Slow to Rise: The Among Us Story

We take an in-depth look back at the history of Among Us, its lukewarm presence on launch, and its meteoric rise two years after.

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You’d have to turn quite a few stones to find a gamer that hasn't heard of Among Us by now. I was discussing this feature with my father before I started writing it. He has played a few games since I introduced him to Steam about fifteen years ago. We started with the Half-Life franchise, then I eased him into Bethesda Game Studios RPGs. That's been his gaming bread and butter for over a decade now. When I mentioned Among Us, I was prepared to explain the game and its appeal.

“Oh! Among Us!”, he exclaimed. “I’ve heard of that game! It looks really cool! You’re like in space and you have to try to kill your crewmates or find the killer. I was kind of interested in that! It’s like that old TV show The Mole. Did you know my old boss, Bill McDaniels, was the mole on that show?!”

I was flabbergasted. The last person I expected to know about the game has not only heard of it, but is familiar with the core gameplay loop. This is the reach of Among Us. It is a ‘Mafia’-style game that has players on two teams competing to either repair a spaceship or sabotage it. For those not familiar, Mafia (or Werewolf) is a party game about deduction, deception, and roleplay. But instead of playing out digitally, it’s usually played in person with cards. The social aspect is perhaps the most important part of games like Mafia and, by extension, Among Us. And here is a story of how a game released on mobile platforms on Apple and Google Play devices in June of 2018 and on the PC on Steam six months later became a phenomenon almost two years after hitting the market.

Among Us’ first nine months on Steam.
Among Us’ first nine months on Steam.

Among Us released to little fanfare on Steam. It took nine months to reach more than 100 average concurrent players on the PC. It wasn’t until another year after that milestone that it would reach notable numbers in the thousands. Compare it to another game that was released in November of 2018 - let’s say the infamous Valve-published digital card-game, Artifact - and the numbers start to look miraculous. The much-maligned Artifact debuted just 12 days after Among Us and has a trajectory that looks almost the complete opposite. A brand-new IP from Valve is going to make a splash, and it did with over 10,000 average concurrent players in its premiere month. Nowadays, Artifact’s peak player counts are looking like Among Us did at launch.

Artifact’s last six months on Steam.
Artifact’s last six months on Steam.

This is the usual course of things. The drop-off maybe isn’t so severe compared to games that were received well, but it’s a trend that has repeated since Steam started providing statistics. Meanwhile, Among Us is sitting large and in charge with almost 175,000 average players online at any given time on the PC alone. It’s grown so popular that it now has higher peak numbers than PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a perennial performer. How did a game with art assets that resemble the days of Flash games and Newgrounds break through the trends and get thrust into the spotlight so long after most developers would have given up?

The easy answer is exactly that. Not giving up. The team behind Among Us, known as Innersloth, is a small group of three core developers based in Redmond, WA. Its lead artist, animator, and designer; Marcus Bromander, is most known for the Henry Stickmin Flash game series. Its lead programmer and business manager, Forest Willard, has been quoted in a Kotaku interview saying that the team stuck with Among Us for longer than they should have. Most developers beholden to a publisher would have been laid off after such dismal numbers for the opening year. By being an independent studio, Innersloth have been able to pull off what seems to be a magic trick. The studio inversed the trend and climbed its way out of the depths of algorithmic Steam obscurity. By staying invested in its game and continually listening to player feedback, Innersloth was able to make the game into a lighthearted and unique take on a tried and true party sensation. However, making a game and marketing one are two very different tasks, the latter being one that Innersloth has admitted it initially struggled with performing successfully.

Among Us’ earliest bump in popularity was in June of 2019, nine months after debuting on Steam. Compared to the month before, the player counts spoke for themselves, rising by over 800%, but still under 100 concurrent average. International streamers in South Korea and Brazil were responsible for this boost in player increase, but there was still a lot of room for growth. After that key season of positive trending, Among Us started to hit a slump. The burgeoning audiences that had discovered the game were now starting to wane. For another four months, Among Us would see declining numbers. Again, most developers or publishers would have pulled the plug at this point. Seeing the stats rise to some semblance of success and then fall again after a year and a half of work would surely be the final nail in the coffin.

