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Comic creators spin pennies into gold

Nearly 2 million people a day log on to the Penny Arcade Web site to check in with their favorite gamers, Tycho and Gabe. The two characters are based loosely on the strip's co-creators, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. But comics are just one piece of the Penny Arcade empire.
This Penny Arcade comic "outed"  its long-awaited real-time strategy sequel.
This Penny Arcade comic "outed" its long-awaited real-time strategy sequel. Holkins and Krahulik

The Penny Arcade Web site gets nearly 2 million page views a day — but the site's founders, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, say they don't pay attention to that stuff.

"We actively try not to think about that type of the business, or even think about it as a business," says Holkins. "We recognize that it is a luxury, but thus far, simply focusing on the work has been good policy."

Focusing on the work has indeed been good policy for Holkins and Krahulik, who write and illustrate one of the Web's most popular comic strips, Penny Arcade. The strip, which runs three times a week on the Penny Arcade Web site, chronicles the lives and gaming exploits of Tycho Brahe and Jonathan Gabriel, known as Gabe.

Penny Arcade, which made its debut in 1998, has garnered a fanatical fan following among gamers. Its success piqued the interest of Robert Khoo, a University of Washington business-school grad who approached the duo in 2003 with a plan to expand the brand beyond the comic.

Today, the Penny Arcade empire includes merchandising; a charity for children, called Child's Play; and a trade show, called PAX, which runs Friday through Sunday in Seattle. The show, which Holkins, Krahulik and Khoo cooked up in 2004, had 3,500 attendees in its inaugural year.

"I remember us not really knowing how many people would show up and figured the lofty goal of a thousand attendees to be our pie-in-the-sky scenario," says Khoo.

The show has grown rapidly. Last year, 19,000 gamers attended PAX. This weekend's event, held at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center in downtown Seattle, is expected to draw 30,000 attendees, making it the largest video game festival in North America.

Showgoers can expect a Friday keynote from Wil Wheaton, "Star Trek" star turned geek-blogger-extraordinaire, as well as a "Guitar Hero 2" tourney, nerdcore rock concerts, breakout sessions and an expo area.

Fans will also be treated to a demo of the duo's forthcoming role-playing game, "Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness," developed in conjunction with Vancouver-based Hothead Games.

Following is an excerpt from my conversation with Holkins and Krahulik ... or was is Tycho and Gabe?

You two were roommates, like Tycho and Gabe. How much else of the strip is autobiographical?

Holkins: Almost all of the strip is autobiographical but it’s not literal in its interpretation. Sometimes, simply for convenience's sake, we need to present a position that is ridiculous and we have to choose someone to be wrong. But most of the time, it’s some story or experience that we’ve had or a product that we’ve tried out and we represent it in a way that’s ridiculous but it has a factual core.

And are you guys close friends? Or do you go your separate ways after work?

Krahulik: We are associates.

Holkins: We’re good associates.

Krahulik: I think we both realize that we need each other to maintain this lifestyle, and so we work together because we like what we do.

Holkins: We endure one another.

Krahulik: Endure is a good word.

In some comic strips, the characters grow up and grow older, while others are frozen in time, like “The Simpsons.”  Will Gabe and Tycho ever get married, have kids and deal with less time for gaming — like you?

Krahulik: We never really think about the continuity in that way. If we have a joke to tell, and it requires that they have a wife, or a girlfriend or a kid, we simply insert that person. 

Holkins: Continuity in Penny Arcade mostly has to do with the psychological profile of the characters that are involved. It isn’t about specific events or even specific situations, it’s just that these people can be relied upon to behave in a way that’s consistent with themselves.

How do you find time to play the games that you talk about, given everything else that you’ve got going on?

Holkins: Because playing games or knowing about games is our job, we have a dispensation to be able to investigate that stuff. Just the same, it's rare that we actually play a lot of video games at work.

As far as the rest of the stuff, we’ve had to find people we could trust to handle those things ... Mike and I are not ... 100 percent planning PAX, or Child’s Play.

Krahulik: I think we’re both very lucky that we have extremely understanding wives. Once the kids are in bed, that’s when we play. I’m just sort of lucky that my wife either plays along with me or is OK with me doing my own thing.

