Behind the dizzying ride to the top for Among Us
Are you strapped in?
Had originally planned a round-up, but it turns out something else came up that I just had to write about. You may recall me mentioning, in the last newsletter, the amazing ‘out of the blue’ success of multiplayer party game Among Us on Steam. (It’s the top global seller right now.)
Turns out Forest (ForteBass on Twitter!) of Among Us devs InnerSloth had been sharing his story there. So I got permission from ForteBass to share some of his insight with you all, which I augmented with research. (Yes, Ryan, I’m sneaking around your Discord server stealing content now!)
What’s the big deal, anyhow?
I’ve been watching YouTube videos of Among Us, and it plays so, so well as a social online game. It has big influence from Mafia/Werewolf, obviously, but also reminds me of a ‘you’re actually in the world’ version of Spaceteam.
The tension as you wander around the level trying not to get killed (if you’re not the impostor!) while accomplishing tasks is great. And then voting off potential impostors really ups the ante. Check out this video from Blitz if you want to get a good idea of the social dynamics at play:
So, some background. Among Us actually launched in June 2018 on Android and July 2018 on iOS. After launching in November 2018 on Steam, and having an extremely slow start there, the game has just exploded in recent weeks - in ways almost unprecedented on Steam for a title that’s been available for some time.
Just check out Among Us’ reviews graph on its Steam page since launch.
On Steam the game is only priced at $4.99, but it also has a bunch of DLC such as in-game pets. You can see a similar but slightly later ‘reviews explode’ effect on Android for the Google Play version of the game (amusingly, the URL is ‘Space Mafia’), if you look on SensorTower:
Interestingly, Among Us is free on Android and iOS, where it monetizes with similar cosmetic IAP as the Steam version. And it turns out that even ignoring the recent spike, there were millions of downloads on mobile - especially Android - before the game broke out on Steam. (SensorTower is estimating 11 million Android downloads, even ahead of this big August 2020 boost.) I had no idea about this.
ForteBass’ comments bear this out: “It's the end of 2019. America and Europe are not our big customers: Brazil, Korea, and the Middle East are. Google Play is our breadwinner & IAP for maps and pets are why.”
So it turns out that YouTubers have covered this game extensively before, just not English-language ones. Some of those early spikes “..started with Godenot (3.6M sub Youtuber) [earlier in 2019] who found our game on Google Play (probably recommended by players? Possibly via Itch.io, even… I know he streamed from mobile before switching to PC.) We had considered wrapping up Among Us back then, because profitability was not in sight. But the Brazilian audience drove us to create more content, and that was wise.”
As for another major territory in question: “Our first audience was Korea, and they still constitute 50% of our Steam Among Us sales. That all started in Dec 2018 with Kevin Choi. He found Among Us via itch.io, and I think that's because we got a day of promotion on the front page. This is literally the only promotion we have expressly asked for.”
So as we can see, Among Us was popular and had good retention in other territories way before this big viral spike in North America and Europe. But it looks like those who saw streamers playing the game gravitated towards the free mobile version - also because those territories play more mobile than PC games. And heck, the game hit a million downloads overall in May 2019. So, it wasn’t exactly ‘unknown’.
Taking it over the top on Steam
Was there any hint that the game could also do well on Steam? Well, yes - not least because Valve itself took notice. ForteBass takes up the story here: “In February 2020, Steam reached out to us for a daily deal, and we went for 50% off. If I remember rightly, each of those two days produced an entire month of sales, and left us with a higher baseline of sales after, as well as a boatload of wishlists. So that in turn made our Summer sale worthwhile - which snowballed into minor top seller visibility. (#35-ish).”
So, sounds like the Steam featuring helped step the game up visibility-wise. And at this point, Among Us - which was already great - had been polished and had extra maps, pets, and many rounds of bugfixes in place. So it was well set-up to break out, if somebody noticed it.
ForteBass speculates: “But why did we get a daily deal [in Feb]? Well, I didn't ask, but at the beginning of the year, Kaif (a… UK streamer) and his friends picked us up. We were already profitable by that point and actually had just announced Among Us as complete, which caused a sizable drop off of players. Kaif completely reversed that and brought in a wave of new European players (a new-ish market for us), particularly on Steam (which was our #2 marketplace at that time).”
And that gets us to the current day. Or at least to mid-July, where things got really crazy for the team. Rounding the story off: “First, yes, Twitch streams are the cause of our [most recent] spike. This started just after the Steam Summer sale, which is actually pretty important for us as a 2 year-old game which cost 5 dollars that has already reached 75% off. Pluto and Sodapoppin's timing was impeccable… I haven't talked to Pluto yet, but I'd bet that he found Among Us during the 2020 summer sale, which frankly, is the only Big Steam Sale that's gone well for us.”
And indeed, Reddit sleuths have pinpointed the exact Twitch VOD where everything took off. Sometimes it takes one big streamer to ignite his peers, and looks like that’s what happened in this case. (Among Us is particularly good for streamers because it pulls in the ‘play with your streamer buddies, and you can cross-promote between your channels’ thing. Plus - the drama!)
Conclusion - the path to the top goes where?
Well, I have to say that my research in writing this article didn’t go where I expected. The team behind Among Us made a really amazing game that succeeded in a very unconventional way across a free mobile and an inexpensive PC version.
It rode multiple viral streamer waves while the team desperately upgraded the infrastructure to keep up, it constantly improved, and it’s a great (and vanishingly rare?) example of a multiplayer-only title that’s not an obvious Fortnite-y AAA beast becoming a smash.
As ForteBass notes, the odds are often stacked against multiplayer-first titles: “I initially didn't want to make Among Us because of the multiplayer aspects. We had seen stuff like Bombernauts flop and the added complexity of multiplayer made it really unappealing. But our other game idea wasn't panning out, so I prototyped Among Us and it was immediately fun and interesting.”
So if you really want to go for it with multiplayer, you have to have all of the right elements in place. ForteBass concludes: “Everything else has been patience, a high retention game, and frequent public updates. Discord is very important for this. It goes nuts when we announce literally anything.”
So, onward - and congrats again to Forest and his team, who are planning a sequel and all kinds of good things. And good luck to ‘em!