How Bloober Team is thriving with hidden horror games

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Krakow, Poland has bunch of people working at Bloober Team who have figured out how to scare the hell out of us.

Over the years, the team figured out that “hidden horror” was a viable subgenre within horror games. That meant it was less graphic than ultra-bloody slasher movies like Friday the 13th or graphic horror games with lots of body parts like The Evil Within. The result was the 2016 psychological horror game Layers of Fear.

Hidden horror games use suspense and fear of the unknown to scare the player, rather than grotesque gimmicks. Such games like Bloober Team’s Blair Witch don’t show blood or monsters or zombies or slashers or anything like that. It seems like a very restrained way of scaring people in a genre that is besodden with cheap scares and gore. I talked to Piotr Babieno, CEO of Bloober Team in Krakow Poland, at the recent Gamescom event in Cologne, Germany.

“We like to focus on something that’s in our minds, that’s hidden. I believe that we are most afraid of things we don’t know,” said Babieno.

Now the company is working on Layers of Fears, as well as unannounced games, and it is publishing titles for other studios.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Piotr Babieno, CEO of Bloober Team.

GamesBeat: Can you update me on how Bloober started and how it is doing now?

Piotr Babieno: When we met at DICE (this spring) that was a turning point for Bloober Team. We’d just turned from focusing on work-for-hire projects toward our own strategy. We founded the company in 2008. We made a lot of different kinds of games for publishers and other developers as a work-for-hire producer. Then our main shareholders, the VC, decided to put us on the stock exchange in Poland. Of course, they told us, “Guys, you have to focus on something small. You have to focus on something that can do well in the market.” So we did it.

In 2014 we had the situation where we announced Basement Crawl for the PlayStation 4. Because it was a game on PS4 at launch, we got a 27 (out of 100) on Metacritic. It was a disaster. However, from a financial point of view it wasn’t so bad. There were maybe 12 to 15 games for PS4, depending on your region, so if someone had the console it was likely that they’d choose our title. From a financial point of view it was good for our shareholders. But we were very disappointed about the quality, and we were very disappointed about the perception of the company and our brand.

In 2015, just after Basement Crawl, we got together and we asked ourselves the question. Are we closing the studio, or are we going to do something new? We decided we needed to do something different from anyone in the industry. We decided to make Basement Crawl from scratch on a new engine – on Unity, by the way – and we made a game with the name Brawl. It was exactly the same concept, but with better quality, with multiplayer, with single-player, with a story mode and everything. It wasn’t great. But it was okay. It was something like 60 percent. Based on that, we decided we would release the game completely for free to everyone who bought Basement Crawl before. You expect a game developer to do a patch. You expect a game developer to do some DLC. But you don’t expect the developer will give you a whole game for free. It wasn’t great from a financial point of view, but it was great that people realized that we cared.

Bloober Team’s The Medium.

GamesBeat: The shift to horror?

Babieno: At the same moment, we decided we needed to focus that we felt would be good for us. We got back to the roots of why we moved into the game industry. We always liked horror, psychological horror. We were reading a lot of books and watching a lot of movies. We wanted to work on games that we would be proud of, that we’d like to play ourselves. Then we came to our shareholders, because we’re on the stock exchange, and we said, “We’d like to focus on horror. We’d like to become one of the best developers of psychological horror in the world.” They said, “Okay, this is a good idea. We’ll support you.” They gave us money, actually much more than we expected, but we lowered the numbers to just what we really needed at the time.

That was a key moment in the history of Bloober Team. The oldest Polish studio, Reality Pump, had some financial problems. We went to their owners, TopWare Interactive, and asked if they’d sell the company. They gave us some strange numbers that were completely above our expectation of the real value of the company. Of course we said no. But a few months later everyone left the company, because they weren’t paid their salaries. We attracted some of those guys, 15 or 16 people, and suddenly we were a team of 40 people. For us, that was a pretty big change.

GamesBeat: How did you transition to your new focus?

Babieno: That was when we started production on Layers of Fear, which led to Observer, Layers of Fear 2, Blair Witch and so on. We describe our sub-genre as “hidden horror.” We never like to show blood or monsters or zombies or slashers or anything like that. We like to focus on something that’s in our minds, that’s hidden. I believe that we are most afraid of things we don’t know. At the start I created thirty pillars describing what Bloober Team games should look like. Then I realized, after meeting with my people, that they didn’t understand any of it. It was completely too much. That’s why we focus just on two pillars at our company.

