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From Mafia to Among Us: Can social deduction evolve as online multiplayer?

As a veteran Mafia player who's lost brain cells playing the game since college and as an aspiring game designer launching my first game on Kickstarter, I will share my two cents on the emergence of online multiplayer social deduction games.

As a veteran Mafia player who’s lost brain cells in college playing the game and as an aspiring game designer launching my first game on Kickstarter, I want to share my two cents on the emergence of online multiplayer games that are taking the genre to a new place. What follows is a summary of our research and thought process for building Republic of Jungle, a game that started as a prototype for our own game nights and eventually grew to a project we quit our jobs for. I’ve been a fan of the genre for years, and I have spent more than a year staring at the walls of my home office thinking about this stuff, while apparently everyone else was playing Among Us. Trust me... I’m a simple townie. An indie developer trying to share what I've learned with no agenda...

Should I be making a game at a time like this? (Image from Bo Burnham's INSIDE on Netflix)

 

Social Deduction: From Vodka to Cocktails

Mafia was originally designed as an academic psychological experiment in Russia in the late ‘80s, but it got quickly picked up by college students who played it in summer camps and dorm rooms. In a few years, it spread to the rest of Europe and to North America, where it was marketed as Werewolf. Its organic growth to global fame in the pre-internet era is a testament to the potency of the core game idea: can an informed secret minority manipulate the uninformed majority? Can an organized mob of traitors lead a collaborative group to its demise?

While the fundamental appeal of Mafia is hard to miss, it doesn’t always translate to a fun experience. The original game of Mafia and its early adaptations are crude experiences by modern game design standards. They are less like the carefully crafted cocktails of fun we expect from games these days, and more like a bottle of straight-up vodka that can quickly go from fun to poison. There are cautionary tales about how friendships are ruined over Mafia. The game is mechanically too simple and gives little material to the players to play with, which can turn games into unsavory shouting contests and arguments over random events. Over the years, game designers have tried to make their own new cocktails out of this potent vodka. The result is a category of games and game mechanics most commonly called “social deduction”.

(Image from Community S1E21: Contemporary American Poultry)

 

The Nights and the Days

In Mafia, the game is divided into the night and day phases. The night is when the public goes to sleep, and the informed minority (the mob/werewolves and potentially a few players with special roles) take their covert actions. Then comes the day, and the public wakes up, evaluates what happened, and discusses if they should eliminate a suspect by majority vote. This is where the mob tries to frame the innocent as guilty and manipulate the confused townies to go after each other.

These night and day phases can take different shapes and forms in various games, but the public versus private modes of communication is an essential part of any social deduction game. Fundamentally, the premise of finding traitors in a group will always require a “public square” mechanism to give every player a chance to present or defend their case.

Instead of foolishly trying to define a genre, I’m going to assume that social deduction refers to any game that has this “public square” phase, and I’m going to assume that players use natural language (or “talk”, as normal people say) to communicate in this phase. This is just an assumption for scoping this article, not scoping the genre. As I said, I don’t intend or like to define genres.

Town of Salem on Steam

Early versions of Town of Salem used the web technology of the time to integrate public matchmaking and text chat with an extended version of Mafia/Werewolf as a browser-based game.

 

The Who, the How, and the What

If we assume the public discussion phase to be the fundamental part of a social deduction game, we can trace every other aspect of the game to this phase. Everything else in the game, including the environment and the secret actions, are referenced in this phase and impact what players talk about and how they talk about it. More importantly, it affects who you’d want to play the game with. This is the core tension of the design for these games. Most decisions impose trade-offs between these factors: 

  • Who would you want to play the game with?

  • How would you communicate with them?

  • What would you be talking about?

First, let’s break down each of these factors and why they are important. Then, we can regroup and see how an online multiplayer game could differentiate from its party game predecessors in each of these factors, and if Among Us did anything right in this regard that enabled its extraordinary success.

