The state of Discord in 2022: gaming takes a backseat to forums
We’re in the golden age of Discord. Tens of millions of people use it every day, and by all indications, that number is going up. What started as a way to have good, free voice chat with friends and finally delete Skype has ballooned into a whole generation’s destination for messaging, video calls, streaming, file sharing, and communities all under the same roof.
Discord is no longer content being an app for gamers, though. The company wants communities of every type to organize under its banner, and mutate into a big casserole of social networking features. Now that Discord is a better Skype, it also wants to be a better Zoom, a better Instagram, and a better Twitter. As Discord gets crowded, I’ve been wondering if it can remain the cool, accessible, mostly private social network that all of my friends hang out on. Is it done getting features that matter to gamers, and will the stuff it already does well always be free? Let’s take a look at where Discord is in 2022 and where it might be going.
In 2022, Discord is still very good
The cool thing about Discord is that, in 2022, it’s still really good. I use it for hours every day to hang out with friends. It has become a big part of my life, so much that it still feels a bit too good to be true. It’s still absurd just how much Discord lets you do just by making a free account:
- Chat in high-quality, low-latency voice channels for an unlimited amount of time
- Send instant messages to friends or groups of friends
- Stream HD video capture from your computer or phone, also low-latency and unlimited
- Watch multiple streams at once with individual volume sliders
- Organize servers with communities of thousands
- Talk in group video calls
- Share small-ish files with friends
- Add bots to servers that add new functionalities, like a group radio
Who uses Discord in 2022?
As of May 2021 Discord has over 150 million users and 19 million active servers per week. Those numbers have probably increased significantly over the past year. In 2020, Discord began a pivot to market Discord as a platform for any community, not just gaming. According to Discord, 70% of active users say they use the service mainly for non-gaming purposes or equally for gaming and other purposes.
In 2021, Discord took on internet forums
If you’re a Discord user who spends a lot of time chatting in the text channels of large servers, 2021 was a pretty good year for updates. Discord introduced threads, which allows users to branch individual messages off into organized topics without having to create a dedicated text channel. Discord also heavily expanded moderator tools with expanded server roles, more automation, easier bot integration, and a timeout feature that I’ve exclusively used to annoy my friends.
Discord also made some strides with profiles. Nitro members can now set a custom banner and choose different banners, avatars, and bios for each server they’re in. You can make your avatar a gif, which is kinda neat. Emojis also got a bit fancier and Nitro members got access to larger “sticker” emojis that you can make from custom images.
This push for organized conversation and new ways to personalize messages gives the impression that Discord is adopting the topic-based format of an internet forum—a format that has waned partially because of Discord’s ubiquity.
Meanwhile, voice chat and streaming have stalled
Profiles and threads are neat and all, but if you’re one of the millions of users who mainly use Discord to voice chat with friends and stream whatever game you’re playing, the service hasn’t improved much at all in the last two years. In some cases, it’s gotten worse.
As much as I love streaming games over Discord, the experience of setting up a Go Live stream and watching friends’ streams is as tedious now as it was in 2020. If the game you’re playing isn’t automatically recognized by Discord, you still have to dig into an obscure place in settings to tell Discord to recognize it. You still can’t independently resize the windows of individual streams, so if you’re watching more than one, your only options are “make one super tiny and the other huge” or “scrunch both into a medium-sized window.” Streams periodically stutter for seemingly no reason, a persistent bug that lowers voice quality after connecting to a stream continues to annoy, and there’s still no universal volume slider for video.
Bad UI and annoying bugs are minor grievances, but this is the sort of stuff that the Discord of a few years ago would prioritize. I used to read new patch notes with anticipation. A built-in AI voice filter? Amazing. Multi-stream support? Cool. Game invites from within Discord? Nice. 60
fps video? Killer. Now, patch notes are filled with moderation tools, scheduled events, and role assignments. I don’t really need to moderate the 12 people that use our little friend group server, so it’s just been business as usual.
