Nine years ago, writer Jerry Holkins and illustrator Mike Krahulik started the web-comic Penny Arcade, starring their alter egos Gabe and Tycho as two friends who love video games and hate each other. The strip quickly took off, becoming one of the most popular comics on the Web, and the centerpiece of a nine-person company. Holkins and Krahulik's other projects include the Child's Play charity, which raised more than $1 million last year for children's hospitals, and the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX), which expects to host 30,000 gamers in Seattle this August. Holkins and Krahulik are also developing their first video game, Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice Of Darkness, working with Hothead Games and Ron Gilbert (best known for the LucasArts Monkey Island games). Holkins and Krahulik recently talked to The A.V. Club about their lack of ambition, their new sympathy (or lack thereof) for game developers, and their role as the spokesmen for video gamers everywhere.
The A.V. Club<: you guys started making a living from the strip when marketing network efront picked it up in late and after left were able to run site on fan contributions. how did decide turn into business>
Mike Krahulik: We were working our regular jobs when the eFront thing came along, and that was a pretty good deal for us for a couple months there. We hastily quit our jobs, so when that deal fell through, when they went out of business, we were sort of in the position where it was like, "Do we go back and get our old jobs? Or do we try to figure out how to make money off this comic thing?"
Jerry Holkins: I think it was really a choice of, become a business, or stop doing what we were doing. I think making it into a business, taking a run at doing it seriously, was the alternative to not doing it. Because by and large, we had resisted many efforts to make it a sensible enterprise. [Laughs.] And eventually, we had no choice but to do that, because we wanted to continue doing it. It had become a full-time job.
AVC: Robert Khoo came in and brought you a business plan, and worked for you for no pay to prove his case. But still, how did you make the decision to keep expanding and going in new directions, to the point where you're running a whole company?
MK: The decisions have been pretty easy. When Robert came on board, like you said, he came with a business plan, which was something we had never even considered. He said, "This is what I want to try to accomplish with you guys, for Penny Arcade, in five years." And along the way, as he grew the advertising model, as he invented it for Penny Arcade and grew it, it eventually required another person to run it. So we hired somebody to do that. And then Robert started working on another aspect of the business, and as he grew that, then that required someone to run it. You know? So, as he and we build up these different parts of the company, they just grow and require people to manage them.
AVC: Do you ever break out a chart and say, "Okay, by this year we want to have this many readers?"
MK: Jerry and I don't ever think about that. We really insulate ourselves from the business side of the company. Our job is to play video games and comment on video games, and make comics.
JH: And write video games, and do art for video games.
MK: We have very specific roles, and if I ever try to bog myself down and think about traffic, and numbers, and is our growth rate equal to that of last quarter—that's just not what we can do.
JH: We never look at the Q4 numbers.
AVC: You've said that the advantage to working with web-comics is that you don't have to appeal to everyone that, say, reads the Sunday funnies.
JH: And thank God.
AVC: At the same time, do you ever think, "Maybe we should be a little clearer about this," or "Maybe we should make it easier to understand this reference?"
JH: It's rare that we ever do that. I mean, there are a lot of jokes we do where we'll look at each other and say, "Is this a little too obscure? I mean, are people really aware of this game, or this particular game issue, this news clip?" And it comes down to, if the joke is funny, if we laugh at it, we just roll with it, and sort of trust that our readers will do their homework to find out why it's funny. Or we [explain it] in a news post, or something like that. It might sound silly, but we really focus on making the joke first, and then we don't really worry about, "Well, how is this going to come across?" If we laugh, then—that's so hard to do. It's rare we ever turn down a comic, man. If we've got something that makes us laugh, we just have to go with it.
AVC: And it is nice to have the news post to refer back to.
JH: The news posts are good because game news, like the gamer consciousness, is constantly in flux. And the news is worthless even two or three days beyond its shelf date. We started doing the posts sort of on accident, like we had to fill some space on the site, but now, it's absolutely critical if you're going back through the archives.
