Games communication app Discord has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a voice-over-IP (VOIP) client created in the wake of the commercial failure of MOBA title Fates Forever from studio Hammer & Chisel.
During development, the company that is now Discord realised there was a gap in the market for a different kind of VOIP chat, and built the communications app we know today. PCGamesInsider.biz sat down with the firm's chief Jason Citron to discuss Discord's growth and evolution in the games space.
Last year, your userbase almost doubled from 45m users in May to 87m by December. What's driving that growth?
It's primarily word of mouth, when people share Discord with their friends. That drives the overall majority of our growth. People use it and share it with their friends because they love it and it actually does that they want it to do. It can feel like we care about them. We are our own customers in some ways. We build it for ourselves and people feel that. We use Discord constantly. We run the company on it, we use it to play games. Gamers are very discerning. You can tell easily if someone is blowing smoke up your ass. We just act naturally and then it comes off naturally because we are making it for ourselves. We also have a really great marketing team and we work with streamers and influencers and a really grew PR team who support the word of mouth stuff that we do.
Why do you think it attracted a big audience?
We built something that actually solves a real problem that people have in a way that actually solves the problem. There have been other products that have tried to do this. TeamSpeak solved the problem well for its era and then it never really evolved. Other products came out that tried to do it better but enough time passed that I think that if you approach the problem again with fresh eyes and modern software development practices, you can make something that's truly remarkable. Smartphones have come out and TeamSpeak was still a smartphone app that cost $5 which is a weird thing. We essentially looked at it and realised that if we brought a fresh design sense and removed some very specific pain points, like getting people to join your group. On Discord, you can send a link. It works in a browser, there's literally no friction to try it. You can use voice chat and then if you really like it and you want more powerful features like an overlay or system-wide hotkeys, it made it easy for people to try it and then they were impressed by the quality they were getting. It was really easy to hop on Discord, irrespective of what other apps users may have. People felt it was intuitive.
Discord has pretty much operated a zero tolerance policy when it comes to alt-right and Nazi servers; you banned a load of servers after Charlottesville in 2917 and booted another lot earlier this year. Why is this so important to you?
It's curious that you even have to ask that question. Why is it not important to everybody else? It's weird. We think about it and ask whether we want to tolerate this kind of behaviour.
Do you think other social platforms should be operating with similar mindsets?
I don't run those platforms. They are trying hard but for whatever reason, they haven't been able to come out with a strong stance. I really don't know why. It's hard for me to project myself into their shoes and understand their context but I know that the view that we on the world from our perspective, it seems like a no-brainer.
It is what it is. People behave this way and this is one of the biggest challenges of our era - now we have internet widely distributed, with everyone having smartphones and we're all connected together, what does that mean? How do we need to behave? What are our responsibilities as tech companies? When we ask ourselves those questions, the conclusions we come to cause us to behave the way we have behaved. I can't possibly imagine or being to explain why other companies behave differently. It seems like it makes sense for us.
Last year you secured $50m in investment, which valued your company at $725m. What has this funding allowed you to do?
Primarily the investment allows us to stay focused on delivering a fantastic product for our users. We're primarily focused on growing the userbase and just making sure we can serve people as best we can. We launched Discord Nitro last year which is a subscription product which has been phenomenal and we've been very happy with how it's gone. Our staff has more than tripled since last January, we are coming in on 100 people now which is kind of crazy. It allows us to continue building great things.
Some publishers and developers - including No More Robots' Mike Rose - have been using Discord as a marketing platform. Rose employed it to drive buzz for Descenders. What do you make of your platform being used for marketing purposes?
I'm very familiar with what he's been doing with Discord and I love it. The whole Discord for communities was not our intention, but we love it. We originally built it as a place online you hang out with your friends, and it turned out it was also great for building communities with people. The way we built roles and moderation worked for those kinds of environments. Now we actually have a programme called Verified Servers where developers can apply and get verified and they get a special URL. We love it. I used to be a game developer, so I love that we are able to do things to help developers cultivate communities and bring people to their games. It's been great. Last year, a game called Tooth and Tail did something similar. It was different how they did it, they did a weekly competition where the winners won special roles in the Discord community. The Descenders guy just took it to a whole other level.
One of the criticisms I have seen about Discord is that it is very 'gamey', even down to the memes when you load up the client. Do you worry that you might be excluding people who don't gel with that kind of culture?
Because we are focused on solving problems for gamers, we get to make trade-offs that wouldn't make sense if we were doing a mass market product. For example, we invest a lot of energy in our overlay and things like Rich Presence. But if you're making a product for people who aren't gamers, you would make different decisions about what to build. You might make the kinds of decisions that Skype or Slack are making. We love games so much and what they mean to us. Our mission is to bring people together around games and I love that everything we do helps create those relationships. I don't even know if I would be excited to work on just a chat product that you can use normally. It's great that it works for that, but with screen sharing, for example, we built that to replace the Skype parody. There was no audio from the app when you screen shared because that's how Skype worked. We thought it was dumb and that we wanted to watch our friends play games. So we added audio so you can stream to your friends. But if we're building a mass market product, We wouldn't do that. I love that we get to view every part from the lens of 'does it make this better for gamers?'. And if it makes it worse for people who aren't gamers, we don't like to do that, but if it makes it really better for gamers, we'll do it. We know who our people are.
What's the next year looking like for Discord?
I'd love to launch that streaming thing I just talked about. Lots of games with Rich Presence. A lot of the pretty cool stuff that we're going to do is still categorised under Secret Masterplan. At the end of the day, we're just trying to continue to make something awesome for the people who play games. One thing that we have shared is the overlay and that we're going to be investing in that a lot this year to make that better. Exactly what we'll do, Secret Masterplan stuff, but hopefully more people know about Discord than they do now. Doubling again would be pretty wild.