 

The Who and the Problem of Toxicity

As socially evolved creatures, finding a traitor among our in-group does not exactly feed on our sense of unity and trust. The fun of social deduction is based on social conflict and inducing paranoia. The game depends on the players’ ability to communicate despite this conflict. Therefore, pre-existing trust between the players can significantly improve the experience and make fun emerge more easily. A group of friends comes to the game equipped with built-in methods of having fun as a group. For a group like this, the gameplay is just a stage to have their own version of fun. Whether you prefer thematic role-playing, dramatic trials, or mathematical arguments, the game is there for you, giving you the material to express yourself. You can bring your own version of fun to the game if you’re willing to communicate. That’s a big if. In a party game, the communication system is up to the players. Players may be in a room together, on a Zoom call, or in Twitch chat. The game happens where that group hangs out. This is not the case when you find strangers in the public lobby of the game to play with. Most online social deduction games with public lobbies have to deal with toxicity as a major issue, partly due to the lack of pre-existing trust between the players. Games that solve this problem more effectively have an easier time creating a good experience for the players and growing a healthy community around the game.

In March 2021, Among Us released the Quickchat feature for "faster and safer" communication. Users could enable open text chat by confirming their age to be 13+.

 

The How and the Problem of Remote Communication

Just a few weeks ago, I got the chance to play Republic of Jungle with our friends in person for the first time, kind of. The last time I had played the game in a room with friends, it was still a rough prototype with minimal UI. In early 2020, right as we decided to quit our jobs to work on the game full-time, the pandemic lockdowns started, and we had to build most of the game while playtesting remotely. After more than a year of full-time work, I got to experience our own game in person for the first time. In my humble opinion, it was a blast! I was blown away by how different the game feels in person compared to a Zoom call. When you’re face-to-face with people, you can notice every subtle display of emotion. Every nervous laugh, every eye contact, every change of tone can exchange information just as words can. The social interaction is way more nuanced, people read the room way more intuitively, there can be multiple conversations going on simultaneously, and it’s much easier to get immersed in the game. It shouldn't be controversial, especially in the middle of a global pandemic that kept us far from each other for too long, that current technology does not come close to replicating the subtleties of in-person social interactions and group dynamics. If Ready Player One is any accurate, we might be close by 2045.

This doesn’t mean that all face-to-face games are automatically better. By making an online multiplayer game, you may lose the immediacy of face-to-face interaction, but you also gain opportunities for innovations that can create new experiences and attract new audiences. I believe that in the long run, games with better communication systems can foster better and bigger communities. It’s an opportunity to deal with toxicity right from the UX, or to innovate on the communication system itself to impact the gameplay. The implementation of a chat wheel and proximity chat in Among Us after becoming massively popular hints at the fact that the market appreciates and is asking for better communication systems. However, this might be just the tip of the iceberg as to why there could be more opportunity for innovation here...


The What and the Oddity of Meta-gameplay

Imagine you got a great group together, and you're in the heat of social deduction argument in the “public square” phase. What are you exactly saying, word for word? The goal is to find the traitors, so you must discuss what happened in the game. To make references to events, you have to use words that refer to game entities. When you say, “I saw Timmy kill Jimmy in the hallway”, the act of killing and the hallway are designed entities. So, as a game designer, you don’t have to just worry about the player’s interaction with the environment in real-time, but also how they would talk (and lie) about it later in the discussion, which itself is a game mechanic. This meta-commentary on the game as part of the gameplay (meta-gameplay) puts the game designer in a delicate position. Every design decision has to consider both the real-time experience of the player and how they will talk about it later, even after the game is finished. It’s common practice to talk about what happened in a game after it’s done, because the uninformed players want to catch up with what exactly was going on. In hardcore social deduction communities, being able to read other players and detect their tells is a well-respected skill because it’s rewarded by the game itself. This is anecdotal, but as an avid fan of the genre for the past 14 years, I have seen large online communities form around all sorts of social deduction games, from idle forum-based versions to full-blown online multiplayer games like Town of Salem. I believe the meta-gameplay element is a unique advantage of the genre to make highly replayable games with highly engaged communities. It also makes this a very unique genre to design for. Decisions can have cascading effects on the gameplay and the community around the game. A design that encourages effective and healthy communication between the players can pay compound dividends, whereas a design that breeds miscommunication or toxicity can become detrimental to the game’s growth. This meta-gameplay aspect of the game puts extra tension on the game designer to design a game that is simple to understand, explain and talk about. 

