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How an obscure 2018 computer game became a global phenomenon overnight

among us video game
Rise of the tiny spacemen.
  • Adam Epstein
By Adam Epstein

Entertainment reporter

Published Last updated

One of the most popular video games in the world today had almost no players a few months ago.

Among Us, a party game that launched in June 2018, has now been downloaded more than 100 million times, according to its US-based developer, InnerSloth. Over 60 million users play the game each day. The game peaked at 3.8 million concurrent players at one point last weekend.

When it launched, only about 30 users were playing the game at any given time. It was a small, independently developed game that seemed destined to fade into obscurity, like so many others have before it. But because of a variety of factors—including the ease of learning it, and the coronavirus pandemic forcing quarantined consumers to find new ways to interact with their friends—the game has completely taken off.

Players are separated into two teams: crewmates, who must perform maintenance tasks on a spaceship, and impostors, who are charged with quietly killing crewmates and sabotaging the ship’s systems. As bodies are discovered, the players convene to discuss the killings and vote off those deemed responsible. Crewmates win by completing all of their tasks or successfully sussing out the impostors; impostors win by killing enough crewmates so that the number of impostors is equal to the number of crewmates (or by sabotaging the ship’s systems so badly the crewmates can no longer complete their tasks).

The game’s graphics are low-fi and its movements are janky. It features none of the elaborate game modes or next-gen features of many other popular video games, like Call of Duty. Instead, the appeal of Among Us lies in its sociability. Anyone can easily set up a game with their friends—no masks or social distancing necessary. It costs $5 to download on PC and is free to play with ads on iOS or Android devices (and just $2 to remove those ads). The developers also generate revenue on in-game purchases, which allow users to customize their characters or play on additional maps.

Among Us became so popular during the pandemic that InnerSloth canceled plans for a sequel and will instead add all of the new content intended for the sequel into the existing game. (The company is now rewriting the code so it can handle it all.)

The developers believe the game’s surge in popularity started outside the US. “It was found by someone by Korea,” Marcus Bromander, an Among Us game designer, told the video game blog Kotaku. Gaming communities in Mexico and Brazil picked it up from there, making it just relevant enough—but still quite obscure—for a few influential streamers on the platform Twitch to find it and broadcast it to their fan bases in July.

By August, the developers said more than 100,000 players were using the game every hour. The majority of those are on Android devices, but usage of the game on iOS devices and PCs has spiked considerably this month. Since April, video game usage on a variety of platforms has hit record highs due to stay-at-home orders. It is the ideal environment for a tiny, indie game to be plucked out of oblivion and dropped into millions of living rooms in the span of a few weeks.

Bromander admitted to Kotaku the InnerSloth team is “really bad at marketing”—which is perhaps why you haven’t seen TV commercials, sponsored social media posts, or pre-roll ads of the game. But in today’s pandemic economy, a game doesn’t need an advertising budget to grow. All it takes is a single streamer to give it the visibility it needs to blast off.

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