Among Us' Improbable Rise To The Top Of Twitch

Illustration for article titled iAmong Us/i Improbable Rise To The Top Of Twitch
Image: InnerSloth

When Among Us, a game of deception set in deep space, was first conceived a few years ago, online multiplayer wasn’t in the cards. It wasn’t even going to be on PC. Streamers were the last thing on its developers’ minds. And yet, over the weekend, the game solidified its status as a Twitch phenomenon, peaking at nearly 400,000 concurrent viewers across countless channels.

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This was not, to put it lightly, part of the plan. In fact, when it came to Twitch there was no plan for Among Us, which came out in 2018 to a positive but muted response. Unlike this year’s spate of system-gaming Twitch hitsFall Guys, Valorant, and to a lesser extent, Amazon’s New World, among others—Among Us’ Twitch explosion was not born of a too-online Twitter account, marketing machinations that leveraged Twitch’s numbers-driven structure to gain not-entirely-earned visibility, or anything like that.

“We’re really bad at marketing,” Among Us artist and game designer Marcus Bromander told Kotaku during a phone interview last week.

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What InnerSloth, Among Us’ three-person development team, is good at, however, is staying the course even after a game has failed to blast into the stratosphere on day one. That hard-nosed approach (and a whole lot of luck) has transformed Among Us into Twitch’s latest party-game sensation, a crown Fall Guys seemed primed to hang onto until... well, never, actually. If you look at the numbers, it turns out that Among Us has been quietly creeping up behind Fall Guys—and every other game on Twitch—since late July.

Among Us is a multiplayer game in which 4 to 10 players scurry around a spaceship, attempting to either prepare it for launch or sabotage it and its crew, depending on which team they’re a part of. While legitimate crew members complete quick tasks to ensure that the ship is operational, the impostor team gums up the works and attempts to methodically kill every member of the other team. The main tool in impostors’ belt is deception. They look like regular crew members, so it’s up to other players to sleuth out who’s leaving a trail of cold blood in their wake. In the event of an untimely “accident” (or other suspicious behaviors), the crew can call a meeting and vote on whether or not to toss a player of their collective choice out the airlock.

Among Us is once again on top of Twitch as of this afternoon.
Among Us is once again on top of Twitch as of this afternoon.
Image: Twitch

If you’ve ever tuned into Twitch, you can probably already imagine how these dynamics play into raucous streams. Streamers plot, scheme, and scream, both to their own audiences and each other. There’s a grim thrill to watching a skilled impostor. One moment, they’re giving you, the viewer, a peek behind the curtain of their diabolical plan, and the next, as soon as a meeting starts up and everybody else can hear them, they’re playing a perfect babyface. Then an innocent crew member goes sailing out the airlock, and the impostor player cracks the world’s most malicious grin. Or it’s all chaos, neither the crew nor the impostors have any idea what they’re doing, and everybody just continuously yells until the end of a match. That’s fun to watch, too. In any case, Among Us puts personalities in the spotlight, and it allows big names to collaborate, drawing on each others’ audiences in gargantuan multi-part streams. It is the ideal Twitch game. It was not supposed to be.

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Make no mistake: Among Us was always going to be about deception. Artist and wearer of many additional hats (a common theme at InnerSloth) Amy Liu told Kotaku that it was inspired by Mafia, the IRL party game originally created in the ‘80s. But initially, in 2018, everything else about Among Us was different: It was a mobile-only local multiplayer experience with just one map, which, hardware requirement aside, put it more in line with Mafia and other forebears like Werewolf.

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“It didn’t release super well,” programmer and business lead Forest Willard told Kotaku over a Discord voice call. “But we got a bunch of feedback, by which I mean any feedback, which was pretty great considering [the circumstances]. So we added online multiplayer, and then at the end of the year, we did a Steam release. By December [2018], we started to pick up enough players that the game would stay alive 24/7, and that was, you know, good enough.”

But InnerSloth decided to stick with Among Us for as long as possible, come hell or low player counts.

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“We stuck with Among Us a lot longer than we probably should have from a pure business standpoint,” said Willard. “We tried to quit and should have quit several times.”

Instead, the team kept putting out updates—as often as once per week, during some spans. They listened closely to fans, keeping in mind that, if their humble player base was asking for something, there was probably a good reason for it. Each time an update landed, new players would try the game, and its overall player retention rate would tick ever upward. “That’s basically it,” said Willard. “We’re a slow-growing company. We snowball our way to the top instead of spike and tail like most Steam releases do.”

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“I think we were fortunate enough to have enough savings to be able to coast while Among Us was not failing per se, but it wasn’t selling that much,” said Bromander, with Willard noting that he’d previously worked a computer engineering job and saved money so that he wouldn’t have to throw in the towel if Among Us wasn’t immediately among Steam’s top sellers.

But where did the game’s popularity with content creators begin? Not on Twitch, not in America, and not in 2020.