The first one is that everything we’re doing is connected with the subject of the game. In the beginning, we think about what we’d like to tell the fans, what we’d like to tell to everyone who’ll buy our product. In Layers, for example, it was the question of what is more important to you: your job or your family? Are you able to be as good at your job with a family, or do you need to sacrifice something? In Observer it was a question about humanity. Are we part of a machine or are we still human beings? In Medium it was about looking at different situations from different perspectives. That’s what we want to show. The subject of the game is the most important thing. Everything – game design, art, music – should bring that subject forward.

We also never like to insist that something is good or bad. In real life, whatever you do, life is passing by. The same is the case in our games. We’re creating a moral context in which you need to make your choices, but we don’t want to judge you. We don’t want to tell you that this is wrong or this is bad. At the end of the game, we’d like you to know something more, not necessarily about our story or our characters, but about yourself. In your life, you won’t meet these kinds of conflicts. Or maybe once in a lifetime. We give the opportunity to know a little more about yourself. We understand that this is entertainment, of course, so people won’t always go into all the layers we put into our games. But if even five percent of our players understand that, that’s great.

Between 2015 and 2022, that was the story of Bloober Team 2.0. We focused on psychological horror. We made our mark on the industry. Some people hate our games. Some people really like our games. I like that, because if you go to Metacritic, you’ll see 10/10, 9/10, and then you’ll see 5/10 or 6/10. Our games aren’t for everyone. There are people who love them. I’d rather have a 70 percent average based on wildly differing opinions rather than an 80 where nobody’s very hot or cold.

Bloober Team’s Observer System Redux.

GamesBeat: Do you feel like you’ve found a segment within horror that’s different?

Babieno: Definitely. Because of those two pillars I mentioned – about focusing on the subject and making players think about themselves – our games are a little bit different from everything else on the market. We’re compelling. We’re thinking differently from Americans or developers in other parts of the world. Sometimes I think we show some things that can’t be shown in the U.S. or the U.K. or other countries. We have different experiences in life. We’ve had war. We’ve had Communism. I think you can feel that in our games.

Between 2015 and 2022, we were a psychological horror game developer. Right now it’s a turning point for us. From a company that focused on storytelling through the environment, we’re going into action. We’d like to be more mass market. We’d like to build titles with a lot of action, something you could compare to Resident Evil or Silent Hill or The Last of Us or Hellblade. I’m not talking about budgets or scope. But that’s how we’d like to position our future titles. Right now we’re working on some projects that will show that we’re in a different league. However, we’d still like to stay with the DNA of our earlier games, still focusing on the psychological aspects. Helping people better understand themselves and other human beings is still the most important thing for us.

Our goal is to become the best horror game developer in the world. That’s what we’d like to achieve in the next seven years.

GamesBeat: What did you find that was different in making something like the Blair Witch Project versus your own original content? What was the experience like there?

Babieno: It’s always hard if you’re working with a license, with another IP holder. Everyone has a different expectation. You’re going into lore that someone else has described. When Lion’s Gate came to us and we started our conversations about what we could use, we decided that Blair Witch seemed like one license where we could create something. It’s described, but not very much. The borders weren’t very clear. We decided that if we would be able to tell our own story in that universe, it would be something interesting for us. That’s why we decided to work with them on Blair Witch. I think you can feel that it’s a Bloober Team game. It’s still Blair Witch, but it’s one of our games. We’re happy that we were able to do it.

GamesBeat: How many people are at the studio now?

Babieno: It’s funny. As I told you, we started with just 15 or 16. Then we jumped up to 40. Before Blair Witch and Layers of Fear 2, we grew to 70 or 80. Now we’re at almost 200. We have two big development teams working on different projects. One is working on the project with Konami, and the other is working on the project with Private Division. We also have some small creative teams working on pre-production for new titles.

GamesBeat: Is there a feeling that Private Division allows you to be more independent than other publishers?

Babieno: Very. It’s our own IP, our own title. In fact, we weren’t originally looking for a publisher for this title. However, a friend of mine who used to work at UTA, United Talent Agency, joined Private Division. He knew about our project, and so he came to us and said that we should pitch them this IP. They got back to us and said they’d like to work on it with us. They offered to support us financially, with knowledge and marketing. They cared a great deal about the title and thought it could be one of their biggest, so we decided to work with them.

