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PAX 2008: The Penny Arcade Interview

Ross Miller

Note: Photo above taken at interview
A few hours before PAX 2008 opened its doors to the public last Friday, we had a chance to speak with Penny Arcade creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik -- for simplicity's sake referred to here by their respective pseudonyms Tycho and Gabe -- about the Expo, its future expansion, the intensity of Jenga and the Duke Nukem Forever Omegathon round that never was. Audio embedded below; we've also gone ahead and transcribed highlights from the interview. (Note: To make it easier to read, we've put Gabe's name in red and Tycho's name in blue.)

[MP3] Download the Interview

Gallery: PAX 2008: Omegathon Final | 26 Photos

So where are the themed restaurants?

Gabe: You have no idea. We want it. So the way it works at Penny Arcade is we have ideas, like for PAX, and we go to Robert [Khoo] and we say, "Hey, we've got this idea for a convention, can you make it happen?" And then they do. We've had a lot of ideas that we go to him with where he says, "No, that's not a good idea." So this one [PAX] just happened to work.

Tycho: We did a comic as a joke, but it was our actual dream. You should look up the comics we did on Olympus where it's like an all-Marble, adults-only --

Gabe: Imagine it's like a really classy Dave and Busters, like with dark hardwood bars, glass rooms full of high-end audio and video equipment ... [Khoo] said not yet.

Tycho: He said we didn't have a million dollars. [Laughs]

Gabe, you and I talked earlier about the comic strip and the [related] article as being inseparable. Can someone not read the article and still take away everything?

Gabe: I think they could. I think they would be doing themselves a disservice. I think they are designed to go together.

Tycho: I think you can enjoy the entirety of the comic conceptually in general terms, and sometimes that's not true. I think you can enjoy each separate, but I think you get more when they're together.

This year, we've seen an increase in the number of publishers and developers scheduling interviews. Are you afraid of this becoming similar to E3?

Tycho: Are they doing that? [Scheduling appointments] That makes me angry.

Gabe: I don't have a problem with the press getting in early to the exhibition hall; if they want to cut that up and make sure you get to the right place at the right time.

Tycho: The exhibition hall has public hours. [Having appointments in the public hours] That's not okay with us. I'm not comfortable with that. It's like the parties, they can't have press-only parties, there's a bunch of rules they're supposed to follow. There's a bunch of rules they're supposed to follow. ... We weren't aware of it, because they don't pass that through us, they're just sending it to you .... That's not the intention of the exhibition floor.

Is that why you go to Comic-Con instead of E3?

Tycho: It's just a social thing. I'd be very curious, because most of this stuff, press has seen at other events.

Gabe: I guess that's why I'd be surprised if they're setting up special times for you all to come see the games again.

Gallery: Penny Arcade Adventures Episode 2 | 16 Photos

(On the state of PA Adventures Episode 2)

Gabe: There's a really solid demo over at the Hothead booth, you can go check that out. My work has been done with it for awhile and he's just about done. It'll be out this year. [Tycho] does all the writing.

Tycho: There's four [episodes] total, and he's working on three now and I am finishing ... I sort of follow him. As he goes through and fleshes out the art and the context visually, I usually follow up behind and handle the writing duties on it ... [it's taken] an incredible amount of time.

After PAA, are you going to do another game?

Gabe: I don't know, it's a lot more work than we thought.

Tycho: I can't imagine, because I did have a job already doing the other stuff that is required of me, like we have different projects and stuff. Right now we're working on two separate projects for different games. Things like [the Fallout 3 comic]. We have two more of those, I'm finishing up this game, then we have the regular Penny Arcade to do.

Gabe: The important stuff.

Tycho: And then this week we have PAX as well! So this has been an adventure.

Gabe: I don't know that we'll make a game right away again, no. I'm not saying we'll never do another one.

Tycho: One that doesn't have writing or art ... We do have a game that's just audio in the PAX 10. It's called The Pit. You control with, I think it's the haptic controller, so you're like a blind creature in this well and it's just positional audio, you just go around and use this 3D controller to move in space and eat creatures that are thrown in your pit.

Besides being more of a time sink than anticipated, what else have you learned from making PAA?

Tycho: Our roles are pretty fixed. The roles we have in the game are similar to roles we have elsewhere -- he's an artist, and I'm a writer. (To Gabe) You have to interface with a lot more people than I do.

Gabe: He writes it and it goes directly into the game, whereas my work goes through a bunch of work like 2D animators to 3D modelers. For me, the big learning experience has been dealing with other people, trying to get what I want into the actual game

Gallery: PAX 2008: The Pip-Boy Puppet | 7 Photos

What got cut in Episode One?

Gabe: I don't know. There's a lot of stuff that's being pushed into Episode Two.

Tycho: This is what I found is that you can't really cut anything. If you cut something, you end up adding something to fill in that space. Then we added substantial things to the first episode.

Gabe: The mime cult really got fleshed out at the very end. Because I was done with all the concept art and I was actually on Episode Two already when I had to come back and start doing designs for the mime cult.

Tycho: But I had a fantasy, essentially, that there would be this mime cult. They would be enemies, and they had a vibe, but I wanted them to be an extremely big deal, but we were able to make them a big part and using them to communicate a lot about the game universe. That was not their original role. It's what I wanted but I sort of thought I couldn't get it. There's a lot of other people, and lot of other people had to agree, and eventually I just pushed. I know that seems a ridiculous thing to push for.

