Since its founding in 2015, chat and messaging client Discord has become a powerful upstart in the gaming software scene, drawing a commanding user base in a short time—150 million monthly active users, the company revealed today—and cracking the code of “social gaming integration” in a way that larger companies have failed to do. Along the way, it became a favorite communication option for non-gaming communities as well, from subreddits to … others. But today, the company is announcing a move that plays squarely on its original mission, while still expanding it in new directions: selling games.
The store, set to open later this year, will offer a hand-picked selection of indie games, including “First on Discord” titles that will be exclusive to the platform for a period of time. If it sounds like Discord won’t be able to rival larger game-delivery services like Steam in scale or scope, you’re right. The point here isn’t size—it’s centrality.
Discord’s expansion comes at a time when PC platforms are trying to be all things to all people. Steam, the largest games marketplace, is expanding its own social features, likely in an effort to compete with Discord. Meanwhile, in response to Steam’s near-monopoly in PC game sales, the gaming store ecosystem has expanded rapidly in the past few years, with larger publishers like EA and Ubisoft launching their own stores, as well as smaller, indie-friendly outfits like GOG and itch.io. These moves have only increased as Steam itself has become unwieldy, marred by stories about questionable curation and discovery woes.
It’s exactly that discovery issue that Discord is seeking to address. “Ultimately, the reason why we think there’s an opportunity for us is that most of the time when I find games to play or observe how people find those games, it’s based on what their friends are playing,” says Jason Citron, the company’s CEO and co-founder. Citron hopes the store will allow the social functions of Discord, which already allow users to see what their friends are playing, to facilitate that process—turning community interest into sales.
Games have always been central to Discord’s feature rollout, and various small touches, like gaming-related memes that run as messages when the program starts, reinforce the idea of Discord as a service created by and for the gaming community. (The founders were all ex-game developers.) The new shop will be positioned similarly. “Our approach to the actual storefront is going to be more like a neighborhood bookstore,” Citron says, “with curated selections of titles that we think you’ll really want to play that you might have overlooked.” The initial slate includes Dead Cells, Frostpunk, and Hollow Knight, and the company will likely continue to prioritize so-called “triple-i” indies—those that attempt to create experiences comparable to larger, corporate-backed titles.
Discord will also be helping its “First on Discord” titles gain a foothold with consumers, offering marketing support and in some cases financial backing to get the games to market. (After the initial exclusivity period is over, creators will be free to publish on whatever storefront they choose.) While the initial store offerings have been hand-picked by Discord, Citron says that developers will be able to pitch their own games to the platform, where they will be screened and selected in what he called an “editorial” process. In this way, Discord hopes to source compelling content while also avoiding issues regarding censorship and removal of certain types of content that have plagued platforms like Steam.
Additionally, in a page taken from console services like Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus, Discord will be offering games for download to members of its premium subscription tier, known as Nitro. The initial offerings here include Saints Row: The Third, Super Meat Boy, and System Shock Enhanced Edition; it’s not clear how compensation for creators will work for creators whose work appears in the Nitro library, but Citron says that Discord would be charging a “standard rate” for listing on the storefront, which for other online game stores is usually 30% of sales.
Both the Nitro library and the store will roll out first to a small beta group of about 50,000 users in Canada, chosen at random. The update will also allow all games on a player’s computer—including those purchased on other storefronts and launchers—to be added to a single game library on Discord. All a player would need to do to play games is, theoretically, just launch Discord.
The obvious aim here is to monetize Discord—a company that, other than revenue from its Nitro subscribers, seems to be funded largely by investment money. Not only are its chat and messaging services free, but unlike many social platforms, Discord doesn’t serve ads to its users. The store, alongside the Nitro subscription, will hopefully help Discord turn a profit.
But there’s a less immediate play as well: to further position Discord as an all-in-one destination for gaming on the PC. “Our mission is to bring people together around games,” Citron says, Currently, its user base that is presently scattered around a number of different services: buying here, talking there, playing in yet a third. By adding commerce to its platform, Discord has a chance to turn itself into the shared living room it envisions itself as—a digital gathering space for talking about games, talking during games, and buying and launching those games as well.
The e-commerce realm of the gaming world is fractured and contentious as of late, with one major player dominating most of the market and a handful of smaller stores trying to pull users away from a quasi-default option that many people aren’t happy with in the first place. In that space, it’s not clear if Discord’s new store is an intervention that will stick. But it certainly seems like the right time to try.