File picture: Pexels
File picture: Pexels

On Discord, bots find a foothold as mini indie success stories

By The Washington Post Time of article published Mar 27, 2021

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By Luke Winkie

On paper, "Epic RPG" is a fully fleshed-out video game. Intrepid adventurers grind out currency to purchase enchanted armaments from their local outfitters, and delve into dungeons to slay wolves, scorpions and killer robots. You fish, cut down trees, and scavenge for food, and a continuous drizzle of experience points showers your character. Every two hours, you can even engage in some lighthearted PVP with another player in the form of a duel. Each combatant will choose their weapons - be it a dagger, a shield, or a fork and knife - and whoever inflicts the most pain will be declared the winner.

These are gameplay mechanics common in hundreds of different MMOs; "Epic RPG" is clearly steeped in the traditions laid out in "Everquest," "World of Warcraft" and "Final Fantasy XIV." The only difference is that you don't need a PS5, Xbox Series X, or a modern graphics card to run it. In fact, "Epic RPG" doesn't even have its own executable. Instead it can be added to any personal or public Discord and be played by the denizens of that channel. The model has proven fruitful. Since its release last year, "Epic RPG" has already made its way into more than 100,000 servers. One of gaming's biggest indie success stories lives and breathes in a chat client.

"I personally think [my game caught on] because of how simple it is," said Manuel Rodríguez Conde, the sole developer of "Epic RPG." "You don't really need more than a few minutes, or even seconds, to understand the main mechanics. So you don't get bored trying to learn how to play."

For developers this is both incredibly freeing - a chance to make it big without all the encumbrance of a traditional studio - but also supremely precarious. If your Discord account is banned, all of your hard work might disappear in an instant.

"Epic RPG" is entirely text based. You play by typing commands into the Discord client like you would on an old DOS operating system: "rpg shop," "rpg hunt," and so on. The only visual feedback a player is likely to see are a series of emoticons that are native to the broader Discord interface - when you encounter the vaunted Ancient Dragon, for example, a purple chibi dragon head appears in the chat box. Conde designed the game through Discord's open source bot development tools, which allows enterprising gamers to create mods and add-ons to streamline the social experience on their servers.

Traditionally, those bots are utilitarian in nature - the Modern Warfare bot, for instance, allows players to import their "Call of Duty: Warzone" stats directly from the Call of Duty database. But more recently, a generation of developers has appropriated the bot framework to create fully functional games that use Discord as a platform. There is no ingrained monetization model for anyone in the scene. Instead creators rely on sites like the subscription platform Patreon to keep funds rolling in. Design-wise, most of them are similar to "Epic RPG"; simple, stripped-down, almost "Zork"-like in their spareness. They're also incredibly popular. According to Top.gg, which tabulates the most popular bots on Discord, six of the 10 most heavily trafficked add-ons are self-contained video games.

Case in point, Craig, and his business partner Bryan, who requested to keep their last names private due to concerns about keeping their work online - more on that later - work on their Discord bot, Karuta, full-time. Unlike "Epic RPG," Karuta isn't a numbers-driven stat grind full of beasties and catacombs. Instead, it mirrors gacha games like "Genshin Impact" that are ubiquitous on digital marketplaces and app stores around the world. Players who add Karuta to their Discord server can "drop" a payload of cards related to a popular anime into the chat. If someone wants to claim them, they can add a reaction to that drop - in the same way you might add a heart to a cheerful text from a parent or sibling - which will add it to their personal collection.

"The game gets much more complex than that, involving a huge trade economy, extensive cosmetic options, clans, and much more," Craig said. "But at its core, Karuta just gives Discord users a way to collect and personalize cards that resemble their favorite anime characters."

The design philosophy brings to mind the Flash games of the early 2000s. Just like "Fancy Pants Adventure" or "Line Rider," Discord bots are entirely browser-based, and therefore, some of the onerous work of programming is lessened by the narrow capacity of the environment. There is no need to learn the Unreal Engine when you're developing for a Discord channel, and that has welcomed in a brand new generation of creatives who may just be dipping their toes in game design.

"There's only so much you can do with text, images, and reactions. However, these limitations allow factors beyond just gameplay to shine through," Craig said. "I think it's great it works out that way because Discord is ultimately about delivering a social experience."

Those who work in the bot business consistently allude to a precarity that lingers just below the surface. High-profile Discord games have abruptly vanished from the service in the past. One such example is WaifuBot, which had a similar design to Karuta and disappeared last June when the developer's Discord account was banned. At the game's peak, its designer, who goes by ExtraConcentratedJuice on Discord, said he made roughly $2,500 total through Patreon.

The impetus for the ban is unclear, and Discord and ExtraConcentratedJuice offered few details that might explain the account's suspension. The platform sent ExtraConcentratedJuice a message, reviewed by The Washington Post, saying his account was found to have "sent threats to others, participated in targeted harassment, or incited violence against individuals and communities." The creator said he had "no idea" what Discord was referring to, and suggested that perhaps a bad actor had reported him with the express intention of disrupting WaifuBot.

Whatever the reasons, the ramifications are clear: WaifuBot is no more.

"We want Discord to be a safe and welcoming space for everyone, and we take the safety of our users incredibly seriously. All users, including bot owners, must adhere to our Terms of Service and Community Guidelines," a Discord spokesperson told The Post. "When we become aware of any activity that violates our Terms and Guidelines, we take immediate action, including banning users, shutting down servers, and when appropriate, reporting to the proper authorities or organizations."

According to Craig, bot creators have often been targeted for DDOS attacks and even swatting by competitors in the hope of disrupting or removing the more established bot. Incidents like these are why Craig said he and his partner are careful about divulging their personal details. Life in the bot grind can be tenuous. Discord has democratized many of the tools of game development, but it's still beholden to all the rules and policies that might get a game delisted on Steam or the Epic Games Store. Intentional or accidental terms of service violations, personal negligence, malicious takedown campaigns - any of these can threaten the life of a game on Discord. And in most cases, a game going down on Discord won't evoke the same public response as a takedown from a more games-centric platform.

"The bot's growth has reached a level where we've even questioned if we should take measures to slow it down," Craig said. "To [ensure it doesn't] become more than we can comfortably manage." From moderating a community, to pushing out content updates, to staying clear of Discord's terms of service, who could've thought that operating a little mod could be so much work? Truly, there is nothing more thrilling and terrifying than going viral.

The Washington Post

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