Observer is a cyberpunk horror game from Polish studio Bloober Team, who also developed Layers of Fear. They take pains to say that their latest title it isn't a survival horror experience--they prefer to call it "hidden horror" or "catharsis 2.0."
Gamasutra had the pleasure of talking to Bloober's Rafal Basaj about making the game in a recent Twitch stream. He discussed how the team wrestled with whether or not to incorporate distinctly Polish trappings and locales in the game, how they sold its unique brand of scares to the public, and how they settled on pricing.
We've transcribed some of the more interesting passages of the conversation below.
Alex Wawro, editor at Gamasutra
Kris Graft, editor in chief of Gamasutra
Rafal Basaj, brand manager at Bloober Team
Observer's origin story
Graft: What was the inspiration behind Observer? Obviously, there are cyberpunk vibes going on here, can you talk a little bit about the idea came to be?
"The main writer of Layers of Fear, Andrzej Madrzak, came to us with two page-and-a-half story outlines. I don't remember the other one but the first one was cyberpunk-horror. We loved the idea."
Basaj: When we were finishing Layers of Fear, going from early access to the full release, we were thinking about our next project, and one of our ideas was to change the setting as much as we can, to do something else unconnected with horror, we wanted to explore some other environments. So we asked the main writer of Layers of Fear, whose name is Andrzej Madrzak, whose name is a pain to pronounce for anyone outside of Poland. (laughs)
So the guy said, "Okay, I'm going to write a few things up and see where it leads." He came back to the office around a week later, I believe it was around December 2015 or so, and he was like, "I have two scripts. They're completely different." There was like a page-and-a-half for each story, it was a very small gist of an idea. I don't remember the other one but the first one was basically cyberpunk-horror. And a lot of that idea stuck in the game.
The plot was meant to be in that old tenement building. He gave us the script when we were in a meeting of a few people who were running the projects in the company. They went for it: "Okay, we're doing this." We love the idea. Cyberpunk/horror? Let's do it!
"It was a no-brainer for us to bring it to central Europe, thinking about how our world looked like in the 80s and early 90s when cyberpunk was huge. We added Soviet-style propaganda that was close to our history."
No one has done it to the extent that we were thinking about it, focusing more on that horror but leaving cyberpunk in it as a huge part of the game. That was the moment where we started conceptualizing everything, very slowly at first, because we were still finishing up Layers of Fear obviously, but we needed to get work started, so we start picking up on what we could do, what we could be inspired by in the game.
It was really cool and, going into the project, watching the first Blade Runner, playing some pen-and-paper RPG Cyberpunk 2020, going through a shitload of comic books, everything connected to cyberpunk basically. It was a really cool ride for us. One of the ideas we had at the very beginning of that game was how we wanted to establish our world, how we were going to be different from the American or Japanese cyberpunk.
It was a no-brainer for us to bring it to the central part of Europe, thinking about how our world looked like in the 80s, the beginning of the 90s, when cyberpunk was huge around the world. We figured out that cyberpunk was about huge corporations. We added Soviet-style propaganda that was close to our history. Also, that was a moment where we could figure out if we wanted to do something more retro, to make a huge homage to the golden times of cyberpunk. I believe it worked out well.
Graft: Yes, and it's interesting to hear you talk about, you immerse yourself in the American and Japanese cyberpunk aesthetic, the tropes in those genres, but that has me thinking, are there really that many Polish cyberpunk stories out there? You've injected your culture into the genre.
"We were thinking about how we could incorporate our culture, our pop-culture, and our history as small ideas that will make the game whole, in a sense."
Basaj: There are at least a few good books on the verge of cyberpunk and science fiction from Polish authors, but most of all what we were thinking about how we could incorporate our culture, our pop-culture, and our history as small ideas that will make the game whole, in a sense.
I remember at one point when we were discussing whether including local influences in the game would make it less understandable for a Western audience. Basically, that was also the moment where I figured out that for a lot of people it will be aesthetics, that they won't see those things, but it will be different for them. It will feel different, like, in the sequence we're streaming right now, you see all this kitchen furniture. That was the furniture that almost every household had in Poland. So, now even, when we go to our grandparents, you might find in their homes the same furniture that we have here in the game.
