Interview: Power Drill Massacre Dev Puppet Combo Talks Past, Present, & Future Of Solo Horror Development
Few solo horror developers have ever gained as much traction and attention as Puppet Combo, the man behind games like Babysitter Bloodbath, Power Drill Massacre, and The Glass Staircase. Few smaller devs have also been able to have such a steady output and level of quality displayed in their games as Puppet Combo.
After staying steady and gaining so much attention over the years, he’s become one of the most well-known figures in indie horror development and a favorite of reactionary horror streamers and horror fans in the last ten years. We recently took some time to catch up with Puppet Combo on the past, present, and future of the indie horror scene and get a glimpse into the landscape of what it’s like to be a full-time solo developer.
ROH: How would you introduce yourself to anyone who’s not familiar with you and your work?
I’m Ben from Puppet Combo. I’m a horror game developer focusing on 80s and 90s themed horror games. Usually with a PS1, low-poly aesthetic.
ROH: Even though you had started working on game development as far back as the year 2000 with your Halloween 3D project, you didn’t get in the full swing of working on and completing multiple projects until around 2012. During that time between Halloween 3D and the 2010s, were you just learning more and honing your skills or did you have other projects going on?
Not really, it was just something I lost interest in. I started in middle school and worked off and on, and did pretty much nothing game-related in high school, then got back into it in 2011 because I was considering what I wanted to do for a living. I knew I had something good with the slasher game concept, and in all those years from when I started, surprisingly nobody else had jumped on it, so I had no competition.
ROH: What was behind the name switch from Pig Farmer to Puppet Combo back in the day? Were there any legal reasons or just something you personally wanted to change?
Legal reasons. I started using Pig Farmer Productions first, another company trademarked it before me, so it made more sense to change the name than get into a legal battle when I was just getting started professionally.
ROH: You’ve been pretty vocal about most of your horror film and game influences over the years, and it’s 100% in line with most of my personal favorite titles, styles, and nuances of horror, and it all centers around the 1980s lo-fi VHS aesthetic. I’ve seen quite a few imitators pop up over the years, but you always seem to nail this style perfectly in a way that many others miss the mark on. Do you think you’ll ever venture very far from this style, or is it something you’re going to stick with for the long run?
I don’t think so, cheap horror games are as far as my ambitions go. There’s no dream project I’m building towards, I’m making exactly what I want to make right now. I don’t see this as a stepping stone, I’m happy with how things are going: the games that have been released and the new ones right around the corner.
ROH: Power Drill Massacre is the game that “put you on the map” in many people’s eyes, with it getting tons of attention from streamers across the internet and your name getting into the mainstream of that culture for a little while. Are you still proud of the game and do you think you’ve surpassed it in some of your other work?
I think it started with Babysitter Bloodbath, as far as gaining attention is concerned. Things started really taking off when Pewdiepie played it. Luckily, I’ve been able to maintain an interesting stream of games since then. Power Drill Massacre was mostly a project I started to learn Unity and it’s still just an early access version of the full game. Since it has a self-contained story, everyone seems to think it’s the full version.
I’ve definitely surpassed it in terms of design. In many ways, Power Drill Massacre was even a step back from Babysitter Bloodbath which came out first, but something about the concept and aesthetic really spoke to people and helped to gain even more attention, so I’m locked into completing it. Figuring out ways to expand the game has been very difficult.
ROH: You’re constantly working with new ideas and concepts in your games over time, and it’s always great to see someone consistently trying new things in the horror genre. Is there any particular style or concept in your games that you’re most proud of and has turned out the best so far?
I’m proud of most of them for different reasons. My personal taste leans towards the games where you play as the killer such as Blood Maniac and Feed Me Billy. There’s a lot of fun stuff to design in those, and the concepts let me get away with a lot of things I can’t in the scary games.
ROH: Meat Cleaver Mutilator is one of my favorite games you’ve done, and I especially liked the work you did with the escalating sound as the killer would get closer instead of just relying mostly on surprise or stingers like Power Drill Massacre or Babysitter Bloodbath. However, it’s one that never got released outside of your Patreon channel. Have you thought of doing a wider release for any of your older games that never got that treatment before?
Thank you. I was actually working on an expanded version at one point but I lost interest and the new map ended up becoming The Riverside Incident. I’ve always wanted to at least polish it up a bit more but I can’t make any promises, since I have so many other outstanding projects. I definitely want to keep some of the games exclusive to Patreon, though. It’s nice to have some lesser-known projects for people to discover.
ROH: The Glass Staircase was another favorite of mine that had some of the best tension and environment scares in your catalog for me. The immense influence from Italian horror films is huge and very appreciated. Have you thought of doing a physical release for that or a sequel in the same style? Tenebra seems to have a pretty similar vibe, so I’m hoping that sees the light of day sometime soon as well.
Thanks, and yeah, there will be a physical release soon. Probably no sequel because there isn’t much more story to tell. I think it accomplished most of what I set out to do as a Lucio Fulci tribute. Tenebra is actually far more of a traditional survival horror game, instead of a slow burn moody one. It’ll definitely have similar vibes but gameplay will be front and center.
