Company founders show off video chat, screen-sharing ahead of today’s test rollout.

Discord probably didn't need to add more major features to keep its 45 million users happy. The free text and voice-chat service has exploded in roughly two years of public testing, thanks to its simple "chat with my gaming friends" system that resembles a more voice-heavy version of Slack.

But just as the service begins to reach critical mass—and invites more questions about how the heck its "no ads, no required subscription" model will ever make money—the Discord team has responded with a major update: new video-sharing features that Discord insists will also remain totally free for all users.

“Do it in a bathtub”

When Discord co-founder and CMO Eros Resmini needs to conduct important business, he prefers to conduct it via his own app. The free text and voice-chat service works on a bunch of hardware, and if you're not interested in installing the Discord app on Windows, macOS, iOS, or Android, you can access its every feature via a simple, instant-load Web-browser interface. The idea: no matter what platform you are playing a game on, you can use a phone or computer to connect to friends, coordinate multiplayer sessions, and instantly sync up all-important "party" voice chat (without jumping through the hoops of other exclusive gaming-network services).

In less than two years, it has exploded—so much so that even the company's server providers use it almost exclusively to communicate about Discord's needs on a daily basis. "We'll send a DM, like, 'we need 10 more servers in US West,' and they give them to us!" Resmini says. ("They like it, too!" Discord CTO Stanislav Vishnevskiy insists.)

Thus, it's no surprise that Resmini, based in San Francisco, insists that we chat using Discord. However, he's running late the day before his service's new video features will roll out, so he pings me via Discord to ask for 10 minutes. After I see this message, the gaming-first nature of Discord alerts me that Resmini might be delayed for spurious reasons: he's "in-game" with a session of Rocket League.

Once Resmini calls me, however, I come to learn that he wasn't practicing for a tournament or earning loot crates. Instead, he was testing out Discord's most promising feature yet: screen sharing.

This is a response to a common scenario that Discord's fans have brought up. You might want to play a multiplayer game with a group, but when you hop into their existing voice-chat channel, you learn that some of your friends are in another online game, which could last as long as 15 or even 30 minutes. Rather than say goodbye and find another group, what if the in-game players could share their progress as a video?

Some companies would scoff at such a request. That's a potential quadrupling of bandwidth, and you people aren't even paying for the default voice-chat services we already provide! Discord, on the other hand, decided to give it a shot.

The result: starting today (in fact, right now), roughly five percent of Discord's userbase will have its accounts upgraded with video functionality. Create a private "voice" channel with other users who have also been auto-invited and you'll be able to either turn on video chat via webcam or share any window on your desktop. Discord will either focus its attention on a single executable or capture your entire desktop, then broadcast that to up to nine other users. (The target bandwidth is 2.5Mb, which will supply a 720p resolution feed at a 30fps refresh to up to five users; that video quality will drop when the lobby number increases.)

Discord believes that this mix of window and webcam sharing will let a group of players do one of two things before an online game session: have a fun, pre-game social moment, or plot out serious upcoming-game strategies. Additionally, once you're in-game, if you just want to share your current session with your friends, you can alt-tab out, start a Discord video session with your game executable targeted, and then alt-tab back in without requiring any other executables or plug-ins.

"Don't do that in the middle of a firefight," Resmini says. Then he alludes to a common hiding place in the hugely popular online game Playerunknown's Battlegrounds: "Do it in a bathtub or something."

“I’m terrified”

Resmini and Vishnevskiy show off both the video-chat and screen-share features during our interview. The latter reveal a slightly choppy but totally watchable Rocket League feed, while the former resembles other video-chat services I've used. Smaller live-feed boxes of each participant hover over a primary window-filling feed of one participant's webcam. It's up to me to click around and switch which user I wanted to see in that bigger window.

Unfortunately, every time I change my window's focus during the interview (which I do to type out Discord's answers to my questions), the video feed I see broke down entirely. I'm able to reproduce this nearly a dozen times, and nearly every time, one of the two representatives reflexively asks if I'm running the latest test version of the Discord client. (Video chat will work on all platforms, even Web browsers, but screen sharing will not work in Discord's browser-based version.)

"I'm terrified that it's not working for you!" Vishnevskiy says. "I spent five whole hours in a row testing it myself last night."

Discord insists it's ready for some of the potential early-testing headaches endemic with a feature upgrade like video functionality. For one, all video-specific bandwidth will be allocated to a separate set of servers. ("If video is too popular, it won't destroy Discord's voice servers," Vishnevskiy says. "It will only destroy video calls.") Discord's current server bank for video bandwidth is "quadruple" the size it allots for the same number of voice-only users. The app will employ bandwidth probing for both upload and CPU use, and Discord says it is taking PC gaming performance seriously.

"Capturing a screen, resizing it, and compressing video is orders of magnitude more expensive [in terms of processing]," Resmini says. "Luckily for us, we get to work on the shoulders of giants. We're leveraging the work of Google, to tune what they have working in Chromium, to work better for us in Discord."

The duo talks at length about quality-control systems in place at the ISP level, which Discord has had to battle in terms of packet loss for audio data. These may very well wreak extra havoc on the video rollout. "We'd like to detect that automatically," Resmini says, "but that's kind of a hard task."