AVC: It's interesting to see some of the quick story arcs that pop up in the strip. Do you ever think of doing more of that?
JH: We just do whatever we want, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. That's really all we do. That's all we can do. I don't think that it would really benefit us to analyze it overmuch. It's sort of whimsical, and… Let's say that we tried to be mercenary about it and tried to figure out why it had worked, and why people were reading it. I think that we would probably lose sight of it.
AVC: The canon around Gabe and Tycho is pretty loose. They're based on you, but it isn't like you sat down and wrote a bible for what they will and won't do.
MK: No. We sort of have an intuition about how they'll behave.
AVC: Over the years, have you found directions you wouldn't take them in, or things where you start to say, "We've never done this before, so we probably shouldn't?" For example, you don't often see your kids in the strip.
JH: There's really no continuity to the strip. Again, it goes back to, if we have a joke that we think is funny, we'll do it. So we've had a couple jokes that involve the kids, or the wives, or something like that, and we just tell the joke. Do Gabe and Tycho live together in the same house, with their wives? Sometimes. Do they have kids? Sometimes.
MK: They have quantum kids.
JH: Yeah. They're like actors, they just play their roles, and if a joke requires them to have a kid, then they have the kid.
AVC: You used to work on more dramatic comics, and you once mentioned that you worked on a fantasy comic about angels and devils. Have you thought about working on story-based comics like that again?
MK: Shit, I'd be glad to work on that comic again. That was called Sam, I believe. I would love to work on that comic again, if we had the opportunity. It seems ridiculous, but we have two fairly serious Cardboard Tube Samurai stories that could actually be executed. But right now, and certainly for the next couple years, pretty much all the cream—everything that floats on top of our work schedule is all being poured into the game and other projects, as they come up.
JH: The Cardboard Tube Samurai is actually a really good outlet for that type of creative energy. If we want to do something serious, and that happens about once a year, you see a Cardboard Tube Samurai story arc pop up [in Penny Arcade]. The last one, I think it was like five pages that we did called "The Hawk And The Hare." I mean, that was pretty serious. And someone going back through the archive might think it doesn't really fit. But it's just like a steam valve. We need to get that out sometimes.
AVC: What was Sam about?
JH: It was basically Mike's story. A million years ago, Mike would have the basic cores of stories, and I would help him try to flesh them out. These days, obviously, it's more collaborative. Sam at the time was about a teenage boy who… There was an angel that had been exiled from heaven, and actually imprisoned in a mortal, and he, this teenage boy Sam was sort of the vehicle or vessel that held this ancient angel.
It's very manga. We probably could have found great success with it. But we were 18 and 19 at the time, and we had a lot of failed comic projects.
AVC:/b> So Penny Arcade was the one that hit?
JH: Yeah. Well, Penny Arcade just seemed to hit from the very first time we put it up online. I mean, it was really weird. Even thinking back on it now, it's just sort of odd, from the very first time those first comics went up, it seemed like it just took off on its own.
MK: Yeah, it found the right people.
JH: We never shopped it around, we never advertised it or anything. We just put it online at Looney Games, and then the audience just sort of found it.
AVC: The Internet is great for distribution. But does drawing and writing for the Web impose any limits on you?
JH: I don't really feel them, but then, I'm not especially ambitious. I don't feel constrained by it.
MK: I don't either. If there are strips that need animation, I can do that. If there's strips that need to be eight panels long, or 10 panels wide, I mean, I don't really feel like there's any limits to what I can do.
AVC: Would you like to do more things with the Web or the technology it offers?
MK: I think it goes back to what Jerry said. We're not really very ambitious.
JH: Which is true.
MK: We want to enjoy ourselves.
JH: Yeah. We're not trying to revolutionize or change anything. So we never really think about that.
AVC: Do you see yourself ever bringing in more collaborators, or even handing the strip off to someone else?