Warning: self-commentary may induce self-awareness! (Image from Bo Burnham's INSIDE on Netflix, again)

 

A Tiny Toolbox

So you want to design a game that fosters healthy communication and is fun to play, but it’s also simple to understand and talk about? Cool! Let’s bring out the toolbox! If you’re designing a tabletop game, your toolbox is limited to physical elements like cards and envelopes. Moreover, all actions have to take place in the 3D space between the players’ eyeballs; arguably a terrible place to take covert actions and share secret information. To move the game forward, you have to make rules for players to close their eyes and use simple actions like pointing to someone or flipping a card. Adding new mechanics can quickly make the game too hard to follow or too cumbersome to play. Despite these limitations, there is no shortage of fun tabletop games that have made significant contributions to the genre. Games like The Resistance, Secret Hitler, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, and Blood on The Clocktower are among my favorites. Despite their simple appearance, these games are really difficult to design. This post by Tommy Maranges, one of the designers of Secret Hitler, is a great demonstration of how difficult it is to design an intuitive mechanic using cards and envelopes: 

https://medium.com/@tommygents/the-one-time-i-was-wrong-while-designing-secret-hitler-d4343413ae53

 

In tabletop social deduction games, all action is out in the open. Players need to close their eyes or use cards to take covert actions and share secrets. This makes it difficult for the designer to add new mechanics to the game without making the game too complex or cumbersome to play. (Image from Secret Hitler's official How-to-play video)

 

The Promise of a Bigger Toolbox

Compared to tabletop game designers, video game designers have a significantly bigger toolbox to design innovative mechanics that feel good in action and facilitate effective communication. The night phase can be mechanically a lot more complex without making the language a lot more complex, and each player has more privacy and agency in taking their secret actions. They can go do stuff and then bring their narrative -whether true or false- to the discussion. In Among Us, you have to be at the right time at the right place to take your desired action or observe something important. In real-time, it’s a skill-based mechanic that lets you move around and make small mistakes and just be in the game without too much stress. In discussions, it enables you to use simple statements like “I saw Timmy Kill Jimmy in the hallway” to paint a picture for others. That’s a win on two fronts and a luxury tabletop games don’t have. In a tabletop game, you make fewer decisions as the player; there are fewer narratives among the players (as most players had their eyes closed), and painting a picture for others is more difficult because the game environment is more abstract. Players spend more time discussing possibilities and emotional cues and less time describing what they did and saw. The shared game environment is also the context of the players’ language, and its design affects how simple it is to understand what’s going on in the game and, more importantly, how they talk about it with each other. Video game designers have better tools to design this context. Better tools don’t magically make better games, but they give more opportunities to the designer to explore.

 

What Among Us got right

The story of how Among Us rose to the top may seem like a series of very fortunate events, but as a wise philosopher once said: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. I think the game design of Among Us was prepared for the spotlight it got on Twitch. Among Us shined on Twitch, where streamers played it with their community mainly using third-party chat applications like Discord. The pre-existing trust between the players reduced the risk of toxicity, and the voice chat elevated the experience of the players and the viewers compared to what the in-game text chat could provide. That’s all great, but it’s nothing unique considering how many other games get the same spotlight on a daily basis. I believe what sets Among Us apart is how it manages to capture the essence of social deduction -and its unique advantage to engage communities- and pack more action in it while keeping the game relatively simple to understand and easy to talk about. All aspects of design -the map, the interactions, the aesthetics- all are deceptively simple to process and think about. When players talk on a stream, the viewer doesn’t need an abstract mental map to follow the discussion, but an actual visual map in which the player’s character was running around. This keeps the language simple and improves the shareability of the game. Moreover, it makes the discussion (day) phase of the game considerably shorter than the action (night) phase, because players can quickly share their narratives and make a decision. A shorter discussion phase gives fewer opportunities to toxic players to ruin the game.

