Among Us: How a 2-year old game blew up the internet

So you are hanging out at home, chilling in quarantine, browsing through your Twitch channels, and you notice that a whole lot of big-name streamers are playing this game called Among Us. You tune in, it looks kind of fun, you realize you can pick it up for $5 on Steam or for free on your mobile device, you play with some friends and you have a good time. “Wow, what a great idea to release this remote social game in the middle of quarantine,” you think to yourself, until eventually some jerk comes along, pushes up his glasses, and says “um, actually this game was released in 2018.”

…that’s us.

…we’re the jerks.

Let’s face it. The astronomical rise of Among Us is weird. Games rarely have a moment of popularity outside their launch, and if they do it usually coincides with a DLC pack or something. Among Us, however, just sat quietly in the background with a very meager player base and no one taking notice. In fact, support for the game was ready to be pulled completely until WHAM! All of a sudden it’s competing with League of Legends for the most popular game on Twitch!

What the heck happened!?

What is Among Us?

Among Us is a social deduction game much along the lines of Werewolf, Mafia, Secret Hitler, Two Rooms and a Boom, and so on. You may have noticed that all of those games are board games (or cardboard party games if you really want to get technical). There have certainly been digital implementations of these games before but they never caught on as much as Among Us. Why?

Well, Among Us is a video game that knows it’s a video game. It’s just as much a stealth game and a puzzle game as it is a deduction game. Here’s how it works.

You and (hopefully if you want the best experience) nine other people are trapped on a map either in a space ship or at a polar research station or in some other paranoia-inducing locale. One to three of them are imposters (two is the sweet spot) while everyone else is the crew.

The imposters have to kill the crew, as is usually the case in games like this. However, they don’t just close their eyes and point at who they want to kill. They have to actually wander around the map, find their target, and kill them without anyone seeing. Everyone has a limited range of sight and elements of the map can block that sight, so they have to walk around, finding targets and killing them in such a way that no one sees and they aren’t caught.

Crew members have a different task, which is to complete… tasks. Tasks are little Warioware style mini-games scattered around the map. If all the crew completes all their tasks, they win. The only issue is that tasks take up your screen while you do them, meaning that it’s a perfect opportunity for the imposter to walk up and stab you.

These two elements make Among Us unique, utilizing its digital format to mix up the social deduction formula in new and interesting ways, and there are yet more mechanics that just keep making this less of a simple finger-pointing fest and more of a tense horror/mystery.

For example, the imposters can sabotage the map. They can add mini-games that the crew has to complete or else they die, which can lure the crew to those games, setting them up for a kill. They can crawl into vents to move around the map which is a great way to fast travel but will give away their identity if they get seen. They can lock doors to restrict crew access, turn off the lights to make them harder to spot, and generally throw a wrench into the crew’s plans for survival.

The crew, on the other hand, has relatively few tools at their disposal. They can call emergency meetings to attempt to vote out the imposter, or if they find a body they can report it, putting a stop to all sabotage to, once again, try to vote off the imposter, and this is where the game becomes more of a traditional social deduction game.

But even now in the chaos of conversation, there are interesting ways that the game’s digital elements mix up the formula. For example, was there anyone who didn’t seem to be doing tasks? Maybe they are the imposter. There are special rooms that allow you to access cameras, movement logs, and even see who is still alive. Did you use these monitoring stations and see someone acting suspicious (or sus, as is the new lingo)?

Was a player running after you that made you feel like he was trying to get in kill range? What did people do that makes you think they are the imposter? It’s so much more than randomly picking people out of a crowd based on how sketchy they look, and the big brain plays, from reporting your own murder to using your sprite to cover up a dead body, are wild to watch and satisfying to pull off.

And heck, even if you die you can still do tasks as a crewmate or sabotage as the imposter, so it fixes the “die and sit around for a half-hour” problem most social deduction games have too.

