Hey, Microsoft: Ignore the threat of Discord at your (and Xbox's) peril

Xbox Discord integration
Xbox Discord integration (Image credit: Microsoft / Discord)

Nintendo is increasingly known for its focus on portable games, PlayStation is known for its big-budget blockbuster games, but what is Xbox known for?

At least personally, I feel Xbox has typically been known for its platform services. Xbox Live, Xbox achievements, and now, Xbox Game Pass, completely changed the game. Microsoft has generally been far speedier than Sony and Nintendo at updating its Xbox ecosystem with new features, tweaks, and other improvements. Just this week, Microsoft finally delivered the much-requested wishlist and checkout feature for its store platforms, including Xbox, for example.

Despite the achievements of the Xbox platform team, there are several noteworthy aspects of Xbox Live and its associated services that have slipped into disrepair and neglect. While some of these things are relatively minor, I believe others represent huge missed opportunities that will harm Xbox in the longer term if not addressed sooner, rather than later.

The rise of Discord

Discord attacks Skype

Discord's website openly urges users to ditch Skype. (Image credit: Discord)

One of Microsoft's biggest failures as a tech company is how little care and attention it has given to its instant messaging services. Skype is still hilariously slow when compared to modern systems, and the team working on Skype doesn't seem to realize or care, for whatever reason. While it's not specifically relevant to Xbox, it's indicative of a bigger area of company-wide neglect that is affecting Xbox, in a world where virtually all core gamers have moved their friends lists to Discord.

The glacial pace of updates to these services, however, has left the goal wide open for Discord to score.

Discord has utterly replaced Skype for me, and millions of other gamers. Discord's chat and voice services are faster than Skype, often better quality than Skype, and its focus on community-building tools has left Skype in the dirt, which seems more interested in creating shallow copies of Snapchat's features than improving the quality of life of its remaining userbase. Watching Skype's tires spin in the mud has been a tad frustrating, but not as frustrating as watching Microsoft squander another opportunity it had when it first added Xbox integration to Windows 10.

I recall in the early days of the Xbox app getting voice-enabled party chat on Windows 10. For a brief window of time, it seemed like Microsoft might have been pushing Xbox Live as an alternative voice and social network for gamers. The services there are complete with integration for PC games, sharing of screenshots and clips natively on Windows 10, and beyond. The glacial pace of updates to these services, however, has left the goal wide open for Discord to score, and score repeatedly.

Discord is now the global gamer friends list

Xbox Clubs scrapped features

Internal concepts showing Discord-like features for Xbox Clubs. (Image credit: Windows Central)

We've seen some evidence that Microsoft was concepting more Discord-like features to Xbox Clubs, but they have yet to materialize. Regardless of interface tweaks, there are systemic issues surrounding Xbox Live that will need to be addressed if Microsoft actually wants Xbox Clubs to be anything more than a vanity feature nobody really uses in the real world.

Not only does Discord now do voice chat (arguably better than Xbox Live), it also leaves Microsoft's own tools for building communities languishing in the dust. Xbox Clubs are slow to load on every platform, clunky to use, and have nowhere near as many customization features that Discord has. Even basics like sharing images, gifs, or adding custom emojis are features that are likely to never hit Xbox Live, as Microsoft struggles to decide what kind of social network it wants Xbox Live to be. Aggressive safety policies to protect youngsters are great, but by denying adults the freedom to share content they choose to share, it only adds to Discord's allure.

Xbox Club

Xbox Club (Image credit: Windows CEntral)

With Discord actively exploring selling games now, any hopes Xbox had of getting a big chunk of PC gamers to use its services for anything other than an annoying DRM hoop on Microsoft Store games has arguably slipped away. Given how slow and restrictive Xbox Live messages and Clubs are, I have no doubt that Xbox console gamers would abandon those services too were Discord an option on their consoles. Microsoft just doesn't seem to get "social."

Microsoft plans to beef up Xbox Clubs with Discord-like features

What should Microsoft do here?

In Skype and Xbox Live, Microsoft effectively has two different platforms it could use to allow users to create gamers within its network. Even GroupMe, the little-known messaging app Microsoft inexplicably owns and maintains, provides a better instant messaging experience than Xbox Live and Skype combined. Clearly, something needs to be done to get these systems operating under the same roof, rather than against each other.

Skype needs to get real and start integrating Xbox Live more directly. Why can't I get my Xbox Live messages through Skype, despite the fact they use the same Microsoft Account and authentication? Additionally, why can't I use Skype to make calls on Xbox Live without going through the painfully slow, universally reviled Skype Xbox app? It should be directly integrated into the OS, rather than separated out.