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“It was found by someone in Korea,” said Bromander. “That helped us get popularity there, and then sometime in the middle of 2019, [a YouTuber] in Brazil played it, and their fanbase picked it up, and it’s just been kind of slowing growing from there.”

Even now, added Willard, the game’s suddenly enormous U.S. audience plays “third fiddle” to places like Mexico, Brazil, and Korea, where it’s even more popular.

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While various smaller and mid-sized streamers, like the UK-based Kaif, gave Among Us a shot over the course of 2019 and 2020, it wasn’t until longtime Twitch star Chance “Sodapoppin” Morris began playing it in the middle of July that the game’s fortunes truly began to change.

“I learned that he was told by Pluto, who works [on the partnerships team] at Twitch,” said Willard. “And I have this, like, genealogy worked out in my mind: I think Pluto learned about it from the Steam sale, and the Steam sale happened because of a daily deal, and there’s this whole chain [of events]. So then Sodapoppin pulled in xQc and Andy Milonakis and a bunch of other guys, and they just played it.”

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Because Among Us is so personality-driven and group-oriented, it pretty naturally bounced between multiple streamer cliques after that.

“It’s interesting to watch it spread through communities,” said Bromander. “Like, Sodapoppin and xQc play it, and then they bring in one League of Legends streamer, and then suddenly a bunch of League of Legends streamers are playing, and then they cross over into Hearthstone streamers, and then a bunch of Hearthstone players are playing it.”

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Among Us, in other words, spread like a virus. It’s an apt point of comparison given the resurgence of party games like Jackbox, Fall Guys, and now Among Us have seen during a pandemic that’s stranded everybody in their own homes, sans the regular social interaction that keeps us all from losing our minds. To wit, Willard noted that he tried to reach out to a few streamers at various points over the years, but prior to 2020, very little came of it.

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“I think the current climate, with social distancing, is amplifying what potential was already there,” he said.

For the InnerSloth team, this is a whole new world. Before, they barely even followed any streamers. Now their game is at the center of the streaming ecosystem.

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“I’ve definitely started to try [following streamers],” said Liu. “I started asking friends that do watch a bunch of streamers like ‘Hey, who do you recommend watching,’ and I have this list accumulating of people. Usually I will go on Twitch and just kind of click someone, just see how they play. I did watch a Spanish stream where I couldn’t understand anything, but they were having this really heated discussion. They were laughing, so I assumed that it was going OK. Seeing people’s reaction has been really interesting. Definitely still trying to find someone specific to watch, but it’s all been really interesting.”

Illustration for article titled iAmong Us/i Improbable Rise To The Top Of Twitch
Image: InnerSloth
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While Among Us’ developers would not divulge raw numbers, they said that the game’s Twitch popularity has led to 50 times more sales than any deal or event they’ve hosted in the past. This leaves them at an interesting intersection. On one hand, they actually called it quits on Among Us’ development at the start of this year. But on the other, it’s now the biggest game on Twitch and a Steam top seller. Even though they consider the game “complete,” there is still room for additional features that cater to this newfound audience—for example, tools to help combat stream sniping and, of course, more stable servers. However, while the latter is in the works and the team has added options that tweak the game’s balance slightly, Among Us remains largely complete if only for one crucial reason: Adding too much new stuff could break it.

“I don’t like to change Among Us too much because it started as such a small game, and it’s grown so much without any real plan for the future that it’s really difficult to make a change that doesn’t break the game or cause bugs or something like that,” said Willard.

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The plan, then, is to channel renewed energy and new ideas into Among Us 2, a game that Willard, Bromander, and Liu weren’t even sure they were going to make until very recently and which is still a long way off from release. Despite everything, the plan is more or less to make the game they would’ve made even if Among Us hadn’t become a Twitch sensation.

“The broad plan really has not changed. A lot of it is giving people what they’ve been asking for, like friends lists,” Willard said, also noting that he’s hoping to add modern multiplayer staples like a progression system. “Below that is more roles. People want to be the impostor a lot. There’s only one or two impostors, usually. So making the crewmates as interesting as the impostors, that’s the real solution to us... The idea is that when you get tired of that core loop—I’ve got, like, 1,000 hours in Among Us; I’m tired of it—you can add more things. You can flip a switch and turn on a few roles or change up the rule set and get a fresh experience. That’s what we’re aiming for.”

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That’s not to say that things are going to stay exactly the same for InnerSloth. The studio is now pulling in a life-changing amount of money. It can staff up, perhaps even hire someone to manage its online presence, as opposed to just falling into having one. Still, Bromander said he’s happy things ultimately worked out the way they did with the first Among Us. He prefers this improbable growth spurt to a perfectly calibrated marketing onslaught or a targeted shot straight at the heart of Twitch.

“I personally like it, because I hate all the fake manufactured stuff where you go through the motions—you do what everyone else does and you win or you lose, and that’s the guaranteed strategy,” he said. “It’s nice to see that it worked out for us. Just going our own way and doing our own thing.”

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Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.

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DISCUSSION

I guess people can’t see your face while playing this, which takes some fun out of the old Traitor Mechanic.