Discord also has to retool some of its DDoS-protection systems, which sniffs incoming packets, then dumps all non-media packets "into the void." As recently as a few days ago, that system began auto-dropping half of its test video packets. Whoops.

Visions of underpants gnomes

Discord enjoys an extra bit of headache in enabling video using its existing networking model. After all, Discord works on a rented-yet-dedicated server-side system, as opposed to the peer-to-peer connectivity common in other voice-chat apps. The company went this route not only to ensure clear connections but also to mask users' IPs. Other voice-chat apps can reveal enough about your home connection to bring in waves of zombie-bot packets or other networking mayhem. Resmini insists, however, that his company's networking model is economically efficient, and that the company's costs are scaling at "a fraction of user growth." (Costs were also cut by understanding how to battle DDoS attacks via the right server-rental partners and physical filters, Resmini alleges.)

As the duo has discussed in other interviews, Discord began life as a "skunkworks" project behind the scenes at a flailing mobile-game studio, Hammer and Chisel. Vishnevskiy was inspired by having to set up voice chat in hardcore MMOs that didn't have their own built-in voice services.

"I went from Ventrilo, to Teamspeak, to Mumble," he says. "The annoyance of all the time having to get people on your voice app, renting servers, sharing IP addresses and passwords... it felt antiquated. Knowing what I knew about developing Web apps and voice sharing on browsers, I thought, we could do this better."

The duo admits that Discord's public launch in the middle of 2015 as a browser-based voice-chat system mostly lucked out due to impeccable timing. "The week we shipped Discord to more than our internal testers was the same one Firefox added support for how Discord does voice chat, via WebRTC," Resmini says. "We were in the right moment. If 10 people try out a chat app and just one can't use it, they nuke it. Never again. The hit rate of your friends being able to use Discord was very high."

The service has since exploded and has become darned-near ubiquitous among gamers. In my opinion, Discord offers the kind of universal voice and text chat systems, along with smooth lobby grouping, that larger companies like EA, Blizzard, and Valve have dropped the ball on with their own online gaming services for far too long. (Full disclosure: I'm typing this while sitting in the top row of the Dota 2 International tournament. Just in front of me, I can see six laptops in Dota 2 fans' laps with Discord's purple-gray interface clearly visible.) But another reason for Discord's raging popularity is that it's, for all intents and purposes, totally free. A paid "Nitro" subscription service (for $5/month) adds cosmetic tweaks and perks, like larger file-upload sizes, but otherwise, the core service—an always-on interface that connects gamers' words and voices on everything from your phone to your gaming PC—doesn't cost a penny.

Discord's bandwidth-draining voice chat is free, crystal-clear, and incredibly low-latency. Of course, it's popular. But how is that underpants-gnomes economic model sustainable for Discord?

Resmini is blunt: "To be perfectly clear, we haven’t figured out the way to make Discord a billion-dollar business yet." He says Nitro subscriptions "are not paying for everything, but they're a lot closer than you think." When asked why video is being announced as a totally free offering, as opposed to an obvious "pay more to get more" service upgrade, he says he won't do that because doing so violates the "core" of the Discord product.

"We've said from the beginning, first and foremost, we'll never sell user data or have ads to pay for the development of Discord," he says. "Both of those things are non-native to the product. They're not what gamers want. We won't do that. What we will do is focus on products and subscriptions, similarly to Nitro, that focus on cosmetics, on nice additions to the product, just outside of the core thing that you and your friends enjoy for free."

Resmini also rejects any effort to take on Slack and become a business-friendly product: "We are not interested in building an enterprise sales team."

A short while later, Resmini asks me about the upcoming PAX West event near my home in Seattle, and I explain that I'm excited about having some spare time to play a bunch of board games. He looks up at me (I've gotten the video feed working again, albeit briefly) with excited eyes, asking if I ever use Discord to coordinate board gaming with friends. I might, I respond, if I have access to a mix of video and built-in, board-related Discord tools. Is that a possible paid Discord product?

"All of those ideas are on the table," Resmini says in a neat, business-minded dodge. (He mentions a whiteboard covered in other ideas, board-related and otherwise, including a built-in dice-roll app.)

“It’d have to be a really big check”

Ultimately, Discord operates with serious venture-capital funding, and this industry has proven time and time again that VC influences can change the best laid game-company plans. Resmini makes that wildly clear at the end of our chat.

Earlier in our conversation, he crows about being a gamer-first company—and delivering a product that connects playerbases who have otherwise been fragmented by lacking voice-chat options and competing gaming services. With that in mind, I ask: what if a major online-gaming player, like Steam, Origin, or some other store-and-matchmaking company, showed up with a briefcase of cash to buy Discord out and make its product entirely proprietary to a single service?

"That's up to them, not up to us," Resmini answers. "Of course, it's a possibility. That being said, there's a strong desire to stay independent and remain sort of Switzerland. That's what makes Discord kind of cool. It doesn't get attached to any publisher or any game, restricting you to play whatever you want with your friends."

Then he pauses and laughs. "It'd have to be a really big check, and even then, we'd have to think long and hard about it."