Why can't an app, based around communication, get something as basic as instant messaging right?

The Xbox apps for Android, iOS, and Windows 10 are slow, badly maintained, and unintuitive as community-building tools, which try to incorporate far too much into a single interface. Skype could be the place you use to interact with your Xbox Live messages and your Xbox Club communities, leaving the Xbox app to handle other things like game share clips, store purchases, and other features.

Microsoft generally needs to improve speed across all of its services. It takes far, far, FAR too long for me to receive my messages on Xbox Live, to the point where I don't even really bother checking them anymore. Skype too is so slow to open on Android when compared to Discord and other services, and the endlessly annoying spam of downloading messages it received from other platforms is a quirk that seems exclusive to Skype. This would be even more annoying if it had community-building features, since communities you were apart of would potentially receive hundreds of messages while you were offline. Why can't an app, based around communication, get something as basic as instant messaging right? It's maddening.

Can Microsoft get it right?

StreamLabs OBS streaming software metrics reveal how tiny Mixer is compared to its competition.

StreamLabs OBS streaming software metrics reveal how tiny Mixer is compared to its competition.

Clearly Microsoft cares about this stuff, since it uses engagement as the sole measure of Xbox's success. With more and more of that gamer engagement heading across to Discord, regardless of preferred platform, Microsoft has effectively surrendered a huge opportunity it had with Xbox Live and Skype to be a frontrunner in this space. There isn't a single star on Microsoft's own Mixer streaming platform that's using Xbox Clubs to build their communities — they're all using Discord.

Microsoft has neglected the basics — communication — for far too long.

I'm sure Discord will eventually sell itself to one of the big tech companies, as tends to be the case with start-ups like this. Microsoft can't afford to stand by in hopes of winning a bid, and complacently allow Discord to grow (and, actively contribute to its growth, considering Redmond uses Discord quite broadly across its various teams) while neglecting their own platform. What if Amazon wins Discord and integrates it more directly with Twitch? What if Google outbids and combines its community tools with YouTube? Either scenario would be devastating for Xbox Live and Mixer.

It's fine if Microsoft doesn't want to report Xbox console sales anymore, which trail behind PlayStation. But if you're living by engagement, you'll be dying by engagement, and Microsoft has neglected the basics — communication — for far too long.