Among Us showed a blip of life in 2019, but it wasn't long before it slumped back into seeming obscurity.
Among Us showed a blip of life in 2019, but it wasn't long before it slumped back into seeming obscurity.

Enter the COVID-19 Pandemic. With social distancing enforced in an increasing number of nations worldwide, people of all backgrounds flocked to videogames. Consoles of all manufacture became scarce on store shelves and sales of software started to increase with the larger number of people forced to stay indoors. The Mafia/Werewolf style party game has been popular on game streaming services such as Twitch for years now, usually streamed under the Board Games or even more popular Just Chatting category. All Among Us needed was for a couple popular streamers to discover its similarities and potential. With cross-play enabled from the launch of the game on Steam, and the accessibility to run on almost any smartphone or computer; the game was begging to be played by groups of friends and strangers alike.

According to Willard, Twitch personality Chance “Sodapoppin” Morris was the primary Twitch streamer with an extremely large following to feature the game on their streams in July of 2020. With a following nearing 3 million on Twitch and over a million YouTube subscribers, Chance’s influence and introduction of the game within his sphere of streaming friends is undeniable. The game had hit over 2,000 average concurrent players on the PC during that month, the first time that statistic had ever cracked quadruple digits. The rise into the stratosphere of viral social media, dedicated Discord communities, and even the attention of my 61-year-old dad is evidence alone of its ability to appeal to an incredible range of gamers. From one set of streaming circles to another - League of Legends, to Hearthstone, to Super Smash Bros., and more - Among Us was being played and showcased to fan bases that would have maybe never considered a $5 game that looks similar to so many other $5 games on Steam. Because the barrier of entry is so low, and the fun factor is so high, it’s easy to see why audiences of this newfound hit would want to experience it for themselves.

In Summer 2020, Among Us has seem numbers indie gaming developers (and even AAA devs) dream of reaching, thanks to popular streamers picking up the game.
In Summer 2020, Among Us has seem numbers indie gaming developers (and even AAA devs) dream of reaching, thanks to popular streamers picking up the game.

COVID-19 has made online gaming the way most people play games together. Among Us is perhaps one of the best kinds of games to capture the attention and awe of so many gamers desperate for interaction and fun with others. The forced roleplay and deception that comes with that interaction has fueled arguments, pleas for survival, and well-told pretext that spark countless memes and Twitter posts. The shared experiences have become an instant beacon for gamers everywhere. Among Us now beckons players of all types; casual, hardcore, and anywhere in-between, crafting their own stories and alibis, outwitting, or uncovering their crewmates by their ability to persuade others. It’s the persuasion that makes the game so fun. Not everyone can pick up a video game and master the mechanics, but anyone can tell a harmless lie.

The summer of 2020 will be a complicated one to remember for most, but Among Us emerges from it as a story of triumph. With their recent decision to put a sequel on the back burner and concentrate on further polishing their lightning in a bottle, Innersloth has decided once more to never give up. It would be easy to let the game stand as it is, a worldwide sensation with millions of players. One could argue that it would be prudent to start on something fresh. But Innersloth has shown it knows how to stay the course, how to listen to the feedback of its fans, and how to craft something special. The next time someone tells you that your favorite game is dead, it might be the next big thing in a couple of years. It just takes a team that trusts their instincts.

Freelancer

From the test launch of the NES in New York to 4K gaming in his living room, Bryan Lefler has been immersed in video games his entire life. Battle tested in the arena shooters of the turn of the century yet kind to all animals that may cross him, Bryan enjoys a breadth of games but strives to be the best in any contest of digital skill. He is a former esports competitor and has been part of the Shacknews community for over 15 years. You can also catch him on Skankcore 64 streams on the Shacknews Twitch Channel where he plays through N64 library.

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