Moving forward to now, I can tell you that Private Division–we have some experience working with publishers, big and small. But Private Division is a really smart publisher. They allow us to do almost everything we want to do. They’re not changing anything. Sometimes they help us understand that things we think are great aren’t going to work so well in the U.S. If we change something, it’s not just because they told us to, but because they made us consider it in a new light.

GamesBeat: How big an opportunity do you see in the horror genre in general? Is it a growing share of games overall?

Babieno: It’s a good question. Nobody’s really done a good accounting of how big horror is or how big it can be. Some people will tell you that it’s five percent of the market, others will say that it’s more than 20 percent, because it depends on what you call horror. Some games aren’t typical horror, but they have a mood that’s on the dark side. If you look at Hollywood movies and upcoming games, most of them are rather dark right now. It’s nothing strange for us, nothing surprising. Historically, when there are wars, when there are crises, horror does well. As human beings we want to prepare ourselves for things we don’t know. We turn to horror movies, horror novels, horror games.

Our games, in some ways–I wouldn’t say they’re therapy. But you might be prepared for things like an economic crisis, which I feel like is happening around the world. Maybe we’ll see another pandemic. Maybe we’ll see more military conflicts. I hope not, but it’s possible. I think people want to make themselves cold for a little while to prepare themselves for things to come.

Your trust dog sniffs out the witch.

GamesBeat: It does feel like you see a blending of horror with other genres that’s often done very well. I think of The Last of Us, which has a lot of horror in there. Or Callisto Protocol.

Babieno: We describe ourselves as horror game producers, and that’s true. But on the other hand, I think the most important thing is to show a new kind of experience. Right now we can watch Netflix. We can watch all these other streaming shows. We can go to concerts again. We can read books. Players need a reason to choose our games. We don’t just compete with other games. We compete with every kind of media for people’s free time. That’s why it’s so important to offer a new experience. Offering that exciting proposition in some way is the most important thing to be able to attract more people.

GamesBeat: Finding that opportunity where you blend genres like action and horror, it seems like that’s what your expansion is trying to do.

Babieno: Exactly. But we still want to tell deep stories with original narratives. Narrative is something which we feel like we do very well. We still want to tell mature stories, but in a completely new way that’s very attractive to everyone. The Last of Us is a perfect example. We’d like to deliver that kind of experience.

GamesBeat: You’ve grown rapidly in the last few years. Have you had challenges from things like the war in Ukraine, given that it’s so close to you?

Babieno: We have some people from Ukraine. We also have some people from Russia who we hired before the war. We have some affiliated studios in Ukraine that are still cooperating with us. Some of them, a few months ago, we helped them get across the border and reorganize themselves in different countries like Poland or Germany. But I wouldn’t say that things have changed a lot from a studio perspective. With 200 people, right now we have a mix of people from Poland and many other countries. We have people from Thailand, from the U.S., from the U.K.

GamesBeat: These other studios, were they subcontractors working with you?

Babieno: In the Polish gaming industry, most people are hired as subcontractors. The Polish tax regulations are set up in a way that it’s usually better for people to be subcontractors. However, right now we have more and more people as regular employees, on the regular payroll. Even those who have their own companies and work as subcontractors, they’re working exclusively for us, and we treat them like our own workers. From my point of view, this is the best possible way, because we’re making a new kind of experience every single time. We don’t have very many people leaving Bloober Team, compared to our colleagues from other studios. We have less turnover, and that’s great.

GamesBeat: Did you have slower productivity because of the pandemic?

Babieno: In fact, no. In the beginning we were all wondering what would happen, of course. But some people worked even better at home, although others were working slower. It depends on their different situations. Some of them have a small flat with a wife and two kids and their mother-in-law. It’s difficult to be productive in that kind of situation. On the other hand you have a lot of people who prefer to work remotely. Maybe they live just outside the city, in the countryside. It always depends on the individual.