JH: No, the spotlight can never leave us. Actually, our employees aren't even allowed to look us in the eye.
MK: No, the only thing that they are allowed to do is bring us platters heaped with pork and chicken.
JH: And then back out of the room.
MK: Bowing the entire way.
AVC: You've been working on your first game. You once said that doing a game would hurt your credibility in terms of being able to comment on other games. Do you still feel that's true?
MK: I'm sure that it's true for some people, I just—the opportunity presented itself, and we had to do it. I recognize that it presents a challenge rhetorically…
JH: There's something you said this weekend that I thought was interesting…
MK: A lot of times I say smart things.
JH: Yeah, not that often. That's why I remember it. He said that everyone who comments on games should be required to make a game at some point in their lives. And I think it has definitely given us a new perspective, and I think that's valuable. But yeah, I agree that definitely a lot of people will say that, you know, making a game, we've lost our credibility as far as talking about them. But it really was something that we couldn't pass up doing.
JH: We stumbled into making a game just like we stumbled into commenting on games. There was never really any plan in place. And we're not trying to make a triple-A $60 retail title. This really is an indie game that…
MK: It's a playable comic.
JH: Yeah. [But] just like with the comic, we're not trying to change the Earth. We don't think we have any deep, mysterious vision, and that finally we're going to have a chance to "show those developers." We're entering into this in the spirit of humility and reverence.
AVC: What are your roles on the development team?
MK: Jerry is writing everything, the whole game. I designed all the characters, and the enemies, and the environments—pretty much everything you see, I drew at some point. And we know Penny Arcade better than anybody, so we're involved daily with the developers talking about the game and how it should play, and that sort of thing.
But we really are trying to leave the actual gameplay up to them. They're the experts in that field. We can make it look like Penny Arcade, and we're trusting them to make it fun to play.
AVC: As you work on this, are you finding it's harder than you expected?
MK: The amount of work and planning is really overwhelming. We're used to conceptualizing a project, completing the writing, and then finalizing the comic in the space of four or five hours, total. And we've been writing and drawing for this game for how long?
JH: Months! I mean, from the very first storyboards and stuff, probably a year. [Long sigh.] It's been a learning experience to actually see how a game like that comes together. I mean, it really is sort of like a trip through the sausage factory. We were not prepared, I don't think, for the process.
AVC: So are you more sympathetic to developers now?
JH: Well, I think… Well…
MK: I am.
AVC: The gaming community doesn't have many spokesmen, and since you're essentially writing an editorial cartoon—and getting into fights with Jack Thompson—you seem to be filling that job. Are you comfortable in that role?
JH: I'm comfortable speaking. The gaming community is too vast to have a spokesperson. I definitely think that the things I say represent a viewpoint that exists in the gaming community. But the gaming community isn't monolithic, in that way. I don't think it can have one spokesperson.
AVC: At the same time, even though the comic is topical…
MK: "Only for topical use."
AVC: …one of the best things about it is just watching Gabe and Tycho beating up on each other.
JH: Yeah. The thing is, we hate each other.
MK: Haaate each other. As long as we can maintain that hatred, and stoke the fires…
JH: Gabe and Tycho are odd, odd friends. There's no reason they should be together. And I think that that will always create tension.
AVC: In real life, guys who are friends often act like that.
JH: Yeah. I think that's why Penny Arcade resonates. We get e-mail like that all the time, they say, "Oh, me and my friend are just like that." It's because it's authentic. It really is. It was one of the first blogs. [Laughs.] We didn't know it at the time, because it was nine years ago. It was our life in comic form, with some exaggerations, and some murder, but it's a blog. I mean, somebody sent me an e-mail last week telling me that no one likes hearing about us talk about our kids, and that I should shut up about our "apeseed." And I said, "If you don't like hearing about our families, then don't read our blog." And it's the truth. This is our diary for the last nine years.