TL;DR — Among Us succeeded out of nowhere because it had multiple low barriers to entry, and was a social experience over just a gameplay experience. Twitch streamers used this social element as their own flywheel, collaborating with other popular streamers to make each game its own massive event and spectacle.
Among Us, a low-budget murder-mystery style video game, was released in 2018. The gameplay is simple — finish tasks while trying to figure out which of your space crewmates is secretely a murder (the “impostor”). It never did amazing numbers, but with regular updates, it persisted, maintaining a few thousand players a month. The developers — all three of them — kept the game running using their savings accounts. Hardly any marketing was considered, as in their own words they were “really bad at marketing.”
Turns out, that didn’t really matter. It’s a viral hit. The game went from a few thousand players a day to millions. It’s been downloaded over 100 million times. Almost 4 million people follow the game on Twitch. All in just two months, and without being available on any of the major game consoles. Just PC and mobile.
Video games experiencing viral success is not new, but Among Us demonstrates lessons that apply to the new ways in which consumers approach and experience gaming.
1. Lower the barrier to entry
Among Us executes extremely well on its barrier to entry, for a few reasons.
The game is either $5 on PC or free (with ads) on mobile.
Before Among Us, and throughout the 2010s, a lot of low-budget horror games got extremely popular. YouTube videos of video game streamers playing games like Five Nights at Freddy’s and Slenderman racked up tens of millions of views. They were also either cheap or free.
Charging nothing for a game doesn’t work as a business model, but resisting the traditional AAA $60 price point helps get more players in the door. Players don’t have to bristle at a $40 price point when a friend recommends the game.
The gameplay is designed to be excruciatingly simple.
The gameplay of Among Us for most of the players is to solve simple puzzles. It’s not fast-paced and it’s not PvP, where you’re competing against other players in the minigames. It’s not a first-person shooter — the only controls are to move, to interact, and to call a meeting. That’s it.
Many games rely on being complicated to offer a significant challenge to players. With Among Us, the challenge is social — in figuring out which of the other players is the murderer — and not in solving the puzzle the fastest.
It’s easy to hop in a game.
Among Us is a small game (250MB, where many games can reach 500 times that) and joining a friend’s session is as easy as typing in a six-digit code.
Combine that with Discord — arguably the most popular communication platform for gamers — and its one-click join of an existing call, and it makes it stupidly easy to join. Among Us plays well with Discord. Going from not knowing the game to physically being in the game lobby can take minutes, where other game downloads can take hours.
Similarly, the commitment to playing is low. An Among Us game can take anywhere from 1–10 minutes.
2. Lean on the social nature as much as the gameplay
Among Us is a social game before it’s a competitive game. The best Among Us players aren’t the best because they solve puzzles the fastest — they’re the best because they’re good at party-game lying and sniffing out other liars. There’s no in-game mechanic for that.
It’s a skill honed with friends, while playing the game. This focus on social over gameplay works for virality, because the game improves as more people join it. An Among Us game works better with 10 people than with 8. This encourages evangelizing the game to more people, and because the barrier for entry is low, there’s a high incentive for existing players to get more people in for a game.
This is a stronger network effect than what is typically seen in multiplayer games like Call of Duty, because again, pure skill in gameplay wins in those games. Not so with Among Us.
An honorable mention — this game experienced hyper-growth in a pandemic where people were craving the party atmosphere they’re denied. Among Us plays similarly to party games like Mafia and Werewolf — it’s giving the players that taste of the atmosphere they can’t experience.
3. Allow the community to enable the flywheel
Among Us existed as a great product for years, with hardly any gameplay changes, but without a great marketing effort by someone, was destined to remain at small numbers.
It’s is simple to follow, easy to play, and works well with more competing personalities, but it needed that marketing.
Twitch was the solution.
Hundreds of millions of people tune in to Twitch streams every month to watch people play video games. Typically, they’re playing by themselves and talking to their audience, or grouping up with a few other people for a multiplayer game.
All of these Twitch celebrities realized they could amplify their reach by streaming with other Twitch celebrities. Their interesting and fun personalities — what got them their fame in the first place — could finally clash against the personalities of other Twitch legends.
This is what propelled Among Us into the stratosphere.
The community latched on to this, and new Among Us super-collaboration streams popped up left and right, each involving ten different YouTube and Twitch stars with millions of followers each.
Suddenly, all of their fandoms were watching the same game. The same social, easy-to-learn game that they could also play with their friends. The fun streamers were having became far easier to replicate with a game that didn’t require 300 hours of commitment to master.
This all culminated in an absolutely colossal livestream event where two United States congresswoman — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar — livestreamed their Among Us game with a rotating cast of famous YouTube and Twitch streamers. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an experienced gamer, but this was her first time livestreaming. Ever.
Her stream, with almost 6 million views, ranks in the top-five most viewed Twitch streams. Ever. That’s up there with Ninja’s livestream with Drake and Travis Scott, two hugely popular rappers. Pop culture colliding.
For the viewer, Among Us became a social event for the players to watch AND play, not exclusively one or the other. For the streamer, Among Us is a content-machine.
What’s the formula?
Despite decades of success, gaming is still poised for even more explosive growth over the next decade.
The breakout success stories of this next decade don’t have to secure eight-figure budgets or top developers. They just need to succeed in the new environment where video games are exceedingly social, easy to join, and more hangouts than competitions.
Among Us struck on all three of these notes.
Combine that with a game that lends itself extremely well to thriving in the era of Twitch, and you’ve got yourself a hit.