By Gemma Penson - Computer Science Student @ Trinity Hall, Cambridge
In recent years, games built by small, independent development teams, known as indie games, have cascaded into the gaming space. Some of these indie games, including Five Nights At Freddy’s and Kindergarten, are now global successes, but predicting which indie game will gain popularity next is no easy feat.
In the Department at Computer Science at Cambridge University, case studies are often used to learn from the past, understand the dynamic computer industry and to gain inspiration for future projects. One particularly interesting case of this indie-success phenomenon is the online multiplayer game Among Us which has been downloaded more than 100 million times across its various platforms. The game, which was made by a team of just three developers, was first released in June of 2018 but it wasn’t until mid-2020 that the game saw a gigantic surge of popularity. So what caused this sudden surge?
Firstly, Among Us is an adaption of the social deception game Mafia, with other adaptations including the role-playing game Werewolf and the table-top game Secret Hitler. Mafia is known to be a fun, endlessly playable game which scales well with big groups and where losing is very inconsequential with no items or experience points to lose. Those that hadn’t heard of Among Us before, but that have fond memories of playing Mafia, are much more likely to give it a try and recommend it to those that they have played Mafia with.
However, Among Us isn’t just an Mafia adaptation - its colourful maps, variety of tasks, and time-restricted emergencies add an element of excitement and engagement that other Mafia games were lacking for non-traitor players (imposters). As PC Gamer Wes Fenlon says, other video game adaptations are "just add[ing] an online interface for the basic Werewolf rule”, whereas Among Us is an entirely new, evolutionary take on the concept.
In addition, Among Us is a vastly accessible game, both in terms of acquiring it and playing it. The game is free to play on both Android and iOS devices which allows it to more quickly establish its game quality and charming art style to potential fans. The game can also be bought for a small price on Steam which increases the voice chat capabilities for services such as Discord whilst making it simpler for content creators to record videos on it.
Although these factors helped contribute to the game’s initial popularity, the COVID-19 pandemic is frequently cited as the primary reason for the game's popularity explosion. In a time when in-person socialisation wasn’t permitted and many large-budget games were delayed, Among Us was able to thrive as social groups looked for a way to still spend time together. The game’s easy initial controls but yet complex psychological strategies make it an ideal game to play on repeat and, by allowing you to learn more about your friends through playing, the game helps to strengthen friendships. Psychologically, this constantly feeds players with the feeling that they belong in their social group which yields mental health benefits including lower depressive symptoms and improved self-esteem. This also does not solely apply to previously established friendships either: a study revealed that 75% of participants had made good friends from playing video games online, with nearly half reporting that these online friendships are comparable to offline ones.
Another component of Among Us’s success may be due to the game’s popularity on streaming platforms such as Twitch. At the start of July, Among Us averaged just a few hundred viewers on Twitch but, by the end of August, it averaged over 100,000. The game is popular with large-scale content creator collaborators due to its short game duration, lack of complex plot and setup and its ability to help content creators to reach new audiences which in turn helps to boost the fanbase of Among Us. The game is also incredibly interesting to watch from a viewer’s perspective due to the potential for personalities to clash and to witness how our favourite streamers respond to conflict, deception and 50-50 choices. Watching Among Us streams is great for our mental health too due to the release of neurochemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins that improve our mood and relax us.
To summarise, the success of Among Us is down to its easy controls and accessibility, interesting psychology component and the fact that no large time-commitments or demanding hardware is required. It’s also advantaged by being playable with friends as this introduces the potential to integrate our social circles and allows large online collaborations to occur.
2020. The Psychology of Among Us. Platinum Paragon. Available at: <http://platinumparagon.info/psychology-of-among-us/>
2020. Among Us and a Resurgence of Narrative-Free Games. Wired. Available at: <https://www.wired.com/story/among-us-narrative-free-games-pandemic-coronavirus/>
2020. Wes Fenlon. How Among Us became so widely popular. PC Gamer. Available at: <https://www.pcgamer.com/uk/how-among-us-became-so-popular/>