Think of it as a treehouse.
That’s the idea founder Jason Citron had when he and his team first started work on the gamer-centric social program Discord about two years ago. The service, which sprang from the failures of an iPad MOBA developed by the same group, was meant to be a place where a group of friends could get together to talk during a game match and also hang-out between games.
“The core idea was about small communities,” Citron tells Glixel. “The way we think about it is a treehouse in the backyard where you and your friends hang out. When you play online with friends, you will often invite someone in for a raid that you don’t know, but then you want to kick them off when you’re done. Also, you want it to be safe, where they can’t see all of your stuff.”
So the team set about building a secure, low-latency voice chat program that friends could use to talk while gaming. In less than a year, Discord had more than 3 million users. By that summer, the number grew to 11 million. The end of 2016 had Discord at 25 million users. The communication tool hit an astounding 45 million users in May of this year, and Citron thinks there’s a good chance they’ll double that number by the end of the year. Already the service is at 87 million users with 14 million daily active users sending 9.5 billion messages a month.
Discord these days has a lot more to offer as well. You can still create private servers to invite your friends and then chat with them through text or audio. But over the summer the company started rolling out video calling and screen sharing. And there are now official servers for games and even the ability to tie directly into a game so a player can, for instance, send an invite to a Discord member.
And the numbers keep growing, currently at an estimated 1.5 million new users a week.
“This year we saw tremendous growth, but it’s been a steady build since we launched,” Citron says. “The growth curve is such that it takes time to build to scale.”
Citron believes that Discord has gotten this large primarily through grassroots growth powered by word of mouth. Which is both good and bad for a service that allows anyone to create a secure form of anonymous communication with a group of like-minded friends.
Over the summer it was discovered that Discord was being used by alt-right groups to, among other things, plan a white nationalist rally during the August 12th Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Following the rally, Discord banned several of the largest alt-right servers and publicly condemned “white supremacy, neo-Nazism, or any other group, term, ideology that is based on these beliefs,” in a public statement.
But those groups still pop-up in lists of Discord servers, though not nearly as large as they once were. Citron tells Glixel that they have a team that works to take swift action against any such group.
“The action we took very publicly this summer summarized how we think about this stuff,” he says, noting that Discord includes moderation tools and has a support team to help users out. “Essentially, if any issues are brought to our attention we take swift action.”
Citron also notes that Discord has never listened in on people’s conversations or read their messages and has no plans to start doing so, which puts the impetus on users to find and report bad actors.
“Our team is available to help respond to requests when people bring them up,” he says. “We have a full-time trust and safety team that is available 24 hours a day and the community is very proactive.
“But it’s not gone, the world is what it is, so this is a continuous thing.”
The alt-right aren’t the only group of non-gamers using Discord. Other non-gaming servers on Discord are built around the discussion of everything from crypto-currency to stock trading, music appreciation to language lessons and fantasy football, Citron said. There’s even an unofficial server in Havana, Cuba.
Though the non-gaming groups are relatively new to Discord, they are still vastly outnumbered by gamers using the service. And the addition of official publisher and developer servers has expanded the types of gaming conversations going on in Discord. There are about 450 verified servers currently for games, Citron says. About 20 of those games feature what Discord calls rich presence, which allows a developer to integrate data from games into a person’s Discord profile. So you might be able to show in your profile what map in a game you’re on, or who is in your party or allow people to invite you to join a game in session.
And the service is growing a surprisingly large audience among console gamers, mostly, Citron believes, because Discord’s sound quality is so high and latency is so low. A large number of Nintendo Switch owners are among those users, perhaps because Nintendo’s own chat service for the console isn’t very integrated, requiring users to download a smartphone app.
“I have thought about the Switch,” he says. “I have spent many hundreds of hours of my life in that little screen.
“If Nintendo wants us to power their voice chat, we’d be happy to talk.”
While no platform holder has struck an official deal with Discord for chat support, at least one headset manufacturer has started supporting the idea. SteelSeries’ new Arctis 3 headset is designed to be used with services like Discord. It can receive simultaneous audio signals from Bluetooth and a wired connection and blend the two together. The peripheral maker also has a keyboard that can notify players of Discord chat notifications.
As Discord continues to grow, the company is now looking at potentially opening up an office in Europe to help with local marketing. Citron says it’s also very focused on working with more developers to expand its rich presence system. What it doesn’t want to do though, is change its founding purpose.
Discord has no desire, for instance, to take on Twitch streaming or YouTube video, they remain focused on delivering that treehouse experience and growing by one group of friends at a time.
“One of the funny things about building this company there are a lot of things that come up that you didn’t realize you’d have to deal with,” he says. “I didn’t expect a lot of the positive things to happen that happened. I also didn’t expect these kinds of difficult conversations where people look to us to talk about what kind of speech is accepted and not.”