says.
The client works with any PC multiplayer game, checking your machine to see which multiplayer games you have installed, he adds.
Xfire helps make online gaming a much more enjoyable social experience, says Dennis Fong, who gained international fame in the late 1990s as one of the world's best online gamers (gamers will know him by his nickname "Thresh").
Now Xfire's chief gaming officer, Fong says gamers want to play with people they know because it can become tiresome dealing with strangers.
"People are anonymous on most game servers and because of that they can act really arrogantly, especially to players they don't think are up to their level," he says. "That can really kill the fun."
"But when you know a few people in the game, the tone really changes," he adds. "It becomes much more social, and it's actually a nicer environment for the strangers who are there with you. Everyone is much more civilized."