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Essential apps and utilities for PC, Mac and console gamers

Never, in the entirety of history, has there been so much gaming to be done. You can hardly finish a game without the Next Great Game appearing in your mailbox or on your hard disk -- because you pre-ordered it on Amazon or Steam, of course.

Believe it or not, we actually have too many good games at the moment. Until recently, gamers could dedicate themselves to a single stand-out game -- Myst, Quake, Counter-Strike, Baldur's Gate -- for months, or even years in some cases. But those days of losing ourselves in a game's universe are gone. Now we have a matter of weeks to play and master a game before another multi-million dollar title clamors for our attention.

There are many die-hard gamers that think such saturation is a bad thing. Games are becoming consumable commodities, like their steadfast film and television brethren. 'Games should be savored, not chewed' they cry. But I think they're wrong: I think what we finally have now is choice. I distinctly remember one summer where I didn't like the release -- and I had nothing to play until winter! Instead of relapsing to in-front-of-the-television, I now always have something to play. Surely that's a good thing?

But I'm rambling -- back to the point! With news of Steam's imminent release on Mac, and a truly dizzying array of Windows and console games, you need some apps and utilities to make your life easier. With so many games, and so few hours in the day, let me make your life easier!

You probably didn't even know that there are apps to improve your gaming experience, did you? Cease your fragging and farming, pour some tea, and read on!

First up, because almost every game today has a multiplayer aspect, is communication tools. Online messaging doesn't begin and end with Windows Live Messenger (MSN) and AIM! There are better and more flexible services that can improve the overall experience of online gaming -- or even your gaming skills!
  • IRC -- Yup, the oldest and most steadfast chat medium is still going. IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, is the original Internet chat service. It's been going since 1988 and shows no sign of slowing down. It is in essence, a network of text-only chat rooms, though fast server/client file transfer is available.

    There are a lot of IRC servers -- though only a few big ones -- with each one having some kind of 'speciality'. Some are unmoderated and ideal for piracy (EFnet), while others such as QuakeNet are home to hundreds of thousands of gamers. If you're looking for like-minded gamers, or match-making, IRC could be just what you're looking for.

    PC: mIRC -- Mac: ircle -- Linux: XChat (I'm afraid console users will have to make do with their various 'communities'!) Multiplay has a good PC-centric guide to setting up IRC, and more advanced users should look into 'scripts' (especially if they're using mIRC).)
  • Forums -- If you're a 'serious' gamer of any description (i.e. you play World of Warcraft, or a clan-based shooter) you'll already know about forums. Everyone else will just be aware of forums popping up in search results all the time -- and that's for a reason, you know! A lot of online communication occurs on forums -- perhaps even more so than blogs, forums are a huge source of constantly-updated info that you should be reading!

    If you're a World of Warcraft player, you should be reading and digesting Elitist Jerks. MW2 players should take a good look at Modern Warfare 24/7. If you like your forums a little more generic, you could always wade into the GameSpot forum (but it's really big, I warn you). Basically, if there's a game you like, Google it! It'll be worth it, trust me.
  • Xfire -- Though it has a rather snazzy tagline, 'gaming simplified', Xfire never fails to deliver. While it started as a bit of an industry ugly duckling with very tentative support from gamers and developers, Xfire has stuck at it. Today, 8 years after its initial release, and due to its continuing and impressive innovation, Xfire now has over 15 million very happy users -- and you should be the next!

    What started as a 'game aware' messenger (it showed you what games your friends were currently playing), Xfire has grown into a massive (and competitive) community that facilitates your games playing. Not only is there in-game text and voice chat, but there's also a great server browser. The most recent addition is the ability to live stream your gaming-- now you can show your friends, clanmates or even the thronged masses your pro skillz over the Internet!

    PC: Xfire -- Mac: MacFire -- Linux: not supported, but there are some fancy chat plugins you can check out
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Next, we have utilities. These are tools that augment your gaming experience -- and no, I'm not talking about speed hacks or aimbots! (But I have thrown in a few 'nefarious' tools, just, you know... in case.)
  • BitTorrent -- A good BitTorrent client is the bread and butter of every gamer. Now, I'm not telling you to go out and download every game -- especially if you have a disposable income -- but sometimes publishers make it so damn hard to enjoy a game that you might as well just Torrent it. Yes, I'm talking about DRM; yes, I think DRM is an affront to the addicted stalwarts that spend their hard-earnt money on video games. You know it's sad when free, cracked and downloadable versions of games are better than the boxed equivalent.

    So, keep a BitTorrent client installed, but only use it when you have to. Torrents are also good if you lose the original game disc too, incidentally -- or for downloading large multi-gigabyte patches.

    Console gamers:
    you can use Torrents to get your hands on games that won't be released in your country!

    CD/DVD images: if you download the 'image' of a game (think of it as a software representation of a physical disc), you'll need to burn it, or mount it. Virtual CloneDrive should be all you need for mounting; and if that fails, give Daemon Tools a go (but watch out for the bloatware!)

