One year ago today, Discord launched as a free VoIP service with a single intention: dethrone the aging options that are still used today. It wasn’t shy about it either—its tagline is literally “It’s time to ditch Skype and TeamSpeak.”—and it had the quality and usability to back that talk up. Now, celebrating its first birthday, there isn’t a VoIP option I’d rather use.
It’s not that Mumble or TeamSpeak aren’t still good options, it’s just that Discord has made such an appealing service that I’m not sure why I would ever want to go back. The voice quality is crisper and clearer thanks to a more modern voice engine than what’s used by the now decade-and-a-half-old choices like TeamSpeak and Ventrilo, and Discord is also significantly more lightweight. You don’t need to host a server, download a program, or even sign up for an account; you just send a link out to the people you want to join, and they’re there.
Earlier this week, I did just that and hopped into a Discord channel with CEO and Founder Jason Citron, who told me “it actually was not simple” to make the service work that way. Discord is using the HTML5 standard called WebRTC that’s built into most modern browsers, but tricks it to be safer and faster. “We actually built this crazy server in C++ that sits in our infrastructure that the browser connects to thinking it’s connecting to one person,” Citron said, “but then we proxy all of the other users from our distributed backend through that fake peer and then send it to the browser. So the browser thinks it’s doing peer-to-peer, but it’s not.”
This means Discord uses very little processing power, even in browser, because it’s technically only connecting to a single peer. Additionally, it lets the program hide your IP address, especially important when compared to the DDoS problems Skype has faced (Riot Games has a whole section about Skype in its DDoS Prevention Guide.) “We had one streamer whose home internet was on DDoS for a whole week and Comcast wouldn’t change their IP address, all because their Skype name showed up on stream,” Citron recalled. Discord also has a “Streamer Mode” that hides information in your client to make sure it isn’t broadcasted accidentally.
And the Twitch community has rallied around Discord in a surprising way, with big streamers setting up their own servers for their communities. Discord has the Twitch API integrated into it, so users can connect directly with their Twitch accounts, with the channel's sub emotes automatically being imported into Discord’s text chat. Citron said he “had a hunch that it would be useful for streamers,” as many already had TeamSpeak servers, but thought “Discord should be better for that.”
This just speaks to how versatile Discord is being built to be, with even more stuff on the way. Although it’s a superior choice for voice, Citron admitted that there are still some places where Skype has a leg up. “We don’t have direct calls yet, [...] For us to talk right now, we had to create a server and invite you. It would have been nicer if we could just ping you directly and hop on a call, so we’ll be adding that.” Citron also said video calling and screensharing are on the way and, of course, would be added in for free. “Our approach, just high level, is the communication features will be free."
Like Citron said, there are still areas Discord can be improved. I don’t like that you can’t minimize images or YouTube videos posted into the text chat without turning them off altogether, which means chat logs can get buried under a few links shared at once. And if a friend decides not to create an account when joining your channel through an instant invite, the temporary account they created will remain in the ‘Offline’ user list until you manually kick it—I once had four different versions of a friend populating the user list before I forced them to make an account. But these are minor usability problems when compared to manually having to set up a server and share an IP address, or dealing with the uncooperative headache that is Skype.
It seems too good to be true that a service this comprehensive can be entirely free and not even ask you for an email address, but Citron told me Discord is currently operating on venture capitalist funding and doesn’t need to charge for anything yet—as is the way of the San Francisco tech startup. Following the path of many free-to-play games, when Discord does start charging money it will only be for cosmetic features. “Everything that’s free now will stay that way,” says Citron. Things like soundboards, custom server URLs, and other services like their April Fool’s airhorn bot could be sold, entirely optional if you don’t want to pay for them.
Citron told me he and his team decided to build Discord after having a realization about the defacto VoIP choices, TeamSpeak and Skype, saying “they’re old, they’re clunky, they don’t work very well, and we just thought we could do it better.” After using Discord for the better part of the 12 months it’s been available, I am inclined to agree. Discord has done it better, and PC gaming is better off for it.