Jez Corden
Managing Editor

Jez Corden is the Managing Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

  • How long has MS been revamping Skype? It seems forever now. Its not a priority for them, plain and simple.
  • To summarize: "Microsoft needs to buy Discord".
  • Like they bought Skype?
  • ha and hold it hostage, at a stand still, like Skype?
  • That worked out great for Skype; from a leader in VoIP to another failure under the Microsoft brand. If you want Discord to die a slow death let Microsoft buy it.
  • Skype fell before Microsoft bought them. They have only benefited from the acquisition.
  • LOL I'm just summarizing what I'm taking away from the article. Not that I do or don't want to see that happen.
  • Microsoft needs to make mixer into an Youtube alternative to get it's numbers up.
  • Except, like Twitch, it's perceived and marketed as a gaming-focused service. YouTube isn't.
  • Personally, I miss the days of dedicated servers for games. Back in the Day of Defeat days, you could logon, search for DoD servers that were to your liking (e.g, ones that banned foul language, cheating, bunny-hopping, had certain maps or play modes) and you chatted with only those on that server. It was great. I have no desire to talk with someone who isn't actually playing the same game and same instance I am. It's pointless and annoying. That's one of the reasons I love Elite Dangerous (on PC). The in-game comms sounds like it BELONGS there, and I'm not stuck listening to stupid conversations between people who aren't even playing. I have Discord, and I've used a couple of times when for, whatever reason, the in-game comms wasn't working correctly. But Discord invites the same chaos that I don't like--people who aren't even playing, interrupting your game. Plus, Discord automatically requires you to break your VR experience--because it's completely independent of the game and can't be controlled IN-game, particularly in VR. That's a deal-breaker for me.
  • I agree with that totally. I hate playing a game and people who aren't playing are talking over everyone else.
  • Regardless of what they say Xbox is slowly dieing. My friends list has several people on it but they have moved on to other platforms. I have even stopped gaming on it and spend most of my time on PS4. The Xbox is starting to feel dated compared to the PS4. I feel they are going to reach a point and it will be to late to right the ship.
  • Xbox had its best quarter revenue wise last quarter, yet it's somehow dying according to your anecdotal experience? That makes no sense.
  • Look at the sales numbers. There is a reason they don't give them out. I have watched almost every friend on my list abandon the Xbox for the PS4 over the past 4 years. I can log into psn and have 30 or more people playing at any given time verses 3 on the Xbox. As much as I would like for it to succeed I don't think they'll ever be able to capture the audience they had in the 360 days. Sony is rolling right over them and MS has done nothing but help them. We need some big AAA console exclusives this year not 2 or 3 years down the road.
  • As Darkness pointed out, your anecdotal evidence doesn't match up with reality. In last quarter's earnings, Microsoft reported a 39% increase in gaming revenue (its best ever) and an 8% increase in active monthly Xbox Live users (57 million). The fact that they're reporting best-ever Xbox numbers shows they're capturing an even bigger audience than the "360 days". It also shows Sony is NOT, in fact, "rolling right over them." You do realize Microsoft doesn't have to sell the most consoles to be highly successful in gaming, right? As long as their profits and engagement numbers are high, they're successful, regardless of who has sold more consoles. Nintendo is a historical example of this - they were third in the GameCube years, yet still made more profit on console sales than Microsoft or Sony.
  • @jcutting
    1) revenue is not profit
    2) MAU is not the number of gamers on XB1. It doesn't give a clear number of how much they are actually making. That number includes some windows 10 android, iOS and even Switch players.
  • My list is always full of friends playing games. You admitted not playing on your Xbox which means you spending more time on the PS4, making new friends on that system. So naturally you will see this occurring.
  • @Darkness
    Revenue is not the same as profits. So while they get money in from game pass you don't know if they are making a profit or are just losing money?
  • The fact that they don't get messaging right is pervasive across all systems, not just xbox. It's why GroupMe, Skype, Skype for Business, SMS Relay, Windows phone messaging, and countless other features are just plain broken. They are starting to turn things around with Teams but I worry that it is too late.
  • I use S4B daily, I see nothing broken with it. Regular Skype on the other hand struggles. We also have Teams available as well but I see issues with Teams talking to S4B and they are supposed to be interactive.
  • Yeah Skype for business actually works! I use it daily. Skype and Xbox chat on my android however are pathetic.
  • That’s because Skype for Business is nothing but Lynx with Skype Branding. It’s not actually Skype. It’s just called Skype for more brand recognition. Lol. This was done years ago. Microsoft replaced Skypes backend with Messengers. Skype barely exists anymore, except as a brand. The service is actually a ton better, thanks to Microsoft’s tech. People saying Skype has withered are delusional. It has improved. It was just so badly architected and supported on mobile that they simply couldn’t move fast enough to keep up. By the time Microsoft bought it, it had already been demolished by more agile startups doing it “right” from the very beginning.
  • Make a spin-off of teams (using their backend) and call it "Fireteams" or something like that.
  • I actually like this idea. Teams is a really good slack competitor and feature rich. That and it would mitigate the stigma associated with the name "Skype".
  • I'll never forget the first time I ever even heard of Discord was on an Xbox Executive's Twitter feed, where he promoted it. I went to Discord's website to check it out and laughed at the giant message on the front page proclaiming it was "Time to ditch Skype" and found it odd that a Microsoft employee was promoting a service that was mocking a Microsoft service. That said, Microsoft deserves to be mocked here. Their decision-making on messaging has been bizarre. They had one of the most popular messaging services in the world (MSN Messenger) and killed it off for Skype and then just gifted the valuable Messenger name to Facebook, and they did that just to mind-bogglingly let Skype stagnate even though it was the premiere brand in the industry. Then they rebranded Lync as Skype for Business for no reason and now they're killing that off for Teams anyway. Meanwhile, as you mention, they also own GroupMe, which is largely redundant. And none of this is integrated with Xbox Live at all anyway. I just have no idea what they're doing. As for Discord, I personally don't see the appeal and have found it a bit annoying that cross-play players on PC have insisted we use that for party chat instead of the built-in party chat of the Xbox app (maybe I'm mistaken but I found the sound quality on Discord to be worse and the UI to be comparably confusing). That said, I think Steam should be a lot more worried about Discord than Microsoft should be. But that doesn't mean Microsoft shouldn't be worried. As for the StreamLabs stats showing low Mixer numbers, don't forget that Mixer broadcasting is built in to Xbox One and Windows 10's Game Bar, so many streamers don't need StreamLabs at all (although, sure, the most popular Mixer streamers likely use it).