There's a lot of these small things that a Western audience doesn't know that are references to culture and history. But that was part of the idea, we wanted people from to find all of those easter eggs of world-building elements. And for all other people who don't want to delve into to figure out how level design is made or how everything worked out, they just wanted to play the game... it's something they know is similar to their world, just a little bit different. So, that was our aim when it came to Observer.
Selling the game to a global audience
Graft: You worked on, at least with this project, the marketing and a little on the business side. So selling a game like this, you're coming up with some terms that can be used to market the game: "catharsis 2.0," "hidden horror." Those are some terms that you can turn into talking points when you're talking to people like us. What's the toughest part about marketing a game like this, though?
"How come in the film industry you have slasher pics, body horror, psychological horror, all those subgenres, while in the video game industry everything is put into this one bag that is survival horror?"
Basaj: That's a tough one to answer in a straight sentence. Definitely, you want to have the hardest things to portray in this kind of games, to make someone understand what is our part of it beyond horror. We are announcing that we are doing psychological horror, recently we're evolving to hidden horror, and we've been very blunt about it, we've been talking to people around that, we've been communicating it around the world.
I read a lot of articles that say that it is a survival horror game, and I think that is the biggest challenge for us because the market right now is so very dense when it comes to thinking about horror, that it's something different. I've done a little studying at one point, and I went to Wikipedia and I Googled "horror," and no game is labeled as horror. Most of the recent games, all of them basically, are called "survival horror" games, and some of them fall into the adventure horror category. That would probably be fictional games.
So that kind of had us thinking at one point, how come in the film industry you have slashers, body horror, psychological horror, you have all those genres that work together, and basically every fan of horror can find something that suits them, while in the video game industry everything is put down into this one bag that is survival horror.
"We're not scaring the people with a monster that pops up, but the aura and atmosphere that we had, and the vision of the future that we had. We're conveying that."
So we're trying to combat that message with talking to people, and yes, all these people said yeah, they're doing psychological horror games, and we were super happy about it when people started noticing that we definitely were doing something different, and that was very cool. And now more and more people are starting to talk about hidden horror as a genre, which makes us extremely happy because I think after Observer people started noticing that horror could be a little different.
So not to spoil the stream right now and tell too much, but I'm gonna say this one thing, I've heard of people that were very happy that somebody's doing a not-straight-in-your-face horror. Observer is about the Gray Wall, the tensions, social and political, in the game. There's very hard life, and the regular life of people exist in the game and telling their stories, and that's the place where the real horror comes out. We as people nowadays can imagine the world like in 50 or 60 years. We can imagine the problems that humanity can face in recent years and how we can end up. And that's what' really scary about Observer.
We're making mind-supporting games. We're not scaring the people with a monster that pops up in their head, but the aura and atmosphere that we had, and the vision of the future that we had. We're conveying that. The hardest pull of what we wanted to do with marketing.
Pricing and outreach
Graft: So, back to some business stuff. How many people are at Bloober, was it 12 you said?
Basaj: No, in production we have more than, I believe, 30 people right now. We're working on more than a single project at one time, although at some points, with Observer, we've had most everyone working on it. We're doing more than that. We can extend it, after Layers of Fear a few new people came to the company. We are growing, we're not growing fast and we don't want to overgrow.
We believe it wouldn't help us, to be honest, so for most of the time we have around 20-ish people working on a single project, and we swap people whenever they are needed to fill in the gaps with experience. These are the easiest things to swap around, the people doing 3DS for instance. Observer is a huge project and at some points, more than 30 people worked on it at the same time.
Graft: Wow. Speaking of scary things, there's a lot of fear and doubt, among other game developers particularly, like Bloober Team, that go from game to game to game, hoping that one success can build onto the next, and maybe accommodate for a not-so-much-of-a-success, and then keep on. What is the biggest concern about the game industry right now? For Bloober, and you, as somebody who works on the biz-dev side sometimes?
