Digital distribution has never been a particularly social way to grow your game collection. Trade-in policies aside, there’s something comforting about making the trek to your local brick-and-mortar retailer and finding a group of people who are just as excited about the latest releases as you are. Sure, you have to get up from the couch and actually, you know, talk to people, but you end up feeling a bit more connected to your gaming brethren than you would otherwise.

Valve’s Steam service has moved in the direction of giving players more ways to interact with one another. Now, as of October 26, there’s a new contender in the digital distribution arena that’s entered the ring from the opposite direction: Xfire’s Game Store.

“Our store is the first to provide a social shopping experience,” says Alon Carmeli, Vice President of Business Development at Xfire. “In essence, what it means is that your friends know what you have bought.”

Unlike Steam, Xfire started as a social networking platform for players, incorporating functionality like instant messaging, screenshots and video capture into a desktop client that ran in the background while users went about their gaming. That original purpose has put the company in a unique position for a fledgling digital distribution hub: It already has a user base of over 14.5 million registered accounts, not to mention much of the framework required to make buying games and playing games a seamless experience.

No wonder the company’s current strategy focuses on educating its current users about the service. “The most effective way for us to get traction is with our community, because they love us and they trust us,” says Carmeli. “So you start with them, and Phase B is you expand beyond that, because it shouldn’t be only the Xfire community. One thing drives another, so it’s positive feedback.”

For players who aren’t currently a part of the Xfire community, the service will lose some of its appeal. “If you’re new to the community, and you don’t have friends yet and you don’t have your profile, the store for your first purchase will behave like any other store,” Carmeli says. “It’s the same thing as what you see at Facebook: Initially when you just sign up and you open a profile, it’s kind of plain and boring. But once you start inviting more friends and you see what they do, it’s like a snowball.”

That’s not to say it won’t be a challenge for the Game Store to establish a presence in the marketplace. “Steam and Impulse have been around for quite some time, so it will take us some time to reach the scales that they have today,” Carmeli notes. “But given two factors – the large, loyal, engaged community we have, plus the fact that this is the first and probably will be the only social shopping online store, we believe that over time we have a great chance to become one of the leaders in online distribution for games.”

Right now the Game Store is strictly a browser-based affair, but Carmeli says there are plans underway to make the shopping experience more convenient for players. “In the coming months, we’re going to integrate the download manager into the Xfire client, so it will be a truly transparent experience compared to other stores.” That might not be enough to shoot the company to the top spot in units sold, but it’s likely enough to keep its growing community satisfied. And if it saves its users a trip to the local game peddler, so much the better. Talking to people is overrated anyway.

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