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Interview: Penny Arcade

words by TJ Kee | photo courtesy of Penny Arcade
09.07.2007

pennyOriginally published in Verbicide issue #21

The contents of Penny Arcade (www.penny-arcade.com) are a prime example of what moms all over the country feared would happen to their pimply-faced man-children if they let them play video games for hours and hours on end. The verbal diatribes of Tycho Brahe and Jonathan “Gabe” Gabriel — the main characters of the webcomic — are rife with crass inside jokes, laced with expletives, and call up references only a gamer would understand. Their alter egos, Gabe and Tycho, respectively, don’t look like them, as they aren’t meant to be caricatures — but they do share an odd penchant for violence, a bizarre sense of humor, and of course, the deep, burning love of video games. The Penny Arcade blog postings are an oddball take on pop culture, with social commentary that’s opinionated and acerbic (and yet quite astute). And the readers can’t get enough of it, as the site garners more than two million unique page-views every day.

Back in 1998, illustrator Mike Krahulik and author Jerry Holkins launched Penny Arcade as a regular feature on the website loonygames.com, and were supported solely by visitor donations. Almost a decade later, the site is Holkins’s and Krahulik’s bread and butter, powered by the revenue generated from advertising and merchandise sales. So…maybe mom’s fears were a bit unfounded. An obsession with video games, it seems, has proved both lucrative and worthwhile for the Penny Arcade team.

How lucrative? Lucrative enough to have spawned PAX — the Penny Arcade Expo — an annual gamer festival in Washington, and Child’s Play, a children’s charity that sponsors global toy drives for children’s hospitals. Since 2003, fans have sent over two million dollars in toys, games, and books to children’s hospitals all over the world — and Child’s Play doesn’t take any of the money for administrative fees or other purposes.

Now the Penny Arcade team is set to launch a PC-based game called Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, an action-adventure game that will be distributed episodically several times a year via download.

I got to talk games with Jerry, not quite knowing what to expect. He is, after all, the mind behind a character who counts “eroding the human soul” as one of his hobbies. Would he be mean-spirited? Sardonically sarcastic, or off-the-wall funny? See for yourself.

Penny Arcade’s humor would certainly raise the eyebrows of some…let’s say “more conservative” readers. Do you ever think to censor the content when you consider some of the younger members of your audience?
I don’t think that the content is appropriate for all ages, but we’re the final arbiters of that. We decide what’s acceptable, because we’re the artists and it’s our site.

You’ve also worked on a campaign for the ESRB, educating parents and gamers about inappropriate content.
Yes. There’s a reason why there are ratings on games, and it’s to help demarcate where that line is. The ESRB has a tough job, but a necessary one, I think, especially to keep the government from really getting involved in game regulation. There’s already legislation moving forward, so the ESRB needs to reinforce the idea that it’s doing its job.

What games are you playing now?
A lot of Picross DS. It’s like Sudoku, very similar in execution. There’s a grid that’s broken up into squares, and you have to fill in the dots in a way that logically matches up with the clues. It’s extremely compelling because once you complete the puzzle it creates a little picture.

A puzzle and picture game? Seriously?
Picross and some games on the Wii. It’s tremendously portable as far as consoles are concerned. It’s like the size of a sandwich — you can throw it in your suitcase, throw in the controller, and you’re set. We just got back from a trip, so it’s nice to have something portable like that to bring somewhere.

Ah yes, you and Mike were at Comic Con in San Diego.
Yes, we just got back. And there are so many game vendors and events creeping in there. It’s becoming much more of a gaming event.

Any games that you wouldn’t touch at the moment?
Not really. It’s the summer lull, so gamers don’t have the luxury of being too choosy. You play the games that are available now. But I think we’re coming up on the most robust holiday season on record, in terms of games for “next-gen” consoles.

Who do you think is going to win this round of the “Console Wars?”
There may not be a clear winner. I mentioned the Wii, and it’s got tremendous crossover appeal, and Xbox 360 is going to have some pretty interesting stuff coming out this holiday.

What about Sony?
I think Sony has made a mess of things lately, but they can get some of their market share back. They need to start delivering the concepts that communicate what makes a PlayStation 3 experience special — not just a more expensive version of what you can already get. Like The Eye of Judgement. It’s geared toward a super-niche market, with battle cards and a special camera, but they took a chance on it. That’s the initiative that really excites me, because no one else has anything like it.

The cost of developing games seems like a creativity deterrent sometimes. Niche market games, no matter how beautifully made, don’t always deliver the dollars. You wrote a Penny Arcade strip that railed against supposed spyware in EA’s Battlefield 2142, but sometimes advertising revenue is the only way a company can justify going out on a limb.
I’m sure in-game advertising is very lucrative, but at the same time, I don’t give a shit. I don’t care if they have to make tons and tons of money — it shouldn’t be by shoving ads into a product I already bought. Why should the consumer care about that? All a gamer wants is an engaging experience that delivers value for what we paid for.

So you think there’s no place for in-game ads at all?
There are very specific scenarios for when in-game ads are not disgusting. Something like Splinter Cell — where there’s an urban environment and I’m sneaking past a billboard — seeing an ad for a movie or an Escalade makes sense. I actually think it’s worse if I see an ad for some made-up car. Then there are games like Tiger Woods PGA Tour where you can get high-end gear in the pro shop and it simulates a real golf experience. Deals like that make sense, because I want to be able to go the shop and buy Nike gear or a TAG Heuer watch.

But right now, most in-game advertising isn’t especially creative. There’s no love and no passion. If they brought passion and enthusiasm into the ads, it wouldn’t bother me. I don’t think these companies have the guts, interest, or ingenuity to make that a reality. And the strip on Battlefield 2142 wasn’t just about the ads, it was about the perception that the application behind them would dig into your cookies and other stored data and use it to repopulate new ads using that info. It’s the surveillance that’s wrong.

But marketers want to reach 18- to 24-year-old men desperately, and being in and around games is definitely a way to do that. You have ads on your site, so how do you balance paying bills with keeping your audience intact?
Unless what we we’re doing remains authentic — meaning the writing, the comics, the voice — the site will collapse. It’s that simple. If we had to cut out the ads, we could probably make do with another side of the business. Our readership is sufficient that we could run Penny Arcade in a number of ways.

Much to the chagrin of the business guys, we can make bad decisions when it comes to commerce. We can afford to be very choosy when it comes to ads — because we own the company and they don’t. We’ve turned down ads for games we weren’t really excited about, only to see them become big hits. We’ve also made a big deal about games that we liked (even though they sucked), and not because we took the money. Once we start paying too much attention to how dangerous the line between advertising and content is the whole thing will come apart.

So what about your new game, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness? It’s developed by Hothead Games, but who’s the publisher?
We’re the publisher. And I don’t know what the rating is going to be, but I’m excited about how it’s coming along so far. We’re really trying to get the game to feel and play the way we want it to — and release it on our own terms.

Is that why you chose to release it for PC and not a console?
We’re not counting out consoles. It’s one of the reasons we had our hearts set on the GarageGames [internet game publishing label] engine, because it meant that the game could run on any platform. One of the major advantages to releasing a game for the PC is that the content is digitally deliverable, and you don’t need a specific company’s permission to develop a game. The certification process for a Nintendo or Sony platform is much more sophisticated and time-consuming — but we’d love to release Penny Arcade Adventures for the console — and we’ll work to make it a reality if we can.

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