From One Video Game to a Community of Millions: How Discord Evolves

Illustrations by Igor Bastidas

Before there was Discord, there was Fates Forever, an exquisitely rendered multiplayer video game designed to jumpstart a new era of tablet gaming. Something else happened instead: The chat service embedded in Fates Forever—the one its founders built so users could easily gather and plot out their games—became the product. Today, 100 million people log on to Discord’s servers every month. They still talk about games, sure, but now they’re also learning foreign languages, laying down tracks, and taking online classes. Discord founder Jason Citron tells us about this evolution, offering a master class in how to listen to your community.

The fate of Fates Forever

In 2012, here’s how I thought the world would play out: Longer session, cooperative games would end up becoming a big deal on mobile devices. If you remember 2012, the whole notion of tablet computing was new. Smart phones hadn’t blown up yet. We designed Fates Forever hoping it would be a hit—a team-based, multiplayer game with beautiful production, but on a tablet. We also built some basic communication tools inside the game. We had a hunch that there was an opportunity around a service where people could hang out before, during, and after playing games, but we didn’t know how that would shake out.

“Our idea for Discord was like an always-on conference call, or having your own private café for games.”

The game wasn’t a hit. We won a bunch of awards, but didn’t get enough users. One day Stan [Vishnevskiy, co-founder of Discord] came to me and said, “I don’t want to make more mobile games. We’ve been talking about building a chat service, and I have an idea for how we can do it.” We spent two months debating it, because it wasn’t obvious that it would work. Our idea for Discord was like an always-on conference call, or having your own private café for gameswhere friends can pop in to spend time together; I understood how it would make my life better, but it ran counter to the way successful startups were built at the time, because it was PC-first.

Jason (second to left) and the early Discord team in 2016, one year into officially launching as a chat service.

We got to a point where Discord had maybe 10 or 20 daily active users—basically nobody. It was just our friends who agreed to use us instead of Skype or TeamSpeak. But we couldn’t figure out how to get more people to use it. It was totally not obvious that it was even a good idea, but we felt like a lot of people would care about it. What eventually happened is that we figured out a distribution strategy—we didn’t change the product at all. We just tried something off-the-cuff, to get the word out for free: We knew someone in a Reddit thread that focused on Final Fantasy. He posted something like, “Has anyone ever heard of this new voiceover IP app called Discord?” We posted a link to a Discord server, where Stan and I were hanging out. People on Reddit saw the post, joined Discord, talked to us, and tried the app. They went back to the Reddit post and commented, “I just talked to the devs, they’re in there. It’s really cool. Check it out.” It got a bunch of up votes, and that’s the day we say we launched.

Custom emoji and Server Boosting

We built Discord Nitro for two reasons: One, people kept falsely saying we were selling their data, because we weren’t charging our users. Two, our plan was to grow a large audience and then sell them video games. We thought we could help people find great games and help developers bring their games to market. But we didn’t want to tell people that, because we didn’t want to let any potential competition know. We decided to start with offering some chat perks for a subscription fee, with the idea to move towards a game store later on. In the world of video games, people subscribe for self-expression—like custom emoji. So we launched Discord Nitro with the pitch of, “Support Discord, and get cool chat perks.”

“We thought, what if we put some real product and engineering energy behind this subscription service?”

It took off, slowly. Being able to buy Nitro seemed to give people some comfort about how we monetized our service, so they stopped saying we were selling their data. We ended up launching the store, but quickly learned that what people really wanted from Discord was a place to talk, not a place to buy video games. It was a whirlwind: Within the span of four months we launched the store, shut it down, and invested in Nitro, which, without much love and care, had grown into a meaningful business. We thought, what if we put some real product and engineering energy behind this subscription service? One big thing we did last year was launch Server Boosting, where you and your friends can spend money to give your entire friend group more ways to express themselves in Discord. We got inspiration for the idea from playing League of Legends. They have this feature where you can spend money to give your team custom skins, which are like costumes. When that happens, you’re like, this person just spent money so that I can now have more fun. You’re cool, we’re cool. I loved the emotional experience of that.

From the beginning, Discord’s chat and video platform has given gamers of all stripes a place to talk.
For 100 million people and growing, a place to talk

Ever since we launched, we got a lot of hints that people were using Discord for more than just games. As early as 2015, open source development communities started to spring up on Discord. People started tweeting at us, saying what they were up to on Discord. People were making hip-hop albums together. There was a trombone enthusiasts group. You could learn Japanese. Folks were studying together to prepare for exams. In 2019, we ran a survey of our user base, and asked 17,000 people a ton of open-ended questions. We found that around 30 percent of the servers on Discord were not primarily used for playing video games. We’d hear about users bringing a school club to a Discord server and having to explain away the gaming references: “Just ignore the girl with the wizard hat and the sword. This is actually serious software.” My favorite survey question was, “What do you think the biggest misconception is about Discord?” Because people were literally asking us to stop marketing just to gamers.

So we decided to launch the Server Discovery feature, to make sure there’s a great way to find and create new Discord servers that are safe and well-moderated. The onboarding experience mimics the feeling of you and I sitting next to each other, if you were trying the app while I’m explaining what to do. We rolled out a whole new website identity, as well, signaling to our users and to the world that you can come to Discord and make it your place to talk, no matter what you want to be doing. We designed this service to solve some particular problems for people who played games, like invite-only servers and the ability to set the rules and norms for your space. It turns out that that’s just important for any community, and now we have 100 million people using the service every month. During the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, our growth went up by nearly 50 percent. It’s really important to us to make sure that the way that we evolve resonates with our existing gaming audience. But when we ask people about Discord, they use words like, “It’s a place I can talk. It feels like home.” So it’s not surprising to me that they welcomed the changes. We’re taking the magic of talking and hanging out together online, which has been part of gaming culture for decades, and bringing it to the rest of the world.

Discord is now home to more conversations than ever: In 2019 it launched the Server Discovery feature so that anyone—gamers and beyond—can find community.

Discord: A gamer platform-turned-community of millions
Founded: 2012‍
Initial Partnership: Led the Series C in 2016