Among Us, the online social deduction game, was released in June 2018 by Innersloth. Upon its arrival, it received minimal fanfare. Yet today, it’s one of the most popular games around, and is a blast to watch, too. YouTube reported more than 4 billion views of the game in September 2020 alone. The following month, U.S. representatives Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar streamed Among Us as a way to encourage viewers to vote in this year’s election.
If you’ve never played before, the gameplay of Among Us is simple. Four to 10 players take on the role of space creatures and are randomly divided into two teams: Crewmates and Impostors. Crewmates are given tasks to complete, while Impostors try to sabotage and kill the other players. Impostors know what role everyone plays, but Crewmates don’t know who is who, so they need to observe their fellow players to see who might be acting suspicious.
Besides doing tasks or sabotaging and killing your fellow players, the other element of Among Us is the voting screen. If players come across a felled teammate or hit the Emergency Button, they can call a meeting with all the players still in the game. From there, a discussion ensues. Crewmates work to properly identify the Impostors, who are simply trying to blend in. The remaining team members then choose to vote someone off or skip voting for that round. Whoever receives the most votes is ejected from the game, though they can still play as a ghost.
Crewmates win if everyone on the team successfully finishes their tasks or if they vote off all the Impostors. Impostors win if there’s ever an even amount of Impostors and Crewmates left. For example, if there’s a situation where there are two Impostors and three Crewmates remaining and one of the Impostors kills a Crewmate, the Impostors will emerge victorious.
Aside from being fun, Among Us has laid out a blueprint for marketers to use in their own gamification methods. We’ve come a long way from purely branded games like Chex Quest, and mobile games and esports are now thriving industries. In 2020, there will be an estimated 213 million mobile gamers in the United States alone.
Here’s a look at why Among Us has surged in popularity and five tips to successfully implement gaming into your marketing strategy.
Keep Things Simple
Early video games gained steam in large part because of their simplicity. Even if you had never handled a controller before, you could easily hop into some of the most popular titles from gaming’s earliest days.
Pong is two paddles and a bouncing ball. Pac-Man had two main objectives: eat pellets and don’t get caught. Donkey Kong’s goal is similarly basic while playing as Mario (then known as Jumpan). Basically, avoid being hit by barrels as you climb up platforms and ladders to save a princess.
Current games add levels of complexity that are sometimes too much for casual fans. For example, a wartime game may ask you to choose a combination of a hundred different weapons, pieces of armor, and helmets; or a basketball game may make you fill up a “shot meter” to be able to properly shoot the ball.
Think about a time you’ve tried a new board game or put together a desk. Were the instructions cleanly written on one page? Or did you have to thumb through a booklet as thick as your hand? Keeping things simple is generally a good idea in all walks of life, but especially in gaming.
That key element is what Among Us gets right. The concept of the game is simple. You’re only one of two randomly assigned roles, so there’s never a worry about picking the wrong character. The action button—things like using an object to perform a task, sabotaging the map, or killing a fellow player—are big and bold on the screen.
If people have to read a convoluted set of rules, they’ll often tune out before the action gets going. Even for things like Instagram contests, entry usually only involves liking accounts and tagging a friend in the comments. Keep the barrier to entry in any game or contest low and you’ll see a lot more success.
Build on an Existing Concept
When I was in high school, I took a sports management course. Our teacher assigned real-world projects, like building a stadium or setting up special sporting events. Any time someone had a question and seemed to be veering too far off course, he replied with a common refrain: “We’re not reinventing the wheel here.”
Among Us adopts that same mindset. It borrows pieces from other social deduction games, like Mafia/Werewolf. In both games, there’s an informed minority (the mafiosi, werewolves, or Impostors), and an uninformed majority (villagers or Crewmates).
Among Us takes the existing foundation of those types of games and builds on it with the introduction of tasks and sabotages. Instead of merely eliminating players and debating over who should be voted out, there are other considerations to keep an eye on, too. However, rather than adding unnecessary complexity, these other factors make an already exciting game even more thrilling.
Like my high school teacher said, you never have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to gaming in marketing. Tried and true methods—like quizzes, competitions, or loyalty programs with gaming elements—are great for building upon. Rather than attempting to create something from scratch, think of how you can elevate something that’s already out there.
