Q&A: Xfire's Mike Cassidy Talks Console, Questions Live
The PC-based Xfire
instant messaging service and gaming server tracker was first launched in 2004, and quickly grew due to its ability to analyse what video game a contact is playing and what server they are playing on, as well as allowing players to send messages to each other within the game itself – eliminating the need to minimize windows.
By April of 2006 the service had over 4 million users, at which point the company was acquired by Viacom in a deal worth $102 million. Since that time, Xfire has seen almost 3 million more gamers begin using the service, which remains free.
Last year the company hit headlines after misinterpretation of comments by Sony regarding Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom
incorrectly gave the impression that Xfire would be the default service used for all PlayStation 3 titles. While this turned out not to be true, the company hints that there may be more dealings with Sony in the future, as well as suggesting toward the end of last year that it was “in talks with one other console maker”.
We spoke to Mike Cassidy, CEO and co-founder of Xfire, about the growth of the Xfire service, his opinions on the Windows Live service, and their plans for moving into the console market.
When was the company formed, and what were your aims at that time?
We first raised money for Xfire in January 2004. Originally, the company was called Ultimate Arena and was launched as a service that allowed gamers to compete online in mini-tournaments to win money. So I could put in a dollar, you could put in a dollar, we’d play, and the winner would get $1.70. But too many “sharks” hung out at Ultimate Arena’s website collecting everyone’s money. So we changed gears and launched Xfire with the goal of making it easier to play online with your friends.
Why do you think gamers have responded positively to the software? Do you believe that the ability for users to create their own extensions has aided this?
Gamers enjoy the ability of seeing when their friends are playing online and the simplicity of joining them with a single click. They also like being able to send and receive IM’s while in-game as well as being able to talk (using voice chat) with their friends.
Gamers do enjoy creating and taking advantage of user-created extensions such as Xfire Plus, which shows gamers what songs their friends are listening to, Gun’s Ammo Crate (tons of skins), various plug-ins for GAIM, Trillian, etc.
How has the development of the software changed in the 11 months since you were acquired by Viacom?
Viacom has encouraged us to keep developing the Xfire application the same way we always have! And since the acquisition, we’ve increased our user base by over two million gamers.
Have the aims of the company changed in that time?
No. Xfire remains committed to our motto of “gaming simplified.” Our mission is to make it easier for folks to play online games with their friends.
Is Xfire powering the connectivity behind any games on the PS3 aside from Untold Legends, or was that a one-off deal?
Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom
is the only one we have announced. Stay tuned!
Do you think the PS3 would have benefited from a unified online service like Xfire?
We think everyone would benefit from a unified online service like Xfire!
How do you see the move onto consoles aiding the company in the long run? Does it go beyond brand recognition?
We started with a USA-based audience - PC-only - primarily focusing on FPS. Our mission has always been broader than this however. In fact, 70% of our users already play games on consoles. Over time we’ve become more international with Xfire users in over 100 countries including millions of users in Europe. We’ve also added features broadening our appeal from FPS to MMO and RTS games. In fact, the biggest game on Xfire these days is World of Warcraft
. And just as naturally, we’ve moved from PC-only to now supporting console gamers. We go wherever gamers are!
Are the 360 and Wii closed off to you?
Integration with the 360 will clearly be more difficult than with other console partners.
You previously commented that you were "in talks with one other console maker", but haven't revealed who this is. Is it safe to assume that you were talking about Nintendo, and what has become of this discussion?
Where do you see console online services going in the future?
Clearly, console gamers are very interested in:
- Knowing what games their console buddies are playing
- Joining their console buddies in online games
- Communicating (via text or voice chat) with their console buddies
- Downloading new content, like game trailers, game expansion packs, game mods, etc.
- Tracking their online game play stats and accessing these stats from any website
What do you think of Live for Windows, and how do you think it will affect the way online gaming is approached on the PC?
At this point we’re not sure we fully understand the exact features/pricing and usage scenarios of Live for Windows. We believe gamers will not want to pay for multiplayer functionality that is currently free.
How do you expect PC gamers will react to the service, given that they are more used to free services like Xfire?
We again suspect that gamers will prefer not to pay for online matchmaking, messaging and community features, as they are currently getting them for free.
Do you see the Games For Windows branding as a threat, given that games that use it will be linked to the Live service?
Xfire is a very powerful product, and our growth rate continues to be quite strong. We currently have nearly seven million registered users and over 30 million friendship relationships. Over three million friendship relationships are being formed every month on Xfire.
We’re always careful to watch new competition, but we remain very confident in the strength and loyalty of our userbase.
What is so "long-lasting" about the Stride Xfire competition?
The Ridiculously Long Lasting Xfire Cup 2007 is long lasting on several counts:
- The Ridiculously Long Lasting Xfire Cup 2007 is an invitational tournament that will span over several months. The first event takes place at the end of March and the grand finale will be held towards the end of June.
- Each round of the series of invitational tournament matches is paired with a series of Xfire's signature Live Online Gaming Events, featuring between six and twelve hours of gaming activities on the top five most played FPS games on Xfire.
- The grand finale of the Stride Xfire Cup 2007 will take place over three days in June, packed with Live Chats, free prizes and free broadcasts of matches between the best North America Counter-Strike
teams. And let's not forget that it all wraps up on the 21st of June - the longest day of the year!
Where do you think PC online gaming needs to go in the future in order to stay relevant?
From our perspective, PC gaming has always been at the forefront of new game development – its openness and flexibility guarantees that it will be the preferred platform for cutting-edge gaming. The increasing availability of features such as digital downloads and persistent user accounts like those that Xfire provides will only help enhance and simplify the PC gaming experience.
We think that the communities which are developing around popular MMOs, such as World of Warcraft
, will become a more important part of every game. Game developers that embrace the tools gamers use to socialize both inside and outside of games really push the envelope for the benefit of not only their gamers but also the community as a whole.
Features such as guild & clan management, stats tracking, and sharing of game moments through screenshots and videos were typically reserved for the gaming elite until recently. More and more gamers are demanding these features, therefore developers are having to squeeze them into development timelines.
In the past, you could merely produce a great game and it would do well. Now, you still need a great game, but if you don’t have great multiplayer you can only entice a fraction of the potential user base to play. Soon, if you don’t have a great game, great multiplayer, and
great community tools, you’ll be dead in the water.
We think Xfire is an important part of that future because we not only take a lot of that burden off the shoulders of game developers, but we also ensure that all tools for socialization and sharing of game data are available anywhere, anytime – not just while you’re in-game.
Have you encountered any difficulties in porting Xfire to Vista?
Vista presented a few challenges, particularly with User Access Controls and the new desktop rendering system (Aero Glass). We worked with pre-release builds of Vista to get Xfire ready for Vista's launch, and it is working well now.
Are you still planning a Mac version of the software? What kind of market exists for online gaming on the platform?
The Mac userbase is very passionate. Although only a few top games are released simultaneously for the Mac and PC, Mac gamers have regularly asked us to create a version of Xfire for them. We are committed to supporting as many gaming platforms as we can as long as they have a large enough userbase. However, prioritization of projects is an ongoing battle.
What's next for Xfire?
We're going to keep doing what we started over 3 years ago - building the best tool and community for gamers that we can. In the short term, this includes big additions to our clans & guilds system, better sharing of screenshots, and other community features on our website.