Tell me how you conceived of the conference. What made you think you could make it fly?

Holkins: I never thought we could make it fly. Much like our other endeavors that have turned out OK, I always expect them to crash and explode. Or, just as the Challenger, explode in midair.

Krahulik: That’s powerful imagery.

Holkins: Basically, the way that it has come together has sort of been a surprise to us, and I think it’s probably an indication that something like this needed to occur. It’s unfortunate that we’ve needed to do it, because it’s been a tremendous amount of work.

Krahulik: You’d asked about what prompted it. ... We’d gone to a lot of different conventions …comic book conventions, tabletop conventions … and our fans would come to the show and come right to our table and then leave, because they really didn’t care about comic books. These were gamers. The fit was never quite right. So we thought: Let’s take all of the things that we like about these different shows, and try to make one show — the show that we would go to, and that our fans would go to. And it just so happens that no one had really made that show yet. So I think we got lucky.

You guys have some pretty big sponsors at PAX. Is that strange bedfellows considering that you lampoon a lot of these folks — EA, Sony, Microsoft and the game press — in your strips?

Krahulik: We did a comic last week where we had a guy named Bob Activision … that was pretty vicious. We laid into Activision pretty hard. We had no idea, but that morning, Robert had a conference call with Activision to try and get them to send us a bunch of "Guitar Heroes" for PAX.

Holkins: I think that most [publishers] understand that they may not like us, but the people who are buying their games like Penny Arcade. So maybe they just tolerate us or something. There’s no reason that they should be kind to us.

Tell me about the game. What made you think you could make a game?

Krahulik: I’m not sure we can! We haven’t proven that we can.

Holkins: Our responsibiliies on the game are largely art and writing-related, which is what we do in the course of an ordinary day. We consider that our area of expertise.

Krahulik: Jerry is writing every bit of dialogue. All the concept art … every character, everything you see, I drew at some point. We are totally, 100 percent hands-on.

Holkins: It isn’t so much that we thought that we could design a game, it’s just that someone who can design a game approached us about making one, and we felt very confident that we could write a story and communicate it visually.

Do you think your fans will go easy on you in terms of the game?

Krahulik: I think that our fans often go easy on us. But I think that we are delivering something that our fans will like.

Holkins: We’re making something that’s very Penny Arcade. As far as the group outside of our fans … I hope they like it. We’re trying very hard to make it something that appeals to people who don’t read the comic every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We’re still thinking so much about making it. ... I think very little about how people will react to it.

Holkins: I don’t think they’ll go easy on it ... but it doesn’t take a million years to play and it will be extremely affordable. And I think it is funny. I think it’s really neat. (To Krahulik) And you haven’t even read most of it.

Krahulik: No, and I won’t.

Holkins: Why wouldn’t you?

Krahulik: You wrote it.

What games are you most excited about?

Krahulik: Just thinking about PAX right now, I’m extremely excited to get my hands on "Eye of Judgment" again. I also plan on playing a lot of Pokemon at PAX.

Holkins: This list is going to be super-long.

Krahulik: Yeah, way too long. "Mass Effect" is going to be super-rad.

Holkins: This is the best/almost-worst gaming holiday ever … these are some big games coming out. People are finally going to get a chance to flex their PS3s with "Ratchet and Clank" and "Uncharted" ... and "Eye of Judgment," like Mike said?  That game is fantastic.

Krahulik: I was actually thinking of taking "Eternal Sonata" and saving it for, like May, or June.

Holkins: "BioShock" in the very near term. "Stuntman: Ignition" in the middle of next month … also "Super Smash Brawls," "Super Mario Galaxies," "Metroid Prime: Corruption," which drops in a week. It really is an incredible time to be an enthusiast for the medium.

That seems like a good place to wrap up.

Holkins: Oh, and also "Halo!" "Halo" is so big you have to stand away to see it. The multiplayer is pretty exquisite. ... The beta was pretty awesome, and that wasn’t even complete. The community features with the downloadable videos … I really can’t wait. I’m really excited.