Provide Elements of Community
Among Us offers both private and public games. If you’ve got enough people together—even if they’re all remote—you can customize a private game to your liking, but the public games provide plenty of hilarious moments, as well, like a pumpkin party on Halloween.
The photo above was a group of ten strangers all getting onboard with putting pumpkin hats on and posing for a picture. In the physical world, it’s hard enough to get a group of three people all looking directly at the camera, so this is a very impressive feat.
Among Us also offers a chat box where players can talk things out. While typing out your suspicions (or defenses, if you’re an Impostor) is easy enough, many Among Us players have taken to third party apps like Discord to host voice chats while playing. It’s easy to misconstrue someone’s words in a chat; when you can hear their voice directly, sometimes an Impostor will break under the pressure. And it’s fantastic.
Whether you’re using the chat tool or a third-party voice chat, Among Us fosters a sense of community. In the lobby area, players might share their weekend plans or ask questions of the other players, like their favorite type of pizza or vacation destination. Meanwhile, voice chats are a good way to reconnect with old friends and sometimes make new ones. Since Among Us is so simple to play, a core group of players may invite a first-timer if they need an extra participant or two, setting up the potential for a lasting connection.
Word of Mouth
The Among Us developers almost abandoned the game several times along their journey, but kept going thanks to a “small but vocal player base.” Your product or service likely has passionate fans. Don’t forget about them in your quest to grow brand awareness. They’ll be there to help spread the word, but they need to feel appreciated, too.
You can even have them “direct” your game, like Old Spice did with its Nature Man stream. For three days, they allowed viewers to control an avatar on screen. The avatar did things like use a slingshot, wrestle a bear under a pizza tree, and even got married outdoors. None of the action specifically featured an Old Spice product, but it all fit with their tagline at the time of smelling as good as nature.
Allow for Customization
Another fun feature of Among Us is the ability to customize your character’s appearance. All players can choose from 12 color options and dozens of hats. If you buy the game on Steam or make in-app purchases, you can also add other touches to your character, like clothes and a pet to follow you around. There’s something oddly satisfying about seeing a little jelly bean-esque character walking around in a full suit and a banana peel hat.
It also helps that the characters themselves are pretty cute. Among Us hasn’t quite grown to the level of the Angry Birds phenomenon—there hasn’t been an Among Us theme park or movie—but the potential is there. Games have shown advertisements for years, whether in the form of pop-ups or with branded content, but sometimes marketers can reach gaming audiences in new ways.
For example, the massively multiplayer online game Fortnite introduced a game mode called Food Fight. Players could join a burger or a pizza team; when Wendy’s heard about this, they created a Wendy avatar to play on the burger squad. However, Wendy’s learned the burger team stores its beef in freezers—a major no-no for the company.
They launched a Twitch stream where their Wendy avatar destroyed freezers, and tweeted about it to encourage other gamers to do the same. In the end, Fortnite actually removed the frozen freezers from the game, ridding the virtual world of frozen patties.
Wendy’s took advantage of the customizable features of Fortnite to create a unique experience for fans. If you can incorporate customization into your marketing gamification, it adds a more personal feel for people. It can be something simple, like an avatar or a unique color scheme, but it’s a way to show your customers you recognize their individuality and give them an opportunity to express themselves.
Don’t Be Afraid to Tap Influencers
Among Us went more than two years flying under the radar, unknown to most gamers. And it likely would have stayed that way, if not for two major occurrences.
The first was the Covid-19 pandemic. Among Us is a game you can play without needing to be in the same room as anyone else. Whether you’re playing with friends or strangers, you only need a phone or a Steam account on your computer to get going, using the game’s chat or a third-party voice chat app to get rolling.
The second occurrence? A slew of support from the gaming community. Twitch user Sodapoppin is widely credited for popularizing Among Us on his channel, but other users soon followed suit. Suddenly, some of the biggest names in online gaming, like xQc, Shroud, and Pokimane, were all playing Among Us. Their excitement over the game made their viewers want to try it, who in turn shared it with their friends, and the popularity of Among Us soared.
Influencers already provide a built-in audience for your brand that you might otherwise not have access to. And they’ve found some creative ways to continue thriving during the pandemic, showcasing content in new and exciting formats. They can offer a tutorial of your game, promote it, and encourage fan participation.
Among Us isn’t the first game to go viral, and it certainly won’t be the last. However, it offers a blueprint for brands to follow as the role of gaming in marketing becomes more common.