Gabe (jokingly): You put your foot down quietly.

Tycho: I felt very seriously that would be a unique way to communicate some ideas about the setting.

Let's talk about the state of webcomics. What other webcomics do you read?

Gabe: Not a lot. I read PVP [Online]. I read copper.

Tycho: San Diego has sort of become a de facto -- there's San Diego and ConnectiCon on the other coast. San Diego has a pretty pronounced webcomic presence. It's insane. We started going in 2001 and this year it was incredibly vast. Obviously, you're aware of the different collectives out there, a lot of them are there in full force ... It's sort of my job to be the social liaison to the webcomics community. It would be very different to list in a ready way all the comics I read. If you want to connect with the people who sustain that medium, you need to go to Comic-Con.

Gabe: Even when you say that medium, I think it's interesting. I don't know if we think of ourselves as part of the webcomics community so much.

Tycho: We definitely upload JPEGs.

Recently, Tim Buckley (CAD) tried a serious turn with the miscarriage plot, and the community ... there was a huge backlash.

Tycho: Well, some of the community. Some people thought he was this mad genius prophet or whatever.

Gabe: I think he's an art criminal.

Tycho: I think Tim Buckley is the antichrist, and I think that miscarriage storyline was the first horseman of the Apocalypse.

Omegathon last year. How did Halo 3 come to be?

Gabe: That was very last minute. We pulled that whole thing together in like a week ... It was sort of frustrating last year for us because afterwards we got some flak because some people said, "Bungie bought that or Microsoft or ..." No. It was Jerry and I in our office going, "Dude, it'd be awesome if we got the Minibosses." We called them, they had the song turned around in two days. They sent us back a track and said, "Yeah, we can do it." We had a friend of ours we play WoW with cut a video.

Tycho: He had actually taken the trailer they had put out and had stripped everything out and redid it for us. He's a genius.

Gabe: All that stuff came together in the last week, literally.

Could you guys get Duke Nukem Forever?

Gabe: We tried. [Laughs] How awesome would that have been?

Tycho: We tried, that was our fantasy. So last year the fantasy was Halo, and obviously Bungie is local.

Gabe: And the game is real. That helps.

Tycho: It was basically done at that point. We played the online beta, we knew it was rock solid and wasn't going to have any problems on stage. It was a celestial event that everything was able to line up and make it happen, but some people really want the Omegathon to be about traditional games.

Gallery: PAX 2008: Cosplay (Full) | 96 Photos

This year's Omegathon seems to be more casual-themed.

Tycho: The term I would prefer ... I think of them as more elemental. I think they all focus on a very specific skill that our people prize. A lot of people came to Peggle through Peggle Extreme but Peggle was an incredible game before that. ... This is a weird value here.

And Jenga, obviously.

Gabe: Now we have to have Jenga, it was a hit last year.

Tycho: You'll be shocked. Being there live, it's electric.

Gabe: There is not a sound, you could hear a pin drop when someone goes after these blocks.

Tycho: I don't care what else is happening. Make a point to go watch people play Jenga competitively.

Gabe: And then the crowd explodes when they pull it out. I'd never seen anything like it.

What other panels are you planning on seeing?

Gabe: I'm really excited about the Harmonix panel.

Tycho: But we can't go to it, though.

Gabe: I know, but I'll be able to watch it on DVD at least. That's the problem. I would love to attend the show, I would love to come as an attendee sometime.

Tycho: But we have our own panels, tool. We have technically something like 5 panels ... our travel time between these things is substantial.

Gabe: We have time scheduled where we can be in the exhibition hall or be here.

Let's talk about PAX East for a second.

Tycho: We're having it.

Gabe: Boston 2010.

Tycho: It's just the right town. I think they just signed the document, they just got the venue, too.

Gabe: I think people have wanted an East Cost PAX for a long time.

Tycho: They've been asking for it, and we thought we'd be able to do it much earlier, but we couldn't.

Gabe: Logistically, the thing about PAX is, Penny Arcade is really 10 people. Obviously the Enforcers, we couldn't do anything without them, but the planning of everything takes all year for 10 of us to make this happen, so trying to take on another show was insane.

Why Boston?

Gabe: We went there and talked to MIT and ended up hanging out with the Harmonix guys out there and looking at the city. It has a very Seattle vibe to me, it's a cool town.

There is one question from the Webcomic Wrapup that I do want to talk about. The commenter who submitted this, he's now a parent and has a changed outlook about gaming, like he can't play GTAIV in front of his kid. Being parents yourselves, has that changed your outlook on gaming?

Gabe: It changed when I game. It didn't really change anything beyond that. Definitely before he goes to bed, there are certain games I don't mind playing together, but then after 8:00, that's when I do my, I guess if there's such as thing as serious gaming.

Tycho: Extreme gaming. [Laughs] Basically, you get a lot less sleep ... If you're wiling to give up a ton of sleep and physical prowess.

Gabe: I always thought kids shouldn't play violent games, but the distinction is that I thought they should be available and parents should be good and intelligent and pay attention to what their kids are doing and get involved rather than remove them from stores. The solution is no censorship of the games, it's education of the parents.

Tycho: It's almost certainly byproducts of us being creators, of a sort. The idea that venue of expression would be clamped down is just not something we're prepared to do.

Gallery: Penny Arcade Expo 2008 | 190 Photos

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