    PC: uTorrent -- Mac: Transmission -- Linux: rTorrent or Vuze (Azureus)
  • Steam -- Of course everyone's favourite digital distribution app gets a mention! In many ways, Steam is based on Xfire, but with an emphasis on content distribution that Xfire is unlikely to imitate. Like Xfire, Steam has a lot of community features and in-game chat. A lot of emphasis is placed on player profiles too -- you can see exactly what other games have been playing, and for how long!

    Steam has turned the industry on its head, single-handedly proving that box-less distribution has massive potential. You can often find games at a fraction of their normal cost on Steam -- and if you catch one of their crazy 'fire sales', you might find games for only 50 cents! It's not unusual to see $500 of games on sale for $29.95. That's the power of digital distribution: it costs Valve a few cents for some gigabytes of bandwidth, and that's it. The rest is profit.

    PC: Windows Steam client -- Mac: coming soon!! -- Linux: possible under WINE or POL. It's worth noting that Direct 2 Drive has quite a selection of Mac games, if you can't wait for Steam!
  • Emulators -- This, like torrenting, is another one of those areas with questionable legality. You shouldn't technically download the ROM image of a Mega Drive game, but there's no one to stop you -- nor is anyone losing money -- so... why not?

    Emulators emulate a target system or operating system, be it an original 8-bit NES/Famicom, PlayStation or Game Boy Advance. In other words, they turn your PC or Mac into virtually any console ever made. Emulators can also be used to play old PC games (with DOSBox) that no longer work on Windows-based systems.

    I could spend the rest of this feature listing emulators, but it's easier if I just link you to a proper resource like The Emulator Zone. Be sure to hit up your favourite Torrent indexes (IsoHunt or The Pirate Bay) for more ROM images. Mac users take note: there's an entire page of emulators for you on The Emulator Zone!
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Finally we come to the show-stoppers, the cherry on top -- the dessert. These are tools or apps that don't really fit the other categories but are too cool to be excluded. These won't be for every gamer, but I'm pretty sure at least one thing in the following list will catch your eye.
  • Screen video capture (Fraps/Snapz) -- How better to show of your gaming prowess than with a RECORDING? The Internet is all about video nowadays. Why put your ugly face up on YouTube when you can use your pretty blonde elf instead? If you're great at a video game, why not show the world and become a star like Athene?!

    Of course, there's also machinima, the art of making entire movies from in-game footage. Red vs. Blue (Halo) and Tales of the Past (Warcraft) are both great examples, if you want to see what's possible with Fraps and a lot of dedication.

    PC: Fraps -- Mac: Snapz -- Linux: Shutter (both Fraps and Snapz are commercial... but I'm sure you can work around that).
  • TeamSpeak 3 -- Most games include voice-communication of some kind now, but for games that don't, or where the implementation is poor, TeamSpeak is the solution! World of Warcraft is the biggest example of a game that needs external voice comms, but many FPS clans use them too.

    Ventrilo used to be the best choice, but due to draconian licensing costs a fortune to set up. TeamSpeak 3, however, is free. There's a free Linux server, and clients for both Mac and Windows. TS3 has a truly dizzying number of configuration and privilege settings -- I've been using it for a month and I still haven't worked out most of it...

    PC: Windows client -- Mac: OS X client -- Linux: there's even a Linux client! (the Linux server is on the same page)
  • XLink -- Before the current generation of consoles and their 'live communities', the only way to link consoles together was with a 'system link'. This usually involved some kind of proprietary cable (do you remember joining two Game Boys together, back at school?) With XLink, you can play 'system link' (i.e. LAN) games over the Internet, as long as you have a computer running Windows, OS X or Linux.

    Warning, the logo on their site might induce seizures... (really, it's quite distracting).

    PC: Windows client -- Mac: OS X client -- Linux: x86 client
  • Cheats, FAQs and walkthroughs -- And finally, when it's all just become too much, we have cheats. Sometimes a game can be too hard, or maybe you're just a 'completionist' that must find everything -- either way, you're going to want Gamespy's GameFAQs. Never has there been such a wealth of games-related info easily accessible! Whether you want cheat codes (do modern games even have cheat codes?) or complete walkthroughs of adventure games, GameFAQs is for you. There's also a lot of reviews from users of the site, so it's also a good site if you're looking to buy a new game.

    It's actually scary how detailed some of the guides on GameFAQs are -- and yes, there are guides for both PC and console games. I suppose there would be Mac guides too, if the Mac had any games...

    Anyway, if you're one of those gamers that has to get every trophy and achievement, check it out! (And if GameFAQs doesn't have what you're looking for, just use Google... it's almost as good.)
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As always, if I've missed something that a gamer can't possibly live without, leave a note in the comments!
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Tags: apps, cheats, emulator, features, fraps, games, gaming, guide, guides, irc, mac, PC, steam, tools, torrent, ts3, utilities, voice, windows

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