  • Steam should be very worried. I hardly use the steam chat; it's balls. I always use discord when PC gaming though I WOULD like the Xbox chat on PC to be better as I would rather use that.
  • Microsoft has been schizophrenic with not just their consumer-focused Skype.
    Their Skype for Business has been all but abandoned in favor of Teams as they drive their corporate customers towards Office365 as fast as they can.
    This is the real reason that the entire Skype development has stalled/been reduced to a small team. They are throwing all their resources into Teams, already announcing that their Skype for Business client will be abandoned in favor of Teams (which has a long way to go in usability and Enterprise Voice integration.)
    They just can't decide on what to actually DO with their communications products. Too many re-organizations, too many upper-executive shuffles, responsibility changes and additions and subtractions to divisional scopes, and a CEO who says: "Cloud First, Second, and Third!" leaves this kind of client-focused software twisting slowly in the wind at MS.
    Since XBOX runs a version of Windows 10, I don't understand why they didn't just port over the XBOX Live interface to Windows 10 retail. The XBOX integration in W10 is pathetic, and the Windows Store is a joke for PC Gamers.
    All that succulent cash cascading down on them from their Azure Division has a massive effect upon the entire company and I fear that consumer products will just shrivel on the vine because of it.
    Now we hear about XBOX Streaming which is nothing more than XBOS OS co-hosted in Azure and streamed (from Azure) to anything with an HTML 5 browser. Yeah, it's a cool idea, but I almost exceed my data-cap on Comcast each month right now. That would be a deal-breaker for me.
  • They should, but I can't see them buying Discord. They'll make the same mistake they've made with Whatsapp and Slack, where the company line was 'We don't need those, we have Skype, and now Teams!' The former in particular, turned out to be a really bad decision as Whatsapp's numbers went through the roof, and Skype's have stagnated for years now.
  • The problem with any console-based community/messaging service is that it has to cater to people using a controller to input text messages. I'd also say that MS is fully aware of Discord given the let people link their XBL and Discord accounts for rich presence updates in Discord (there may even be more to come on that front such as allowing Discord powered voice chat and community features).
  • What MS did with the Skype and Live Messenger property it's just ridiculous. They had the majority of users and they lost them just so they could do what? Become what the Apple ads advertised in the 2000's? They should buy Discord for Xbox Live and PC integration and aim Skype to business and video calls for consumers and do nothing else.
  • Clubs and Communities for console gamers never work well because those gamers are different, in general, from PC gamers. It’s a different market. And no one thinks about Xbox Live on PC because it’s associated with gaming consoles, like PlayStation Network. Microsoft needed an aggressive push for this when Windows 10 was fresh to really get people on board. Personally, I don’t buy games from Windows store due to the way apps are installed, and how awful it is to install there where you want without changing system-wide settings. I don’t think XBL works for much of the games not gotten from the store. On top of that, many vendors orefer to develop their own launchers, updates, and social services on PC (Blizzard, for example). This renders XBox Live redundant, and not very usable. Skype is a lost cause. All they had to do was release super fast text and voice/video apps with no-nonsense contact management on major platforms, then spin the paid stuff out to a separate app and they’d have been golden. Skype is still trying to be FaceTime, iMessage, Snapchat, and Google Voice all in one app. Flexibility is nice, but it’s really starting to feel cruddy. Using Skype is now a marker for Gen Xers who simply refuse to move on. There are so many better options, now. Sadly, very few have really good Windows Apps. I don’t use Discord because it doesn’t let me specify installation directory.
  • I looked up "Microsoft" in a thesaurus and the word "neglect" was first on the list. It's pandemic to the nearly every corner of the company. Over and over the story is the same, MS starts out with a really cool idea, they get fans and devs to invest time and money in it and then they let it languish, decay, slowly rot on the vine. Someone else copies said idea (or said product), acts with a sense of urgency, out hustles them, and eventually overtakes them. BTW the word "arrogance" was second. MS arrogantly assumes their fans and the developers that build on top of their platform will put up with their crap indefinitely.
  • It's nice to finally read a great article here after such a long time.
    Well done...
  • GamePass changed the game? GamePass is only possible because of BC, FC. (Some of'em are still half way but) Win10+UWP, BC, FC, XPA, free unlimited storage cross-platform cloud sync, open API to Mixer, MsStore and Mixer integration and other infrastructures and synergies are the game changer tbh. XBL and Skype are originally from different parents, they have different target audience, they are different service in many ways. Merging the service or not... is a difficult decision tbh. It will take a long time even if the decision's a go. And I think MS right now, has other priorities. Hey, let's destroy XBL chat and fully intergrade Skype. A month later, done! No, it doesn't work like that. I suppose Skype could be the XBL chat, If XBL chat was created under the current CEO. It's too late, simple. * Bigger studio will take longer time debugging, review and approve than small ones. The service / app / ecosystem aren't small either.
  • The nearest thing to Discord that Microsoft currently has is Teams, which is already hugely successful in the business sphere. If they produced a consumer-focussed version of it, they could have a winner.