For any journalist writing about business, rapid growth is perhaps the best signifier that there's a story to tell. For a games journalist writing about business, there have been few more compelling stories of rapid growth than Discord.
In May 2017, the company reported that 45 million people were using its PC gaming-focused chat services. By the end of the year that number had doubled to 90 million, with 14 million people logging in every single day. In the meantime, the San Francisco-based startup raised a reported $50 million to help grow that audience further still.
Jason Citron, Discord's CEO and previously the founder of OpenFeint, is clearly happy with the number of users and the relatively narrow span of time it has taken to achieve - the company will be three years old next month. But there is another, even larger number that he is not yet ready to reveal, except to say with a satisfied chuckle, "it's kind of zoomed ahead."
The secret to Discord's growth, he says, is pretty simple. "We solved a problem that people playing video games had - in a way that actually solved the problem. You're playing games on a computer, you want to chat with your friends, and you want to be able to do it in a way that makes sense with how you live your life. Discord is the first voice chat app that really makes sense for PC gamers."
Prior to Discord, apps like TeamSpeak and Ventrilo were the most popular among PC gamers who wanted to play and chat with friends. However, those services fit the stereotype of PC gaming as somewhat clumsy and complicated, asking more of their users than most were willing to give. Players would have to rent a server from a third-party vendor - "usually some company you'd never heard of" - and pay a monthly fee for access, then they'd have to mail out an IP address to their friends who would all need to download an app. And the design of the apps themselves was often inelegant and outdated.
"We rethought the whole experience using modern tech and modern design," Citron says. "Now you just go to a webpage, you sign in, and it just works. It's free, and if you want to invite your friends you just send them a link. They can jump right in through their browser, without having to download anything.
"Part of the reason why Discord really resonates with people… is because it feels really authentic to them - we made it for ourselves"
"It's super easy to get people on. And the people who really like that app in the browser, they get the desktop client and end up switching their whole group over."
The primary driver of Discord's growth is word-of-mouth, Citron says, and the bulk of that growth has been entirely free - friends inviting friends inviting friends. The company has encouraged that by partnering with and supporting influencers and streamers. Crucially, though, it has only partnered with people who already used and showed enthusiasm for the platform.
"I think part of the reason why Discord really resonates with people, and why they invite their friends in, is because it feels really authentic to them - we made it for ourselves," he says. "When we noticed Twitch streamers and YouTube streamers starting to use Discord, we thought they could help spread the word.
"We only wanted to support people who authentically liked what we were doing. Like, 'do what you're already doing, but why not make the logo a little bigger?' We found that to be very, very effective. People watching an influencer talking about a product can tell immediately if they actually understand it... People feel that, and then they go try it.
"We really feel that growth is a result of people loving the product, so we continue to refine and improve... There's a lot of people who play games, so I think we have a lot more headroom. More people who play games don't know what Discord is than do. So I think it's still early days for us."
Discord's feature-set has grown beyond simple chat functions, and it recently took the step of integrating Spotify, so that its users could listen to music together. Citron feels some discomfort with describing Discord as "a social platform", because the term evokes too many functions that Discord doesn't have, but he admits that, for many of its users, that is precisely what it has become. A place to hang out, to talk, and yes, to play some games.
"For our users who are gamers, I think we are a social platform to them in some way," he says. "They have it on their phone, they have it on their computer, they chat when they're not playing games, and they use the voice chat when they are. We added music because when I'm sitting around hanging out with my friends, I want to see what music they listen to and I want to listen to music together."
"We've been very proactive in making sure we do our part in empowering server owners to create a healthy environment"
As it has expanded, Discord has also become an effective way for developers to build communities around their games. No More Robots' Mike Rose did just this for RageSquid's Descenders, using Discord as a central hub for bringing in new people and offering incentives to stick around - from alpha and beta access, to exclusive content and ingenious meta-games. In a post on Discord's blog, Rose said that the audience it built not only became customers, but also helped to bring in more business by evangelising for the game.
Discord plans to add new features to help developers use its community in this way, and Citron offers the example of Verified Servers, which were introduced last year. There are already hundreds of official servers for all kinds of games, he says, with Epic's Fortnite perhaps the biggest of them all.
"We find that the type of users that end up joining a developers Discord are their most rabid fans," he says. "It creates a great environment where developers can talk to their users in real time. We see people using that in all sorts of interesting ways - friends and family alpha tests, managing beta communities, putting builds out and getting feedback, hosting play nights."
Discord has the opportunity to work with developers in this precisely because it has such a large audience, but that scale also brings its own problems. The evolution of Discord into a social platform is evident not just in its features, but also in the issues it has faced within its community. In August last year, the company shut down the altright.com Discord channel, and Discord pledged to take "aggressive" steps to ensure that similar communities were not able to flourish again.
"Discord was built to bring people together through a love of gaming and our mission is to connect positive communities who share this appreciation," Citron said in a statement at the time. "We unequivocally condemn white supremacy, neo-Nazism, or any other group, term, ideology that is based on these beliefs."
Discord is hardly alone in the problem of hate groups taking root on its platform, and the very fact that they have is simply a manifestation of how big its audience has become. At GDC, where Citron and I conducted this interview, encouraging positive behaviour within gaming communities was one of the key themes of the show, discussed by a broad range of speakers from a variety of angles. However, Citron sees the issue as "much bigger than games", framing it as a question that the entire tech industry is only now starting to answer.
"The great side of [communications technology] is that people's voices are amplified and less is in the shadows, but on the other side we're now seeing what was in those shadows"
"Since last year when we actually noticed this stuff, we've actually done a lot," he says. "We have a trust and safety group in-house, which is a handful of people who respond to reports of abuse. We have a bunch of automated systems that we built, which people can choose to turn on or off to their desire. We have a 24/7 customer support team. And we have very visible community guidelines, which indicate that when you make a server, this is what we expect of you.
"We've been very proactive in making sure we do our part in empowering server owners to create a healthy environment. And when they need help from us, we're able to step in and support them, but doing it in a way where we're respectful of people's privacy. We don't read people's messages.
There will likely never be a solution to toxic behaviour in the absolute sense, but Citron believes that online communities can effectively fight it through constant vigilance and consistent action. In demonstrating the will to apply what is laid out in community guidelines and terms of service, those groups no longer see Discord as a place to come together.
"Because they realise that as soon as we catch wind of it, we just ban them all," he says. "It's unfortunate that some other services are not dealing with this. We just heard about it last week, and I won't say the specifics, but one group has now shifted to another platform, and they specifically said it's because they can't do it here anymore because we keep kicking them out. So it's great, because we're doing a good job, but it's crap because the problem still exists.
"The truth is that the overwhelming majority of people are nice. The overwhelming majority of Discords are positive environments. Most of Discord is small servers, where it's just you and your friends and there is no toxicity. But the reality is that sometimes people, just in the world... What's the saying? One bad apple spoils the batch.
"I think this is one of the great questions of society right now. As internet and communications technologies bring so many people together, the great side of it is that people's voices are amplified and less is in the shadows, but on the other side we're now seeing what was in those shadows. We need to figure out what to do about it as a society."