The most exciting development in our Discord server in 2021 was… this sticker I made of my friend Ian making a funny face.
Nobody used Stage Discovery, so it died
Remember Stage Discovery? It’s OK, I forgot too. In June of last year, during a time in which Silicon Valley got very excited about the idea of moderated voice chat rooms like Clubhouse, Discord jumped in with its own interpretation called Stage Events. Discord said the feature was popular enough inside servers that it created the Stage Discovery section, and with it, a button in the upper right corner of Discord that I never once pressed. Apparently I wasn’t alone, because Discord discontinued the “pilot” version of Stage Discovery in October 2021.
Radio bots survived the purge (for now)….
Last year, Discord’s status quo experienced a shakeup when Google shut down the two biggest radio bots, Rythm and Groovy, for violating its terms of service. The bots, which allowed users to stream audio from any YouTube video to an entire voice channel ad-free, were in use in tens of millions of servers. Google dinged the bots for “modifying the service and using it for commercial purposes.”
At the time, I was afraid this signaled the beginning of the end for Discord’s golden age—I reckoned at some point in the near future, these unofficial, “underground” tools that bypass traditional paywalls would be stripped and replaced by glossy, traditional subscription apps. I’m happy to say that in 2022 you can still install a radio bot that does the same things as Groovy or Rythm with ease.
…but Discord may crack down on video sharing
That said, I’m not quieting my alarm quite yet. While Discord has outwardly talked about features that make organizing larger communities easier, it has made no mention of what appears to be a silent battle between Discord, premium video services, and the users who stream those video services for their friends.
It is Discord’s worst-kept secret that Go Live can be easily used to stream a web browser that’s playing Netflix or HBO for two or ten of your closest buds. Discord maintains that this is a violation of its policies, but it doesn’t actively enforce them. These small scale watch parties went mostly undeterred for a long time, but the first sign of resistance came in 2020 when users noticed that trying to stream Netflix on Discord normally would result in a black screen. Users figured out disabling hardware acceleration in your web browser gets around this roadblock. Signs point to the video services themselves being behind this seemingly intentional anti-piracy tactic, and two years later, a similar blocker is present in several other premium services too.
At the moment, Discord seems content to state its official policies and look the other way. In 2019, Discord told us that it does not monitor Go Live streams and logistically couldn’t if it wanted to. And it’s worth noting that DMCA reports requires someone to report copyright infringement taking place. If neither Discord nor the copyright holder sees it happening, there’s nothing to report. But just as YouTube eventually couldn’t ignore copyright strikes and created an automated system to detect infringement and punish people, the chat app might one day feel pressured to make similar moves.
So far, Discord’s PlayStation partnership is a letdown
When Discord announced a partnership with PlayStation last year, my mind went to the same place that I imagine yours did: “Oh nice, Discord is finally coming to consoles!”
Not only has that not happened, but Discord hasn’t actually said that it ever will. In January, Discord shared its first update on the PlayStation partnership in nearly a year and all it had to announce was the ability to see what PS5 game you’re playing on your Discord profile (yipee). The update makes no mention of any further plans to unite the two platforms, which I find very strange. Discord knows users would be extremely excited by an official console client, so if it were making one, you’d think it’d just say as much.
Maybe it’s safest to assume Discord on PlayStation is still a pipe dream? Bummer.
What’s next for Discord?
According to Discord, more features geared toward large communities. This is no surprise. Mega communities present Discord with lots of leverage to monetize new or old parts of the service. Testing for a Patreon-like subscription model for premium server access is already underway.
Behind the scenes, analysts seem increasingly convinced that Discord will go public as soon as this year. Last year, the company was valued at $15 billion. Once Discord has a sea of investors to answer to, things could start changing quickly for the free service. Discord won’t commit to any of its features staying free forever.
We’re likely to also see less gaming DNA in Discord as it continues to go for a broader appeal. That said, playing and streaming games is clearly still one of the primary reasons people use Discord, so a full-scale transformation into productivity software or a badminton enthusiast community isn’t likely.