Back in 2018…

So the game is good. But its popularity can’t only be ascribed to it being good. Rather, its sudden popularity right now can be attributed to it finding its place in the gaming community.

Looking at its original release, Among Us was first billed as a local multiplayer game for mobile. The idea was that players all had a mobile device and you all played together in the same room.

It wasn’t fun.

First of all, when you are all in the same room with your fellow players there is too much pressure. People will read into your body language more than they will read into what you do in the game, making it feel more random and more like that same old game of Mafia you didn’t want to play.

Second, people are more prone to outbursts, to screaming when they get killed and ruining the suspense, to talking and spoiling the hidden information, or just glaring at the imposters, making them lose without actually doing anything wrong in-game.

It feels unfair, unbalanced, and just plain unfun.

But we can fix it. We can have the technology.

The COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine made us all stay home and this was instrumental in the sudden success of Among Us. Instead of sitting in the same room, everyone is now playing over the internet, where mics can be muted to avoid outbursts and no one can see each other’s faces. Now, your sketchiness is limited to exactly what you do in the game and only what you do in the game. Of course, you still have to lie like crazy to prove your innocence when meetings come but it’s a lot easier to do that when you have the anonymity of the internet on your side.

Aside from the fact that quarantine forced us to play Among Us in its genuinely best form, the power of Twitch streamers and YouTube personalities also helped elevate it into popularity. It’s kind of like a big crossover TV show. We’ve seen fighting game YouTubers play with popular personalities like Jack Septiceye, play with former Hearthstone streamers, play with digital artists, play with comedians, etc. It’s like every corner of the internet comes together and charisma bombs you in every single game.

A free money maker

And when you see these celebs having so much fun you think “hey, I can have fun too!” Isn’t that what all gamers do? Well for most games you have to commit $60 for a purchase. For Among Us you have to commit nothing. You can download it on mobile platforms for free and all platforms have cross-play. There are plenty of people who are so committed to playing Among Us for free they run it on Android emulators.

It’s also $5 on PC platforms. That’s a great budget price that comes with a bunch of costumes and skins to put on your little Newgrounds style bean person. From there, there are costumes and pets and hats that you can purchase in big bundles for prices as low as $1, including references to other games such as The Henry Stikmin Collection, 13 Sentinels or even Half-life, and TV shows like Futurama or horror movies like Friday the 13th.

It is so easy to access and spend money on this game that it has been downloaded more than 100 million times and has generated $4.5 million via in-app purchases, making it one of the most successful indie games ever. In fact, the game has Discord integration via bots, and this alone has driven Discord downloads up to 800,000 daily (according to Apptopia). It has recently reached an amazing milestone of having 3.8 million concurrent players with more than 60 million daily active users. Those are numbers that only the biggest of the big titans of gaming can reach.

And remember, shortly before the pandemic it was just a small game that was about to die.

There are two very important things that Among Us teaches us about gaming. First, there is no such thing as a game's “objective” worth. Game quality is as much dependent on the times as anything else. We tend to believe that games come out, we review them, and then that’s it, they are set in stone. But Among Us shows that a game that is barely worth a second look at one point can become one of the world’s biggest gaming hit at another, so long as its environment changes.

Two, it teaches us that the combination of accessibility and online popularity is powerful. If you think about it, this is exactly what happened with Twitch’s biggest games. Fortnite? Big with streaming celebs and free to download. Hearthstone?  Big with streaming celebs and free to download. League of Legends? Big with streaming celebs and free to download. Among Us? You see where we’re going with this.

It is an almost intoxicatingly addictive game, both to watch and play too.

We’d love to be able to point to the singular point at which Among Us blew up, but there isn’t one. No big patch was released. No big crossover event happened (unless you count the Stickmin pets). This is one of the gaming world’s most organic rises to fame we have ever seen, plus there are plans to make the game more modular and bring in more content in the near future.

Now if you’ll excuse me, we’re going to head over to MedBay to… definitely… not… kill anyone.