Sometimes, the biggest hits seemingly come from out of nowhere, such as an indie game that peaks late and arrives in the mainstream absolutely devoid of any warning.
Three years ago, Innersloth quietly launched its second game for iOS and Android devices. Following the release of Dig2China in 2015, the tiny Washington-based studio had been working on a number of unreleased titles until deciding to unleash Among Us amid the usual monthly onslaught of independent video games in June 2018.
According to Innersloth, at its core, Among Us “is a party game of teamwork and betrayal in which Crewmates work together to complete tasks before one or more Impostors can kill everyone” aboard a spacecraft. But to a growing fandom, Among Us is much more.
A SURPRISE HIT
What began as a part-time gig became a full-time job for the seven-person Innersloth team as Among Us hit PC by the end of 2018. The game did solid business in its first two years, but what no one could’ve predicted is that last year, in the middle of a global pandemic, Among Us would be thrust in front of millions of people as Twitch streamers and TikTokers introduced the colorful crew to a captive audience. Eager to play along at home, millions of soon-to-be fans downloaded the game and entered the fight to see who among the Crewmates was an Impostor by looking for clues as to who may or may not be “sus” (suspect).
According to Apptopia, Among Us snagged the top spot as the most-downloaded game of 2020 with more than 264 million downloads worldwide — that’s nearly 40 million more than the No. 2 game, Subway Surfers, and more than 100 million more than Roblox.
The sudden interest in the game created an instantaneous hunger for ancillary merchandise that caught the developers off guard. By fall, Innersloth enlisted Dual Wield Studio to serve as the exclusive licensor for the Among Us brand, as the complexities of building a licensing program began to run concurrently alongside a growing number of fan creations and unlicensed merch.
“Indie game development operates much differently than massive intellectual property (IP). Many games are created by groups of friends, not huge teams that have the next 10 years in mind for their franchise,” says Rowan K. Rowden, co-founder of Dual Wield Studio. “A significant amount of time has been spent developing what Among Us is, in actuality, and what the team feels strongly about when it comes to the perception of their brand, their IP, and their characters.”
One of the biggest challenges came in putting together proper style guides that could be used to ensure continuity between the bright, colorful game and any products it may inspire. Rowden says that the developers had to focus on cross-medium consistency.
“Matching colors and ensuring that we have a cohesive lineup that focuses on the most popular colors as well as designs that complement their base colors is an important factor,” Rowden says.
“Updating the art so it’s cohesive across the game and then reflected in the merchandise took time as assets had to be hand-drawn and changed. Finalizing the colors for the game, and then finalizing merchandise based on pantones, CMYK, etc., takes time because it’s very rarely a 1:1 mix, especially when considering products and how those colors will display on different items.”
EMPOWERING CREWMATES VS. the IMPOSTORS
In January, UK-based Toikido was named global master toy partner for Among Us. Under the agreement, Toikido was granted rights to develop and market collectibles, figures, plush, playsets, R/C, and more. By March, PMI Ltd. and YuMe came on board to distribute Toikido’s product line, which expanded to include capsules, costumes, stampers, and additional items.
“In a little over six months we have gone from contract to shelf, something we should all be proud of given the external factors of COVID-19, Chinese New Year, and shipping challenges,” says Toikido Founder and CEO Darran Garnham, whose small crew has been aided by the teams at Innersloth and Dual Wield Studio in translating the 2D world of the video game into 3D toys. “We have worked closely together to create products, packaging, point-of-sale materials, and a TV commercial.”
While the first wave of licensed products was swiftly brought to shelves after inking the deals, some retailers have mixed views when it comes to fan demand and sales potential in different markets across the country.
“Among Us has a solid fanbase that we’ve seen steadily increasing since the end of last year,” says Richard Derr, owner of Learning Express Toys in Lake Zurich, Illinois. “We are waiting [for the new products] and will welcome newness to the category with plush, key clips, bottles, and perhaps figures.”
Lizzy Newsome, toy curator at Kappa Toys in Las Vegas, believes that Innersloth faces an uphill battle in bringing official products to market.
“They waited too long to officially license,” Newsome says. “In Las Vegas, the knock-off gear can be found at every mall kiosk. The market is saturated with unlicensed products, and it’s already halfway through its run. If you don’t think about licensing from the beginning you might lose out entirely in the end.”
To that extent, the approach for Among Us differs from the established norms. Rowden says that despite what some may think, the goal is not to push out as much product as soon as possible to generate maximum revenue.
“Our biggest concern with speed to market wasn’t revenue generation, but instead, giving fans options to purchase official products at storefronts so that they would stop purchasing from scam or poor quality websites,” Rowden says. “The difficulty has been trying to balance our partners’ needs with the understanding that both the Innersloth and Dual Wield Studio teams are very small in comparison to other IPs out there, and our biggest focuses are on trying to scale appropriately and trying to manage team members’ sanity and well-being during an enormously stressful and complicated time of transition.”
FROM FANS TO LICENSEES
The maker community that has embraced Among Us and helped to promote the game now finds itself in a unique spot as Innersloth and its flagship title have become a big business. Rather than shut them out, the company developed a “fan creation policy” and has welcomed some makers into the fold to have their designs sold through the official Among Us webstore, which includes an Artist’s Alley.
“Admittedly, this is a difficult balance to walk,” Rowden says. “Any time you invite fans to be a part of a process you add time, complication, and levels of complexity that are difficult to plan for. Our mass-market and retail partners know what needs to be done and how best to achieve it; for our fandom creators, many of them have never worked with an IP holder in an official capacity before, or if they have, sometimes they’ve been taken advantage of via predatory contracts, low wages, or their work being used without credit and no access to place that work in their portfolios due to aggressive NDAs.”
Rowden says that the company is taking care to empower independent creators, and working with them to understand the nuances of executing on a timeline and the expectations of how their work will be created, delivered, and used in the marketplace.
“It may seem counterintuitive to state that we don’t mind small, independent creators creating unlicensed, unofficial items, but we genuinely don’t,” she says. “The people we want to combat are the resellers and importers who are trying to sell hundreds of thousands of units of unlicensed, often unsafe, or just bad merchandise. Even if it’s a revenue loss on our side, if a customer purchases something that a creator handmade, the creator made it because they love the IP, and the customer purchased it because they felt it resonated with them more than an official item. Our goal is to bridge the gap between the IP holder and the fans that create items in a way that is nonpredatory, giving fans a chance to actually work with the creators of the IP they love so much.”
As the world begins to open up again and fan conventions return later this year, the Among Us community will finally be able to share its love for the game in public for the first time. That means that colorful Crewmates will no doubt be found in cosplay and on tables in Artist’s Alley at cons.
In the meantime, the game continues to grow. It launched on Nintendo Switch last year and will soon welcome new fans of many ages on Xbox and Playstation. New fans will keep the franchise alive as enterprising companies and individuals will try to cash in. A McDonald’s Chicken McNugget shaped like a Crewmate (or Impostor?) recently sold on eBay for $99,997. The InnerSloth team has even grown with the addition of its ninth member, and new colors for Crewmates have been coming at a steady pace.
With so much activity swirling around a game that’s now entering its fourth year, it wouldn’t be sus to assume that an Among Us 2 could be lurking on the horizon. A sequel almost happened once already. “All of the content we had planned for Among Us 2 will instead go into Among Us 1,” the Innersloth team said in a statement last fall. In a world where most are chasing the next big thing, the makers of Among Us are taking the rare approach of carefully building upon the big thing that’s already here.
This article was originally published in Issue No. 10 of the Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!