Even with these innovations, if you see Among Us as an online multiplayer game with a matchmaking service and an open text chat for its communication system, you will miss the point. In my opinion, the game experience when played with strangers via text chat is mediocre, considerably worse than when you play with friends via voice. However, it’s good enough to provide a quick entry point for inspired viewers to go jump in the game and not get scorned by toxicity or complexity. The online matchmaking may be a very important piece, but in my opinion, it was not nearly enough on its own to take the game to its global fame. What made Among Us shine in the spotlight was its flexibility and shareability. It had less to do with its gameplay as an online multiplayer game with strangers and more to do with how it could present itself on the stream as a fun party game you could play with your friends.

All game communities develop a lingo around the game, but in social deduction, this lingo becomes part of the game mechanics, as the players have to talk about the game events as party of the game. This adds a constraint to every aspect of the design. Making the real-time action more fun at the expense of making the language more complex may not be a good trade-off. There is an element of simplicity in every aspect of Among Us: the map, the environment, the characters. This is not just an economic choice, but a smart design choice.

 

The future of social deduction as online multiplayer

Back in 2017, when I made the original prototype of what eventually became Republic of Jungle, I was very skeptical about social deduction as online multiplayer. Watching the achievements of Among Us and the subsequent popularity of the genre has turned my skepticism into excitement. I want to see where social deduction goes as online multiplayer. I think the two major points of innovation will be in integrating better communication systems and the overall accessibility and shareability of the game. However, going back to my point about the current state of remote communication, I still believe that in-person social deduction games are a unique experience and will continue to have a dedicated audience. I personally have a strong preference for face-to-face interaction of classic social deduction games, and I see online multiplayer as somewhat a new genre; a synthesis between a classic game idea and modern technology. There are already great games in this category, and I’m excited to see what comes next. It’s hard to keep track of all of them, but here is a list I’m excited about:

 

Republic of Jungle: a different approach to social deduction

The story of Republic of Jungle started when we decided to make our own game nights better by making our favorite game more accessible. Republic of Jungle is inspired by two games: The Resistance: Avalon (our favorite tabletop social deduction game) and the Jackbox Party Packs. Jackbox makes it incredibly easy to jump in a game using your own device (usually your smartphone), while the main screen of the game runs on the TV. It’s like a mashup of couch multiplayer and party games and lets you easily play with large groups with no extra controllers required. This is an especially attractive setup for social deduction. Compared to a tabletop setting, the designers have a much more versatile toolbox to work with. All the secret information and covert actions are done right on the players’ private screen eliminating the physical restrictions around using cards and envelopes. The shared screen makes it simple to track what’s going on in the game, and more importantly, sets the context for the communication between players. You can play the game in person, remotely via a third-party chat app like Zoom or Discord, or on a Twitch stream. The combination of these factors has allowed us to keep the best parts of classic social deduction party games and pack more actions and twists into the game while making it simpler to understand and play.

Republic of Jungle is our showcase of all the aforementioned points fleshed out in an actual game. We have built it up from a bare-bones prototype and improved it incrementally based on the constant feedback from our community. We have taken inspiration from Avalon for the basic mechanics of the game and have tried to keep the good, get rid of the bad, and add new mechanics that are impossible to implement in a tabletop setting. We’ve had a lot of learnings about what works and what doesn’t on this platform, and we have built this knowledge into the game so you can experience it first-hand.

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