🎆 How Discord dominated gaming
Messaging app Discord is one of the world's most valuable consumer startups. After flying under the radar as "just" a chat app for gamers, Discord exploded into the public consciousness in 2020, racking up 100M MAUs and $130M in annual revenue. The company was recently valued at $15B, and is considered a 2022 IPO prospect.
Seven years ago, Discord was in a very different place. For one, the company was called Hammer & Chisel - and it was a game development studio. Hammer & Chisel raised an $8.7M Series A (sizable for 2013!) to bring multiplayer online games to tablets like the newly-released iPad. The studio's first game, called "Fates Forever," was released in mid-2014.
Though it was favorably reviewed by critics, the game struggled to attract users, who weren't gravitating to tablet gaming. But one thing was working: the game's text & voice chat feature. In early 2015, CEO Jason Citron decided to pivot, betting the company on this chat tool, which he called Discord.
There was just one problem - they needed users! As Citron told Protocol, Discord had "maybe ten users" at the time of the pivot. The majority of gamers were using TeamSpeak and Skype, which were far from perfect but had the benefit of scale. How do you convince a gamer to adopt a new tool? And even if they love it, can you get their entire guild to switch over?
The first glimmer of Discord’s eventual success came from an unusual source - the Final Fantasy XIV subreddit. On May 13, 2015, u/chreescawk wrote: “Just switched to a program called Discord for our VOIP, has anyone else tried it?” The thread racked up 151 comments, with users weighing in on features or asking product questions.
This post drove 600 new signups, as users onboarded and invited other members of their guilds. As CEO Jason Citron wrote at the time, the team was “freakin’ blown away” - they had a celebratory lunch and “danced around in circles.” And a week later, Discord hosted an AMA with these early users (transcript here), capitalizing on this interest by sharing the roadmap and taking feature requests.
Once Discord started to gain steam, it just kept going. Six months after the AMA, the company had registered 3M users, with another 1M joining each month. By Discord's first anniversary, it had an astounding 11M users - and they were extremely active, sending 40M messages a day on the platform.
Here's 3 things we can learn from Discord's launch ⬇️
1️⃣ Don’t be afraid to go niche. Discord’s initial wedge was quite narrow: a tool for Final Fantasy XIV, an MMORPG with 4M registered players. The original version of FFXIV actually flopped, so the game was re-released in 2013 to a warmer reception. As a user asked Citron in the first Discord AMA: “Why FFXIV specifically? Do you intend to expand this kind of integration to other MMOs or games?”
Discord employees were fans of Final Fantasy, but it went deeper than that! CTO Stan Vishnevskiy had been working on a FFXIV social client called Guildwork, which he founded in 2009. Guildwork built in chat, screenshots, and notifications into FFXIV gameplay. Stan had a captive base of gamers to recruit as early Discord users!
FFXIV also had a big milestone coming up, which was generating heavy community engagement. The game’s first expansion pack, Heavensward, dropped a month after Discord’s launch. Discord held events to preview early action Heavensward streams, built guides for the launch, and auctioned off collector’s items from the game - giving them fairly low-cost exposure.
Because of the “cross-contamination” of players between games (many users play more than one!), Discord didn’t stay in FFXIV alone for long. Within two months of launch, active servers were spun up for Vainglory, Rivals of Aether, Destiny, Don’t Starve, Dota 2, and PCMR, among many other games.
2️⃣ Call out your competitors. Early stage startups are often told not to publicly challenge competitors. You don’t want bigger companies to “wake up” and crush you, and you might not even want users to directly compare you!
Discord confronted the challenge head-on. The team paid for Reddit ads (another “no-no” for early consumer companies) that directly called out incumbents TeamSpeak and Skype. Risky? Maybe. But it got gamers’ attention, generating spirited arguments about the pros and cons of each product.
3️⃣ Do one thing really well - and build the rest later. Speaking of competitors, the early version of Discord lacked some of the “bells & whistles” of other platforms. But it nailed one critical thing: voice chat.
Discord’s audio quality and real-time sync were an order of magnitude ahead of competitors, as the team rebuilt the audio infrastructure three times in the months before launch. Users could enter into audio chats in-browser with one click of a Discord.gg link, no download required. And voice chat on the Discord mobile app was released just a month after the platform’s desktop launch, in June 2015.
In the meantime, the team was releasing new features daily - and they marked these debuts with meme-style videos that got the gaming world’s attention. The intro of keybinds got a custom rap, while the ability to edit messages debuted with a dramatic video fictionalizing a Discord chat love story. Between 2015 and 2016, the team published 21 feature launch videos, which averaged ~500k YouTube views!
Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your feedback or requests for companies you’d like me to profile next - you can reach me @omooretweets.
“2015.05.21 AMA Transcript” - Discord HQ
“Chat app Discord is shedding its gamer roots” - Scott Nover
“How Discord (somewhat accidentally) invented the future of the Internet” - David Pierce
“How to get the most out of your Community Server” - Discord HQ
“Discord CEO on social audio app’s next big spends after recent $500 million funding” - Riley de Leon
All views are my own. None of the above should be taken as investment advice. See this page for important information.
This was a great read. Thanks Olivia!