The most important thing is to show everyone that we’re still one company. The difference is that right now you can log in and log out from the company in 15 minutes from wherever in the world you’re living. Right now you could work for Bloober Team today, for Microsoft or Sony or Capcom or any other company tomorrow. The most important thing is to give people the feeling that they’re a part of the company, that we share the same vision, and that we’re working together. That’s why I think that it’s important to organize events for our workers where we’re talking about our vision, where we have constructive discussions with each other, to better understand ourselves.

It’s funny. Last year, in October, we had a party on the sea coast in Poland. It was the 13th anniversary of Bloober Team. For a horror game producer, 13 is an important number. It was the first time when many people we’d hired in the past two years had met each other in person. But this event was very important for us.

Would this be scarier if you saw a witch in the picture?

Right now we’re changing offices. We’re very near to the place we used to be, on the same street, but it’s bigger and better and so on. However, we’re not putting any pressure on our people to come back into the office. We’re giving them the opportunity if they feel like it’s the right time and the right place. We’d like to attract them to come back. But in any case, we’re taking care of the connection between each other. We want to create the feeling that everyone is a part of Bloober Team.

That’s why it’s also important that almost 100 people at the company are shareholders in Bloober Team. We decided we wanted to organize that as a program. We’re very happy with the results, because most of them, all of a sudden, are thinking about the financials of the company as well as the creative side. People don’t necessarily always think about the importance of budgets, but they understand that much more now.

GamesBeat: How do you view the Polish game industry at large? How mature is it now? I’d guess that it saw an influx of people because of the war. Is it getting bigger?

Babieno: It’s growing very fast. It’s not just people coming from the east. We’ve had a lot of people come from places like Spain and Italy. They’re coming to Poland because we have great projects to work on. If someone wants to work on RPGs, for example, maybe they want to go to CD Projekt. If someone wants to work on open world games, Techland is probably working in that area. If they want to make horror games, there’s Bloober Team. More and more people are coming from abroad to join us. At our last count there are more than 8,000 people in the Polish game industry now. It’s quite a big community.

GamesBeat: Has the government or the industry done reports on the industry?

Babieno: Not the government, but there’s an institution in Krakow that does a study every year. They’re also the organizer of the Digital Dragons conference every year. Those statistics are very important. The government does some photo ops and talks about how the gaming industry is very important, but I would say that right now we have a huge problem with that. More and more countries in Europe really do care about the gaming industry, though. Germany is making a huge impact. Belgium has been providing tax carve-outs for the industry for several years, which is great. More and more studios will open up in these countries.

Still, many people will remain in Poland. People enjoy the mood of game development here. From a financial point of view, we’re not as competitive as we were three to five years ago, because we have huge inflation. We have new taxation. People are coming from abroad, though, so salaries are going up as well. In some ways we’re very similar to western Europe, if you look at salary costs and things like that. But the most important thing is the mood and the knowledge. That’s where we have an advantage.

GamesBeat: When do you think you’ll start talking about your new games?

Babieno: Very soon. We’ll be showing at the Future Games Show that’s put on by GamesRadar, and we’ll have the next trailer for Layers of Fears, the new iteration of the franchise. The first two games were published by other companies, but we still have the IP rights. We’re mixing the first game with the second game and giving it another go. The two games had the same lore, but the stories weren’t connected. We saw an opportunity to add something there. We’d like to tell the story in a different way, combining both of them into one title. For everyone who played Layers of Fear or Layers of Fear 2, it will be a new kind of experience. For everyone who didn’t play either game, it will be an opportunity to discover the whole lore, but also from different perspectives.

The Blair Witch game didn’t show what you feared.

This title closes our history from 2015 to 2022. Every single title we made from the beginning of that era–we’re closing the story of just walking sims. I don’t like that term, but people describe our games that way. We’re closing that story and going into a bigger space. That will be the game with Konami, which I hope will be announced soon, and the next one with Private Division. Our next games, as we said, will be more action-focused. Third-person, for a wider audience. Of course, Layers of Fear had something like 12 million players. That was thanks to things like Humble Bundle, but it’s still a big number for a single-player horror experience. But right now we’re aiming to widen our audience, to add more gameplay, more action, more combat.

Still, we want to stay true to what we are. We’re still making horror games. That will never change. Horror is only a label, really. The main thing is that we’re telling stories to arouse emotions in a specific way. Some people call our games thrillers, for example, not necessarily horror. We’re okay with that. The important thing is what the game does to your mind, how it plays with you. It doesn’t matter what you call that.

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