One of the biggest moments of the year on Twitch came last night when two US congresswomen played a $5 Unity game from 2018. They entered Among Us with a rotating cast of popular Twitch figures, drawing an audience of more than 430,000 on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's channel alone. The broadcast was one of the most-watched streams by an individual ever.
Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar were newcomers to Among Us' deception-by-committee, and their introduction to the game sparked some relatable and funny incidents, like Ocasio-Cortez accidentally self-reporting one of her victims while trying to click on a vent as imposter. It was a pleasant watch because streamers let the congresswomen ease into the experience and restrained themselves from going fully cutthroat. One of my favorite moments of the stream came when Ocasio-Cortez entered Storage on The Skeld to complete the "fuel engines" task and raised an eyebrow, as one of the key proponents of the Green New Deal: “I mean, what kind of futuristic spaceship has gasoline anyway?”
Hands down the best part😂😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/LspF8v09OYOctober 21, 2020
I think viewers were excited to have two significant political figures lend their hobby some legitimacy. But this memorable event couldn't have happened without PC gaming's propensity to produce massive hits out of nowhere. If you'd told me in January that Rep. Ilhan Omar would be slaying streamers in an indie game designed by three people, I would've called it weird progressive fan fiction.
More than ever, none of us can guess what's going to be the Next Big Thing in PC gaming.
PC gaming's prolific periphery
The past three months have delivered three new, unexpected hits. August unleashed Fall Guys, the 60-person, gameshow-inspired bean tumbler that had quite a good sprint from the starting line: it became Devolver's best launch ever in its 11 years.
Last month Among Us took hold as streamers followed one another into the game like a line of dominoes. As Wes covered in detail, a combination of English and Korean streamers discovering the game, along with the structure of short rounds and a low barrier to entry made Among Us the perfect impulse-buy (it's also free on iOS and Android). It's been so big that the developers halted their plans to make a sequel in order to circle back and improve the original release.
And in the last couple weeks Phasmophobia appeared out of thin air, doubling the Steam concurrent player peak of big, anticipated releases like Baldur's Gate 3. No one predicted that kind of performance from a janky, unfinished, low-budget horror game that we've called "the best ghost game ever made." Right now Twitchtracker.com has Phasmaphobia as the 11th most popular game on the platform.
Who would've called any of this? We didn't; our 2020 draft of the games we expected to earn popularity didn't include any of these names. At this point I have to wonder if something could supercede Cyberpunk 2077 in November or December.
It's the fringes of PC gaming that we have to thank for this streak of surprises, a healthy community of bright coder-designers, tinkerers, and modders who incubate simple ideas into phenomena. From Minecraft, the PC helped spawn survival games. From Arma modding, it birthed battle royale. From Warcraft 3 modding, the MOBA.
The ecosystem of streamers, websites, and internet word-of-mouth propels these game concepts into sudden stardom at an increasingly rapid pace. Content creators compete with one another to find the next novel thing to share with their audiences. They want to be the first ones to hitch their wagon to a brand, to become the specialist on a new game just before it rockets into everyone's awareness. As this competition plays out, eventually a powerful feeling forms in streamers and audiences: the fear of missing out.
It's a damned exciting thing to cover and watch play out. Each week we have to keep our eyes peeled for something unknown out of left field—an unexpected genre, a developer you've never heard of. We're not gaming in a time where the biggest and most obvious franchises perpetually dominate the charts.
Just to put this into perspective. https://t.co/Cn7mOLrB9f pic.twitter.com/zwGdxHs5csOctober 21, 2020
Of course we can't forget the "astounding" Genshin Impact either, which over the long term will probably become the most popular of all of these. It doesn't come from a small studio, but it certainly arrived out of nowhere for most of us in the west, as thousands of players struggled to figure out how to download it.
The startling success of these games sends a strong signal about the state of PC gaming: yes, digital distribution has leveled the playing field between small studios and the biggest devs in the world. Yes, the dream of making it big with a small game is still alive. Your project doesn't even have to be new, finished, or particularly innovative to make it.
We're all on our toes in this landscape. Are you enjoying it as much as I am?