The ship had already sailed on Among Us.
The cloak-and-dagger party game, fashioned in the tradition of classic social deduction activities like Mafia and Werewolf, was initially released in the summer of 2018 exclusively for Androids and iPhones to a winsome, but mostly neglected response. The gameplay was always solid but, for whatever reason – be it the exclusively to mobile platforms, the local-only multiplayer, or the limited marketing abilities of developer Innersloth’s small team – Among Us didn’t catch on with the general gaming public. By the time it hit Steam a year later, with online multiplayer patched in, nobody expected it to become a runaway success.
Fast forward to 2020, however, and Among Us has quickly established itself as one of the preeminent party games on Twitch and YouTube. After an entirely inauspicious launch, Among Us has now racked up over 75,000 reviews on Steam, and is averaging hundreds of thousands concurrent players around the clock. This isn’t a new story; indie games go viral all the time – just look at Surgeon Simulator, Escape From Tarkov, or Getting Over It. But it is rare for a title to sit dormant for multiple years before inexplicably catching fire. Before Innersloth knew it, they had the hottest game on the planet.
“The first thing we really noticed was a Twitch stream from Sodapoppin,” says Forest Willard, programmer and co-founder of Innersloth. “We had various moments where we were like, ‘We’re doing well,’ but it was that point where we saw that a lot of people and other streamers started to climb onboard.”
There are three people credited for the development of Among Us. Willard was the primary coder, Marcus Bromander served as the animator and designer, and Amy Liu handled the lion’s share of the art. For the last two years since release, Willard says he was pretty much the only person working on day-to-day operations. That wasn’t an especially difficult job; after all, it’s not like Among Us had a huge player base demanding his oversight. So it was a shock to boot up the game’s backend after Sodapoppin’s endorsement to find that Among Us had 10,000-plus players attempting to barge into a server at the same time. Willard was the only intermediary to make sure the game’s infrastructure survived.
“[Among Us] couldn’t handle that server load. You have to re-do code and re-do systems so you can get more servers onboard. It was really overwhelming,” he remembers. “It was just, 12-hour days, nose-to-the-grindstone until you get it done.”
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Innersloth doesn’t really have a professional office. The team is local to the Pacific Northwest, and while they saw each other occasionally during the Among Us development process, for the most part, they work from home remotely. As of right now, the trio remains united as a completely independent studio, but as is customary when an indie game takes the world by storm, triple-A sharks are starting to sniff around their estate, looking to strike a deal. “We’ve had a number of big companies come into contact with us,” says Willard. “Before [Among Us blew up] we only ever had one big company take an interest in our work.”
That success has also led to a deluge of hopeful future Innersloth co-workers. Every day, Willard finds a stack of fresh portfolios in his inbox. There are dozens of different offers to translate Among Us into practically every language that the game is not currently available in. After years spent on the fringes of the games industry, Innersloth is suddenly flushed with resources. The future is wide open.
Willard believes the proliferation of Among Us’ popularity can be chalked up to the simplicity of the design. It might be a little more robust than your average bluffing game; there are corridors to explore, and wires to reroute. But fundamentally, anyone can learn the core mechanics in about 10 minutes; stay frosty if you’re one of the good guys, and eliminate the team as quietly as possible if you’re an imposter. Willard tells me that Innersloth has an official Discord channel that’s full of suggested gameplay wrinkles that would add an extra dose of complexity to the metagame, but thus far the team has opted to stand pat. The tension in Among Us is perfectly balanced, according to Willard – he doesn’t want to rock the boat. “We’re planning on supporting the game pretty much as it is,” he says. “As long as it has players.”
Among Us Screenshots
When I first reported this story, Innersloth said their long-term goal is to build a standalone Among Us sequel that could host the original version of the game within it. That was a little bit surprising. These days, when a studio has a hit, they tend to iterate on the original product with a constant stream of patch notes filled with new maps, characters, and often-experimental game modes. In that sense, Willard and the team were pushing against the grain. Among Us is built on old tech, he says; it began as a mobile party game with no online multiplayer and mutated into a Steam monster. At this point, iterating on the game’s core infrastructure is an onerous task. “Making any changes is really scary. It’s hard to test all the pieces that were accidentally connected together,” says Willard. “We feel like we have enough things we want to add to Among Us 2 that it deserves to be its own thing.”
However, in the weeks since I spoke to Willard, Innersloth announced they would be canning the plans for a sequel entirely. Instead, all of the plans they’ve sketched out for Among Us 2 would be integrated into the primitive code, no matter how much of a challenge that might be. Willard reminds me that all of that work is very early in its development process, and some of its new flourishes have barely begun to germinate in Innersloth’s braintrust. But one truth is undeniable; Among Us has a bright future ahead of it. All that’s left to see is how the team takes advantage of the moment.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker in Brooklyn. He’s written for Vox, Vice, The New York Times, Gizmodo, PC Gamer, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and wherever else good content can be found.