"The trend right now is that if you have a game that lasts eight hours, people say, 'If you sell it for more than ten bucks I won't buy it.'"
Basaj: There's a lot of concern, one of the huge concerns that I see right now is the huge impact that the gameplay hours have in people's perspective of what is a good game or not? We also at one point had 40 hours a week to play video games, a lifetime ago. So we've corresponded well to horror for us. So we are basically what we are doing horror games, but more impactful in a way, that's the philosophy.
The trend right now is, you have the game for eight hours, "If you sold it for more than ten bucks I won't buy it." Because it's too much, because nine hours is not enough for us. So that's a concern for us, definitely, the perspective has shifted from graphical fidelity as the main symbol of what a good game is, the better the graphics you had the more Triple-A you were. I think it's shifted to gameplay time.
When doing shorter games, we have to go back to that older audience, I guess? People who work? But that again is not such a huge concern for us, as some companies, as our main audience is more mature, as we do horror games. However, that's an interesting trend that a lot of developers have to have in mind, while developing games, right now.
"Some developers are afraid. Why would I play a single-player game when I've seen it on YouTube?"
The other thing is, there's a lot going on right now. Some developers are afraid. Why would I play a single-player game when I've seen it on YouTube? That's a concern for a lot of people. We were concerned about it as well, but we decided to be very open-minded about it.
When we started promoting Layers of Fear we were a company that wasn't too well-known. What we did was basically we reached out to streamers, the smaller ones, the larger ones didn't necessarily want to talk to us, also the larger the YouTuber the more requests for playing games he gets. I think it's understandable. So we started small, but the community grew very fast, from the smallest of YouTubers, that had five people following, who started playing our games from the very beginning.
At one point PewDiePie played the game, Markliplier played the game. That was very cool for us. But we started smaller, humble, and just grew to that, to get to that intention, from people who got 500 requests a day to play their game. It worked for us as a marketing source, but for a lot of people, it just won't work that way. They will be afraid that someone's going to see their game so why should they buy it?
Graft: If I could ask real quick, sorry to interrupt, for Layers of Fear and for Observer, did you actually see a sales bump when a big YouTuber picks it up? Because I've heard different things.
Basaj: I think there were small spikes, but it also depended on the streamer himself, or the audience of the streamer to be precise. Those streamers that are well known, that have a specific audience, they are not having a laugh on their streams but want to say something through their stream, for instance, being more educating or whatnot, I think that we had more spikes when those people played the game. Other big names also gave us a spike, I don't remember the numbers right now but it wasn't huge, we didn't sell a 100K copies because PewDiePie played the game.
However we've seen the spikes and they were satisfactory for us, but then again it is very hard to distinguish, from time to time, who actually made a difference? We've been sending out review keys, we've been giving them out to a lot of people at the same time, so some of them started playing at the same time. So we are obviously seeing an increase in people buying the game, but we couldn't distinguish between from whom the spikes went up.
But I think working with streamers is a reality that we live in right now, and I think that both developers and streamers have to keep working to find out a good spot to work with each other, and not to feel that there are only business partners. A lot of people who we've been giving out keys and talking, we still talk to them, it's not, we're going to give you a key and you played the game, and you'll be happy and we'll be happy, and that cool.
There are a few streamers that I've personally kept contact with, and from time to time we just chat with each other. I've had a few ongoing invitations to just jump into a Discord channel of a streamer whenever I want because it's always cool to have developer around. And it's cool for a developer to talk to someone in his community and say, while we're here we can talk to you through those people, but we can talk to you. So let's have an AMA right here, right now.
It has its ups and downs. I think that the most important thing right now in the industry who can help you, and why can he help you, but also how can you help them. Because if you don't work with each other, it won't work, probably, at some point. I think that we need to be knowledgeable about what we do, and how can everyone gain. And I think the people who earn from this the most are the players, who get really cool products, and they can talk to people who make games which they really love.
For more developer insights, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.