The number of software tools available to streamline gaming with your friends has grown considerably in recent years. GameSpy was among the first to offer a service of this kind, but there are now quite a few companies with programs intended to ease communication with your fellow gamers. Xfire, a free game server browser and buddy tracker, entered the picture in 2004, and they've since attracted millions of users.
One reason many gamer's don't use a program like Xfire is because they simply don't need it. If you and your friends only play one game, and you use Teamspeak or Ventrillo for voice chat, Xfire isn't going to do much for you. However, if you play several games or play on several different servers, finding your friends gets more complicated. That's when software like Xfire is a great solution.
The ability to find out what game your friends are playing and which server they are on is a central feature of Xfire. It currently supports over 600 games and allows you to join your friends in a single click, assuming you both have the game and there is room on the server.
Only people on your friends list are tracked, and they must also be running Xfire. By default, before someone can add you to their friends list, they require your permission.
If you keep Xfire running while you're playing, it will log your hours of play for each game, and, in some cases, your kill statistics.
Chat and In-game Messaging
Xfire has a solid set of communications tools that resemble those of an instant messenger. While it's handy to be able to set up a chat with a friend or group of friends, what really makes Xfire stand out is that you can receive messages from other users while you're playing a game without leaving the game window. This is clearly one of the program's most unique features, and it works quite well with most of the supported games. You can customize hotkeys for it, and there's also an option to turn it off if you find it too distracting.
Unlike most server browsers, Xfire supports a number of massively multiplayer games, including World of Warcraft. MMORPGs typically have robust community functions built into the game, but Xfire allows you to message friends that are in the game when you're not playing, or when you're playing a different game.
As well as text messaging, Xfire has an integrated voice chat system, allowing a group of gamers to talk to each other rather than type. Although it's nowhere near as robust as TeamSpeak or Ventrillo, it's a lot easier to set up, which makes it a quick solution for small groups of gamers looking to save their fingers.
Unfortunately, the microphone settings seem very unresponsive compared to other voice programs, and the sound quality could be better.
Game Server Browsing
If you play several online shooters, it's nice to be able to browse game servers and mark your favorites using a single program. Xfire's server browser is intuitive and has a solid set of filters, allowing you to sort servers by ping, country, map, mod, and so on. You can assign favorites, and you can even share those favorites with friends.
A complete file sharing service is one of many useful features that Xfire has added since the program's release. You can now download a wide variety of patches, demos, trailers, and movies directly through Xfire. It can be set to download in the background while you are playing a game, and you can limit the amount of bandwidth it will use. Like most file sharing systems, it uses a P2P network which can retrieve data from anyone on the network to speed up the process. Files can also be shared directly with friends.
There are a few other nifty things Xfire can do. You can customize the look with different skins, and use scripts to integrate it with your web site. They've recently introduced a screenshot sharing system, although you're limited to 15 MB of space and it only works for screenshots taken using Xfire.
The most common complaint I hear is that it's only available for Windows, so it's not ideal if you have Mac or Linux friends.
It's easy to see why Xfire has become such a popular choice for online gamers. The in-game messaging system is a big draw, and I don't know of any other server browser that has it at the moment. Xfire is a small program that doesn't require a lot of system resources, and it's very light on ads compared to some of its competitors. It has grown into a bundle of services that make it an attractive way to communicate with friends and share files. Still more impressive is that all this comes free of charge, with no features crippled or nag screens trying to sell you a full version of the software, which is definitely refreshing, because it's one of the most complete tools for online gamers out there.