Inside Discord, the Chat App That's Changing How Gamers Communicate

Inside Discord, the Chat App That's Changing How Gamers Communicate

Discord/Glixel

It's like Slack or Skype for gamers and there are now 45 million people using it

It's like Slack or Skype for gamers and there are now 45 million people using it

The Church of Makoto Discord channel hosts 55 people. They gather to discuss Persona 5, and particularly, Makoto – the mousey student council president and party member who transforms into a power-metal diva on an ethereal motorbike once she enters the cognitive realm. Persona 5 is a static, single-player RPG. There are no expansions on the horizon, and no leaderboards to conquer. But that's Discord's specialty. Think of it like Slack for gamers; a way for anyone to host a surreptitious, invite-only chat room for any community, no matter how specific or perverse. The Church of Makoto is a place of worship. Those 55 users post hand-drawn photos of their favorite kawaii high-schooler and adorn each image with beaming, hearts-for-eyes smiley faces, or more crassly, the eggplant emoji.

Discord is the brainchild of Jason Citron, someone who's been building forward-thinking social tech around games for a long time. He made his name in 2009 with OpenFeint – a networking platform that united mobile games with Xbox Live-style achievements and social functionality. A few years later he sold the business to the Japanese company Gree for a massive $104 million payday, and immediately broke ground on a new startup called Hammer & Chisel. He intended to take what he learned on OpenFeint and build a mobile-first MOBA called Fates Forever. That game failed to find an audience, but the hard work during the development cycle did reveal a problem that's dogged multiplayer gaming forever.

"We played a lot of games together. There was a split contingency of people playing a lot of Final Fantasy XIV and a lot of League of Legends," he says. "There was just one of those moments where we were sending an IP address to each other where we were like, ‘this is stupid.' So we had the idea where we said 'what if we just rebuilt this with modern tech, a beautiful UI and smooth out all the the points of friction?'"

Those gripes would eventually turn into Discord – a free, intuitive desktop app that automatically populates with every channel you've joined. No more tracking down arcane server information, no more unreliable Skype group calls; all it takes to join the Church of Makoto is a single click on a link. There are Discord channels dedicated to the ultra-underground competitive scene for the PS2 brawler Shrek Super Slam, the BDSM Overwatch kink community, and the impassioned (though still not officially ordained) fan-shipping of Pharah and Mercy. That might all seem outrageously niche, but it's working. Last July, Discord had 11 million users. In May, shortly after the service's second birthday, that figure eclipsed 45 million. The service sees 200 million messages posted a day and a staggering 16 petabytes of voice chat data going through its servers every month.

Players are banding together under the banners of leftism, queerness, and palliative mental health care. It's a simple desire to play games with those who understand you.

You can chalk a lot of that success up to Discord's diversity. Teamspeak – the preferred voice-chat program before the Discord era – had a single purpose: it was a way for clans, guilds, and pick-up groups to coordinate gameplay. That's still Discord's principal function, but the accessibility of the platform has broadened its possibilities. Players are banding together under the banners of leftism, queerness, and palliative mental health care. It's a simple desire to play games with those who understand you. Some communities host movie nights, where the server inhabitants watch a film together with the warmth of the chat box keeping pace. Citron wanted to create a painless way to talk through League of Legends strategies; he had no idea that Discord would end up hosting slumber parties.

"We wanted to built a trust model, where you could invite people you might meet in a party-finder into your private space, and kick them out when you're done," he says. "As it turns out, that model works great for large internet communities. Subreddits were replacing their IRC links with Discord links. we kinda leaned into it, to make things better for those groups. But we never did anything specific to go after that audience. It just kinda took off. It's been awesome."

In a lot of ways, Discord brings to mind a pre-Facebook internet, where lonely weeknights were routinely burned stalking anonymous AOL lobbies. In 2017, it feels like our offline and online personas are inextricably melded. But there is something inherently escapist about a discrete Discord channel, like a secret patch of wilderness where you and 55 other lost usernames find common ground over Persona 5.

"Sometimes I make references to AIM when I talk to older people," says Citron. "When you zoom out and think about the internet and how communication is trending, there's definitely a trend to more live experiences. The internet has done so much to connect people asynchronously, so I think there's something more macro happening that Discord is taking part in. It's like we're bringing it back to how it used to be."

My wife and I went on our first date to an arcade. All my best memories are spent playing multiplayer games. So to me, when I think about what we're creating, it's so exciting to work on a problem that helps bring that to other people.

There is nothing irreplaceable about Discord's business model, so naturally, the service has spurred a fair share of competitors. Amazon recently bought the venerable online gaming portal Curse and folded its popular chat client into the Twitch app. Raptr has hosted an instant messaging client for ages, and recently launched a clip-sharing service called Plays.tv. But Discord remains at the top of the heap for a simple reason – it's a well-constructed piece of software that benefits from the same word-of-mouth ubiquity that defeated other tech runner-ups like Bing, Google Plus, and the Zune. However, Citron also chalks up his success to his tangible, life-long personal history as a gamer. When he was designing Discord, he was trying to make something he would want to use.

"At its core, I think we care the most about the problem. I'm passionately in love with games. Many of my best relationships in my life were built around games," he says. "My wife and I went on our first date to an arcade. All my best memories are spent playing multiplayer games. So to me, when I think about what we're creating, it's so exciting to work on a problem that helps bring that to other people. I think most everyone in the company shares that same deep personal connection to our mission. I think that really motivates us. I think it allows us to speak to our customers in an authentic way, because we're just being ourselves."

There are certainly challenges ahead. Discord will have to ensure it moderates the small number of public chat rooms so things don't become toxic, but it seems the bulk of usage is on private servers where anything potentially obnoxious is between close friends. Discord has also begun to see some usage outside gaming, with its text and voice chat becoming channels for gaming-adjacent interests like anime, weed and porn as well as politics. The latter has generated some attention, as alt-right groups used Discord to organize their trolling, but the app differs from other platforms like Twitter in that chats aren't public, so the potential for unsolicited harassment is significantly lower. "We’ve noticed it," Citron told BuzzFeed News, when asked about some of the groups back in January this year. "We read the news. But the way Discord is designed, it's not a public communication tool. Someone can’t airdrop out of the sky and bother you."

Citron says the next steps for growing the service are adding video chat, screen-shares, and a better in-game overlay as well as chat channel categories much like those seen in Slack. The company has promised to keep the core product and features free forever, but it does offer a premium subscription version called Discord Nitro for $4.99 a month that provides users with a few perks like GIF avatars, custom emotes, a Nitro badge, and increased file upload size limits. Those are all good, useful additions, but frankly, the hard part is already over. Video games, after all, are about social interaction, and that's what Discord tries to empower.