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Survival horror: Thriving in a genre gold rush

Polish developer Bloober Team is betting its future on scary games, but CEO Piotr Babieno isn't afraid of getting lost in the crowd

There's a new name in the world of horror games, and it's a name that wants to become synonymous with blood-curdling, bone-chilling scare fests: Bloober Team. As one might expect, the studio founders settled on a name before figuring out what sort of games they wanted to make.

As Bloober Team co-founder and CEO Piotr Babieno explained to GamesIndustry.biz, the studio name was pulled from its first project back in 2008, a title called Bloob. While that game never saw release, the Polish studio had already secured investors under the Bloober Team moniker, and it seemed a bit late to change. In the seven years since, Bloober Team has gotten by on work-for-hire projects, with a few original efforts thrown into the mix.

Unfortunately, those games weren't terribly successful, receiving middling to scathing critical reactions.

"Two years ago, we decided we needed to focus," Babieno said. "We needed to do something that we felt was our genre."

Bloober Team went out and secured a fresh round of investment which let them staff up with high-quality developers pulled from nearby studios like Reality Pump, CD Projekt Red, CI Games, and Techland. These days the studio operates with about 50 employees, and so far it looks like the staffing up is paying off.

Bloober Team's style is more about mood than surprise scares.

Bloober Team's style is more about mood than surprise scares.

In August, Bloober Team launched the Bomberman-inspired Brawl on Steam to a smattering of positive reviews. But the real clincher has been Layers of Fear, a psychedelic horror game with a painterly twist that launched on Steam Early Access in August, and is also part of the Xbox One Preview Program.

The first game that really embodies the studio's new direction, Layers of Fear has 2,114 reviews on Steam, more than 97 percent of which give it a thumbs up. Babieno attributed the game's glowing reception to its more nuanced approach to horror.

"There are a lot of horror games that are just jump-scare-fests," he said. "There are a lot of horror games that are trying to scare you with survival aspects of gameplay. But on the other hand, we think the most dangerous, suspenseful things are in our minds. So that's why we'd like to make games based on the mood rather than jump-scares."

Even if that helps set Bloober Team's games apart from the crowd, Babieno acknowledged that the horror genre has been growing like a zombie plague lately.

"[T]here are moments in our history when horrors are very popular. I think this is because we don't feel safe in the world right now..."

"I believe horrors are cyclical," Babieno said. "If you think about the movies, books, comics, and games, there are moments in our history when horrors are very popular. I think this is because we don't feel safe in the world right now... I think people would like to feel that they can be saved, and horror is the best genre for them to feel prepared for something unknown."

Still, he dismissed any idea that the genre was getting saturated, or that it would be losing popularity any time soon.

"There are a lot of games in all genres," Babieno said. "If you're going into the game industry right now, it's really hard to be noticed. If you take a look at how many games are arriving each day for iOS, Android, and Steam, unfortunately for many developers, there's a huge crowd. You can tell right now we have a gold rush. But I'm pretty sure if you're unique, if you're giving gamers something no one has done in the past, you can be successful."

Layers of Fear will see a proper launch late this year or early next, Babieno said. And even though it has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success through the Early Access model of development, Bloober Team's next titles--Medium and Scopophobia--will probably skip that step on the way to launch.

"We will launch them when we have the final version," Babieno said. "Both are completely unique so we're thinking if we show things which we have [in Early Access], we can't [surprise gamers how we want to] when we deliver the final version."

As for the name, Babieno admitted there'd been a lot of talk about changing it. It doesn't sound very scary to start with, and the quality of projects the studio produces now are quite different than the ones made under the Bloober Team name for the past seven years. Ultimately though, it sounds like the name will stay.

"We think we should be really honest with people and we should leave the name and work on projects," Babieno said. "Because projects tell much more than the name of the company."

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Latest comments (8)

Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 4 years ago
Okay, picky thing, but... saying "survival horror" is like saying "funny comedy". All horror is survival horror. That's the very nature of horror.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 4 years ago
Tim, I'd prefer to separate the definition of "survival" from "horror," otherwise what's the use of the word? To me, "survival" games are about managing a very limited level of resources to keep your character from dying. (And, typically, they have perma-death thrown in.) That's orthogonal to "horror," so you could have either one without the other.

The Long Dark is a good example of a non-horror survival game.

As for Layers of Fear, I don't see any survival component in it at all, nor do I see anybody except the headline writer saying that it's got anything to do with survival games. (In the article itself, Babieno uses jump-scare horror and survival horror as example of genres different from his game.) Not the first misleading headline on GamesIndustry.biz, sadly.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Curt Sampson on 14th November 2015 2:23am

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Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist 4 years ago
Yeah, by that definition, any game in which you can die is implicitly a "survival" game. Technically true in a literal sense, but doesn't serve any real purpose. Wouldn't be much point insisting that Doom was technically a survival horror game.
The gaming genre definition of "survival" is pretty universally understood I think.
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Rafa Ferrer Localisation Manager, Red Comet Media4 years ago
To me, "survival horror" also implies that winning is just surviving, not defeating the evil itself, since there's usually not even a chance -It has gone so bad you can only hope of surviving at best (which may include escaping). That does make a difference.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany4 years ago
"we'd like to make games based on the mood rather than jump-scares."

I'm glad to read that. Proper horror is made that way; Jumpscares are the easy way and abusing it shows lack of knowledge on how to make it (just a personal opinion).
You can still use jump-scares here and there, but you need to know how to use them. To put an example I enjoyed Outlast a lot but all those jump-scared heavily disappointed me, not as much because of how over-used they were, but because the game did not need them at all! they managed to create a great environment and an almost perfect mood. I would have removed more than half of them.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 4 years ago
Yes, there are non-horror survival games.

But ALL horror is about a threat which has to be survived. That's the very nature of horror as a genre. The threat is always much more powerful than the protagonst. For example, the protagonist could be a woman and the threat a 250 lb psychopath with a knife. She must survive the threat. That's horror, as a genre. No need to say "survival".

So it's redundant to say "survival horror". It's like saying "exciting action" or whatever.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 16th November 2015 8:40pm

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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 4 years ago
Yes, rata. THAT's the characteristic foundation of all horror. The threat probably can't be defeated... it can only be survived.
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Rafa Ferrer Localisation Manager, Red Comet Media4 years ago
Tim:
THAT's the characteristic foundation of all horror. The threat probably can't be defeated... it can only be survived.
I disagree with the "all horror" bit.
Most slasher movies end with the unlikely protagonist killing the psycho (or so they think). Dracula is also pretty much owned at the end of every movie. Everyone knows how to kill a werewolf too, they can be defeated, that's how it works: threat and weak spot. In these cases, when the protagonists have run enough and understand they need to save their friends/town/world, they make a stand and put an end to the horror. So it can indeed be defeated.
Then there's what we're calling "survival horror". You can kill a zombie, but you usually can't save the world. You can kill a Shoggoth, but you can never kill Cthulhu for good if he finally takes over our reality. You can survive at best, if you're lucky and smart, but that's the only possible goal there is -no weak spots, no final stands, no happy ending. You can't win, just survive.
Besides, survival horror, especially in more recent times, use the threat just as a permanent background for other stories, usually the human nature in extreme conditions, and how humans are worse than the main horror they are running from.
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