ROH: One of your longest-term projects so far has been Stay Out Of The House, with around 2 years in development without the full release yet, and I’d say it’s probably also one of your best-looking and most anticipated ones among fans. Do you still have plans to try to wrap it up before the year is over, and can you talk about some of the overall difficulties you’ve had with the project?
It’s probably actually been in production longer than that, haha. Stay Out Of The House has been difficult. A big part of the problem is working with poorly written code that’s leftover from early to mid-development. So it’s a matter of slowly replacing things (which is essentially coding a new game) or working with it and trying to patch bugs as they happen.
I think ultimately most of it needs to be rewritten. The last estimate I gave for its release was August, and after that was missed, I think it’s apparent I’m not qualified to estimate release times. Things can be going well, something breaks and suddenly it’s days or weeks behind.
Work is still actively being done, and it’s certainly a big feature project for Puppet Combo, but with work on Murder House being so close to completion, Stay Out Of The House is getting ever closer to being the next full-production project again.
ROH: As time has gone on and your projects have gotten more ambitious in some ways, I know you’ve looked to bring on some people to help you out with certain projects. As a typically solo game dev, has this turned out well for you to have helpers, or does it also make some things more complicated?
I’m not sure if it’s entirely true that I’ve progressively gotten more ambitious, haha. It’s more like a zigzag. Nun Massacre was certainly more ambitious than Night Watch, which was the latest release. I try to alternate between something bigger and something smaller whenever possible.
I have yet to put a team together to work on a game. I’ve attempted it, but it’s extremely hard to find the right people at the low budget I work on. Working with helpers and freelancers is usually very simple because I limit the work to certain assets. Such as a few animations or a 3D model. When it’s done, I drop it into the game and everything is pretty smooth.
ROH: Earlier this year, you started the Torture Star Video label where you publish and promote games from other developers. What specific roles do you usually play in the release of someone’s game that gets released on Torture Star? Do you have a team that works with you on this side of things?
It depends on what’s needed: PR, marketing, funding, advice. I look for projects I believe in, that fit the brand, and ones I think I can help on. The last thing I want to do is take away the unique, creative voices from these games.
As for a team, that’s a bit trickier. Truth is that we all keep in good contact and provide feedback on the progress of each game, so it’s definitely more of a pursuit of like-minded people that just all happen to love horror. It’s not collaboration, in the purest sense, but it’s always good to get a lot of eyes from other creators, helping to strengthen your ideas.
ROH: Is this new role of publishing personally fulfilling for you, or does it get exhausting sometimes on top of your own game development?
Nowhere near as exhausting as it is fulfilling. As much as game development takes up time, it’s genuinely a good feeling to see creators you actually believe in getting a chance to put their visions out there. Not to mention it helps that I just like the creators who’ve worked on the label, thus far. That helps, too.
ROH: Today you’re finally launching your new game, Murder House, which also marks the first time one of your personal games gets released on Steam. Are you happy to finally have one of your games launched on Steam, or has it never been much of a goal for you?
It was initially a goal before I knew any better and listened to everyone saying you have to get your games on Steam to be successful. That hasn’t been my experience at all and I think it’s a safer bet to not stake my whole company on one platform where a small algorithm change could kill your sales numbers and it’s completely out of your control. I’d say consoles are a much bigger goal than Steam. Every PC can install itch.io games as easily as Steam, so the cult-like obsession over using one platform is baffling to me. I guess it’s great if you’re the owner of that platform.
But the main reason for Murder House to be on Steam is because I’ve hit a sweet spot with the number of games I have released on itch.io and any more right now would throw things off balance.
ROH: Murder House is looking to be an awesome slasher-in-the-house archetype with some classic PS1 survival horror mechanics, and I’m glad it’s hopefully getting a wider audience this time. How can we expect it to be different from some of your previous games?
Murder House is Babysitter Bloodbath 2.0 in a lot of ways, improving the design, polishing, and taking it to the next levels. It’s also a big step in finally creating a playable slasher movie. The mechanics are sharpened and the difficulty is refined while adjusting the mechanics of classic survival horror to work as a slasher game.
It feels a bit like a lost Clock Tower game that dropped the point-and-click mechanics and integrated the design aspects of Resident Evil and Silent Hill. This is about as close to directly emulating the original PS1-era horror games that we’ve ever gotten, and I’m hoping everyone can see that big step up in quality.
ROH: What’s next for Puppet Combo in 2021? Do you think that far ahead, or like to stick with more short-term goals at any given time?
My main goal right now is to actually get all the older WIP Puppet Combo games finished – Stay Out Of The House is the priority, then Power Drill Massacre, as well as a big unannounced sequel for one of the most popular Puppet Combo games. Hopefully, it’ll keep everyone plenty excited between the bigger releases, and give everyone a better insight on the future of Puppet Combo and even Torture Star Video.
ROH: Anything else you’d like to say to our readers or your fans out there?
Just that there’s always something in the works, and your favorite game project probably isn’t dead. Keep an eye out for any other projects that you might be interested in from Puppet Combo, because you never know what’s lurking right around the corner.
Murder House is available on Steam today and looks to be some of his best work yet, so go check it out today and see what the Easter Ripper has in store for you.