Bloober Team CEO Piotr Babieno can identify two turning points in the Polish developer's history.
As he explains to GamesIndustry.biz in a recent conversation, the first turning point came in 2014.
"We launched Basement Crawl for PS4, and in fact the game is very famous because it was the worst game on PS4 at the time," Babieno says. "We made a multiplayer game and online multiplayer didn't work correctly."
After redoing the game from scratch in order to make good on its promises, Bloober Team reflected on its trajectory as a studio.
"We realized in 2014 that we worked mostly on titles that were trying to catch other people and other teams that were successful," Babieno says. "So we tried to do something we personally would be proud of. I decided we should focus on the genre that would be very close to our [tastes]."
The company pivoted to psychological horror games, had an Early Access hit with Layers of Fear, and has built a reputation since then with Observer, Layers of Fear 2, Blair Witch, and most recently, the PC and Xbox Series X|S exclusive The Medium.
The Medium was actually the first of those horror games Bloober Team conceived, but Babieno says it had to be back-burnered until more capable hardware was available to help realize the team's vision. Now that it's out and that vision is fulfilled, Babieno says 2021 marks a second turning point for the company.
"[Psychological horror] is still in our DNA," Babieno says. "We still would like to have this taste of making games, but we would like to tell our stories more with action. That's why our future projects will be more from the first-person perspective, like The Medium. We'll have much more advanced game mechanics."
The Medium is "a project on the edge" for Bloober Team, straddling the company's old approach and its new one. Babieno says the studio plans to make "advanced AA games with AAA quality of graphics and animation, but of course a little bit smaller."
He adds, "In fact, we've been working for more than a year on another gaming project, another horror IP, and we're doing this with a very famous gaming publisher. I can't tell you who. I can't tell you what the project is, but I'm pretty sure when people realize we're working on it, they will be very excited."
A number of horror franchises over the years have pivoted toward action in a bid for broader acceptability, and even when sales have proven out the thesis, they've often proven contentious to the fanbase at large.
"We've been having that conversation for three years," Babieno says. "Because we realized we're in a niche, and we would like to make that niche broader. Our future projects will not necessarily be horror games. They could be called thrillers. We're much broader with The Medium and the stuff we're trying to do in the future.
"If you think about Resident Evil 8, Hellblade 2, even in some ways The Last of Us... This is the area in which we would like to be. And still we'd like to keep our DNA, showing some fears and emotions, those things which are hidden to our eyes. But again, we'd like to not make environment our storytelling, but to have 'real' storytelling with characters, action, and so on."
Babieno knows some fans will be willing to check out Bloober Team's future efforts simply based on the studio's track record at this point, but that clearly won't be enough to stand out in a horror genre that is not just growing but diversifying with innovative hits like the four player co-op Phasmophobia.
"Of course we have some core fans that come back to our games because they're Bloober Team productions, but it's all about having a unique selling proposition," Babieno says. "If you could offer something different from what is on the market, there's much more of a chance that people will take a look at it. Because gamers could choose more than just games. They could choose Netflix TV shows, graphic novels, or spending time on social networks with friends. So we're not competing with other horror game producers; I would say we're competing for the time of gamers."
If Bloober Team is going to come out on top in that competition, Babieno believes it needs to reach as broad an audience as possible. That's part of the reason why the studio teamed up with Microsoft to put Blair Witch and now The Medium into Game Pass. There are 18 million Game Pass subscribers, Babieno says, and most wouldn't know of The Medium if it weren't for the service.
"I think if you're creating a completely new IP like with The Medium, systems like Game Pass are really useful because gamers will learn about your brand very fast," Babieno says.
While some industry-watchers have expressed skepticism about the long-term effect of Game Pass and how the "Netflix-for-games" subscription model could hurt developers, Babieno says he sees no downsides to it. It also didn't hurt that when Blair Witch launched into Game Pass, Microsoft gave it a marketing push including a reveal trailer during its E3 2019 stage show.
"It's very important for a game developer to show their game to as broad an audience as possible," Babieno says. "So I would say Game Pass is helping us, and in the future we'll perhaps try to do some of that with Microsoft again."
Regardless of the studio's new penchant for action or how its future projects are distributed, Babieno is confident their inherent Bloober-ness will be apparent to players.
"They will still be Bloober Team games," he says, "and everyone who plays them will get that taste. But they will be much more mass-market oriented."